The Fall of Fallout: A Retrospective

Hello one and all, and welcome to my look at Fallout as a franchise. When I was 13 years old or so, I was introduced to the series and it gripped me in a way that not much had prior. I wanted to know all I could and as I grew more, I learned to love the series more with each passing year. However, I’ve become a bit disillusioned by the series and how its changed in the past couple years. So, I wanted to go through each game in the series and see where this disappointment began and why in the current day, I may leave the series entirely if things don’t change.

Fallout: A Post Nuclear RPG (1997) — A powerful beginning to the series. What started as a successor to Interplay’s Wasteland turned into a gripping, in-depth world that was blasted to oblivion near one hundred years prior to the start. Your character is a vault dweller: a person who’s ancestors made the decision to hunker down when the bombs fell. As a result, you’ve lived a clean, radiation-free life up until now. However, your vault’s water chip is malfunctioning and you’re the best equipped for the job of finding a replacement. Once you’ve been briefed, you’re thrown into the world outside, starting in a cave. Now, it’s up to you to follow clues and do everything in your power to save Vault 13. During the first part of the game, the player has a time limit pushing them forward. It’s strict and oppressive, only giving you 150 in-game days to find a water chip. If it ticks down to zero, it’s game over. If you can manage to find what you’re looking for, though, you’ll uncover an even greater threat to your vault, and humanity itself due to the creation of Super Mutants and their campaign to assimilate the entire wasteland. The game’s progression keeps you engaged from start to finish, and it can be beaten in a relatively short time-span. However, the game is highly replayable and has plenty of content and interactions worth tons of hours.

The development of the game was done by Brian Fargo and Tim Cain: names that are familiar even today. It was originally going to use a stat system already established known as GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System), but the studio settled on making their own system — SPECIAL, which has been in every major title of the game since the beginning. This system is very customizable and leaves a lot of possibilities for different characters and experiences with repeat playthroughs. The game was a commercial success, but failed to meet sales expectations. Despite this, a sequel was already being worked on.

Fallout 2 (1998) — Before the first game was even released, Fallout 2 was already in development. The game was set over 60 years after the first game and puts players into the shoes of a descendent of the Vault Dweller from the first game. The second game has a lot more tribal themes and really pulls itself away from past America as much as it can. That is, until the titular Enclave shows up, more intimidating than what the first game threw at you. They represent the past mistakes that caused the mess that is the post apocalypse and they try to seize America back from the people who’ve actually been trying to rebuild. However, they’re not the only ones vying for power, as the New California Republic also makes its first appearance in this game, trying their hand at order in the wastes. You’re thrown into the middle of all of this while trying to breathe new life into the world using a device called the Garden of Eden Creation Kit, which promises the revival of livable land and a world returned to its glory days. The way the story is told, it shows how corrupt the Enclave are and how entitled they think they still are to the country that they contributed to destroying. It’s a parody in and of itself. No matter who you side with personally, I’d say the theme of the game is “out with the old, in with the new.” The old world had its chance, and look where it ended up. It’s time for the survivors to make a difference and build society back up. No other thing can prove the parody in the game more than the President of the Enclave, Dick Richardson. The name alone makes a mockery of his position and beliefs.

However, this game feels far less accessible, especially in the modern age. Unlike its predecessor, which felt easy at times, this game is punishing and unforgivable to the player. It funnels you through the use of devastatingly hard random encounters in the early game, keeping you from breaking the game too early. As a result, I find it overwhelmingly difficult to get into it as much as I did the first, even though the story itself adds so much to the world of Fallout. However, despite what I just said, it sold better than the first game and got good reviews across the board, which I do think was well deserved.

This time around, Tim Cain and Chris Avellone took the helm and made the more immersive game we know today. Black Isle Studios was the main name on this project and they blew all expectations out of the water, especially since they only had around nine months to make the game. This game kept a financially unstable Interplay from going under for a little longer.

Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel (2001) — After the success of their second entry, it was time for Interplay to try new things with the series. The game studio Micro Forte came onboard this time to create a tactical RPG set detached from the main games of the series. The Brotherhood of Steel, which had previously been a big faction in the first two games, were getting a chance to shine on their own, with the intro giving background to how they rose to power and what gave them the expertise to do what they did. However, infighting caused a group to splinter off and head eastward to start their own sect by use of airships (think Zeppelins built from scrap), only to be struck down by lightning and stranded in Chicago, Illinois. This group didn’t have the same recruitment limitations of the west and let anyone willing into their ranks. You’re one of those recruits. The game’s story revolves around an uprising of a machine threat originating from Vault 0, which housed a supercomputer that became self-aware.

The gameplay is fairly similar to other TRPGs, as you control a squad during missions, rather than letting you loose in an open world. It works for what it is, and still retains the SPECIAL and stat systems of the previous games. It also has a multiplayer mode that allows players to control other races for the first time, including Ghouls, Super Mutants, Robots, and even the hyper-deadly Deathclaw. While it had a lot of unique things to add to the series, the game has been labeled as “half-canon” by current owners Bethesda, with only some concepts being referenced in later games. The game sold fairly well, although it didn’t reach the heights of its predecessor in terms of reception.

Van Buren: Black Isle’s Fallout 3 (cancelled 2003) — With the success of Fallout 2, a direct sequel would seem obvious, right? Well, you’d think, but attempts to make the game had been denied by higher-ups and only got greenlit when other projects fell through. When the game began development, Interplay was in a rough financial state once again, and a lot of lead designers from the previous games jumped ship, not willing to stay aboard a sinking company. While development did get to a stage where a playable demo was functional, the project was cancelled when Interplay went bankrupt and shut down Black Isle Studios and focused on their console games development.

While we’ll never see what this game could have been, a lot of concepts live on in Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas. As Obsidian was founded by former Black Isle Studios employees, it gave them another chance at their vision. Returning concepts include the feud between the Brotherhood of Steel and the NCR, Caesar’s Legion, and the location of Hoover Dam.

Also, despite its cancellation, the demo for the game was released to the public through a leak in 2007 and can still be downloaded to this day on No Mutants Allowed.

Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (2004) — After the cancellation of their PC games studios, Interplay shifted focus to console and the last game in the Fallout series they developed before they sold the franchise was this gem released for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. The game was a departure of the previous game’s themes and gameplay, making it a character-based Action RPG instead. The game’s story is fairly simple, with the playable characters being initiates in the Brotherhood of Steel and having them fight a mutant threat. The game is fast-paced and a lot cheesier than prior titles, focusing on a more punk attitude and showing how cool it can be, rather than trying to return to the more nuanced storytelling of the originals. The game is non-canon and isn’t referenced by any of the mainline titles, but it stands as an interesting title for the series.

The game retains the use of the SPECIAL system, but trades skills for a more perk-based system. As an ARPG, the focus is more on player skill and gear than the more traditional stats and leveling of CRPGs. The game also had some strange continuity with first game, having the Vault Dweller of the first installment appear as an old man. Once again, this game is non-canon and any similarities with previous games really shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The game sold pretty poorly and wasn’t received very well, resulting in more problems within Interplay. This would lead to the selling of the intellectual property to Bethesda in the same year.

Fallout Pen and Paper d20 (2006) — While Fallout 3 was in development, Glutton Creeper Games got granted a license to make a pen and paper Fallout game by Interplay, who no longer owned the intellectual property. The game was fairly well fleshed out and had two different drafts for rulebooks by the time that Zenimax (parent company to Bethesda) threatened legal action to GCG to cease and desist. The reasons stated were that Interplay didn’t have the right to license the property and that the release of the pen and paper game would coincide with Fallout 3’s release and even went as far as to say is could damage the image of the franchise. GCG listened to the threat and scrubbed the project clean of Fallout references, but still finished the project and released it under the name Exodus in 2007.

What baffles me is that Bethesda, out of seemingly petty reasoning, threatened legal action when it could have easily made a deal to acquire the project and oversee the development and profit off its release. The decision seems like a wasted opportunity and made simply out of anger that Interplay gave the go ahead for the project. A tabletop experience would have only strengthened the brand and in no way could have harmed it further.

