So, the beginning of Fallout 2 . . .
This game is an absolute classic, and even in the opening minutes, it is easy to see a whole host of gameplay improvements that refine the formula of the original Fallout into something truly special. But that beginning level . . .
It's not terrible. It could have been tortuous. If the difficulty had been set just a smidge higher, it might well have been unplayable. As it is, it is merely . . . unpleasant.
I think the problem is that the opening of Fallout 2 briefly abandons the series' ethos of unlimited choice in favor of a narrative that is not especially compelling. The first thing you do when starting up a new game is make a character. It's just like Fallout. You can select traits (always choose "gifted"), assign your S.P.E.C.I.A.L attributes, and pick three tagged skills. The goal is to anticipate what you'll need over the course of the game, to create a character capable of tackling whatever the wasteland has to offer.
However, unless you pick a pretty specific build, the opening level is going to be a total pain in the ass. You are plopped down in the middle of this giant, bug-infested temple (where did it come from, what is its purpose, how did all these damned bugs get into it - it's best not to ask) and you have to fight your way through to the central chamber using only your spear. Didn't choose a melee build? Have fun with a bunch of tedious whiff-fest combats and inaccessible side passages (because you can't rest to heal, so deviating from the main path will wear down your hp to unacceptable levels).
I got through it, but it took me at least three reloads and a resolve to avoid trying to get any extraneous loot. Not an auspicious start to a game that prides itself on its wide-open exploration. Still, I won the right to become my tribe's champion and wear the holy garment of the Vault Dweller (I'd have much rather they preserved the holy power armor or the holy plasma rifle of the Vault Dweller, but I guess that would be too much to ask).
After that, the game opens up a bit, but it's still kind of aggravating (I want to rescue my cousin's dog, but I can't because the only weapon I have is a fucking spear). Yet despite that, the village of Arroyo shows off a lot of what will make Fallout 2 into one of the greats. The maps are much bigger and more diverse (this pissant starting town is as big as anything in the original Fallout), and there are more jokes and greater attention to world-building (even if that world-building doesn't make a lot of sense - where are the survivors of a nuclear apocalypse getting all this tribal culture from, particularly if their development was strongly influenced by a man who lived most of his life in an underground vault).
While it is fun to dick around and do side-quests, the real meat of the game is my holy mission - to retrieve a Garden of Eden Creation Kit (a G.E.C.K.) and save my ramshackle village from some kind of vaguely defined ecological disaster. To do that, I must track down Vic, a trader who passed through Arroyo and sold a flask with the Vault 13 logo (I do have to hand it to Vault-tec, they did not cut corners when it came to branding). His last known residence was in Klamath, to the east.
Once in Klamath, I discover that Vic has not been seen for quite some time. D'oh! Being the good citizen I am, I loot his back room (finding, in the process, a deck of "Tragic" cards, which, okay, M:tG was huge huge back when this game was made, but still kind of a lame parody), and then proceed to do random favors for practically everyone else in town. I save Torr's herd from being eaten by scorpions (still wielding the damned spear) and buy Sulik out of slavery (mostly using the proceeds from selling Vic's stuff). I also go and kill a bunch of rats for the people of Trapper Town, because of course there are giant rats in an rpg.
I can't get much of a read on Klamath's culture. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of law and order, but then you have "indentured servitude" and the local brothel seems compelled to euphemistically refer to itself as a "bathouse" (despite there being no baths on the premises - I checked). As far as I can tell, it's just some podunk frontier town that makes its living off of selling gecko hides, but it's not yet clear what it's on the frontier of. If I really think about it, I think it's probably a genre conceit. On the surface, Fallout is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi rpg, but structurally, it is actually more like a western. So you've got tribal people who are clearly based off of Native Americans (perhaps even offensively so, the culture of Arroyo is a bit whitewashed and vague), then frontier towns like Klamath or Junktown, where there's a rough and tumble form of border civilization, upheld by local strongmen (though the closest I found in Klamath was Slim Picket, but he gets extra points for having a western-style name), and then big cities like the Hub or the Den, which represent a kind of decadent and corrupt core of civilization that honest people move to the frontier to escape.
I'm not a big connoisseur of post apocalyptic fiction in general, so I can't say whether this western influence is more general to the genre, but I do know that Fallout: New Vegas really takes it to the next level, and so I can't help but think that it's an influence that's pretty tightly woven into the series' DNA.
I think the game next wants me to go to the Den. I am not so sure that's a good idea. My equipment is terrible and I have no money. Going to a dangerous and expensive-sounding location like "the Den" feels like an invitation to get brutally mugged. Yet it's the only lead I have. (Even moreso than the original Fallout, Fallout 2 is terrible about telling you where to go).