Bethesda’s original plans after their massively successful Fallout 3 somewhat faltered in their own execution. While originally planned as a stopgap meant to keep the hype going, Obsidians Entertainment’s Fallout New Vegas was quickly deemed a failure in Bethesda’s own eyes. While it lasted a few more years with its own swath of expansion packs, the anticipation that the company had maintained was all but dying out. People were hoping, begging for a new Fallout entry that Bethesda wasn’t giving them. Rumors and fictitious media sprang up around the web for years and years, trying to find that one weak point in Bethesda’s armor. Sometimes they were right and sometimes they wrong but by 2015 their prayers had been finally answered. What fans and critics didn’t know was that this was Bethesda’s plan all along. Back when they had bought the Fallout license in 2007, Bethesda had the clear goal of turning this into their second franchise, right next to their much beloved Elder Scrolls. And on June 3rd, 2015 Fallout 4 was finally unveiled to the public. While it was a tease to what was to come it let fans know one thing, Fallout was back once again.
At the following E3 we learned more about the upcoming title along with a project that no one saw coming, Fallout Shelter. Back in 2007 while they were making Fallout 3 the iPhone was released and the team at Bethesda became hooked to the phones plethora of titles. After a time they felt they should make their own Fallout title for the device, but what could they make? The open world exploration of the Fallout series couldn’t fit inside a tiny handheld. But one idea could, the series iconic vaults. So Fallout Shelter was born, taking ideas from XCOM, Sim City, and other games like it you were put in control of your very own vault. Like other classic micro-management games you had to keep an eye on your water supply, power, and food, but you also had to bring in wastelanders, have them have children to increase the population, and even send those few unlucky souls out into the wasteland to scavenge the supplies or die trying. Sometimes raiders, mole rats, and even Deathclaws could attack and destroy your precious vault, looting and killing everything in it. While the game, like many of its kind, had micro-transactions Bethesda tried its very best to keep them at bay and as a minor edition to the game over-all instead of being its sole reason for existence.
But before we should continue on to Fallout’s latest effort, maybe we should check up on an old wasteland. Wasteland, the lost property that had necessitated Fallout’s existence, was for a time dormant in the backlogs of EA. The teams had already moved onto bigger and better things and with Brian Fargo’s Interplay crumbling to pieces he left to found inExile Entertainment. This was actually a stoke of luck as back in 2003, EA did an about-face, claiming Fountain of Dreams was not the true sequel to the iconic Wasteland making it all the more easy to transfer the IP rights to Brian’s new company. And his company was coming on hard times too. After failing to revive their classic Bard’s Tale series in 2004 and a string of forgettable titles later, it seemed like Wasteland would go down with its creator. But something in 2012 changed that. After seeing Double Fine’s massive success on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter it seemed like that would be their last shot. Starting their own campaign in March 2012, it become a monumental success. Passing its $900,000 goal in less then two days and skyrocketing pass that for them to afford Obsidian’s Chris Avellone, who’d worked on Fallout 2 and New Vegas, it was clear what people wanted. Ending in April with nearly $3 million in funding, Wasteland 2 made it clear that there was a hunger for 1990s-style RPGs in an industry where big-budget Bioware and Bethesda-style RPGs had largely replaced those. While it suffered some delays, Wasteland 2 was eventually released in September 2014, to critical acclaim. A combination of Wasteland and the first two Fallout games, with its isometric perspective and post-apocalyptic visual design, Wasteland 2 was a return to form and an ode to the original Fallout games that might as well have been a side story.
It was a happy time to be a fan of the story that started it all and the way it was played today. Bethesda knew and understood and set out to create something to appeal to this very notion. And that would be Fallout 4. Beginning development just after the Elder Scrolls Skyrim, this new entry would be a different beast entirely. Interestingly enough this time instead of starting out as a classic Vault Dweller, Courier, or tribal savage, players would assume the role of someone from before The Great War that plunged the world into nuclear Armageddon. This Boston native would have a nuclear family of their own, with a spouse, baby boy, and robot butler to boot. It was a quiet suburban life until the day Vault Tec came a knocking. After being selected to be in one of the new vaults the emergency sirens flare, your family runs to the vault and makes it in miraculously just as the bombs drop only to be cryogenically frozen for 200 years. Waking up a man out of the time, as the Sole Survivor of the vault with your partner dead and your baby missing it’s time to open your eyes to the new world of the Commonwealth and find your son wherever he may be.
But the Commonwealth would be a lot different from say the Capital Wasteland. There were 4 different factions vying for control this time. The Minutemen want to protect the common person, the Railroad wants to save synths, synthetic humanoids created by the Institute that hides beneath the earth. All of them want to eradicate the Institute in some form or another especially the Brotherhood of Steel that has combined the values of the west coast and the east into its own new ideology. While the search for your son gets lost from time the time, playing around each factions ideology’s was essential to the story.
