It All Started with a Water Chip: What Happened to Fallout?

By the time this blog entry is posted, I’m positive you’re either tired of Fallout 4 related content, or don’t care about the game and are sick of hearing about it all the same. What I’m intending to do, however, is not just compose a lengthy article about what the newly-released post-apocalyptic role-playing game is made of, but rather take a look at the series as a whole, and more specifically how it has gone through changes so thorough that for all intents and purposes nothing of the original game is left to be found in the latest one.

Even though the vast majority of people who bought Fallout 4 likely never played the classic games made by Interplay, everyone knows that there was a Fallout series before Fallout 3 – there’s a telltale clue in the title of that game. Before Fallout 3 was released, the IP changed ownership, from Interplay to the now-colossal developer/publisher Bethesda. Even if you didn’t know that, you could make the guess that something to that effect happened between Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel (which was the third “classic” Fallout game, released in 2001) and Fallout 3, just by playing the latter and one of the classics to make a comparison.

The primary point of this blog post is to examine the changes that the series has gone through, and Bethesda’s effect on the 18-year-old intellectual property. War… war may never change, but everything else certainly did.

Welcome Home: Fallout 4

Whether or not you’re familiar with the newest entry in the series, launched on November 10th, I’ll lead by establishing the current state of the Fallout franchise – in other words, expressing in compact form my experiences with this individual game, as independent of the series as possible. That’s really the way one should look at the Fallout games published by Bethesda in order to be able to properly enjoy them, seeing as they distance themselves quite a bit from the classic games.

At the time of writing this post, I’m several dozen hours into the game, and I’ve already seen a lot of what it has to offer. Yet, more than half of the map is still unexplored (I like to take my time and really investigate points of interest), and most of the story is ahead of me. But I have a pretty good sense about what the game is all about.

There’s plenty of new systems in the game that I really enjoy. The way modding works – especially with weapons – is really quite satisfying, and it allows to really make your weapons your own. In essence, there’s more than one weapon in each individual object, and it’s up to you – and your resources – to customize them according to your tastes and needs. For example, you may attach a part to a gun that increases damage at the cost of range and accuracy when aiming through the sights, in case you mainly use that weapon firing from the hip at close range. It’s really very intuitive and functional, and it’s one of several welcome changes of pace to exploring and killing things.

Another entirely new system, one that actually took me by surprise at first, is the base-building. Its purpose is to create settlements of NPCs whom you can assign to grow food, patrol for attackers, work as vendors or run supply lines between separate settlements. The tactical advantages are obvious, as you will have a place to rest and store items, as well as a supply of food and other resources, but it’s also very satisfying in its own right – it’s fun just to see the settlement grow. I’ve put way too much time into constructing my main settlements – my Sanctuary (the initial, “primary” settlement) has a electrical network spanning the entire area, that’s also connected to a computer terminal in my own private bedroom, allowing me to control things like spotlights or laser tripwires from afar. I’ve also built a town clinic from scratch, and placed a fancy bar for my settlers to relax in after a hard day of growing mutfruit.

Both of those systems utilize the same pool of resources, which is maintained by scavenging – for the first time in the series, that’s really what it is. Basically everything in the game world can be useful by itself, and not just to sell for caps – in fact, I don’t think caps have ever been less significant. You can even take apart your obsolete weapons and armor pieces, salvaging some much needed parts instead of just trading them in for caps. That means that you might no longer end up with a ridiculous amount of caps quite as easily as before.

Fallout 4 has also overhauled the idea of the iconic power armor. Instead of being an armor set among others, only heavier and more awesome, it’s a separate mechanism altogether – it’s basically a vehicle that increases your carrying capacity, negates falling damage, and allows for protection and properties according to which parts you attach to it. The frame, which provides the benefits of carrying capacity and immunity to fall damage, is not an item that you can carry in your inventory – instead, you can only move it from one place to another by wearing it. That means, that should you run out of power (delivered to the suit via replaceable fusion cores), your options are to practically drag the hunk-of-junk back home, or leaving it in the middle of the wasteland until you can return with a fresh fusion core. The idea may sound cumbersome, but after getting used to it (and hoarding some fusion cores) it actually becomes quite an enjoyable feature in the game. The ability to customize each part of the armor individually is also something I greatly appreciate.

