Fallout 2

A post-nuclear role-playing game, although it's not so much about the nasty, brutish and short life you live when civilisation is stripped away, as it is about the myriad ways civilisation can be reconstructed from the rubble. The game has a classic science fiction feel, in that it contains thought experiments about the alternative social and political structures that can emerge when the slate is wiped clean. The fun of the game is in how your choices impact the history of these different places. Your actions literally determine whether a town thrives or dies.

The best example is Vault City – which is the first big urban hub you come across. Its design is clearly inspired by the Athens of classical Greece. It's a democracy in the ancient rather than the modern sense, where citizens have an active role in government, but citizenship is tightly circumscribed (in the game the 'citizenship test' is almost impossible to pass), and there is a large slave population that have no rights whatsoever. Athenian democracy had a very well-developed sense of its own superiority, which the game embodies in the character of First Citizen Joanne Lynette, who quickly becomes hostile if you disparage Vault City's institutions. The city's distinctiveness is reinforced by a strongly held prejudice against the barbarians beyond its walls, who are perceived as sub-human. Through your actions, you can try to establish trading relationships with a neighbouring town populated by irradiated "ghouls", but you run the risk of empowering the city to expand and enslave the surrounding area, much like the armies of ancient Athens would do.

Other parts of Fallout 2 reference other bits of history. The mining town of Redding is caught between the lawless casino capital New Reno and the bland but stable New California Republic to the east. This is where the game gets closest to the western genre. You can swing the balance in favour of one or the other, and while the NCR may appear to be the better option, the game counter-weighs that by evoking a sense of the freedoms of the wild west. New Reno may pump the town full of drugs, but it has no police force, and in the clash of competing crime families a degree of independence can be maintained. It's a choice between the chaotic and lawful spectrum of the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system – anarchism with all its dangers and liberties versus a safe but restricted life under the rule of law.

The game is sprawling not only geographically but tonally – mixing together poverty, drug addiction and prostitution alongside crass schoolboy humour, pop culture references and in-jokes. Different designers were responsible for different areas, which explains some of the inconsistencies. The game also had a tough deadline, which meant that a lot of areas have an unfinished feel, particularly the final city San Fransisco, which is full of empty containers and has an entire map of the docks with no content whatsoever. There are some irritating bugs as well, most notably with some of the endings, which didn't marry up to the decisions I made in the game itself.

The biggest problem with the game, however, is that the central narrative is weak, and doesn't provide enough motivation to push you through to the next area. The mystery of the Enclave isn't revealed until the very end of the game, and a lot of the time you are left wondering what to do and where to go next, with only the enticement of exploring a new area to keep you interested. Despite some attempts to interweave quests between cities, the game remains quite modular, and at several points I was tempted to drop off once I had completed the quests in a particular region. The main campaign in Baldur's Gate – a CRPG from the same era and studio – introduces the outlines of its conspiracy from the very start and is therefore much better at hooking you into the narrative. 

The Enclave itself presents a simple inversion, turning the remnants of the US government into a fascist secret society that has developed genocidal tendencies. The diverse cultures that have bubbled up on the west coast are perceived as irredeemably irradiated or mutated and therefore to be purged by an airborne virus to create living space for the only 'real' humans left on the planet. Not many games lead you to assassinate the President of the United States, but in doing so, you defend the rich variety emerging out of the wreckage of the apocalypse against the regime that caused it. But the game is subtle enough to include wrinkles in that victory – as factions like the Shi, NCR and Vault City have their own totalitarian tendencies.

Fallout 2's role-playing and combat systems are complex but robust, and there are few ways to break your build. That said, some skills and perks are definitely better than others, and as I wanted a relatively painless experience, I relied on a guide to get the most out of the game. There is a bewildering variety of weapons and ammo available, and the details of how armour works remained somewhat mysterious to me. That said, combat is very fun, particularly when you are at the very edge of being able to survive encounters, as I was when I faced the geckos in the Toxic Caves and the xenomorphs in the Redding mines. Money and experience pile up to ridiculous heights, and it was very satisfying to be able to mow down enemies that had previously given me nightmares with my endgame equipment. UX is awful, particularly the inventory, but you get used to it. Party NPCs are outside your direct control – which can lead to them doing ridiculous and infuriating things, but you can fiddle with their AI to get better results, so all-in-all the game is still very playable, and worth persevering with. Few RPGs give you so much scope to affect the world created around you.

No comments:

Post a Comment