Blurring the Line: Fallout: Tactics – Staff Review

Coming in on the heels of the popular Fallout RPGs, Fallout: Tactics was bound to confuse more than a few fans with its radical departure in gameplay and story. As a squad-based strategy game, Tactics feels closer to titles like Silent Storm or X-Com than its role-playing ancestors, with the Fallout license as essentially a coat of paint. Though it has its share of problems, and suffers simply by virtue of not being Fallout 3, Tactics is nonetheless a competent strategy game with an uncommon amount of content and depth.

Tactics centers around the Brotherhood of Steel, a paramilitary organization which was present in both Fallout 1 and 2. For the uninitiated, the BoS dedicated to restoring technology and civilization in an orderly fashion after World War 3. They had access to a prewar storehouse of equipment and weapons, and thus set themselves up as the “technological saviors” of mankind. In Tactics, a growing minority of Brotherhood members felt the BoS needed to open its ranks to outsiders, allowing the organization to expand its ranks. They were voted down and sent eastward in a great air convoy to pursue a retreating army of super-mutants; the remnants of the Master’s army from Fallout. The convoy is ripped apart in a fierce storm and crash-lands near Chicago, where they are forced to set up shop and try to survive.

As the story is basically a spinoff of the main series, so too is the game engine a twist on the Fallout formula. Although the character building mechanics and SPECIAL statistics systems remain, the interface is now largely geared towards tactical combat. All movement and simple actions are point-and-click, with the right mouse button used solely for specific actions (quick-grabbing inventory items and force-firing, to name two). The RPG elements are mostly limited to leveling up your squad, and character interaction has been stripped down to the basics. There are no dialog trees, and fans of the prior games will notice that speech skills and traits have been replaced; all conversations are, regrettably, one-sided.

Fortunately, what the game lacks in role-playing, it makes up for in tactical depth. Fallout: Tactics takes the existing turn-based action point system for combat and gives it several major twists. For starters, you have direct control over your entire squad, up to six individuals. You have the option of directing them in traditional turn-based combat, with all combatants being sequenced by their stats and spending action points to move, fight and use items. New to the series, however, are squad turn-based and continuous turn-based modes of combat; the former takes the Silent Storm approach, having one side move its entire team before ending its turn, while the latter removes turns entirely and thrusts the player into real-time combat.

Stitch flanks right while Farsight and the squad leader sweep left, crossing open fire to get to cover.

Individual and squad-based combat modes work well enough, but it’s the real-time element where Tactics truly distinguishes itself. The exploits of turn-based combat vanish when you can’t pop back behind cover before the enemy gets a chance to return fire, and thus this mode encourages the player to think quickly and carefully about each move. Squadmates are necessary to lay down cover and suppress enemies, actively scout out sniper positions, flank and flush out defenders, and many other complicated actions. Sentry modes allow you to determine which squadmates can open fire immediately, with varying thresholds of accuracy, and which can only return fire or even stay passive until told to attack. The system isn’t perfect; it has a steep learning curve, and the game will ruthlessly punish the player that blindly rushes ahead in real-time, but it’s a unique twist on squad-based strategy and it fits comfortably into the game’s control scheme. The addition of vehicles to certain missions also adds a new dimension to the gameplay, and though they are clunky to handle at first, they’re implemented well enough to be useful most of the time.

Along with the changes to combat, the series gets a decent graphical facelift in Tactics. Characters are still on the bland side, but there is a good variety of models and animation for every denizen of the wasteland; humans, dogs, ghouls and super-mutants will all have little touches to tell them apart from each other. Locations are suitably bleak and desolate, ranging from tribal villages and desert battlegrounds to bombed-out cities and high-tech bunkers; not much that hasn’t been in a Fallout before, but the higher resolution and larger amount of textures helps each mission feel different. Missions are often designed well enough to encourage different tactics, and zones tend to be fairly large – missions can easily last an hour or longer – though some will feel inescapably linear. Battles are convincing and visceral, with bodies bowling over dramatically under fire or being blown to pieces from a land mine; it should go without saying that the game maintains the series’ penchant for graphic violence.

