Fallout: New Vegas mega-primer - a brief history of Fallout in two universes

You don’t HAVE to read this feature to play and love Fallout: New Vegas. In just a few hours wandering its vast, open world, you’ll already have seen a mutant hulk wearing sunglasses, drunk babes dancing in a fountain, and possibly geckos the size of a pool table. It’s going to hook you deep, trust us. But if you want to truly appreciate the game, you SHOULD read this feature. Why? Because you’ll learn a megaton of critical information about the franchise’s history, both in the real world and in its in-game universe. And that’ll make you love it even more.

So when did the end of the world begin? Back in 1997…

Fallout (1997, Developer: Black Isle/Interplay)

In the Fallout universe: Set 84 years after a thermo-nuclear armageddon (called “The Great War” in the game’s lore – sorry World War I), the first Fallout followed the adventures of an intrepid explorer from Vault 13. What the hell is a “vault”, you ask? Well, a few years before the Great War, some geniuses in the government decided that it might be a good idea to have a back-up plan in case the worst should happen. They contracted the Vault-Tec company to build massive self-sustaining underground fallout shelters called “vaults” in order to preserve select segments of the American people centuries after a nuclear conflict. Fallout’s protagonist, the so-called “Vault Dweller”, emerged from such a vault (ostensibly having been born and reared in the vault) to find a harsh and blasted wasteland once known as “California”. However, the adventurer soon found that “wasteland” doesn’t mean “empty”. All sorts of lawless gangs and mutated creatures preyed upon unwary travelers and settlements. “Civilization” had become a twisted mockery of its former self.

However, Vault 13 needed a new “water chip” if its inhabitants wanted to continue drinking clean water. So the Vault Dweller would have to endure all the Raiders, Radscorpions, Technophiles, Mutophiles, and other deranged life forms the California wasteland has to offer. In the process of procuring the water chip, the Vault Dweller discovered a plot to unleash an army of grossly mutated humans (called “Super Mutants”) upon the wastes. Moreover, the army’s leader, “The Master”, planned to use a Forced Evolutionary Virus (FEV) to create even more mutants. While there were several possible endings, official canon holds that the Vault Dweller got the chip and defeated the Master, but was exiled from Vault 13 for his/her trouble – to keep the vault’s children from hearing the heroic tale and leaving the vault as well.   

Meanwhile, back in the real world: Originally called “Vault 13”, Fallout was supposed to use Steve Jackson’s GURPS (that’s Generic Universal Role Playing System) role-playing system, popular with pen-and-paper RPG players, for its user interface. The deal didn’t go through, however, and developer Interplay opted for its own SPECIAL system. For the uninitiated, SPECIAL stands for: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. SPECIAL has defined Fallout character building ever since.

However, in addition to those seven basic stats, Fallout made itself unique by the introduction of a “trait” and “perk” system. “Traits” served to better flesh out the character’s background by offering an agonizing give/take reward system. For every advantage, there was a disadvantage. “Jinxed” would cause enemy weapons to infrequently blow up in their faces (or, at least, miss)…sadly, so would yours. The only exception was the much beloved “Bloody Mess”, which only had one feature: Everyone –EVERYONE- would die in the most gruesome way possible. “Perks” were less “give and take”, and more about deciding what advantage best suited one’s play style. For example “Silent Running” was a Godsend for stealth focused characters as it allowed the player to run and sneak at the same time. Furthermore, the player could recruit NPCs with abilities that complimented the player’s own.

While Fallout was not the standard “Dwarves & Elves” fantasy fare, it further set itself apart as an RPG by allowing the player to go bat-shit evil on the world’s unsuspecting inhabitants. Entire towns could be lain to waste by the player, including women and *gasp* children. Such a wide degree of moral freedom became one of the most appreciated aspects of the Fallout series. So did the main character’s trademark Pip-Boy wrist computer and actor Ron Perlman’s opening narratives, which always begin with the words, “War. War never changes...”

By the way, the oldest, wisest gamers among us will recognize the Fallout universe is similar to that of 1988’s Commodore 64/IBM/Apple II RPG “Wasteland”. That’s not a coincidence – Fallout publisher Interplay was the developer of Wasteland.

Fallout 2 (1998, Developer: Black Isle Studios)

In the Fallout universe: 80 years after the events of the original Fallout (2241 AD, 168 AGW [After Great War]), Arroyo – the village founded by the exiled Vault Dweller – is suffering a severe drought. However, the original Vault Dweller has long since left the village and is assumed dead. His/her grandchild, called the “Chosen One”, is called to aid the village. Told to seek a GECK. (Garden of Eden Creation Kit), a device capable of reshaping the barren wasteland into a healthier ecosystem, the Chosen One retraces the steps of his/her grandparent to Vault 13.

However, Vault 13 is not as the Vault Dweller had left it. Its populace had been culled, most of its inhabitants kidnapped. And there’s nary a GECK to be found. The Chosen One returns empty-handed to Arroyo, to find that it has now been culled as well.

It is later revealed that the body snatchers belong to an organization called the Enclave, the remnant (actually a secret pre-war military branch) of the United States Government. Tracking this Orwellian regime to its seat of power, an offshore oil rig, the Chosen One learns Earth shattering truths about…well, just about everything. Everything you thought you knew about the Vaults, the Super Mutants, and the pre-war United States was wrong. The short version? The government was fully corrupt, many of the vaults were designed as human petri dishes, and the Enclave wants to use a modified FEV to slaughter anyone whose DNA isn’t completely pure.

However, the Chosen One put a stop to this nefarious nonsense by destroying the Enclave HQ, but not before rescuing the captives from Vault 13 and Arroyo. The two communities founded a new settlement and lived together in harmony happily ever after…ish.

