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…
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.
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.
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