Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel is, apparently, a mildly controversial installment in the Fallout series. The previous two games were a sort of blend of real-time strategy and RPG, with a multifaceted and unique leveling system that allowed you to design a character with a highly flexible pool of skills; you could create a ninja, negotiator, gunslinger, brawler, or flexible multifaceted type, among others. The Fallout games are arguably classics, both for gameplay and for the infamously twisted in-game icons.
Brotherhood, by contrast, is a top-down action game, sharing only a game world with its predecessors. It has what the boys in marketing call "RPG elements," meaning that you have a choice of weapons and armor and that you earn experience points to level up, but it is, essentially, not an RPG.
Further, it is coming out in the wake of the announced cancellation of Fallout 3, and as such, is getting a lot of flak from various fannish parties. Take a spin through various gaming fora; people are talking about Brotherhood of Steel like it's gone to each and every one of their houses and personally used their dog as a racquetball.
They shouldn't be. Put away your fannish distrust of the new for a moment, guys, and listen to me. Brotherhood of Steel is new, yes, and it is not a forty-hour role-playing extravaganza.
It is, instead, an addictive and interesting dungeon crawler, running on a variant of the same engine as Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, that dwells largely upon the fact that, in the post-apocalyptic Earth of Fallout, bastards need to be shot. You are being offered the opportunity to do the shooting.
The bastards in question are mutant raiders, human bandits, and psychotic ghouls, backed up by malfunctioning security droids, radioactive animals, and the occasional insect the size of a city bus. In Fallout, these are the risks of living after World War III, scratching a living out of radioactive soil two generations after an unlimited nuclear war burned the planet black.
There are few nations left, and no laws. One of the few defenses that ordinary people have is the Brotherhood of Steel, a small organization of knights who try to defend the wastelands against slave traders, mutant armies, and whatever else wants to kill people. As Cyrus, Cain, or Nadia, you're an initiate of the Brotherhood, sent to the struggling village of Crater to investigate the disappearance of a group of the Brotherhood's paladins.
Nothing is ever simple after the apocalypse, though; just trying to find the knights will involve singlehandedly taking on a hundreds-strong band of raiders, mounting a one-man invasion of an entire city of flesh-craving ghouls, and direct conflict with the supposedly declining mutant race. That doesn't even touch on what happens after you actually find them.
There needs to be a stronger word for it than "vastly outnumbered."
At the start of the game, your character is a first-level nobody, with the clothes on his back, a homemade pistol, and a pair of ironclad gloves. About the only thing you have in your corner is the fact that you're very hard to kill, with four hundred hit points, but that doesn't go as far as you'd think it would. Stimpacks, the auto-injected cocktail of whatever that almost instantly heals wounds, are still around, and you will be burning through them at a rate that is almost certainly unhealthy.
Initially, you'll be scrambling to find better armor, firearms, and melee weapons. You can find work at almost any turn, by speaking to townspeople and asking about their problems, and in so doing, earn bottle caps, the official currency of post-apocalyptic Earth, and experience points.
When you level, you don't actually get anything right away. Instead, you're simply given a certain number of Skill Points, which can be spent to increase or add to your character's abilities. With Skill Points, you can improve your ability with melee weapons or firearms, increase your hit points, raise your armor rating, acquire a helpful dog as a constant companion, or buy character-specific skills (i.e. Cyrus going berserk if critically wounded, Nadia's talent with energy weapons, or Cain being healed by radiation damage).
The overall effect is subtle; you can turn yourself into a melee tank, wielding a sledgehammer to vicious effect, or, instead, opt to turn the game into more of a shooter. Either way, you'll be able to buy or find a wide variety of weaponry with which to beat the sweet hell out of anything that gets in your way, from spiked baseball bats and pikes to automatic weapons and laser cannons.
The process of that beating will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. In a top-down environment, you'll explore both towns and "dungeons," which here, are represented by the ruined patchwork cities that characterize Fallout. Smash open crates to find stimpacks, both normal and "special," which restore your health with a touch of the R2 button, while you fend off a wide variety of enemies who appear from all directions.
To accomplish quests, you'll need to wipe out all enemies within a certain location, or dig up keys from dead monsters' pockets, or search for items, or what-have-you. Like I said, it'll be familiar. The big difference between Dark Alliance and Brotherhood of Steel is that the latter is very much about firearms; since your character in Brotherhood is far more durable, the game feels no particular compunction about, say, throwing mobs of shotgun-wielding mooks at you, or lighting you up with automatic laser fire.
Unlike Dark Alliance, this game has no faint patina of the AD&D rules-set (although the commonalities in the engine make me wonder if Fallout D20 is on the horizon; I think it'd probably work out well). You either hit, or are hit, or you aren't, or you don't. There's no blocking, and no special attacks. It is simply all about shooting things until they explode into gory showers.
Perhaps it lacks subtlety, but Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel has a certain irreverent charm to its storyline and characters, combined with gameplay that I can only compare to crack rock. It's not Fallout 3, but try not to hold that against it.
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