Fallout 3 (2008) — Bethesda had gained the rights to the series and with it, released their first game to critical acclaim. It was a revival of the series that had been long needed and we have to give credit where it’s due: they did a good job. They kept the mature theming and dark humor of the previous games, but for long-time fans, it was also obvious that Bethesda didn’t have experience with the series. The game’s plot starts out with the birth of the player character and shows them growing up in Vault 101. When their father leaves the vault, the player is thrust into the world to go find him. From then on, the player gets thrown into a world in dire need of help, while their father is doing his best to continue research on a project that could bring clean water back to the wastes using the Garden of Eden Creation Kit. After their father’s death, the player is now left responsible for the project’s success and has to contend with the Enclave and Super Mutants along the way. I’d say the biggest flaw the game has is its one-note ending in the base game, which wasn’t received well and was fixed with the addition of Downloadable Content after release.

The gameplay was a good bit different from previous games by focusing on an ARPG system that still roots itself in the SPECIAL and skill systems of previous games, but stripping the traits entirely. The game’s skills were a bit shallow and had a weird system of making skill checks rather than having set in stone checks. So, even at 100 speech, you can still fail a check, which didn’t make much sense. On top of that, the gunplay was very much lacking, as the studio hadn’t handled a shooter before. The dialogue system was still in tact from previous installments, keeping the game closer to the spirit of Fallout 1 and 2 more so than Interplay’s last game.

It’s undeniable that Bethesda brought the game into the mainstream and made it very accessible to newcomers. This is even where I began my journey with the series and that’s why it hurts to say that the game pushed away long-time fans to spread the series to the world. While the game was accessible, it lacked the feel of the old games that fans came to love and as a result, the community has been torn ever since.

Fallout Online/ Project V13 (2007-2009) — In 2007, Interplay was granted permission by Bethesda to develop a Massively Multiplayer Online game set in the Fallout universe. Bringing on Masthead Studios to help with the project, they began development proper in 2009. Later in the same year, however, Bethesda took Interplay to court for not upholding their end of the deal by acquiring enough funding and for starting development late. The legal dispute went on for a while, but while the lawsuits were in progress, Interplay was allowed to continue development and by the time the lawsuits came to a close, Project V13 had created a playable game world capable of being logged into and had over 2,500 pages in internal files on the project. There was a settlement out of court in 2012 and the game was cancelled officially late in the same year.

Having been following the development of this game at the time and even signing up for the newsletter, it was very disappointing to see it taken down the way it was. It had some truly great concepts and would have spanned multiple states of the US. Interplay at this point had proven hard to trust with their struggle less than a decade prior, but given that development started just before Bethesda moved to rescind their license to Interplay, I can’t say it was a well-founded decision. From the history already stated here, I’d say Bethesda didn’t have any patience or faith in Interplay and treated them poorly as a result of that bias, which is unfortunate.

The game has been stripped of all things Fallout, but is still in development under Black Isle Studios, although there hasn’t been a tangible update since 2012.

Fallout: New Vegas (2010) — Chris Avellone and Tim Cain return, under their studio: Obsidian, to make another game in the series they created, and it couldn’t have paid off more. In the short development time of eighteen months, Obsidian made a larger, more rooted installment for the series that brought it back to form. Although it’s a spin-off for the series, it feels more directly involved with the previous titles, being once again set in the west and more specifically: Nevada. The game’s story takes some concepts from the cancelled Van Buren, allowing the team to use their old concepts and flesh them out, while adding in completely new concepts like the New Vegas Strip, Mr. House, and tying it to older titles by reintroducing old factions like disheveled veterans of the Enclave and the Khans, a long-running gang of the series. You play as a courier that was tasked with delivering a platinum chip, which just so happens to be a very valuable asset to a gangster, Benny, who shoots you in the head after taking the item from you. After being found and revived in the small town of Goodsprings, you’re thrust into the world to find Benny and put together what happened to you. The game has a lot of references to Fallout 1 and 2, with the NCR returning as a prominent faction and the Brotherhood of Steel being almost non-existent due to a feud between the two factions.