The game also introduced some changes in the narrative department. It has full voice acting, which is a feature I’ve never really held in such a high esteem – in my experience, the more voice acting a game has, the less branching, open-ended and deep the story in general tends to become. It doesn’t mean a story can’t be good or expansive, but I’d take a text-heavy story-driven game over full voice acting any day.

That said, the voice acting itself is pretty good, and save for a few issues with speaking animations, the dialogue is actually pretty fun to watch. I’m one of those guys who ends up liking my own character’s appearance so much that I enjoy any excuse to have them appear on the screen. I also think the conversations tend to feel quite organic and natural, even if there’s not much room to express your character’s personality – you can generally say “yes” or “no” or ask for more specific information, but you can’t really add any sort of flavor to anything your character’s saying or pursue any specific kind of relationship with an NPC, unless you count the “sarcastic” response that is often available.

Fallout 4 has various difficulty levels, up to a new “Survival” difficulty, which is basically a light version of Fallout: New Vegas‘s Very Hard + Hardcore Mode. In addition to simply enemies being tougher, it also changes healing mechanics so that all healing items work gradually, rather than instantaneously. The difficulty itself is decent in its challenge, although hardly any more difficult than Very Hard was in previous games. It’s not quite as “merciless” and “brutal” as some reviewers hailed it as, but it’s not a walk in the park either. At least it requires you to think about your tactics whenever faced with an actual opposition.

Not everything is quite as pleasing, however. A problem I have with the game’s premise – much like I did with Fallout 3 – is that for an open-ended role-playing game, Fallout 4 provides an awful lot of context for your character. Here, you’re a war veteran, a mother or father of one, you live in the suburbs and have a robot butler. Want to be a 18-year-old scumbag street urchin? No can do. How about an old hermit who likes cooking his own chems? Sorry, that’s off-limits. I know that’s mostly semantics and you can still imagine your character to be anything you want, and I’m also aware that this premise is what was needed to tell this specific story, but I don’t know if Fallout is the place to do that. Fallout: New Vegas provided only the backstory that you worked as a courier and got hustled, which leaves basically everything about the character wide open – yet the story in that game was far superior to that of Fallout 3, which in turn forced you to be an 18-year old vault dweller whose parents were scientists, and whose mother died at childbirth. Again, I understand the significance to the story, but does the story really need to be that restricting? I know it’s a matter of taste, but I usually do get turned off by “open-ended” role-playing games that barely give you any wiggle room about what your character is all about.

Another beef I have with the game is the overhauled skill mechanics. I won’t compare it to previous games just yet – I’ll get back to that later. But I’m not entirely sure I’m a big fan of the current system anyhow. With the numeric skill ratings removed entirely, the game relies on a refined perk system that determines your character’s capabilities, accompanied by the traditional Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck, which not only affect your character’s activities by themselves, but also act as requirements for the “extended” perk tree. While a clever system in principle, it simplifies the perk chart way too much for my tastes. The end result is that you don’t generate a diverse list of perks that play into your character’s unique concept and personality, but rather the system encourages min-maxing and immersion-breaking strategy with developing the character. I understand streamlining is the jam right now with this kind of games, but I don’t personally like it – let me have my micromanagement, and let me sculpt my character the way I want.

As an overall experience, I really like Fallout 4. I enjoy myself while playing it, and that’s really what it comes down to with video games. However, despite this excruciating unofficial review (which is much lengthier than I promised), I had a different point to make altogether: how does Fallout 4 relate to the original game?

What Makes Fallout Fallout?

