One of the staples of 1950's sci-fi and horror cinema was the "big bug" movie. These films sprang up in response to our growing unease with the nuclear age. After dropping the atomic bombs on Japan in World War II and seeing the resulting fallout, it was hard not to wonder if this new age energy was actually a good thing.

Japan itself has wrestled with the atomic age ever since those faithful days at the close of the war. Godzilla and countless other monster films (Kaiju eiga) are all the byproducts of the country's never-ending anxiety over radioactive fallout. And while many academics have reached well beyond what's implied in the films, to deny that the films are made in response to being the bombed instead of the bomber is incredibly shortsighted.

As Japanese film authority Patrick Macias points out in his book Tokyo-Scope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, "Art attempts to create the impossible with limited means. Sometimes this gives birth to works of greatness. Sometimes it leads to giant monsters." Taking that a step farther, sometimes it leads to games like Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel.

The Fallout series began life as a PC role-playing game (RPG). What set it and its sequel apart from the glut of RPGs on the market was its setting. Rather than have a band of intrepid adventurers exploring medieval dungeons and fighting dragons, Fallout moved the RPG to the post-apocalyptic future—a world where films like Mad Max would have been right at home. Apparently, this change of venue struck a chord with gamers, as both Fallout and Fallout 2 are often cited as some of the greatest PC RPGs of all time. Why publisher Interplay and developer Black Isle Studio chose to ignore this rich historical lineage and make a game that has more in common with Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance than the original PC incarnations is beyond me. Chalk it up as yet another example of console gamers getting the short end of the proverbial stick.

So, rather than get a port of one of the original PC titles, or the much ballyhooed (and now apparently dead) Fallout 3, Interplay offers gamers everywhere Brotherhood of Steel—a game that's a Fallout title in name only.

The story takes place in an alternate reality, where civilization teeters on the brink of extinction after a horrific nuclear holocaust. At least, that's how it appears to be. Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel is pretty light in the narrative department. At any rate, players will choose from one of three essentially interchangeable knights. Players are then sent to a small town to find a group of paladins from the same organization—a task that is far easier said than done.

Upon arriving in town, the paladins aren't around but everyone and their brother has a task for the new knight in town to handle. These missions run the gamut from getting gigantic radioactive scorpion tails for use in a new alcoholic beverage created by the disgusting local bartender—appropriately named Armpit (who reminded me of the gross chef on Nickelodeon's old show You Can't Do That on Television, quite honestly)—to finding prostitute Ruby's missing cat, Mr. Pussy, to taking out the scantily clad raider Matron who's enslaving the local citizenry. While the missions may all sound different, players achieve their goals in the same way time and time again—by hacking the living crap out of everything that gets in their path.

To call the gameplay of Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel repetitive would be like saying Mount Everest is a big hill. While the game is certainly yet another in a long line of hack-and-slash titles (which are repetitive by their very nature), Brotherhood of Steel goes above and beyond in terms of lulling players into a complete and all-encompassing sense of apathy. Where a game like Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance at least offers up a variety of characters who handle differently from everyone else, Brotherhood of Steel even manages to fail in this regard. When the only discernable difference between the main characters is that some can use a pistol in each hand while others can't, then the developers obviously haven't done enough to add variety to the game mechanics.

Gameplay is a boring mixture of hacking and slashing broken up by the occasional boss battle and story interlude. At each level up, characters get a certain number of attribute points that can be distributed to numerous skills. Even this is dumbed-down in comparison to every other hack-and-slash game out there. The cost of upgrades and point allotments at each level-up makes it almost painfully obvious about how the player should proceed. Factor in that some of the skills seem totally worthless and one wonders why the leveling-up mechanic was included at all (particularly since players don't even get an increase in hit points at each new level).

The game runs on the same engine as Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, and while that particular engine looked pretty spiffy a few years back, it's definitely starting to show its age now. Whereas the Baldur's Gate title could employ an interesting and diverse color palette (thanks to the fantasy setting), everything in Brotherhood of Steel is a post-apocalyptic shade of brown and gray, with the one notable exception being the neon green pools of toxic sludge.

Replay value is essentially non-existent, since the game has nothing even remotely resembling a branching path. Players get to choose from dialogue options, but choosing one remark over another never has any real consequence. Yes, it's nice to be able to tell someone to go bugger off, but players are still going to wind up doing the mission anyway.

Upon completing the game, players can unlock three extra characters, who are all interchangeable as well. While Dark Alliance had Drizzt Do'Urden, Brotherhood of Steel offers up three new characters who are just as boring and non-descript as the initial cast. Needless to say, this is a beat it once and then shelve it experience. Nothing in this game warrants a second trip through, and most people will struggle to finish the first go-around.

It's a shame when developers feel the urge to take a great franchise and tinker around with it—ultimately turning it into something else in the process. Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel is a fine example of everything that can wrong when taking this approach. The repetitive hack-and-slash gameplay has nothing in common with the earlier incarnations of the series and will surely alienate the Fallout faithful. Meanwhile, the newcomers to the Fallout universe aren't likely to be sucked in by the uninteresting and flat characters nor the nonexistent story. The end result is a game that no one but game reviewers and the morbidly curious gamer will play. Sometimes you make art—sometimes you make mediocre games. Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel is certainly the latter. Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

Mike Bracken
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