On its surface Fallout 2 looks like nothing special: Seems like yet another one of those typical RPGs from around the millennium. Which means isometric view, small characters running around, giving each other a bad time with their weapons, a health bar somewhere… hmm… but not in a cheesy ‘epic’ fantasy world? No, actually this takes place in the exact opposite: A violent apocalyptic setting. That's already setting it somewhat apart from the rest. But its real strength only becomes apparent by taking a closer look: The one thing in which Fallout 2 really excels is its high degree of freedom, hence its potential to create your very own story with your very own character that comes bundled with this. In so doing the role playing isn't simply restricted to choosing what kind of damage you want to deal, but for once you can fulfil almost any tasks in your very own way. Thus Fallout 2 is one of the few games which comes as close as it gets to a decent implementation of pen&paper role playing on a computer, as best as it’s possible without some fellow human players. The brilliant game world, created with great love for detail, ensures the icing on the cake.
In order to illustrate ‘your very own way’ let’s assume you want to fetch something from an enemy base: You can do what you may do in many other games, which is simply enter by the main door, ready your rifle and gun down the enemies one by one. Alternatively you can try to sneak your way in and turn their defence systems against them, in order to keep them busy or even eliminate them. Yet another possibility is sneaking in, getting what you want and be on your way again. If you want to you can also try to simply talk to them and might be surprised how far a silver tongue will get you. Especially sadistic individuals may take some explosives, sneak close to the guards and put them in their inventory… Even opening a simple door offers a lot of possibilities: Ranging from kicking it in, blowing it up or picking the lock to getting the key by fetching, stealing or simply asking for it. Endless possibilities.
It has been really worth wile, that the designers have put so much effort into one crucial element: Almost every skill and all abilities have a noticeable effect on the game play. One of the best and also most extreme examples is lowering the intelligence score of your character below 3: The writers actually designed the whole dialogue system for a character that talks only in ‘Ugh!’ and ‘Hmmm…’, and you can play this way from start to finish. They even put in some extra information (e.g. one particular dialogue with a similarly smart character suddenly makes a lot more sense). Moreover every skill has its use: Whether you wish to contribute to the development of some special implants with your medical skills, or want to use your scientific knowledge in order to hack some information on a super computer, no matter how secure it might be, or you simply try to make a mint of money by picking pockets: There are more than enough opportunities to put your abilities to the test. Naturally there are skills, that are a tad more useful than others, but none of them is totally useless. If you just take a little bit of care, you will hardly spoil your character entirely, and sooner or later you will come to realise that one of the weaponry skills will come in handy, while gambling is fully optional.
But what difference would plenty of options, this freedom, make, if they had no impact? Actually a whole lot of your actions do have clear consequences and there are only a few quests that have just one particular outcome. This becomes especially apparent at the ending, when in a great summary you get a final run through on how your decisions and actions helped to change the game world. For instance the once flourishing desert oasis might perish, because you brought the wrong persons to power, or a city once ruled by anarchy and chaos dares a fresh start, because you took some drastic measures. Additionally some of your actions will already be recognised in the course of the game. One particularly impressive example is the city of New Reno, where you can earn reputations as prize boxer, made man or even as a porno actor. A good part of the inhabitants will respond to it, and sometimes they will be a bit more cooperative too.
The rule set being used, ergo the game mechanics that try to break down reality to computable data, is crucial to this free character development. The one thing I like exceptionally well about the SPECIAL-rule set, which has been used for Fallout 2 (as well as for its predecessor), is that you don't have to restrict yourself to races, classes or other narrow categories. Instead you think in concepts: You have got an idea of what your character is able to do and what not, what he should do and what not, and you can apply this immediately. You get rid of the usual limitations of full packages (especially common in the forefather Dungeons&Dragons), where in order to get one certain feature you have to take dozens of others, you will never use, but which force you to give up other ones, which you would have preferred to improve the greater picture. By the way: This is also the reason why I would urgently advise against using the premade characters. Not only do all of them have the one or the other flaw, but you will also miss out on one of the greater joys of Fallout 2: The experimenting and tinkering, which such a free system is begging for!