I don’t claim to be the definitive expert on the classic Fallout games, but I’ve played them – especially the first one – quite a bit, and I understand the essence of those games. While I like Fallout 4 as an individual game, one of the first thoughts I had when I first sat down to play it was: “In this game, there’s nothing left of Fallout except the name.” And that’s a statement that I still stand by – it’s not to put down the game entirely, it’s just to express how I just don’t recognize those old games in this new one at all anymore.

The most obvious distinction between the classic games and the new ones is that the game style in itself is entirely different. The old games were isometric games that utilized point-and-click mechanics to interact with the game world, while the new ones are first or third person role-playing games in a full 3D environment. It goes without saying that isometric games weren’t quite as relevant at the time of Fallout 3‘s development as they were before, so the choice is pretty understandable. That’s not even something I take issue with, but it’s worth mentioning that with Bethesda’s involvement, the series essentially became part of a completely different genre of games.

Still in the realm of Fallout 3, another difference is the location. While previous Fallout titles took place on the West Coast or the Mid-West, this game was set in what used to be Washington D.C. and its surrounding areas. It was a pretty daring move, since at least in my opinion much of the atmosphere of the series up until that point was tied to the geography and terrain of the west. It does make sense, though, that Bethesda would want to take the series as far as reasonably possible from the existing setting, so that they could have more creative freedom with the world, and practically create their own mythology in this area far away from the games that came before. A good idea in principle, but they ended up screwing it up – more on that later on.

Apart from those two things, Fallout 3 remained mostly recognizable in terms of its role-playing mechanics and whatnot. Some of the skills were changed to better accommodate the gameplay, and the game world itself worked more like an Elder Scrolls game than the old games, but those are smart changes. After all, Bethesda only decided to do what they know how to do, and you can’t really fault them for that.

Fallout: New Vegas mostly used the same elements that Fallout 3 did, but some skills were changed again – some were reverted, like adding the Survival skill reminiscent of the Outdoorsman skill (even though their purposes were mostly different), while some were pushed further than before, like consolidating all firearms into a single Guns skill, and launchers and bombs into a single Explosives skill. No significant changes really took place here, though – after all, it was a new game made with the same building blocks as Fallout 3, although the end result was much better than its predecessor.

With Fallout 4, however, the biggest thing that still connected the series to its origins – the role-playing mechanics, or the SPECIAL system – was abandoned. I noted above that I understand the purpose for streamlining the mechanics, but that’s basically the heart of the classic Fallout games. I found it funny that they still kept the attributes – Strength, Perception, and so on – even though those were always mostly auxiliary to the skills themselves, which were what the entire character development element of the old games was about. Why not remove the attributes as well? Just so that they could still claim it’s the “SPECIAL system”, for some solidarity points or something?

At this point, all these things start to add up to the fact that everything about Fallout is gone. Sure, it takes place in the same universe, but across the continent, in a place where nothing that happened in the old games has any significance – might as well be on another planet. The skill system – which is the essence of the whole SPECIAL system, which made up for the old games’ entire role-playing mechanics – has been removed, and replaced with an entirely different mechanic that has no resemblance to anything that existed in the original games. The game isn’t even played the same way, since it’s no longer an isometric RPG, but rather a first or third person action RPG.

In essence, Fallout 4 has as much – or perhaps even less – to do with the original Fallout as Fallout has with Wasteland, its spiritual predecessor from 9 year prior. So Fallout 4 takes place after a nuclear holocaust? So does Wasteland. So it’s a role-playing game about surviving in that place? So is Wasteland. In other words, Fallout 4 is at best a spiritual successor to the original game – but not really even that, because the “spirit” is not there. A spiritual successor is supposed to be recognizable for its influence; Fallout 4 is not. I’m not even being dramatic – I actually started playing Fallout 2 on my old laptop recently, as my wife occupied my main PC to play The Sims 3 interrupting my Fallout 4 run, and I thought to myself, I really have a hard time remembering this game has the same name as Fallout 4. There’s just nothing that feels the same about it.

