If there is a negative side-effect from the continual improvement of graphics in video games, it’s that the average gamer has little to no patience for a step or two backwards in terms of visual quality and scale. The obvious exception to this trend can be seen in indie game development, where creators are often more limited in implementing complex 3D graphics due to budget and manpower constraints.
One of the most common approaches to addressing such constraints is to draw inspiration from older or ‘retro’ games, which were designed with similar limiting factors in mind. As such, my experience playing the original Fallout felt much like playing a modern indie RPG title rather than stepping back in time seventeen years to 1997 when it was released. That is, of course, after I downloaded and installed the high resolution patch and made peace with the inability to alt-tab.
The quality of graphics in a game has always been pretty low on my list of considerations when assessing the merit of a game, especially in the case of strategy or role-playing games. This was definitely an important factor in my enjoyment of Fallout, which more than made up for its out-dated visuals with a mature and sophisticated plot that I think was ahead of its time.
Since I had previously played both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, I was already somewhat familiar with the events and even some of the locations in the original game. Despite having a basic understanding of the overall plot, I listened in on most of the game’s many conversations, which are impressive in their diversity and humor. Most of Fallout’s objectives can be completed in multiple ways and involve a combination of combat and detective work that requires the player to pay close attention to detail.
Starting out, Fallout allows the player to choose from one of three different basic character builds, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Alternatively, players can customize their own character, choosing stat points, passive traits and specialized skills that will provide the player with more plot options. Because of this character building system, which has continued largely unchanged in later games, Fallout can be replayed many times over and still provide a unique experience each time.
Though the player’s combat potential is controlled through the same stat system as their skill in talking to others or their ability to pick locks, Fallout can be completed with practically no combat whatsoever. Alternatively, it can also be completed with a character whose intelligence is so low that they have little choice but to bash their way through a world that sees them as only slightly more important than a bug.
It’s easy to see why so many of the artistic choices such as sound effects, interface style and environments have carried through the Fallout series up until today, as they manage to capture a very unique retro aesthetic that fits perfectly with Fallout’s alternate timeline of Earth. From the organization of the vaults to the founding history of the New California Republic, Fallout lays out the game universe in a detailed and precise manner that made a solid foundation for further titles in the series.
Just as Fallout’s aesthetics have endured almost unaltered up to the latest game in the series, Fallout: New Vegas, so has its grim and dystopian atmosphere. As a game that doesn’t pull any punches, Fallout addresses issues like racism, genetic engineering, slavery, prostitution, drug abuse, sentience and murder in a very matter-of-fact way that emphasizes the chaos that comes with the collapse of civilization. Furthermore, Fallout makes a point of showing that, while a lack of civilization can be harsh and unfair, the forging of a civilization can be just as dirty.
Definitely one of the greatest RPGs of its time, Fallout still makes for a gameplay experience that is worth the effort of stepping back to 1997.