Welcome to the Wasteland: A guide to the world of Fallout

War. War never changes, but Fallout games do. Before Fallout 4 arrives we take a look at the extensive world of the Wasteland and the games that came before.

Nic Healey Senior Editor / Australia
Nic Healey is a Senior Editor with CNET, based in the Australia office. His passions include bourbon, video games and boring strangers with photos of his cat.
Nic Healey
6 min read

It's been 18 years since the first Fallout game landed on PCs, introducing people to the strange alternate history of the post-apocalyptic Fallout world.

The original game itself was considered a "spiritual sequel" to 1988's Wasteland. That title however, would end up with its own sequel in 2014, when the brave new world of Kickstarter brought us Wasteland 2 .

Since September 30, 1997 there have been seven games to wear the Fallout mantle: four from the main series and three spin-offs. As Fallout 4 gets ready to launch on the new generation of consoles on November 10, here's a rundown of what you may have missed.

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Forget the iPhone, Pip-Boy 3000 is the marvel of miniaturisation in the world of Fallout. The screen also runs down the SPECIAL system for character attributes.

Bethesda Game Studios

The Future's so bright, I gotta wear thermonuclear protection

The world of Fallout is pretty different to ours, and not just because it's set a few hundred years in the future. No, our reality and that of the retro-futuristic Fallout diverges somewhere in the 1940s.

Rather than the transistor, which allowed our world to begin miniaturising electronics in 1947, the Fallout universe runs on the power of the atom. Both fission and fusion reactors were developed. Large reactors powered whole cities, while smaller nuclear batteries were found in cars, household robots and of course, the inevitable military tech.

Global culture stagnated under this wave of technological innovation, with America pressing pause around the 1950s when it came to cars, clothing, art and music. However politics shifted dramatically, with the United States becoming a system of 13 different Commonwealths to try and stop the spread of Communism.


Vaultboy, the mascot for Vault-Tec.


When oil prices were hiked by Middle Eastern countries in 2052, the European Commonwealth responded with military force and the Resource Wars began. China annexed the oil-rich Alaska. America responded by annexing Canada and then, on Saturday October 23, 2077 the bombs fell.

Nuclear attacks hit America, China and the USSR. No one knows who dropped the first bomb, but the two-hour exchange of arms devastated the entire world.

However, two decades earlier, a terrorist attack that destroyed Tel Aviv brought the paranoia of nuclear warfare to the boil. The US Government had previously contracted a company called Vault-Tec to build 122 enormous nuclear fallout shelters across the country, allowing for at least a few survivors to see the dawn of the Wasteland.

What those survivors didn't know is that the Vaults were actually commissioned as part of an enormous social experiment by a group called the Enclave, designed to run experiments to see how the survivors would respond to both isolation and the stress of repopulating the world after nuclear Armageddon.

Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game

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Fallout 1

Interplay Entertainment

And that's how we get to the world of the Wasteland in the first Fallout game. It's 2161 and in Southern California Vault 13 has been keeping survivors and their descendants alive for 84 years. A malfunctioning computers sends you, the Vault Dweller, out to look for a replacement Water Chip, with only 150 days before Vault 13 runs out of clean water.

Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game introduces many of the recurring Wasteland creatures mutated by radiation: Giant Radscorpions, monstrous mutated humans known as Supermutants and zombie-like (but very much alive) Ghouls. The Wasteland is a dog-eat-dog world broken up by small communities struggling to survive.

The Vault Dweller also had a chance to encounter Dogmeat, a canine companion who'd go on to make quite a few appearances in the series, as well as the Brotherhood of Steel, the power-armour-wearing remnants of the US military.

The game gave the player a top-down isometric view of the world. Combat was turn-based and the role-playing elements saw the Vault Dweller travelling far and wide to recruit companions and converse with a variety of Wastelanders.

Fallout introduced the same SPECIAL system for character generation present in every other title in the series. SPECIAL refers to the seven attributes that define your character and influence your skills: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. Your character could also choose traits and perks that would influence your skills and attributes.

