Fallout - sweet, detested Fallout

by Gerald Strömer

"War. War never changes." And with this sentence begins this - like every other - Fallout game. There has hardly been another game in the past couple of years that I have looked forward to as much as this latest instalment in the series, Fallout 3. Correction: there has been no other game. And no other game has drawn out such a mix of emotions from me: all mixed with the enthusiasm of the masses I feel amazement, horror, frustration, curiosity, amusement, and occasionally pure hatred. Maybe the latter above all as I - like yesterday (and the day before that...) - stagger into bed as quietly as possible at 5am on a weekday after a 6 hour session, cursing myself because so soon at 7 the alarm will ring, bringing with it the lousy palely smirking tentacles of new day into my bedroom.

Normally because of hardware considerations I tend to put a good game on hold for a year or two, or at least until it falls below the 20 Euro mark. It ends up saving me a lot of cash - I'm just not prepared to lay down 50 or 60 Euros for a game - and also generally ensures that the bugs (which seem to be getting more and more common) are fixed before I finally bring myself to play. Maybe too in all that time does it become increasingly obvious how much of a game's "greatness" comes down to hype. In all my years I have seen God knows how many hyped up fads come and go. Enough to stay away anyway.

Fallout 3 is the exception. It is the very first game for which I broke all my previously stated ideals. I pre-ordered it a month before its release, deciding, after some short consideration, on the English language original (my mother tongue being German). On one hand I didn't want to risk a sub-par dubbing job ruining the fun. On the other hand, the decision was tipped by the unspeakable fact that, as usual, the game has been censored for the German market in its presentation of blood and dismembered limbs. This Big Brother attitude of the father land, establishing itself as a moral taste tester even for 18+ games, really pulls my chain. By the way, did I mention yet that Fallout is astonishingly gory? Or more correctly: it always has been gory and always will be?

In any case spell of the Fallout universe had already pulled me in by the end of the 90s, as I battled on in isometric top-down view with my super pixelated hero, turn-based style. Even back then it wasn't the graphics, at best and with goodwill describable as "up-to-date", that fascinated me about the game. Fallout is deeper than that. The reappropriation to Fallout 3, which as opposed to Fallout 1 and 2 is now played in first person (the graphics are generated by a pepped-up Oblivion engine by the way) and not turn-based either, rather (other than a V.A.T.S. battle sequence) played in real-time, worked astonishingly well. Although I had doubts regarding the new developers and the altered game principles, I was positively surprised.

This also applied to system requirements and gameplay performance. I gambled, for the sake of convenience, on an older PC exclusively made for games. By no means a monster machine, rather an old single core CPU with 2GB of RAM and a Radeon X1950 Pro. Any half-way modern notebook with a reasonable dedicated graphics solution and a dual or quad core processor would very probably easily outdo my good-ol workhorse - not to mention  the latest pure gaming notebooks. On the other hand, Fallout 3 runs on my bomb of a machine completely problem-free. That said, I wouldn't even begin to think about combining anti-aliasing with any kind of high resolution settings. Basically you should be able to play the game on any kind of half decent notebook without issues - graphics settings should however be kept fairly moderate.

In any case I find Fallout 3 completely captivating. But what is it about the game that makes it so fascinating? First of all, the setting - after a nuclear war in a desolate landscape, "the wasteland" - is implemented in a fresh manner. Who knows how many science-fiction or fantasy games have seen the light of day over the years? The theme behind Fallout by contrast has been very largely untapped. Other than the three Fallout titles, few games have lost themselves in this sphere. On the other hand it isn't just a Mad-Max spinoff to play for yourself, it has its own completely unique charm. Just imagine the Fallout universe as a future version of the 50s. Pudgy automobiles powered by atomic energy, hovering house-hold robots, energy guns, power armour. Even so, the experience feels the same, from the fear of nuclear war to the intact American dream and the 50s music.

The Fallout games have the player moving around in the remnants of this compelling world: a desolate environment, devastated by a nuclear war (in the case of part 3) a good 200 years beforehand, in which the whistling of the wind is sometimes the only sign of life. In this wasteland can be found the most sinister figures: raiders, mutated animals, ghouls, super-mutants. In addition are the power-armour-clad soldiers of the Brotherhood of Steel and whatever shady riff-raff of various factions in the post apocalyptic wasteland can be found creeping around. The last non-mutated members of humanity cling onto survival with their last strength, or have managed to live on in bunkers (so-called vaults).

Beside the unusual, memorable setting, Fallout has always been exceptional in two ways: firstly for its enormous freedom of choice - for every problem there is always more than one solution - and secondly for its dark humour. In the non-censored version completely unconcealed of course, in its full depiction of violence that somehow fits the game. As real role-playing games, those in the Fallout series come alive through conversations with the other, often bizarre, characters. For example, every fan of the series will remember the ghoulish Harold. And the day before yesterday I snuck up on a supermutant and a prisoner waiting to be freed, and evesdropped on their conversation, amused. The prisoner was attempting to convince the mutant that he should not be slain, since the flesh of his already dead ex- coprisoners was still plentiful. The huge supermutant replied along the lines of "But you are so fresh!"

I LOVE this game. And hate it of course. Dammit.

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Gerald Strömer, 2008-11-24 (Update: 2012-05-26)