Fallout 2 Review: The Same… But Different?

After trying to figure out how to best describe Fallout 2 to you, the one word that I kept returning to was ‘bizarre’. The reason being that it’s so strange that a sequel to very popular game can paradoxically be so similar to it, while also being a great departure from what made the original so unique.

When you start Fallout 2 you’ll see that it pretty much looks and plays identically to Fallout 1, with the exception of a couple of quality of life improvements that streamline looting and companion interaction. But unlike Fallout 1’s intro, it doesn’t drop you in an optional tutorial cave that can be exited 10 seconds after creating your character. No, instead it drops you into a three-part dungeon that teaches combat, explosives, lockpicking, healing, trap disarming, looting and speech, all of which cannot be skipped even on your sixth time going through the game. Unlike the original, it does not alter your starting gear based on your tagged skills to accommodate your play-style; It instead starts you with a spear. The result is a game that incentivises a melee/speech build for the sake of optimising your early-game experience. The problem is that once you leave the tutorial area, most enemies you come up against are going to be either swarms of wildlife rushing into melee combat, who you’ll want to ideally kill before they close the distance, or hunters/raiders who’ll be content with picking you off from a distance. In both scenarios a ranged weapon is going to be favourable. And while melee builds certainly can get by, they are not optimal.

But why does being ‘optimal’ matter? It’s just a game, right? Play it how you want? Well, much like Fallout 1 this game does have the same character creation system where a very poorly made character, by someone with limited knowledge of the game, could make it borderline unplayable at worst, or extremely more difficult at best, while an optimal build, frankly, makes the game cake-walk. But what separates Fallout 1 from Fallout 2 is that, while both remain punishing games for the uninitiated, the first is better at encouraging alternate play-styles than the second. Going by the simplified basis of choosing between a melee or ranged character, Fallout 1’s encounters and environments can be very easily accessible to both styles of play with a balanced mix of close-quarters and long range combat, with the range never being too great that you will be unable to hit a foe, and never too short that you find yourself entirely surrounded by enemies.

By contrast, in Fallout 2, the entire game seems built around the optimal build of tagging small guns and transissioning into energy weapons for maximum damage output. Most fights in the wild and in the more difficult areas of the game happen at medium to long range, encouraging this playstyle. And because this game spawns WAY more enemies for you to fight at a time than the first one does, going into melee combat often leaves you surrounded by foes on every front and unable to move or retreat once you’ve dedicated yourself to the fight. And by the time you’ve levelled effectively enough to defend yourself at close range, the late game locations often have you sneaking around enemy bases in disguise, discouraging you from combat because of how insanely powerful this game’s antagonists are (The Enclave) by comparison to the challenging, but fair, antagonists of the first game (Super Mutants). Because of this, even when using an optimal build, it never really feels as though you’ve ascended to being the ultimate power in the wasteland like you do in the endgame of Fallout 1, especially because of how much stronger enemies are in the sequel.

To be clear: Fallout 1 isn’t perfect – I mention this in my review of it -, and has the exact same optimal build as Fallout 2 (Small guns, into energy weapons). The difference is that Fallout 1 better accommodates builds that are sub-optimal, which allows for more gameplay variety.

But that’s not the only odd change from the original. Next up is the world design:

In Fallout 1 you start with two locations on your map (Vault 13 and Vault 15), and you have to travel from one to get to the other. On the way, however, you encounter a third location (Shady Sands) positioned between the two. When you arrive in Shady Sands, there are multiple NPC’s who can update your map to contain at least another three locations; some that are very close, and others that are very far. The world opens up to the player more naturally and it helps that Shady Sands isn’t full of all too many quests, because everyone there is advertising how much bigger and more interesting the more developed settlements of the wasteland are, by comparison to their back-water town. The game wants you to to go off the path and take initiative: Will you progress to Vault 15? Visit the Raiders that have been harassing the town? Or will you go to somewhere more developed like Junktown or the Hub in search of more leads for the main quest? The choice is yours and all options are viable.

Now let’s look at Fallout 2:

You start with two locations on your map (Arroyo and Klamath). You travel from one to get to the other. When you get to the other you talk to the locals and there are a variety of quests to complete in town including guarding Brahmin, recovering moonshine, locating a trapper, discovering a crashed Vertibird and going through a dungeon to kill a supposedly psychic rat. While other NPC’s do mention other settlements there isn’t really an incentive to ever go to them until you’re wrapped up with everything you can do in Klamath, which is a bit of a waste of time considering there are no ending slides for the location at the end of the game. While the difference here certainly shows a positive increase in the amount of content available in Fallout 2, it does also show-off how much more linear the game is. Though you don’t have to play by these rules, Fallout 2 is encouraging you to systematically go from A to B until the game ends. Naturally, Klamath leads to the Den, leads to Modoc, leads to Ghost Farm, leads to Gecko and so on, and so forth. But the major factor that always discourages me from going off of the intended path is that the next nearest town Klamath, aside form the Den, is a place called Redding; This place has a set of quests that require you to be a certain level in order to begin, as well as some of the toughest wildlife in the game that you simply will not be able to kill if you’re freely exploring on an early playthrough.

In brief, my analysis is that while Fallout 2 has a lot of high quality content, the way it guides you through it is a detriment, because it ultimately feels like the most linear of the mainline Fallout games. Even from a story development perspective this is true: In Fallout 1 the game was split into two parts wherein you spent 50% of the game hunting down the water chip, and another 50% of the game locating the two mutant bases and destroying them. In Fallout 2 the game is also split into two parts: Part one you find the GECK, and in part two you destroy the Enclave. But because of the linearity of the intended route of exploration, combined with how dense the game is with content (which I never thought would be a bad thing), you spend about 80% of the game on the first act of finding the GECK, and only about 20% on locating and destroying the Enclave, which is actually the more compelling part of the story.

