Some things never change.
War, as Ron Perlman has confidently asserted so many times, is one of them.
But you wouldn’t know it for looking at Fallout, which as a series is unrecognisably different from its roots in its modern incarnations. But the spirit is still there: you, a lonesome and precocious nobody, must travel across the post-nuclear hellscape of a world torn asunder by war meeting (and murdering) all kinds of strange and exotic creatures and characters, and shaping the destiny of the places you visit for years to come. It’s a concept which, by now, we’re used to, but at the time of Fallout’s release in 1997 it was incredibly unique. Well, except for Wasteland (1988) but we’ll follow in Interplay’s footsteps and forget about that.
“When you see Fallout, you know it – hell, when you read Fallout you know it. Interplay’s legacy is well and truly secured”
At its heart, Fallout and its marginally more popular sequel Fallout 2 are your basic 90’s CRPGs mapped onto a beautifully idiosyncratic atompunk setting. Here, the sandblasted ruins of metropoles crane into the sky, paint-peeled American Foursquares crumbling quietly on the outskirts; there, Raiders dressed in scraps of pre-war clothing held together by Mad Max leather bondage gear pick off hapless wanderers like yourself. When you see Fallout, you know it’s Fallout – hell, when you read Fallout you know it. Interplay’s legacy is well and truly secured, both in the gaming scene and the realm of science fiction as a whole.
Arguably, the first games don’t hold up so well under the test of time. Things we take for granted now are entirely absent, such as an uncluttered HUD and a vaguely comprehensible inventory system, and the pacing feels ludicrously slow compared to its later, more action-oriented incarnations. But for nostalgia factor alone, or even for newer die-hard fans of the series, Interplay’s Fallout games are worth a look. You’ll get shivers during the opening cinematic, because there’s nobody who wouldn’t be shaken to the core as the camera backs out of a crackling TV set cycling through decades-old news reports and adverts to reveal a barren, silent city utterly devoid of life as The Ink Spots’ brilliant ‘Maybe’ plays soulfully over the top. What Fallout does best, and perhaps better than any other series, is communicate apocalyptic scale with genuine subtlety and meaning; the exquisite combination of deadpan black comedy, unrelenting body horror and terror, and the kind of muted melancholy that wastelands intrinsically offer is a cocktail that is never cloying, and never gets in its own way despite the huge disparity of its components.
Fallout 1 and 2 are much more than the progenitors to Bethesda and Obsidian’s later takes on the series, which we’ll be looking at in the next couple of weeks (and completely ignoring Brotherhood of Steel and Tactics, naturally); they are genre-defining classics in their own right. It’s what drew people to them in their heyday, it’s what will keep drawing fans back to them for years to come, and most of all it’s what makes them S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Yeah, I’m starting and ending on the same pun. Sue me.