I know that Bethesda is only doing what anyone with any business sense would do with acquired IP that has some brand recognition attached to it. Fallout has become so much bigger than it ever was before Interplay sold it to Bethesda, but the existing name must have helped to get Fallout 3 into people’s hands. But I keep thinking, couldn’t they have called their new games something a bit different, like (bad example) “Fallout East”, or attach a subtitle to each game, or something… Just to express their acknowledgement that what they are doing is different from what the name reflects.

The Connections

I’m sure most people who might be reading this are thinking about the semantics: what about the details in the world? Fallout 3 and 4 draw a lot of their content from the mythology and lore established in the early games. To counter that, I’d like to point out that most of the general elements of the Fallout world are either ubiquitous to the genre, or borrowed from existing works, such as WastelandMad Max or Worlds of Tomorrow. As I stated before, Wasteland‘s world is quite similar to that of Fallout, yet it’s not the same – they’re just general enough to not seem plagiarized.

But there are unique features to Fallout‘s world, which is why it’s loved by so many. Take the Brotherhood of Steel for example – badass dudes in power armor who don’t take crap from anyone. What’s not to love, right? And they were prominent in Fallout 3. That’s all well and good, except the Brotherhood in that game had – once again – very little if anything to do with what that faction was in the old games. Instead of tech-hoarding hardliners, the Brotherhood in Fallout 3 resembled Robin Hood and his Merry Men in their quest to help those in need. So again, all that connected them to what existed before was the name, and the fact that they tend to wear power armor. Bethesda did cook up a story that these guys were a splinter group, but it always just felt like an excuse to me; like they didn’t really even understand what that faction was, but wanted to use them because they looked cool. I’m sure that’s not the case, but they could have come up with an entirely new faction instead.

Another Fallout specific feature is the super mutants. Bethesda had some explanation to their questionable presence on the East Coast as well, but the truth is that the super mutants were an instrumental part of the first game’s story, and they practically only existed in that sphere. To have the super mutants roam the Capital Wasteland or the Commonwealth is like taking the dreamers from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, who were the fanatical servants of the evil demigod Dagoth Ur and present only in Morrowind, and slap them into The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and just have them hanging around for no obvious reason. The super mutants simply have no earthly business being on the East Coast, and for all intents and purposes shouldn’t exist outside the events of the original game in the first place. Even the aforementioned “explanation” by Bethesda implies that these other super mutants are unrelated to those in the old games in every way, yet somehow are basically the exact same thing. Again, it feels like something they came up with afterwards, after realizing their input in the Fallout universe made no sense.

The ghouls are a similar thing; it’s supposed to be extremely rare for a human to survive the conditions it would take to “ghoulify” them. On the West Coast, their numbers are explained by the Necropolis, whose ghoul population stems from a vault whose door allowed for a proper amount of radiation to leak inside. For some reason I’ve yet to discover, a bunch of locations in Fallout 4‘s Commonwealth are occupied by dozens of ghouls. While less specific than the previous examples, I still count this as a discrepancy.

I for one find it simultaneously sad and funny that the only things definitely connecting Bethesda’s Fallout games to the originals by Interplay and Black Isle are elements that make no sense at all. They are features that the developers wanted to use, either because of their significance to the legacy of the existing games or because they appear cool, but neglected to note don’t fit the new setting they chose for their games. This is what I meant by them screwing up the choice of taking the series to the East Coast – they left behind all those things they would have needed to take into account when making their game, but they carried over things that they shouldn’t have. The connections they tried to build with existing games were far from being the right ones.

I want to stress the fact that I think Fallout 4 is a great game, from what I’ve seen so far. I know I’ll be spending many more hours with it, and I’ll enjoy it a lot. I also know that Bethesda’s game developers are talented professionals who know how to make games. But I can’t help feeling saddened by how the origins of this particular series have been buried so deep that you simply can’t even see the resemblance anymore. That admittedly is the way things go, and that happens to game series across the board, but rarely so thoroughly as with Fallout.

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