Meanwhile, back in the real world: The original Fallout had a team of about 100, which mostly dissolved after Fallout’s release. However, about a third remained to create Black Isle Studios, with Interplay remaining as the publisher. Fallout 2 was a true sequel to Fallout in the sense that it did everything the original did, but bigger and better.

FO2 accommodated more viable play styles and a larger armory than the original, cementing it as one of the best loved RPGs in the genre. The recruitable NPCs were now more robust, allowing the player to issue more complex orders in battle (i.e. equip armor, go heal, run dammit RUN!). Furthermore, the new “reputation” system complemented the original “Karma” system; making your actions in Town A known to Town B and vice versa. The developers put the reputation system to good use as well. While the original Fallout allowed the player to go Jedi good or Sith evil, FO2 allowed players to engage in more morally grey areas. Players could become a porn star, join the mafia, become a slaver (or side against them), get married (and subsequently divorced), all of which would affect the various NPCs’ opinions of you throughout the game.

Next Page: The Dark Ages


  • Henragorn - October 21, 2010 7:21 a.m.

    Very interesting article :) Cant wait to buy New Vegas
  • EricBratcher - October 20, 2010 11:23 p.m.

    Actually, in response to your point The_Tingler, you could do that with the ghoul dude as well. I was thinking I got a reasonable ending when I sent them in instead of a cop-out like you've described, but I may be mistaken. I reloaded that save several times to see all the variations and I may be forgetting which went with which.
  • EricBratcher - October 20, 2010 11:16 p.m.

    We're fixing the pics now. Sorry about that. I wish I could say it was a meta-joke.
  • Chaoscoolperson - October 20, 2010 8:45 p.m.

    Thanks for explaining the story so I don't have to play the others. Also Fallout 2 seems like fable in an apocalyptic nightmare. And finally Now I think i might get fallout New Vegas.
  • BrunettePride - October 20, 2010 11:45 a.m.

    Thanks for doing this! The first Fallout game I ever played was 3, which got me interested in the first two games on PC. I'm extremely excited for New Vegas, I have the Collectors Edition on pre-order and I really cannot wait to see what this is going to be like, especially with it being Obsidian. Going to be interesting to see some of Van Burens areas come to life!
  • FreekinIdiot - October 20, 2010 10:33 a.m.

    Where's your review guys? I'm desperate to read it :)
  • G0D - October 20, 2010 6:01 a.m.

    This definitely got me pumped (and more educated) to play New Vegas!
  • Smeggs - October 20, 2010 12:20 a.m.

    That Super-Mutant looks like a cross between Shrek and an Orc from WoW. Also, a device that can change the wasteland? *GASP* Could it be...A GECK?! God I hope Bethesda isn't that predictable, I really do. AND I BETTER GET A PROPER ENDING THIS TIME, DAMNIT! None of that "Pictures show up while narrator talks about how you died/failed/killed your teammate/turned into an evil douche and murdered all impure beings in the wastes with the modified FEV for about thirty seconds before rolling credits."
  • philipshaw - October 19, 2010 9:26 p.m.

    Getting New Vegas on Friday so this was a intresting read for me
  • 435 - October 19, 2010 6:52 p.m.

    Great article, aside from art mixups! Having played all of these to completion (yes, even the console beat-em-up piece of shit), it was a lovely trip down memory lane. Maybe I'll install 1 and 2 on my netbook tomorrow. :|a
  • AlpineGuy - October 19, 2010 5:17 p.m.

    Cool retrospective. Makes me really want to play the first two Fallouts now...
  • AA95mp - October 19, 2010 4:52 p.m.

    i can't fucking wait for new vegas! also i don't mean to be too nerdy but Harold is actualy a super mutant, just a different kind from what we're used to.
  • Chiefslapaho - October 19, 2010 2:29 p.m.

  • nikrusty - October 19, 2010 11:01 a.m.

    Awesome article dudes...thanks. I actually played FO 2 before the launch of FO 3 as I wanted a taste of FO Universe. The only thinng that FO3 really lacks I felt, a better more engaging NPC character playout, something akin to ME 2 series.
  • Dan3va - October 19, 2010 9:48 a.m.

    you got the images for fallot tactics and fallout brotherhood of steel mixed up. the 2004 releases picture is with the 2001 game and vise versa
  • Yaro - October 19, 2010 9:05 a.m.

    Funny, I took a quick glance at the pics (the map is awesome) then I glanced over the headlines and thought to myself "damn, I gotta read all of this" (as in it sounds interesting and I'd like to refresh my memory) and the first sentence of the article told me "you don't HAVE to read all of this"....I lol'd. You do what you please and you please what you do. Keep up the good work. =)
  • NightCrawler_358 - October 19, 2010 4:06 a.m.

    Great article! Man, i know its horrible to say, but i wish you could still kill children in New Vegas. I swear, in 3, everytime i go into Little Lamplight!-i just dream of the day.
  • Crimmy - October 19, 2010 3:58 a.m.

    Can you fix the Fallout Tactics and Brotherhood pics? They are switched. For some reason, that really bugs me.
  • The_Tingler - October 19, 2010 3:06 a.m.

    The most annoying thing about Fallout 3 was the slightly screwed up ending, which you briefly touched on. If you had a Super Mutant companion (whose name I forget), you could ask him to go in the radioactive chamber and he'd be totally fine - but the game would still treat you like you killed him. Really, really looking forward to New Vegas.
  • YuGiOhisbetterthanMagic - October 19, 2010 2:57 a.m.

    YES! although, i do have to be that guy and say that it is in fact, possible to get a G.E.C.K in fallout 2, so you dont HAVE to go back to arroyo empty handed.

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