Fallout 2 fallout.

I’ve decided to put my Elder Scrolls VI: Oblivion plugin work on hold for a bit.  Frankly, just about every kind of plugin has already been made for ESVI already, and all I’m doing is custom-tailoring the game towards my unique tastes.

The trouble with that approach for me is that I’m already so very burned out from Elder Scrolls VI: Oblivion, I’m not sure anything I could do within the confines the developers have established would make the game enjoyable for me.  It’s mostly a trouble with the story: Seen Martin go from monk to rock once, you’ve seen it as many times as you need to.

Instead, I decided to boot up Fallout 2 via Gametap’s recent offering of it.  Fallout 2 has ever been a game near and dear to my heart, and so it is with some chagrin that I come under the realization that it has been ten whole years since it was released.

My, how far we’ve come in ten years.

Fallout 2’s has aged, and like all aging creatures it is far wrinklier and less able than it once was, even though the same personality shines through the years it has accumulated.

Where my precious memories of it recall Fallout 2 as possessing great graphics (among them being those oh-so-glory bloody mess perk deaths) my recent playing of it reveals things which the lens of nostalgia had hidden from me.  It’s a 640×480 resolution, 8-bit graphic game.  Cut scenes skip frames, and everything from the game world to the interface just looks grainy and washed out.   Here was a game built to preserve space (with low-resolution assets) and be processed by 1998 computers.  (A number of Fallout mods have been built with increasing the resolution in mind.)

At least Fallout 2 remains as playable with proper animation speeds on my new computer as it was originally, with the lone exception of greatly accelerated overland travel: a sign that the engine developers had great foresight and skill for the majority of the game.  (I found an unofficial path which took care of the overland travel problem.)

They could not have known of the advances in the 2008 graphical user interface standards, and the interface feels a bit unintuitive compared to many games I see these days.  The buttons on the screen don’t make any sense until you fiddle with them a bit – keyboard shortcuts (not configurable or findable within the game) make things a lot easier.  Most damningly (unless perhaps you enjoy the challenge) there’s a great deal of pixel hunting involved to find the various interactive parts of the game world.  Relying on throwing knives as an offense is quite annoying because the knives will often get lost behind objects and are quite expensive to replace.

More shockingly than the obvious tech creep, however, was that the game mechanic itself – the hallowed S.P.E.C.I.A.L. RPG mechanics which I’ve always revered in my mind – are not all that special after all.

The character statistical system is built heavily around specialization, with many skills and attributes proving unreachable to a character depending on how you specialize.   This is especially so in the choice of three “tag” skills which grant double point advancement.  Any other skill – of which there are quite a few – will feel like a waste of points.

Really, the skill system could use quite a bit of streamlining.

  • You’re forced to take an early game bridging skill, such as Unarmed or melee weapons in order to survive the plentiful combat.  Later, these are replaced with a more powerful skill which makes investment in those skills largely obsolete.  Small guns is a possible exception, as the guns stay fairly viable throughout the entirety of the game (especially with certain perks).  This could be less a problem of skill redundancy and more a problem with weapon balance.
  • Repair and science are only used to interact with the occasional rare game object, granting rewards or shortcuts for those with sufficient points invested: they probably could have been replaced by a simple intelligence roll.
  • There’s two medical skills, first aid and doctor, which essentially do the same thing to varying degrees.  Why not just roll them together into a medical skill and give the players 6 uses instead of 3 of each?
  • The outdoorsman skill, used only to determine favorable encounter chances, feels like an especially redundant skill.  Perhaps a combination perception and luck roll would have sufficed.
  • The gambling skill doesn’t even make sense, unless perhaps we’re talking cheating affinity.   I can understand skill as factoring into success among beginners, but you’ll usually get to a certain point in gambling where it’s up to factors beyond your control: this is how the house always wins.  Of course, being a fantastic game world, I suppose it’s fair to develop a world where the house does not always win and all gambling games involve some skill.

I still like the idea of perks.  Every 3 or 4 levels you get to choose some major new capability your character possesses.  Really, it feels a whole lot more organic choosing perks – something new you learned how to do when you leveled up – than it does dumping skill points into something you might not have even done in the past few levels.  However, the perks are a bit heavy handed in that many of them allow extensive templating to take (e.g. the Slayer perk).

Combat resolution remains Fallout 2’s strong point.  The action point turn-based system is still quite outstanding, few if any CRPGs ever allowed their users that much influence and thought into urban combat resolution.   Most (including Fallout: Tactics) ditch these in favor of more real-time mechanics.  The critical hit mechanics, where you target a body part and if you successfully hit it you have a chance for an extra effect based on that part, are a great idea.  I also enjoy how I might randomly knock a foe down (or blast them into giblets) on a lucky roll – seeing such radical spontaneous results is a real hit to the ol’ pleasure centers.

However, in the more minute details of combat resolution, further refinement might have helped.  There’s little in which player influence factors into things, it’s mostly a matter of just having invested the necessary skill points or have found the right weapons/tools.  Damage mitigation in particular feels overly limited – you can raise your “armor class” or “armor resistance” but otherwise you’re pretty much at the mercy of the enemies’ rolls.  Apparently the best post-apocalyptic defense is a strong offense.

From what I’ve read, Fallout 3 has indeed streamlined the skills, grants feats every level, and has otherwise done a lot of well needed streamlining and balancing.  Overall, a preservation of the “combat, stealth, or diplomacy” mechanics – central to the Fallout game series open-ended feel – is preserved.  However, I honestly don’t expect the games to play the same due to the radically different engines employed.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Though it’s not perfect, Fallout 2 is still a pretty entertaining game with a good sense of flow and an excellent story.  I’ve become a very picky gamer over the past 10 years, and this has resulted in a kind of razor’s edge towards game design which is probably better employed making my own games than picking apart my nostalgia.  Seeing what they accomplished in Fallout 2, and knowing that I can recognize it and understand how to do it better, gives me a real good feeling about my potential as a game designer.

That said, with Fallout 3 being just a week away, I think I might try to finish Fallout 2.   10 years ago, I got pretty close to finishing it, but it turns out being a melee specialist is very hard in the end game, and I never made the time for a second climb up.  If I can finish Fallout 2 before Fallout 3 is released that’d be nice, although I already know how the game ends.  I had finished the original Fallout at least twice – it is a shorter game and the flow was a bit better managed.

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