No sunshine and lollipops for this cheery fellow.

Bolstering the presentation is the impressive audio work. A wide range of gunshots, explosions and weapon effects spice up combat, and an enemy gutted by machine gun fire or a stray rocket will utter a suitably pained cry while he still can. Music is subtle, sparse and effective, with ambient tribal and industrial noises depending on the background, and convincing military drumbeats for Brotherhood bunkers. The music picks up once combat begins and is even more diverse. The tracks change depending on who you’re fighting with; swelling horns and booming drums for the lumbering super-mutants, uptempo synthesizers and chanting for your fellow humans, and so on. Voices are almost quality across the board, with standout performances by R. Lee Ermey, Kurtwood Smith, and Ron Perlman, who reprises his popular role as the narrator. There are exceptions, of course; some of the tribals, civilians and robotic voices sound either forced or flat, or suffer from weak dialog, but the overall audio work is above the industry standard.

Sadly, the game has a few serious strikes against it, on its own merits and in comparison to the rest of the Fallout series. As mentioned, there is little in the way of character interaction and virtually no deviation from the story’s preset path. You are given missions from Brotherhood bunkers and proceed to them on the world map, with the only variety being the occasional choice to tackle one mission before another. There are no options in dialog, and conversation consists solely of clicking on somebody and listening to what they have to say, or what they want you to do. While how you conduct yourself in a mission will have significant impacts on what weapons and recruits you have available back at the bunker, little you do will impact how the story goes until close to the end of the game.

A nighttime assault on a raider compound goes sour as the squad is ambushed from the sides.

That aside, the actual game has its own problems, largely with balance and pathfinding. Tactics has an annoying habit of throwing obstacles at you without explaining how to prepare for them. Most noteworthy is the appearance of robots, which shrug off most conventional firepower and require the use of armor-piercing ammunition, solid slugs for shotguns, explosives and energy weapons to deal with properly; this is not explained to the player in any meaningful way before entering the first mission against them. There are related issues in dealing with hostage situations and timed explosive traps. Some skills, stats and perk loadouts are noticeably unbalanced, favoring combat and related skills over most. Lastly, squadmates have some trouble navigating stairs and will tend to bunch up when moving together, making them easy pickings for a machine gun burst; some degree of micromanagement is required to keep your squad from being diced up all at once, and to avoid friendly fire on your own part.

These problems, and more, will undoubtedly hamper the game’s appeal, but there is enjoyment to be had for the patient player. Its story is considered non-canon by most, including the core series’ developers, but it does present an interesting take on the Brotherhood as a morally gray organization. You do indeed bring hope and civilization to the wasteland, but you’ll have to contend with some ugly realities along the way. An early issue involves defending a stranded supply vehicle from hostile rioters armed only with rocks and Molotov cocktails, and bar patrons at a cliffside city will greet you with either scorn or praise. Several within the Brotherhood are openly racist towards ghouls and other sentient beings, and one key member of the BoS can have a major impact on the ending with his views on genetic purity. While the dynamics here aren’t as complicated as they are in the RPGs, Tactics does have more going on upstairs than its focus on combat might suggest.

Fallout: Tactics is unlikely to please people who were waiting anxiously for Fallout 3; it’s just not enough of a role-playing game. Significant balance issues and a few questionable gameplay decisions may also stymie strategy fans looking for the next big thing. What it does have going for it is a strong tactical combat system with three distinct modes of play and welcome dose of the Fallout atmosphere. There’s a lot to be said for hopping in a humvee and fending off snipers while a pair of squadmates fight their way to a gatehouse, or for pinning down a mutant with rifle fire while another soldier flanks it with a sack of grenades. Tactics isn’t a must-have by any means, but it’s well worth a look by anybody in the mood for post-apocalyptic warfare.

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