The first Fallout is one of a few games that popularized the use of the theme of post-apocalyptic existence in digital games, as well as offered a look at the possibilities of how the world would be reborn after it had died from the ravaging of war.
The post-apocalyptic existence depicted in the first Fallout was definitely not pretty, and Fallout 2 emphasize on that theme further. Yet, it also introduces new plot-lines to render the saga even more complex than it first seemed.
Fallout 2 continues the story of the first game after several generations had passed since the resolution of the main plot in the first game. The Vault Dweller (now canonized as a man) had saved the Vault that he was born in, but suffered banishment and exile in return. Not to be daunted, he sought to carve a new future out in the wastelands of what was once California and proceeded to found the village of Arroyo with like-minded individuals.
Unfortunately, the village did not progress to become a settlement that would fit the background of the Vault Dweller. Instead, it regressed into a tribal village with a subsistence economy, shamanistic tendencies and hardly any mechanization.
Into this village the new protagonist was born and raised in, acquiring talent in a few skills that the Vault Dweller and the first generation of settlers had imparted on their descendants. The protagonist would have had no reason to embark on the adventure promised in Fallout 2, if not for the famine afflicting the village.
Through a handful of CG cutscenes, the player character is told of what needed to be done to save Arroyo, as well as a few happenings elsewhere that would not seem to matter to the inhabitants of Arroyo until it is realized otherwise later in the game.
Right after that, the player is brought to the character creation screen - which seemed remarkably similar with the one in the first game, though it may not have been quite the surprise if not for the clear mention in the manual of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" policy that Interplay had. The only significant difference here is the addition of a few new traits, one of which ties in heavily with one of the adult themes of the game.
Shortly after that, the player character is thrown into his/her first quest, in which the player is given a tutorial of sorts of how the game works. The player is also shown how to make use of the myriad of skills at his/her disposal to remove hazards and dangers in the way. Enemies can be removed the old-fashioned hard way, killed using disarmed-then-rearmed traps, or even persuaded to reach a peaceful agreement. In addition, the protagonist can gain pleasant surprises by making use of more espionage-oriented skills like Lock-picking.
The design of the first quest, namely the many ways with which the player can achieve its completion, will be repeated throughout the rest of the game's quests. The player character can choose to solve issues amicably, violently or play for more time to dig for more clues. In fact, the situations for some quests do not immediately appear as what they seem. Indeed, Fallout 2 would have had some of the more interesting quests to be found in Western RPGS - if not for bugs that plagued them in the launch version of the game.
Fortunately, glitches like doors that refuse to open, dialogue scripts that were not called properly, faults with event triggers and, of course, quest completion exploits that allowed the infinite spawning of rewards were quickly dealt with via patches, thanks to the Fallout community who were more than happy to point them out.
Like in the first game, there are three main activities that the gameplay offers: exploration (and looting is a subset of this), conversation (there are a whole lot more dialogue scripts in Fallout 2 than in the first game) and combat.
There are plenty more places to explore in Fallout 2, and these include most if not all of the locales in the first game, which have generally changed much since then. The newer places are however the greater attractions. There are a seedy Las Vegas-like city (albeit substantially more vice-ridden than the real one), an authoritarian and self-sufficient city built on top of a Vault and a resurgent democratic city of sorts, among other locations that this reviewer cannot mention without the risk of spoiling the game.
The main complaint is the first game about exploration is how traveling around in the (so-called) World Map can be terribly slow. There were few means to quickly travel between one place and another in order to save precious, precious time. In Fallout 2, the constraint of time has been removed altogether; the advancement of the plot and changes being wrought on locations in the region of California are entirely up to the pace at which the player wishes to follow them.
In addition, players can unlock a fast method of transport (and storage of surplus gear) through completing a certain quest in the game. Of course, this convenience does come at a price, though it is merely a small, inconsequential one and can be easily compensated for. Furthermore, the player can now append notes to the World Map and even Local Maps, if only to act as digital post-it stickers.
As mentioned earlier, there are tremendously more opportunities for dialogue in this game. This is one part of Fallout 2 that really shines. Much of the written dialogue is very witty and sometimes peppered with pop culture references. Moreover, the Speech skill, which was not that well utilized in the first game, actually has more function now: it determines the range of dialogue options available to the player. (However, a few of the SPECIAL statistics like Intelligence and Charisma also influence the availability of these options.)