And yet there are more changes to discuss, this time on a thematic level.

When you played Fallout 1 everything was, well, bleak. The world had ended, the bombs had not dropped that long ago and people still carried the scars. Not a single person seemed to trust you, and many NPC’s always wanted information about who you were to ensure you weren’t a danger to them. Whether intentional or not, this helped explain why there weren’t as many quests in that game because few people were willing to put their trust in you to even share a conversation, let alone do something important for them. Hell, even some quest NPC’s didn’t seem to like you a lot of the time, and some of them ended up scared of you.

But when you enter a town in Fallout 2 it seems as though everyone and their mum is begging for you to make intimate inquires about their life so they can justify asking a favour of you. It’s not very immersive, and is a very transparent example of ludonarrative dissonance, where there is a disconnect between what the player has been told is an unforgiving wasteland, and what is actually a rough-around-the-edges place featuring a bunch of very welcoming and diplomatic NPC’s.

But that’s far form the peak of Fallout 2’s thematic issues.

Fallout 1 was the darkest game in the franchise, where the dark humour felt less like levity and more like self-deprecation. It really says something when the height of Fallout 1’s comedy is saying to the player, “Yes! This is what it’s come to; The only joy left in this wasteland is to watch people comically die while they cry out in agony about how you shot them in the bloody groin!” It kind of makes you feel a bit messed up for wanting more of the humour, as you and your character feed in to that part of the wasteland culture.

Now, this is still present in Fallout 2. Completely. But there is another level of humour on top of it that outright breaks the illusion, and that is random encounters. To my knowledge there are two random encounters that only exist to be references to Monty Python and the Holy Grail: One where you must answer three questions to cross the bridge of death and one where you meet King Arthur searching for the holy grail with his fellow knights, all in power armour. Now look… Fallout 1 also had strange encounters where you could, for example, see the Tardis disappearing in the desert, or a giant dinosaur footprint in the sand. But they never broke the fourth wall, at least not to this intrusive extent. Fallout 2 consistently breaks the fourth wall. One encounter begins with your character outright saying to YOU, the player controlling them, that you should make a new save file before doing the encounter. Yes, it is that ridiculous. And, in truth, if the whole game had this sort of tone consistently then I’d be 100% on board with any and all whacky shenanigans of this type…

But the truth is that Fallout 2 isn’t consistently full of whacky shenanigans. In truth, it deals openly with drug addiction, prostitution and gambling on a level the first game never did. It wants to have all those adult themes, while also being a theme park ride of Monty Python and Star Trek references. I mean for Christ sake, you can literally be raped by an NPC in this game and, two minutes after leaving the area, have a random chance of King Arthur approaching you, asking you if you’ve seen the Holy Grail, complete with his minstrels making fake horse noises just like from the movie. Not once, in my entire life upon this Earth, have I engaged with a piece of media so tonally inconsistent, and disconnected from itself as Fallout 2.

I can’t deny that I laughed very often and very loudly the first time I encountered these things in the game because of how absurd they were, and how they caught me off-guard. But if you’re looking to play this game more than once, as it’s designed to be, they become less like entertainment and more like an annoyance that you’ll either skip through or run away from as quickly as possible. Except for the bridge of death, which can’t be skipped and forces you to engage with it if you get that encounter. So why even include them?

But what I haven’t spoken about yet is the positive parts of this game. The primary upgrade this game received from the last was a fresh lot of content. Every single part of this game is hiding something brilliant. While the early locations contain a number of smaller quests, you’ll later find larger locations that all have one larger quest that encompasses the whole town. A good example of this Broken Hills that revolves around uncovering a racially charged plot wherein groups of mutants and humans are planning to wipe each other out. Or there is San Francisco, where the honour and rule of the town is going to be decided by your kung-fu duel with the most skilled and dishonourable man in town. Without spoiling all the content in the game, some of the highlights are having a film studio hire you to be a porn star, blowing up a toilet and covering the whole town in faeces and recruiting a friendly Deathclaw to join your party as a companion.

It’s not just the quantity or quality of the content in the game that makes it great; It’s the sheer variety of it. One moment you’re helping squatters settle a dispute over land with the NCR, and the next you’re becoming a made-man of a crime family of your choice. All of this variety enhances the roleplaying aspect of this game further than Fallout 1 was capable of, because there’s more content and thus more choices, and even the choice not to engage in some of the content feeds into the roleplaying, if you feel the character you’re playing just wouldn’t want to involve themselves.

Beyond that, your character build may affect how and when you engage in specific quests. For example, I often roleplay as a seasoned pugilist and get myself involved in the previously mentioned kung-fu quest, as well as a series of boxing tournaments in one of the game’s main areas. They yield a lot of experience and money that characters not specified the way mine is wouldn’t be able to obtain, so you feel rewarded for choosing the to play game a particular way. Though it often means I suffer in larger gun fights, such as a quest involving outlaws in Redding, that’s sort of the point – Characters built for that sort of quest will benefit from it greater than I, just as I benefited from other areas of the game in ways they couldn’t.

So now we come to the question: Is Fallout 2 a good game?

Well, mechanically it is just Fallout 1 but better. The story is weaker and, while the writing is witty and funny, it’s not really a change I particularly liked due to how it forever altered the tone of the series. But it is undeniable that (with the exception of those random encounters) the variety of content allows people to look for what they want in this game, and ignore the parts they don’t like. This is the reason I still play the game and enjoy it a lot despite my many criticisms. It’s why I would highly recommend playing Fallout 2, because it IS a good game.

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