The main rules are rather simple: The neo-dweller of the radiation wastelands has seven ‘Primary Statistics’ (pretty much the usual suspects like strength, intelligence and agility). Then there are the ‘Derived Statistics’: Like how fast he/she learns something new (a matter of intelligence), his/her radiation resistance , the amount of damage he/she can take before some bones dry under the sun (both a matter of endurance) and some more. Also he/she gets a number of skills like weapon use, stealing, sneaking, scientific/medical know–how and many more. They start with a small bonus, depending on your main statistics, and can be increased at each level up. You tag three of them, which become easier (i.e. faster) to raise. On top of that you may or may not select some character traits like being a jinx, having a knack for one–handed weapons, a more engaging personality and several more (some of them are quite bizare). Choose a name, age and gender and your ‘Chosen One’ is ready to go. Thus already at the character’s creation you get a decent amount of options. Be it Ninja or Rambo, cat burglar or diplomat: The range of characters is almost unlimited. I have been playing this game over and over again, yet each time I discovered a new facet through a different skill setup.
Every few levels you gain a ‘Perk’, a special ability, which either slightly increases a couple of your statistics and skills, or opens up a new gameplay features: There are, amongst others, abilities for silent running (very handy for Ninja–characters), for viewing the exact amount of your enemy's hitpoints (else you only get scarce information on their actual health), many ways to improve your combat power, and some more or less convenient things like reading the mood of the characters, you are talking to, or increasing the viewing range on the world map.
Combat, which is kind of unavoidable in rough post-apocalyptic times, is turn based, and in doing so offers a very tactical approach. A good attack position and fully loaded weapons are as important as a sufficient amount of medical supplies (in this games case most often applied in form of an injection called ‘Stimpack’). If you want to, you can push your character’s fighting strength with several drugs/chems (like with a painkillers called ‘Psycho’ and ‘Bufffout’ steroids), but you will have to deal with side effects afterwards. Being able to make aimed attacks at eyes, extremities or even the groin (with according special effects), is also very useful. The arsenal of weapons comes well stocked: It starts with simple rocks, which you can cast at your enemies, and ranges up to the Gattling laser gun, which shows no mercy to even the heaviest of armours. The enemy AI is somewhat modest. There are a couple of cheap tricks you can play on it (as always 90% of them involve doors in all varieties), however getting a complete break down is rather rare.
Plus the game keeps track of lots of numbers: In addition to a very extensive body count (which doesn't only differentiate between animal, human and robot but also between men and women), there is a reputation in general (Karma) and a special one for each town, and many a heroic/vicious deed will be awarded with a special entry (e.g. shoveling a lot of excrement will earn you very special fame). This appears to be somewhat similar to today’s very popular achievements, but the awards in Fallout 2 always have an in-game reason to them, and the reputation you gain has an actual effect on and consequences in the game world.
Said game world is best described as a mix of various post-apocalyptic movies (like Mad Max, A Boy and his Dog, The Day After) and American (military) propaganda from around the 50ies, laced with pop cultural sources (from Star Trek to Monty Python). Naturally the resemblance to its spiritual forefather Wasteland is also very noticeable.
Fighting over the last remaining resources, the superpowers have decided to fall back to their nuclear weaponry. A couple of hours later a firestorm passed over the world and has laid everything to waste. All that remains is a radiated wasteland, burying the greatness and glory of days long past beneath its dust. But a less glorious legacy of this remote golden age is about to make the lifes of the few survivors even harder. As the ‘Chosen One’ of a small village, which is about to perish by the after-effects of the nuclear fallout, you set out to search for a McGuff… ahem an artefact that shall bring the desired salvation…
The region you play in is located at the US-American west coast, to be more precise: the area around San Francisco in the year 2241, 160 years after the nuclear war mentioned above and 80 years after the first game. There are minor and major settlements, to which you can travel by use of a convenient world map. There are some pretty rundown places, which are ruled by the law of the fist, where you can consider yourself lucky if you ‘just’ get your pockets picked, instead of being ambushed and beaten to death by broad daylight. But there are also some very civilised cities, that try to restore some degree of order and establish something like a new society. Those attempts to rebuild civilisation take a more prominent role in Fallout 2 than in Fallout too. A perfect example is the New Californian Republic: Originally a small town in Fallout it now has become the seed of a new state.
The characters you will meet at those places are greatly varied. While a lot of them hopelessly cling to the last remaining shard of ‘life’ (as might be expected), there are some dreamers and idealists too, which try to help their fellow men (it's probably not that much of a surprise, that some of them in doing so are following their own ulterior agenda).