A fruitful conversation will result in the player character getting rewards, or rewards that are greater than previously promised by NPCs, or bypassing a plot obstacle altogether. There is certainly more incentive to invest skill points in less utilitarian skills like Speech (and to some extent, Barter) than in the first game.
Regardless of how the player approaches the game, he/she will be confronted by inherently hostile enemies - usually in the form of ravening beasts and intractably antagonistic NPCs. The menagerie of opponents that the player has to face off against has also been expanded to include new enemies with new models such as combat robots, previously unseen mutants and very heavily armed paramilitary groups (much more so than in the first game).
The first Fallout was known for its over-the-top violent death animations (and sound clips), and Fallout 2 ups the ante with its increased range of gory, noisy death throes. Of course, such new animation and sound clips are typically inconsequential as they are only there for cosmetic flair (with the exception of deaths inflicted by energy weapons, which tend to still undesirably obliterate whatever loot there is to be gained). Still, these graphic demises were a signature element of the Fallout franchise, so it is to the benefit of this game that the developers had sought to build on this element.
To conduct combat with, the player will need weapons, and the game does not disappoint with its extensive armory of guns (among other painful instruments of harm infliction) that it offers. The weapons that the player character and NPCs (both human or vaguely humanoid) can wield have also been expanded from the selection available in the first game. Most of them are ballistic weaponry, including some vintage weaponry which also happen to be tangible references to popular franchises. There are also many new heavy weapons with which to perpetrate the grisly new death animations. In addition, there are new types of ammo that can go into a single weapon, giving the player more options to deal with a variety of enemies while keeping his/her weapon loadout to a light minimum.
Combat is still conducted in a turn-by-turn basis, though animations can now be accelerated faster than ever. For better or worse, the chance-based combat, based on what are practically die rolls, is still around and essentially unchanged. A player character can still completely miss at point-blank range with a minigun if he/she happened to roll that less-than-5% chance of a critical miss, weapons can still jam despite having invested dozens of points into a relevant skill that the player has even tagged and the enemy can still get lucky in scoring a one-hit massively lethal critical hit. This reviewer has never been fond of chance-based gameplay, but this reviewer certainly acknowledges that luck-based gameplay mechanics can be used to introduce gameplay balance (somewhat).
However, it is worth noting that if Lady Luck particularly frowns on the player, it can result in a game-over that requires a reloading of a save-game, which is a definite source of unsolicited frustration regardless of the patience of the player. This could be avoided somewhat by tweaking the difficulty rating of the game, though much of the challenge of the game, on average, would have been sapped away. Moreover, the very rare unfortunate and fatal mishap due to a terrible dice throw can still occur.
The same fickle game mechanic is still also applied to non-combat actions. For example, despite having a prodigious aptitude in Science, a player character can get a terrible roll when accessing a computer terminal of easy difficulty and get electrocuted, incurring damage that would have not been necessitated. Another aggravation is a bad roll on the usage of a First-Aid Kit or Doctor's Bag, resulting in hours of time in the game-world to be wasted on a measly handful of points, or an even more terrible roll that worsened already sustained injuries.
This source of frustration, couple with bugs in saving and reloading games in the launch version of Fallout 2, made it hard for this reviewer to appreciate the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mantra that Interplay had for this game, at least with respect to the chance-based system.
Fortunately, other aspects of the game are able to gloss over this less-than-perfect game design. A particularly good one is the new, broader range of companions that the player character can take on as allied NPCs. All of them happen to be a bunch of misfits who have very colourful personalities, as well as often-amusing dialogue (and monologue) lines that are unique to them. A few of them also happen to have lines whose context is dependent on who else in within the player's motley crew party. (These lines involve jokes and jabs directed at each other, amusingly enough.)
(Most of the more entertaining lines were included as a gag of sorts by the developers, as would be described by Chris Avellone in the Fallout Bible that was later published.)
The NPCs also have skills that the player can count on sometimes if his/her own character's skills are not up to par (via the selection of dialogue lines that prompt them to do what they do best). A rare few companions are actually not suited for combat at all, but have unique abilities that compensate for their relative uselessness in battle. The efficacy of these NPCs can be improved by having the player character gain a level - which may or may not cause companion NPCs to level up as well. (This is, again, a chance-based mechanic.)
