RPGs tend to be stuck in the same medieval time periods, but Fallout offers a fresh, original storyline set in a distant retro future. The game's renown is surely due to its interesting plot line, humorous and believable dialog, and exciting characters. From the moment the game starts, you're placed in the role of an inhabitant of Vault 13, where you were born and have lived your
entire life thanks to an apocalyptic nuclear war that's all but wiped out humanity. The water chip which recyles the vault's water has broken, and without it, your fellow Vault members will surely die -- and so you are chosen to venture outside the vault to obtain a new chip, and save your kind...
Upon exiting the vault you will be forced to learn how to engage in combat. Fallout features a turn-based system which affords you action points (AP) to spend. Moves, actions, and other special abilities all deplete your AP for a particular turn, forcing you to strategically plan your engagements well. Even with the turn based system, combat is far from dull. Distance and line of sight play an important role, and you can use this to your advantage when selecting the next enemy to take down. Hostiles may accidentally shoot their comrades, and likewise your friends may sometimes cause your downfall. A wide range of weapons are available, from unarmed and melee combat to heavy and energy weapons, the latter of which may cause injuries and deaths so gory that they have become a trademark of the franchise.
Combat, mission completion, and successful actions will all grant experience points toward your character's level. There are many RPG traditions here, such as adding bonus attributes to your characters different abilities. But another aspect of character design, called 'Perks,' presents some wholly original ideas to the mix. One perk will grant you more experience per level, another will assure more critical hits, while another promises that a mysterious wanderer will sometimes appear to help you in sticky situations. These perks, combined with several character abilities chosen at the beginning of the game (might I suggest 'Bloody Mess'?) will ensure that your character is not only unique, but that the entire game might be a new experience on a second play through.
But of course the game is not all about combat and character design. The story of Fallout is the game's best feature, and the soundtrack and written dialog go far to enhance the setting. NPCs sometimes have plenty to say, but never so much as to bog the player down in text. Certain NPCs throughout the game feature spoken dialog, which not only comes a surprise at times, but is extremely well-executed; the voice acting is top notch. The fact that only some characters have this feature makes you appreciate it all the more when it's there, and it does so much to draw you into this world. Sound effects aren't quite on par with the soundtrack and dialog, but it does it's job. Some combat sounds will, however, begin to grate on one's nerves after hours of play, but it is a small quirk that is easily looked over.
The one aspect of the game that cannot be so easily dismissed, however, is the party system. As you progress, you will eventually find other NPCs to join you in your ultimate quest. These characters are at first welcome, but end up getting in the way of the game. You can not control these members directly, with the maximum amount of interaction boiling down to dialog and bartering. You may give them better weapons, but don't always expect them to use them -- or at least use them well. You can offer them the best armor in the game, which they'll gladly except, but they'll simply carry it around with them until they're dying breath rather than try it on. And to make matters worse, you'll have to steal the armor (or anything else you might give them) to get it back lest you offer up money.
Your party NPCs can also get in your way -- quite literally. Walk to a corner, and three may surround you so as to block your path. You are forced to sit, stuck, here until one of them randomly walks away. I had more than a few moments during my game where I was forced to wait for 20 seconds or more due to their incompetence. And in battle, they will rather stand their ground, firing shots into the backs of their comrades (including you!) than move one step to the side to shoot around. This might all be somehwat worth it if these characters had serious impact on the story, but alas they do not. They were perhaps the most one dimensional characters in the game, and (at least on MY play through), did not contribute at all to the story. This party system is the only reason this game does not reason 5/5 stars, but it truly is a nearly broken system, that I hear is at least much improved in Fallout 2.
Do not let this one shortcoming decide your purchase. The other aspects of Fallout -- combat, storyline, and overall atmosphere -- make it a truly exceptional game. If you are in the slightest bit into RPGs, post apocalyptic worlds, or retro futures, you owe to yourself to give fallout a try. It is easy to get sucked into the world that it offers, and leaves me truly excited to begin Fallout 2.