Action Points also make their first appearance, used to define what actions you're capable of taking in a combat situation. Finally, we get our first Pip-Boy 2000, the wrist mounted personal computer that serves as our interface game elements like inventory and quest tracking.

Fallout 2: A Post-Nuclear Role Playing Game


Fallout 2

Interplay Entertainment

Arriving just one year later in 1998, Fallout 2 jumped the setting ahead to 2241, 80 years after the first game. This protagonist is a descendant of the original Vault Dweller, known as the Chosen One, living with a primitive tribe that faces starvation in the wake of a drought.

The game brings us the Enclave as primary antagonists, as well as the Forced Evolutionary Virus, or FEV. The New Californian Republic (NCR) is introduced and we start seeing the prevalence of drugs in The Wasteland. Fallout 2 was a darker and more adult game than the first title, with slavery, organized crime and a lot of swearing making an appearance.

Character generation and gameplay were similar to the original game. New perks were added, skills became more important and a Karma system accompanied reputation, influencing the way a whole towns would react to you, as well as individuals.

Companions also became more detailed, with the player having more control of the actions in combat. Recruiting companions was based on both your Karma and your Charisma attribute.

Fallout 2 expanded the game setting, painting a bigger picture of a broad and detailed world and setting the scene for Fallout 3.

Fallout 3

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Fallout 3

Bethesda Game Studios

Fallout 2 was followed up by two spin-offs, Fallout Tactics in 2001 and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel in 2004. It wasn't until 2008 and after three cancelled attempts that fans got the official third instalment, Fallout 3.

The first game in the series developed by Bethesda Game Studios, Fallout 3 begins in the year 2277 and takes place on the US East Coast in the Capital Wasteland -- what was once Washington DC.

The character, this time known as the Lone Wanderer, is once again a Vault dweller cast out into the unfamiliar world. The game brings back the Enclave and the FEV and gives us the first mentions of the secretive Institute, synthetic humans and The Commonwealth, which would go on to be the setting for Fallout 4. Dogmeat returns and the Pip-Boy gets upgraded to the 3000 model.

The biggest changes were to combat. Fallout 3 moved away from isometric view and offered first- and third-person viewpoints for real-time combat. The Vault-Assisted Targeting System or VATS made its first appearance, letting you pause the real-time fighting and spend action points to target various limbs or multiple opponents.

Fallout 3 also brought in the Vault-Tec Bobbleheads, these little promotional tchotchkes based on the Vault-Tec mascot added points to your attributes and skills, with 20 to collect all up.

While SPECIAL remains, the numbers of skills were dropped and Perks and Traits were merged. Weapons and armour now wore out from use and need to be repaired. The player could find schematics letting them build new, exotic weapons.

Fallout: New Vegas

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Fallout: New Vegas

Obsidian Entertainment

The first in the main series not to be a direct sequel, New Vegas takes place four years after Fallout 3 and has The Courier as the main protagonist in the area around Nevada and California.

The game brought a Western feel to the series thanks to the desert setting and more than a few cowboy elements. The NCR plays a large role, as does Caesar's Legion, an ancient Roman-styled society of slavers.

Four DLC add-ons followed to expand the story, even taking the setting to Utah, the Southwest Commonwealth and the far side of the blighted Mojave desert.

Character creation, combat and general gameplay were mostly the same as Fallout 3, although Traits made a comeback and New Vegas started offering weapon modifications in addition to repair and schematics. Bobbleheads were sadly missing, but players could get high-tech implants that would perform in a similar way.

What's next?

Bethesda have been careful not to reveal too much about Fallout 4. We do know that your character, the Sole Survivor, will be exploring The Commonwealth, the area around the Old World of Boston, as they depart Vault 111 some 200 years after the Great War.

Your character will also be voiced for the first time, with 111,000 lines of male and female dialogue recorded. Skills and Perks have merged for a completely different levelling experience, and the crafting system now includes a way to build settlements, as well as expanded modifications for weapons and armour.

Bethesda clearly want to make the next Fallout bigger and better than ever, and in just a few short days old fans and people new to the Wasteland can see it all first hand.