All things considered, I think the game world is tremendously convincing: Whether you listen to a drunk, who is sharing a fairy tale from the times before the bomb, enter an unknown town as the nameless stranger and get an unfriendly welcome from the local sheriff, put a bullet in a slavers head, follow the glow of an ancient computer terminal in a dark cave, drink a bottle of more than stale Nuka-Cola, wander through a dark alley while some prostitutes beg you for money for just one more shot, listen to prewar audio recordings, run away from wild mutants, or meet friends with literally radiant smiles… everything seems very dangerous and mysterious, with a healthy dose of adventure. And amongst all this violence and madness there is this melancholic air, this feeling of loss, that keeps this whole world under control.
But not every character is idly cooling his/her heels, no some of them will follow you, either to help you carry more stuff or simply to increase your firepower. A few of them even lend a hand, if there is something to repair or if you have need for medical attention (one of them even knows how to create healing supplies). Besides the technical bonuses they offer, many of them will enhance the story, be it with their extensive background knowledge or by providing additional side quests. If you have lots of charisma, you may gather quite a powerful strike force, if you prefer being the lone wolf, you might miss out on one or two things, but still (if not rather) progress unrestricted.
Everything is presented in plain SVGA-graphics (which means a resolution of 640x480 with 16-bit colour depth). They serve their purpose, no more, no less. From an bird's eye view you are looking down at the characters, moving through a landscape coloured in pale shades of brown and grey. Almost every object can be recognised for what it is, additional details can be gained from the texts in the window on the lower left corner of the screen. Some of the descriptions are very detailed and offer some hints on what to do. Together with some cut-scenes that run in the normal engine, the creators occasionally booted up their rendering machine so they could offer some impressive (albeit by now a little bit dated) film sequences.
I think the writing should get an extra mention: Although most of it appears to be rather coarse, it does have a very original touch too. There is also a lot of humour to it too, which offers some welcome comic relief to the dead serious scenario. As stupid as some of the one-liners get, there are still more than enough times, when it seems like there is some kind of poetic genius shining through. If you put lots of points in the intelligence and speech scores, you will be rewarded with an appropriate eloquence for your character. Sometimes you make conversations about scientific or philosophical topics, which more than exceed the usual ‘Gather 10 dog tags!’ - ‘Heck yes!’. It’s still no Planescape Torment (one of the most dialogue heavy games in history), but sometimes it's not that far off.
As for the rest, the sound is outstandingly great, due to the superbly well done music. Here you get some eerie industrial clangs mixed with a hymnic doomsday choir, there you hear a alerting siren to the drawn-out drone of the synth, over there drums accompany Native American flute sounds backed by strangely unintelligible singing. Those are some mean earworms, that masterfully maintain the mood.
But where there is light, there also has to be shadow: For as close as Fallout 2 gets to perfection, as much as it is almost the holy grail of role playing, I have to admit, that there are a couple of things, that somewhat disrupt the overall good impressions:
For instance the free choice of your character is lessened by the fact, that you are forced to start your game in a small tribal village (called Arroyo) as a member of said tribe. That's not a particularly thrilling entrance into the game world to boot. The predecessor's ‘first time out of the bunker’ approach worked a good deal better. Sure, you can run away as fast as you can, and gladly leave the placid homestead behind in order to explore the whole wide world, be of to more ‘civilised’ realms were you might surpass the boring everyday life of your fellow tribesmen, to finally return as a saviour/avenger. It might have a certain charm, if you take a look at the bigger picture: Like that someone from a humble tribal society fights against the dangers of a high-tech society. Or the contrast to the fist game where you came from said high-tech society. Furthermore you as a player know almost nothing about what lies outside the village, and this way you settle in quite smoothly. Still it's no overexciting opening. Especially the temple at the beginning is one of the worst parts the game has to offer. My advice: Just keep on playing! It's only the prelude, already the first settlement you enter afterwards is a lot more appealing.
Fittingly the ending isn't quite what it could have been. Don't get me wrong: The finale is as exciting as it can get, with an highly interesting setting, whose exploration is awfully entertaining. You will uncover some nasty surprises and meet people, you will never forget. The problem is, that compared to the rest of the game, you have relatively little freedom of action. Apparently there once should have been more (shown by some artefacts standing around), but in the end you still have to fight one certain boss. At least you have a strong influence on how it's done, so even characters who aren't all that battle hardened do stand a chance with a modicum of eloquence, some hacking skill and the right companions at their side. It's also kind of disappointing that the main threat isn't able to keep up with the brilliance of the first one’s (although that's because the first game set the bar unreachable high) and brings along some blatant propaganda.
