Fallout, the post-apocalyptic roleplaying franchise, began 24 years ago. The imagery of the series has become iconic, with 5 titles, spin-off games, a failed movie adaptation and an Amazon series currently in pre-production. As the series’ tagline says – war never changes. But the world has changed drastically in that quarter century. The gaming landscape has rapidly and permanently altered. How has Fallout changed over the years? Where will it go next?
Fallout (1997) – Humble Beginnings
“Your bones are scraped clean by the desolate wind. Your Vault will now surely die… as you have…”
A spiritual sequel to Wasteland (1988), Interplay’s isometric Fallout unwittingly spawned one of the most recognisable game franchises ever. It begins as unceremoniously as all popular series’ do; you’re a resident of one of the great Vaults built before a nuclear war, the last war – the Great War. After discovering the “water chip” has broken, you’re chosen to venture outside and find another one.
Littered with abbreviations, the only way to know how to play is to already know. It’s difficult to recommend, as games in the 90s were designed for audiences either with prior understanding or who enjoyed the challenge.
The imagery is stark and, while the graphics are dated, those oranges, browns, and greys are evocative. In the California of an alternate 2161, your quest will take you from rat-filled caves to communities plagued by irradiated scorpions. From towns built up out of junkyards to meeting the ‘man’ plotting the world’s second doom. So much of later releases can be seen in the game; the original SPECIAL system of roleplay is present in its entirety. The idea that nothing ends, only changes, is a prescient theme throughout the series, and it all began here.
Fallout 2 (1998) – The Popular One
“The darkness of the afterlife is all that awaits you now. May you find more peace in that world than you found in this one…”
Following Fallout’s success, the next year saw Fallout 2. You are the Chosen One, the grandchild of yourself (the Vault Dweller) from the previous instalment. The local soothsayer (don’t ask) has foreseen famine and plague, and you’ve been chosen to locate a terraforming device from before the war to remake your lands habitable. 2 is often called the best game in the series (alongside every other instalment bar-76).
The engine’s unchanged, but the depth and humour of 2’s writing is what makes it so beloved. Breaking the fourth wall constantly, with references ranging from Monty Python to the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal, it’s hard to stay engaged with the story for extended periods of time. When you can stay involved, 2 is one of the best games ever written. Tongue-in-cheek satire on US politics and culture influences the main story, where remnants of the US government became the imperialist Enclave, and have since gone a tiny bit genocidal.
After this point, there were two spin-off games – Tactics (2001) and Brotherhood of Steel (2004) – neither of which are important nor are they reportedly any good. There was also Van Buren, the codename for Black Isle’s Fallout 3, but the acquirement of the IP by Bethesda meant the first big change…
Fallout 3 (2008) – “You’re still my child, and I love you, but I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am in you”
“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life, freely.”(Revelation 21:6)
Surprise! The game’s now real-time and 3D, with an action-oriented focus. V.A.T.S. (the Matrix-style aiming system) has its first proper appearance. Fallout always incorporated places of iconic American status into the setting, and never more so than Fallout 3’s rendition of Washington D.C. The imagery of that metropolis reduced to a cold, desolate, and ghostly ruin is evocative, and the wasteland is vast and beautiful – it’s just a shame there’s not much to do once you’re there.
The plot has you following your father in an attempt to restart a project that will bring clean water to everyone. There’s supposedly the theme of childhood running throughout; but the only evidence of this I can see is the insistence on irritating child characters and humour that isn’t far removed from South Park.
Unlike previous games, where choices were more ideological in nature, 3 places you on an overtly-moral footing with the Karma system taking centre-stage. But, in typical video game fashion, you can only ever be the world’s greatest hero or its greatest villain. 3 still receives criticism for this, but it’s important to remember that until recently, studios rarely had the talent or budget to pull off the nuance this idea deserves.
The writing is shoddy though, with Biblical references thrown in for the appearance of meaning and dialogue that’s so awful I hope the VAs got workplace injury compensation.
Fallout 3 had five DLCs where you explore small glimpses of stranger, wilder places throughout the wasteland. Operation Anchorage is a 2-hour corridor of identical enemies (and some Yellow Peril thrown in for good measure). And you can’t forget Mothership Zeta, the final DLC, set on an alien spaceship above Earth. For some reason.