The game retains the ARPG gameplay that was established in Fallout 3, but polishes the gunplay a bit more and putting a lot more emphasis on the role-playing rather than the shooting. The characters are rich and nuanced and the very specific humor of Obsidian gloriously returns. The karma system was also fleshed out by reintroducing reputation from Fallout 2 back into the fray. Now karma is spread throughout different factions rather than being a black or white good and evil system.

New Vegas feels like the true Fallout 3 experience we were meant to get and in a way, it very much is. The game is beloved by so many people, including older fans of the series and that should say a lot given the backlash for the previous title. The game wasn’t without its problems though, as it was riddled with bugs due to Obsidian being unfamiliar with the engine and having so little time to polish it. Even despite that, the game was a roaring success. The more time passes, the more this game is loved by the fans, generally being considered the best in the series by many.

Fallout Shelter (2015) — After being absent for quite some time, Fallout 4 was announced at E3 2015 with a release date for later that year. To help marketing and to capitalize on the mobile game market, Fallout Shelter was released. In the game, the player is tasked with overseeing and upkeeping a vault and its inhabitants. It was a lot of base management with other things to do, like sending dwellers out to scavenge and explore and also defending the vault from raiders.

The game was simple and was a lot less predatory in its game design than a lot of other mobile games at the time. With that being said, the game received mixed reviews mostly due to its surface-level gameplay and inclusion of microtransactions, even if they weren’t as predatory.

Fallout 4 (2015) — Bethesda returns for their second main series game in the series, and it released to generally good critical reviews. The story of the game starts you pre-war just as the bombs fall. You’re given a place in Vault 111 and after being in cryostasis for two hundred years, you awake, having had your child stolen from his pod and your spouse killed. The game thrusts you into the world by giving you the motivation to find your son. It’s strikingly similar to Fallout 3 in the beginning and that can be seen resounding throughout the game. Shortly after escaping the vault, you run into The Minutemen, a newer faction based on the old group of the same name. From there, you’re told to go to Diamond City to track down your child’s kidnapper. At this point, you’re introduced to the Synths, generally in the form of antagonists. Along your journey, the Brotherhood of Steel enters the Commonwealth en force via the Prydwen: an airship akin to the ones in Fallout Tactics. Not only that, but The Railroad — a pro-synth group — is struggling against the other antagonistic factions. It’s up to you to decide what side you choose and there are multiple endings that are better than the ones in Fallout 3, except for the Brotherhood ending, which is exactly the same as the previous mainline game’s ending.

The main issue this game has is with its tweaks to gameplay. While the gunplay is much, much better than before, it comes at the cost of role-playing. The SPECIAL system still exists, but the skills are traded for a list of perks rather than the in-depth system of previous games and it also once again discards traits. Bethesda seems to have learned nothing from New Vegas and dumbed down the game even more. Even dialogue has been given a system that mirrors Mass Effect more than the other Fallout games, and that was massively criticized. The role-playing is so absent in the game that it hurts.

All that being said, there was some genuine love for the game that went into development, which can be seen by a good attention to detail and some genuinely good side-quests. Not only that, but the crafting system in the game is a welcome addition. I just wish these additions didn’t come at the cost of already well established systems the game didn’t need to lose.

A controversy the game encountered was with its mod community. Under the guise of DLC, the Creation Club was created and charged people for mods made by the community that not only had better, free counterparts, but also wasn’t included with the season pass, which it should have been. There’s currently a lawsuit that’s set to continue in 2022 about this very issue.

Fallout 76 (2018) — I’m sure anyone reading this article was waiting for this one: the disaster that is Bethesda’s attempt at a Fallout MMO. In 2018, the game was teased and then subsequently released in a state that can only be called incomplete. It lacked polish, NPCs, and engaging quests. Despite that, Bethesda wasted no time opening up the in-game shop with their hand open, hoping for an easy buck. This game has only suffered from controversy after controversy. They added in NPCs eventually, but it was a bit too late, and the game’s technical and design problems held it back well after a year into its lifespan. Everything it added in was at a price, despite the fact that it should have been patched in for free, and not only that, but the features promised didn’t even work right. A storage box that deleted your items permanently, private servers that weren’t private at all, and the mass banning of players without proper reasoning to do so all being prime examples of negligence. Not to mention that the special edition also didn’t follow through by giving cheap duffle bags instead of the promised canvas and didn’t dole out refunds before the damage was irreversible.