Concerning the companions I mentioned above: They are smarter than those of the first game, and you can even dictate them certain behaviours, alas sometimes they are very much of a hindrance. They still show a tendency to shoot you in the back with their heavy machine guns, and are always attacking the wrong enemies or love to run into traps and set of alarms. On top of that one specific companion has a lengthy animation when entering and leaving combat, which tends to drag on. This flaw is all the worse, because he is one of the most interesting 'people' you might take along.
The barter system does have some issues too, though this is one of the weak points of almost any role playing game: While you will be treasuring all the money you earn at the beginning, once you can fight off your first raider attack and persevere in bringing their equipment (especially the guns) to the merchants, almost all your money troubles will be gone. If you get the stealing skill too, sooner or later you will be able to empty most of the merchants inventories. So why bother trying your luck at the slot machine? And for a world after the one as we know, there is an awful lot of equipment in far too perfect condition available. Though I have to admit, that you still have to search for the best equipment, and the signs of fatigue won’t show until several replays.
Speaking of signs of fatigue: Time took a toll on the game engine itself, as much as the fans try to give their best to counter the effects. Some features are rather clumsy to use (simple examples: combining objects with anything, inventory management in general), fights with many combatants can take a long time (especially when someone is trying to run away) and some items are hidden a little too well in the brown brown. But overland travel in turbo mode on faster computers actually is an improvement. At least the game runs decently stable on modern systems (one of my test setups runs Windows 8, on which I had no problems to get the original unpatched game up and running).
Furthermore we get half finished quests, censorship (see below), broken abilities, toothless radiation… but actually that’s nitpicking, and most of the problems tend to pale in comparison to the things that do work so well.They become next to meaningless, once you see how much fun it can be to cut your way through the wastelands.
Fallout and its sequel Fallout 2 will always earn a special place on my game shelf. They are my personal favourites concerning computer role playing games, the games with which all the other titles of its genre are measured. Yet I consider the first two parts of the Fallout series not only as role playing games, but as some kind of adventure-hybrid. I didn't write off the latter in their so called ‘dead’ period, but thought them to be wrapped up in games like Fallout 2. Lots of dialogues, information gathering and combining objects in order to solve puzzles: It does play an awful lot like an adventure game, especially when you decide to play a pacifist character. Still they are role playing games to the very core: For instance, the fighting system is a logical continuation of those found in the games from the very start, like Bard's Tale, Wizardry or even Ultima.
Apart from that, Fallout and Fallout 2 are in my opinion very closely tied together, I would even go as far as considering them two halves of one game. If you’re only look at the game mechanics, they are, as stated above, very much alike, though there are a couple of unique features (e.g.: the time limit in the first, better overland travel in the latter). Concerning the story and the game world: The themes from the first part are nicely continued and expanded by the the second part. So much that you get the feeling, everything was planned this way right from the start. Being an descendant of the hero from the first game bridges the gap to the sequel's story arc quite nicely. Cameos of important plot elements provide some very nice reunions, moments in which you recognise traces of your actions in the predecessor. I would recommend to play both games, to witness this continuity for yourself. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
There is also a very personal story I associate with this game, which I would like to mention as a conclusion: As child of the 80ies I grew up with some of the madness of the cold war and its threat of nuclear holocaust. As it was the case for many other people, this was my worst case scenario, closely followed by age-worn nuclear reactors going off. The collapse of our society, radioactive contamination, mutation, cancer, the mere thought of it was a reason for outright panic. Actually that's why initially I didn't want to play Fallout (it was part of a games collection and was the last game that was left unplayed). I started it once, but felt that it was too boring. Later as I tried again and I got myself into it, as I conquered my fear, it was huge fun to reckon with this dreadful scenario. Certainly, I still would never welcome any kind of nuclear war, but I don’t have panic attacks anymore whene thoughts about it come to my mind, and I am certain, that’s partly because I faced my fears in a humorous way in Fallout (2). What more could you ask for from a simple computer game, than to have such a positive influence on your thoughts?