Fallout: New Vegas (2010) – The Other Popular One
“It’s said that war never changes. Men do, through the roads they walk. And this road has reached its end.”
It’s also said that New Vegas was developed by Obsidian, the spiritual successor to Black Isle and Interplay, in 18 months; but much of it was redeveloped Van Buren plans. Welcome to New Vegas. It’s a pie that everyone – from Fallout 2’s expansionist New California Republic to the patriarchal slave armies of Caesar’s Legion – wants a slice of. And you get to decide who’s eating tonight.
Bad metaphors aside, any Fallout game released post-2010 must contend with New Vegas. It blows everything the franchise had done previously out of the water, with a scope and depth to its world and systems that some say brought Western RPGs back to life. The game isn’t perfect – it was planned to be much bigger. Schedule, budget and workforce restraints meant it was released in a diminished and near-unplayable state. Some parts of the game needed a lot more development, and it’s still common to encounter game-breaking bugs. After a year of intensive patches and DLC releases, New Vegas sits on the Fallout throne – and it looks like it’ll be a while before there’s a usurper to the wasteland.
Fallout 4 (2015) – Pretender to the Throne?
“I close my eyes; I see my life before all of this. Before the bombs. Everything can change in an instant, and the future you plan for yourself shifts – whether or not you’re ready. At some point, it happens to all of us.”
I really need to work on my analogies.
Fallout 4 was another revamp for the franchise, once again re-aiming its sights on the casual market. There’s nothing wrong with this decision, or many of the decisions in the game – the combat isn’t just usable, but genuinely fun (a first for Fallout), and it’s the prettiest, largest, and most stable release. It’s also the most popular, with at least thirteen million copies sold.
The basic frame is taken from New Vegas – there’s four groups in the Boston area, all looking to take control (not really, but that’s how it’s framed). There’s never a reason given why anyone would want to take control of a ruined city where people can barely feed themselves.
4 inherits from New Vegas (as well as 3 and Skyrim), but the new building and crafting systems take centre-stage. For the first time, and not for the last, Fallout moved its focus away from story and placed it firmly in the hands of gameplay. You’d have to be insane to disagree – it’s a video game.
I just wish there was a story-based reason why I should care. If I wanted a frenzied combat-driven game, I’d play Doom. I wouldn’t go to Fallout, which always (even in Bethesda’s previous, lacklustre attempt) framed itself as an exploration into a troubled world where you control its destiny. The only thing I feel in control of is what type of weapon I can make to blast the enemies into piles of assorted gore. There’s no real attempt to create a connection to the world. That wasn’t the intention. I wish it was.
Fallout 76 (2018) – Oh, No
“We let a lot of people down.”Todd Howard, game director and executive producer at Bethesda.
I won’t flog a dead horse. Dialogue and NPCs are gone. Single-player’s gone. Fallout 76 is a reskin of Elder Scrolls Online. Again – that was the intention. Again – why should I care?
The crafting systems are the only mechanic, making it a Fallout-branded Rust. Despite the rush of updates and DLC, and an expansive and pretty world map, it remains a poor imitation of things that have come before. 3 wasn’t very good at what it was trying to do, but it tried. 4 was great at things I didn’t care for. All that 76 had to offer was Fallout-themed dragons and a subscription service for the Atom Store.
Almost everyone agreed that this was a bad game. A blatant attempt to cash in on 4’s success. I jokingly suggested to a friend in 2017 that Fallout 5 would be an MMO; and for all intents and purposes, it was. But 76, the online open-world survival game, isn’t a main title. Neither was New Vegas, officially. It should hopefully be treated as just a footnote in the history of failure.
Buy a branded clock, you losers.
Where to next?
It’s unlikely that another Fallout game will dethrone New Vegas in the eyes of fans anytime soon. A sequel to that game is both improbable and inane as a concept – what’s being clamoured for is a game with the same ideals as New Vegas. But how likely is that?
No new Fallout game is confirmed; Bethesda have announced Elder Scrolls 6 and Starfield, an original IP chasing Obsidian’s Outer Worlds. Rumours about New Vegas 2 or Fallout: New Orleans get thrown around every few years, but it’s safe to say that the next game will be Bethesda-developed, and will be another huge shift for the franchise. But as 76 has proven, Bethesda are aware they’re not infallible – and that their audience can still hold them to account.