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Two Great Tastes that Taste... Erm...
By: Lord Craxton
In retrospect, maybe this wasn't such a good idea. It must have made sense at the time. The Fallout duology has been lauded by all corners of the gaming world, praised for its unique setting, wry sense of humor, and strong emphasis on story and character. So, considering that tactical RPG/Strategy hybrids are all the rage these days, why not turn Fallout into a turn-based strategy game? Well, why not?
Because it's Fallout, that's why not. The electronic RPG is, and has always been, a genre that mixes player-motivated storytelling with squad-based strategic elements. At one extreme, you have games like Planescape: Torment. There the game is played primarily through dialogue and interaction with the game world, and more experience comes from successful sleuthing then from beating up nasty monsters. At the other extreme, you have games like Diablo, where any plot is more or less an excuse for a string of fights. Most games fall somewhere between these two extremes. With those that lean toward combat, it's relatively easy to translate a successful series into a tactical spin-off, such as Baldur's Gate spawning Icewind Dale.
Fallout, however, has always leaned more in Torment's direction- lots of talk and negotiation and subterfuge, and comparatively little fighting. Let's face facts: For all it's strengths, the Fallout series is woefully inadequate when it comes to combat balance- tag Small Guns at the start, give yourself reasonable agility, throw a few points into Energy Weapons later on, and you've basically got the game won. To turn it into a tactical combat game isn't impossible, but it puts developer 14 Degrees East at a pronounced disadvantage- they're playing to the franchise's weaknesses.
And it shows, too. The entire point of a tactical RPG is to create a balanced squad that can handle any conceivable situation. In Fallout Tactics the best strategy is boring old brute force- two SMG grunts, two snipers with hunting rifles, one guy with high intelligence to do miscellaneous stuff like lockpicking and healing, and you're more or less set. Yes, you have to upgrade a little over the course of the game. You move from SMGs to high-powered shotguns and big machineguns, you move from hunting rifles to Sniper Rifles, and then you move up to Energy Weapons. If you keep your arsenals up to date, you can usually just barge right in and shoot up everything. Failing that, you can go around the back and shoot up everything. Not very much of a tactical challenge and it gets boring real quick. Ambushes, pincer attacks, sniper nests, hunkering down behind bunkers- all workable ideas, but why bother when you can just tromp in and kill everybody in the room at the cost of just a few Stimpaks?
There is also a criminal case of wasted potential in here. So many of the skills on the character sheets are underutilized- Melee Weapons has nothing on Unarmed, which is of questionable value compared to a close-range shotgun or SMG blast. Throwing is similarly questionable. First Aid? Good early on, but with good armor and a hoard of Stimpaks you'll be fine. Sneaking? Even with 100% skill, you'll always get caught. Stealing? Gambling? Useless. Science? Useful only in the later missions. Repair? Piloting? Exactly 3 missions require the use of vehicles. Outdoorsman? Only if the random encounters annoy you. Barter? Doesn't have any noticeable effect on the Quartermaster. The same thing happens with equipment- pistols and assault rifles are useless in favor of heavy shotguns and SMGs, Flamers and Rocket Launchers have nothing on the Browning M2, and Pulse weaponry and Sunbeam Rifles beat all. As you would expect, this tends to make the game a mite tedious- blow away everyone, loot valuables, trudge back to the bunker, and trade it in for upgrades and ammo. 14 Degrees East tries to keep things interesting with diverse missions like rescues, escorts, and sensitive diplomatic situations, but more often then not it just comes down to you clearing out the bad guys, then dealing with your objectives.
And the plot? A splinter group of the technology-hoarding Brotherhood of Steel gets separated and cut off from the main body of the BoS. They set themselves up as feudal lords, providing protection to peaceful villages in return for resources and recruits. While expanding their sphere of influence, they slowly get drawn into a conflict involving a supposedly invincible army and the mysterious Vault Zero. A competent story all told, but nothing impressive.
Fallout Tactics will be marginally interesting to Fallout fans. It does build admirably on Black Isle's Fallout games in some ways. The interface is the same point-and-click deal, with a few minor improvements, and is suitably intuitive, though juggling inventories and bartering is a royal pain. 14 Degrees East has added some decent music and sound effects, though the game is still pretty unremarkable to the ear. Voice acting is good, but the dialogue is hit-or-miss. Some stuff is very well-written, other characters you'll want to shoot just so you don't have to listen to them anymore. Graphics are the one major step up: sharper, clearer, and more colorful, while still being appropriately grungy for a post-apocalyptic setting. The wry humor from the RPGs manifests itself frequently, such as in an encounter with Energizer bunnies or an acid-loaded Super Soaker as a usable weapon. And the deeper aspects of the series are there too- the idea of survival in a harsh and unforgiving world, and the question of whether to struggle against others for our own desires, or with them towards a common good.
The game takes about 20-30 hours to play beginning to end, depending on how thoroughly you go through the map. It'll keep your interest for that long, but once you're done, a second playthrough would be redundant. There's very little room for choice or character definition. You can't even answer yes or no in dialogues, you're just given objectives, and you complete them. Your actions in the game don't have any effect on the course of the story until the very end. Seeing as the ending credits listing the many results of your vast adventures in the wasteland has become a staple of the Fallout series, this is quite a letdown.
In the end, most players will find Fallout Tactics wanting. Strategy fans will expect something more challenging and varied, along the lines of X-COM, while Fallout fans will expect more story and character then Tactics delivers. Quite frankly, the game feels half-assed, like an attempt to cash in on a successful franchise rather then broaden its appeal. The sad thing is it actually could have worked. If 14 Degrees East had put some effort into the gameplay design rather then just shoehorning the Fallout game system into an unfamiliar format, this game could have been... well, maybe not classic, but at least memorable. As is, Fallout Tactics is a disappointment.
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