However, these companions may or may not be suited for following the player character around when exploring maps. Some of them completely lack running capabilities, or an equivalent set of animations, which allow them to keep up with the player. This is especially problematic if the player expects a battle to occur somewhere in the local map, for which the help of these NPCs would be much needed. Defects in their pathfinding AI further add to this; this reviewer had experienced moments where companions get themselves stuck under small doorways more than a few times.
It would appear that the quickest way to get them to rendezvous with the player is to simply save and reload the game. It is an expedient work-around, but it breaks the immersion and would remind any conscious player that the developers had not designed the NPCs or party cohesion system properly.
It is worth noting here that allied NPCs are smarter at choosing their shots to avoid friendly fire now than in the first game. However, the scripts that govern their target selection and positioning can be a bit confounding at times: a companion may end up wasting many Action Points (that is, the points that govern how much each character can do in his/her/its turn during combat) while trying to find a good position of which the whereabouts are not immediately clear. They also get in the way of the line of fire, though it tends to occur more often for companions with only melee attacks to depend on than when they have a gun in their hands.
The same game engine that powered the first game is still used in this one, so there are no markedly significant improvements in graphics. However, the developers have certainly kept in mind certain criticisms of the first game, such as important objects being obscured by other objects like walls due to the isometric view. Plot-critical objects are now placed in full view (as much as the isometric third-person perspective allows). However, as if to lampoon said criticisms, secrets and hidden stashes have been placed in the more obscured parts of certain maps for curious players to discover.
Another significant improvement is that if the player character happens to be close to a wall or other object that obscures the player's view of his/her own player character, said object and other objects that would obscure the player character are rendered translucent in a sizable radius around the player character. Highlights of any obscured models involved in combat (or running away from it) are also turned on by default.
Animations for many character models are still limited, as in the first game, especially for animations that involve usage of items on the character himself/herself/itself and usage of some objects in the local map. (All of them happen to use the same animation, which consists of some odd hand-washing motions.) The player is able to know what the player character is currently doing, but not so for NPCs, who may be doing something sinister while washing their hands. Fortunately, the player can still resort to statements in the Event log that explain what others are doing in combat. However, there is nothing - other than the monologue text floating above their heads - that suggests whatever it is that they are doing at the time outside of combat.
The sound design for this game is much like that for the graphics: hardly cutting-edge, but adequate enough in its contribution to the gameplay. Its greater purpose however is to enhance the ambiance of the game and support its themes; this it does more than satisfactorily.
Forlorn moans accentuate the winds that brush through the (otherwise static) wastelands, emphasizing the desolation of a post-apocalyptic world. Crumbling noises can be heard in areas that contain the ruins of civilization. Hollow droning accompanies the player as he/she treks through dark and foreboding caves and tunnels. Of course, many of these ambient sound clips were already in the first Fallout, but there are now more variations as befitting the expanded range of locales in Fallout 2.
Mark Morgan returns with more music for Fallout 2, and this music strengthens the emoting of the themes that the game has. Much of it would sound depressing to people who are not into post-apocalyptic fiction, however, but it feels right at home with Fallout 2.
The talking heads for critical or particularly interesting NPCs also return, and there are now a heck lot more characters with them - most of them quite bizarre and amusingly hideous to look at. The voice-overs for them are very good at expressing the different personalities of the characters involved - one of them, for an exceptionally annoying character, is particularly worthy of note.
Of course, like other aspects of Fallout 2 at launch, the audio design of the game had technical setbacks: voice-overs, sound clips and music not being properly called was especially an issue. Fortunately, like the other glitches in the game, they were fixed with subsequent patches (of which the developers try to design while not invalidating saved games which were made using previous builds of the game).
It may seem like Fallout 2 has a lot of setbacks in some aspects, but, in addition to responsive product support (that is, patching bugs), the developers have wisely resorted to using its other strengths, such as the dialogue and monologue scripting, to compensate.
In conclusion, Fallout 2 has been touted as a greater extension of the first game and certainly delivered on that promise. While Fallout 2 does not seem to have the very (and maybe too) tight focus on the plot in the first, it trades this with new juicy lore and expansions to the Fallout canon for players to explore and discover. For this reason, many Fallout fans would regard Fallout 2 with great fondness.