It seemed like an interesting take on a classic tale but their were several changes made that hindered it for better or worse. For one karma, the series ever-present determination of whether you’re a decent human being or an evil one, was removed entirely. You could play the part of the dastardly villain or the chivalrous knight but either way the world really didn’t care for it. Dialog was cut down too. In the past you used to be able to know what you were going to say and when but now those were replaced with easy to understand words such as aggressive or the ever famous sarcasm. It was a system that was in a way streamlined and in another more dumbed down. However, the biggest change that altered the very foundation of the series was that of the voiced protagonist. While Fallout had been known for its wide variety of famous voices the character you play as has never himself been voiced aside from the occasional grunt. Brian Delaney and Courtenay Taylor tried their various best to brave this new frontier for Bethesda games as a whole and while some say they exceeded immensely, others feel that some of the magic had been lost. But more features were added in that could be said to make up for the losses.
Fallout 4’s companions made for some of the most diverse and compelling ones yet. The trepid reporter Piper, the film noir detective Nick Valentine, the kid that grew up MacCready, and the companion that could be considered Fallout’s other mascot Dogmeat along with many more helped to make your adventure all the more interesting. While karma was gone for good it was replaced with a system that made your companions seem all the more realistic. Each had their own individual likes and dislikes to your actions in the game world and would judge you accordingly. Not everyone likes it when you steal from some poor sap but others will just adore you for it. If you worked at it and gained enough affinity with them they might have become more romantically involved. It was a more individualized karma system and if you wanted to keep a companion you had to act accordingly. They were their own people and just happened to be along for the wild ride you were taking them on.
Out of all of the improvements Bethesda’s new gameplay standards had to top them all. Gunplay had a sort of fluidity to it. Whereas Fallout 3’s weaponry were a little bit stiff when it came to shooting, Fallout 4 was in another league. Gameplay was as smooth as butter with guns and melee weapons having real impact on the battlefield. VATS also experienced a significant change. While the system used to pause time completely, now the world was just seen in slow motion. The idea had crossed Bethesda’s mind before although they weren’t able to implement until the gunplay could stand beside it. You still had time to pick your shots but now it had a sense of urgency to it. On top of the weaponry it was all fully customizable. Out of the 50 base weapons you could create an innumerable amount of customizations and make yourself the gun that you truly want to use. Weapon crafting had never seen as many options as it did that day. But that wasn’t the only thing you could create. A whole settlement building system was built into the game letting the player create the towns and villages that Bethesda had been making before them. Anyone could craft anything within reason in the Fallout universe from a small farming community to an impenetrable fortress. You even had to take care of the individual villagers, assigning them jobs and task to keep them busy. It was something Fallout had never seen before but seemed to fit well in with the gameplay.
But there was one problem, that ever so classic SPECIAL system. While in the past you had your 7 specials along with a whole swath of skills and perks, this time Bethesda decided to mold them into one complete system. You still, of course, had to choose your individuals specials but after that point everything changed. Each and every level the player earned one point that they could put into a perk or a SPECIAL category. You could boost your Charisma or level up your Commando perk. And that’s the thing, skills were basically non existent and now had fused with perks to create their own unique hybrid. Now you had to level up each rank of an individual perk to get the maximum potential out of them. They were no longer as special as they used to be. On top of this you could level up as far as you wanted to. There was no stopping you from becoming so over powered that you were nigh unstoppable where even the highest difficulty level holds no challenge. It was again a toss up between streamlining and dumbing down the Fallout series.
And fans were not pleased. This new Fallout still felt like the others. It had it’s own share of colorful characters and quests while creating a more interesting looking world then the series had ever seen. But there was something missing from it for some people. The magic of the franchise had been twisted and contorted by these new editions. Bethesda was looking to appeal to a more mainstream audience, people who weren’t used to a complex and winding narrative. A talking protagonist made things easier to understand but left a hole that the player had always filled. The dialogue had been radically changed but still had that Fallout edge to it. And the new leveling system had made it possible for someone to truly become the king of the Wastes, something that was never the franchises intention. But make no mistake; it was still Fallout. Through and through the game keep its Fallout feel. It was only because of Bethesda that it had changed so much to their liking. And people still loved it too. After selling over 12 million units, Fallout 4 is one of the best selling Bethesda games of all time, and only time will tell if it surpasses the Elder Scrolls. With two unique and fully sized areas to explore, a plethora of contraptions and gizmos for crafting, and a thriving modding community to support it, the journey through the Commonwealth is far from over. But while it succeeded financially ironically it barely made it critically. The series critical reputation was lost to this entry for the first time. A sign of things to come? Or a bump in the road? Who’s to say where the franchise will head towards now?
Fallout is an interesting tale. What began as a backup to a stolen property became and even more successful venture. It’s first two entries rarely succeeded financially but always achieved critically and in the eyes of their devoted fans. Even as the franchise dwindled in popularity and quality people still clung to it as they felt something special somewhere deep inside. More companies eventually attempted to replicate the magic with varying accomplishments but they still were able to keep the feel alive for years to come. But that’s the thing about Fallout. It’s not only defined by it’s intriguing setting, characters, and gameplay but also by its dark comedy and masterful storytelling. Few can compare to it, fewer can replicate it, and only a handful can create it. But that’s the thing about the Wasteland. While it can be harsh and abrasive at times it can also offer the opportunity of rebuilding, of redemption. And who’s to say that’s not the story of Fallout in a nutshell?