A score for Fallout 2 is a simple affair to me, because I can only award ‘Maximum Score!’. It does have some minor flaws, but let's be honest: How perfect can a game get? The scenario and the rough nature of the game might leave a nasty taste in more sensitive people’s mouth (it certainly did to the German censors), but all the freedom you indulge in Fallout 2, which at the same time isn’t completely arbitrary, this perfect balance between free choice and it's consequences, is something very rare. People lively discussing the game 15 years after its release, some of them still trying to improve it, suggests that this game isn't just made of (in any case scarce) hype. I also would like to mention, that I showed almost no signs of nostalgia while replaying the game and writing this review: There was the occasional moment, where I thought back to the times, when I was sitting in a cold damp cellar, struggling to get through the obliterated New California. But in fact I rather enjoyed that after all those years this game plays so well. I could spend hours blustering about a lot of other stuff (I still haven't mentioned the very readable manual, or one very nice travel feature or some very special encounters), but I think you already notice the lasting impression Fallout 2 has left on me.
Therefore, to cut a long story short: Fallout 2 still hits the rat for 6 out of 6 hit points… squashing the skull of the rodent like a wet paper bag.
As an afterthought I would like to address Fallout/Fallout 2‘s ‘localisation’, or let's call it by its real name: the censorship. I had been playing Fallout for years, without even knowing that there had been some horrible cuts for the German version (the only one I owned at this time). Actually I didn't really notice, except for two things: Firstly some of the characters took significantly longer to die (sometimes the corpses awkwardly floated all over the place) and secondly there were some mysterious ghost voices. Especially one part of New Reno comes to my mind, were in front of the Wright family's house there were some rocks playing war (or so it appeared). Or was it ants? Anyway: There was some floating text like someone talking to each other, but there was no one to be seen. The answer to this riddle? There are no children in the German and UK version of Fallout 2, or to be more precise: Their sprites have been deleted from the game data, so they are still there but are invisible. As a side effect some of the quests become unsolvable. Especially in Germany they got carried way: All death animations have been removed, resulting in character deaths being limited to simply dropping to the ground and (with on the highest violence setting) bleeding to death. There were some verbal adjustments too (like ‘drugs’ incidentally becoming ‘chems’). Moreover the German version of Fallout 2 kept the interface of the predecessor and cut some of the new character traits (like ‘Sex Appeal’) for (at least to me) unknown reasons. For the most part those changes are less serious as you might think, probably because the excessive violence is not what makes it such an outstanding game.
The demo included on this site originally was designed for the first game. Since the game mechanics are nearly identical, it also offers a good glimpse of Fallout 2.
 Originally everything was planned to be quite different: In the cradle days of the Fallout series it's development team wanted to create a sequel to Wasteland on basis of GURPS (the Great Universal RolePlaying System by Steve Jackson Games, a monster amongst pen&paper RPG rule sets). The Wasteland scenario had to be dropped rather soon, because the license was owned by rival Electronic Arts. So they designed their own game world and set out to build it with a rule set as true as possible to the original pen&paper version. Actually this advanced rather far: There was a prototype, they showed a lot of media, until it came to a break with Steve Jackson Games. The explicit violence might have been one of the main reasons for this. Now they had a half finished RPG without one of the most important features: The rules. In a minimum of time but with a maximum of resolve some of the developers set out to design their own rules and in so doing created SPECIAL, which, at long last, they used for ‘Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game’. In some aspects it does resemble GURPS, as unsurprisingly as this might be, yet it does have some obvious distinctions. Initially hastily cobbled together, it worked so well, that eventually (with a modicum of adjustments) it was reused for Fallout 2 (and also for a few other games).
 For those who want to go into details: The name SPECIAL is an acronym of these main stats: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Itelligence, Agility and Luck.
 Especially by the very… graphic descriptions of dying enemies. For Fallout 2 some extra violent death animations have been added. Those do have a very humorous streak, because of their sheer exaggeration.
 Since you spend a good part of the game to uncover this threat, nothing more shall be told about it.
 There are fan created patches that support a wider range of resolutions. Generally the fan community has done a lot of subsequent improvements: Like mouse wheel support, faster combat, by speeding up the character movement speed and so on. On top of that there are patches that not only fix a lot of the remaining bugs, but restore some cut content or even whole areas. It really pays off to take a look at it (see link section).
 Veteran players collect the best armour and fitting weapons within a quarter of an hour. Actually I do consider this to be an advantage, since it's a sign of a truly open game world.