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FALLOUT 2 / Black Isle Studios / PC
Fallout 2 basically recycles the same gameplay engine of the first game, with just a few little tweaks here and there - greater control over NPCs, a larger world map, more item types, and more sub-quests. Unfortunately, it also came with a passel of bugs at it's retail release, although at this point most of those have been patched by one source or another.
This game takes place nearly 100 years after the events of the first game. The Vault Dweller, hero of the first game, wandered north after being banished from Vault 13, and set up a village somewhere in the mountains of northern California / southern Oregon. Protected by canyons, it thrived without any outside interference, but a tremendous drought season has just occured and the village is on the brink of starvation. The Elder has heard of something called a GECK, a kit used by Vaults to establish thriving towns after the war. She thinks there might be one at Vault 13, but no one knows where it is located. As the tribe's best young warrior, you set out on a quest to find the GECK and rescue your village.
Character creation in this one is a little odd. Those returning from the first game will find just about all the same stats and perks that they got used to previously. However, you now have the choice of one of three pre-created characters, or you can roll up your own. The oddity is that the three pre-created characters have higher statistics than is possible with a freshly-rolled character; they also can be totally modified, so that you basically create your own character with them. Fallout 2 is so centered on combat, and so ruthless about it, that you are thus basically forced to mod an existing character to survive (unless you've played the game before and know where everything is). It's not a big deal, since you can change everything about them including their name and age, but one wonders why they even bothered to have the two modes when one is essentially rendered useless. Given that the game looks like it was rushed due to all the bugs, however, I think it's possible no one even noticed this discrepancy in the hurry to get it out the door.
Did I mention Fallout 2 has a lot of combat, and is hard? If you try to follow the plot cues, which lead you from your village to the nearby towns of Klamath and the Den and then on from there, you will have a hell of a time surviving unless you pump all your available points into relevant combat abilities. Though the game touts a lot of unique stuff to do, it always comes back to three things - fighting, looting and conversations leading up to the same. There are a few quests where you can talk someone out of something, or use the Sneak, Steal and Lockpick abilities to work around it, but if you are going through the game for the first time, inevitably there will be combat. Some clever vet of the game did find a way to beat the game without fighting, but it involves complete and total foreknowledge of what is going to happen and where to get everything, and it basically involves skipping straight through to the end of the game by pumping up a couple of key stats you can use to infiltrate the final areas without fighting. In other words, it is not a realistic option for people who are sitting down and playing the game for real - you will fight, and frequently, and there's just not much else to do.
This is disappointing because Fallout 2 kind of sells you a bill of goods about how flexible the world is and how many different things you can do in it that you don't normally see in RPGs. One of the game's main draws is that it (ostensibly) frees you to be as amoral as you wanna be - conversations always have an option for you to be a jerk and pick fights, you can steal from anyone and everyone, and you can initiate combat at any time and gun down whoever you want. However! In order to get the experience and equipment to do these things successfully - especially if you plan on taking on an entire town in a firefight - you have to basically do most of the game's quests and play like a good guy. In other words, it's a sort of bonus option for those who have already progressed through the game, and not even a very good one. Other stuff - becoming a slaver, having sex, toodling around the wastelands in a car, etc. - have so little meat and substance to them that they really don't even matter. Sex is just a fade-out then a fade-in followed by some pithy comment on your abilities, you can't sell anyone into slavery except a few NPCs who join you for other reasons, and the car is basically just a teleport spell to take you from town to town. All these things are there, yeah, but they are not actually all that exciting to do.
Also, for how much time you spend in combat, it is a bit slow. Even though you can have all these range weapons, it usually just degenerates into all the enemies rushing you en masse, and everyone standing around shooting each other in the face from extreme close range. The NPCs on your side in this one can be customized with combat orders now, and equipped, but they still have an irritating tendency to either rush into situations where they are surrounded, or go Burst Mode into your back (even when you have specifically instructed them not to do that). A pet peeve of mine with this game is that it often likes to throw huge clusters of weak enemies such as rats at you during quests, and give you no way around except to tediously waste time and ammo plowing your way through them. You'd think a rat would have the sense to run away from a man in giant metal armor, but none of them do in this game. Oh, and that reminds me of one other combat peeve - critical hits. Everyone always has the same chance of criticals, and enemies seem to have a really inflated chance of critical hits in a lot of cases, even when the situation is patently lopsided. I've frequently been knocked on my back by enemies that can't even do any damage with their criticals, while I'm wearing some of the best full-body power armor in the game, by rats and random barehanded dudes running up and punching at me. How do rat teeth and fists even penetrate full-body thick steel armor? It doesn't make combat tougher, but it is annoying, as it wastes more time and more turns, and makes the already slow combat even slower.
On to the good bits of the game - Fallout 2 is very well written, with a lot of sharp humor. The conversation trees are incredibly detailed, influenced both by your relevant statistics and a lot of other little events that may or may not have occurred in-game. The conversation system is one of the deepest in gaming and is quite commendable. This game also does not put a "ticking clock" quest over your head like the first one did, so you are free to roam around and get into side entanglements for as long as you wish. And there are plenty of side entanglements to get into - the game is packed to the brim with little sub-quests, tasks and other bonus goodies to sniff out. The graphics are simple, but functional - it would have been nice to see a little more detail and a little less recycled stuff from Fallout 1, but they're good enough to work. The soundtrack is also pretty good, mostly ambient industrial sort of stuff suited to a dystopian future. Probably not ipod-worthy, but works very well in the context of the game.
As good as it can be at times, however, Fallout 2 just turns me off overall with the over-emphasis on combat (the character customization is great, but most of the time you don't even get to use it since the game leans so heavily towards combat), the really slow speed of said combat, and the skewed difficulty (the game is way too hard, unless you know where to go at the beginning to easily snarf some power armor and good weapons, and then it becomes way too easy). The over-arching story is also not very compelling, leaving you playing to just basically become more powerful in a level-grinding loop. If you want to experience Fallout I would suggest trying the first game, the lack of freedom to deviate from the main quest was kind of annoying, but the narrative and overall story was much better.
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