Since then, almost all products coming out of Bethesda for the series have seen backlash, including helmets released that had to be recalled due to high mold levels. The company has seen resounding failure since this game’s release and unless Bethesda has one hell of a comeback, Fallout 76 could be the last nail in the coffin for the series.

As for the gameplay, 76 is a modified version of Fallout 4's combat and systems, although Bethesda reintroduced weapon degradation, which happened much too fast and really was just there to sell products to players through microtransactions. The VATS system had to be worked into real-time and was very janky at best. The game was lifeless, empty, and devoid of any passion for the series.

Now that the retrospective part of the article is done, I’d like to expand my thoughts and opinions a bit more. Let’s start with the way both Interplay and Bethesda tried to innovate with the series.

Interplay tried to shake up the gameplay of Fallout more and more during its time with the series. It was a CRPG, a TRPG, and an ARPG under Interplay’s wing and in a lot of ways, it succeeded at those innovations. That being said, these attempts to change the series never quite worked for them, as their fans really wanted more of what the originals had offered them. I think that is a big part of why Interplay went under.

Bethesda’s situation is quite similar. They did innovate in the series by helping to refine an ARPG experience and opening up the RPG elements to a wider audience by dumbing them down a bit. However, they took that too far with Fallout 4 and the series as a result feels like a husk of its former self. I think Bethesda will fail to continue the series much like Interplay did before them unless they seek outside help; possibly by seeking Obsidian’s expertise once again.

Another issue that Bethesda has is its marketing and consumerism. The company has made the series a prime target to sell anything and everything with a Fallout coat of pain slapped on it to make extra money. Although they’re well within their rights to do so, it feels really dirty given that the originals kind of mocked that kind of attitude.

It shows that Bethesda doesn’t understand what the originals were going for with its tone, and instead went all in on trying to milk it at any and every opportunity.

As an extension of that, their lack of understanding also shows in how they design their Fallout entries. There’s a strange focus on patriotism and nationalism that was never taken seriously in the first two games. In fact, nationalism was parodied in Fallout 2 with the Enclave. The games weren’t created to glorify the nuclear age of the 50’s and 60’s, but rather used their interpretation of the future. They invested the series in retro futurism without relying too heavily on it and also criticizing it along the way.

Bethesda went all-in with the retro futurism, but did it in a much different way. It embraced it as a kind of utopian world that was idolized up to even centuries after it should have been irrelevant. It shows how unfamiliar and tone deaf they are when it comes to the series they gained the rights to.

The last thing I’d like to mention is the cutthroat business practices of Bethesda and more specifically: Zenimax. The company has proven that they want an iron grip on this franchise and weren’t above acting on pettiness toward Interplay in the past. The company lost opportunities that could have paid off in droves if they hadn’t been childish toward other companies, including the ones that helped create the franchise to begin with.

Now, I’m not here to tell you if you should or shouldn’t like the direction the series has gone in, because that’s your choice. I’m here to talk about my opinion and look back on the series during its time in our hearts and minds.

I loved the series to death for a long time and only recently have I thought about moving on to other things. Those other things being games like Obsidian’s Outer Worlds and InXile’s revived Wasteland series that manage to scratch the itch of classic Fallout that’s been missing for me for a while now. I’m glad that the original creators haven’t stopped doing what they do best and if Bethesda is smart, they’ll hire them on to help keep Fallout alive, because if they don’t, I fear that we’re witnessing the fall of Fallout.

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A pop-journalist in her twenty-somethings that engulfs herself in nerd culture, such as anime, tabletop gaming, and video gaming.

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Roseline Herbert

Roseline Herbert

A pop-journalist in her twenty-somethings that engulfs herself in nerd culture, such as anime, tabletop gaming, and video gaming.

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