The heavily Fallout-inspired ATOM RPG has been on my "play more" list for almost a year, since I enjoyed a few hours of it but was distracted by something else. It is my fault. I am very distractable. Happily its developers, AtomTeam, have just released a standalone expansion called Trudograd. It entered Steam Early Access on Monday (or you can get it on GOG, if you prefer).If you've not played ATOM, Trudograd is a surprisingly welcoming place to start, but my advice is to give it a while longer in the oven. I have a feeling it'll be worth the wait.
The setup of ATOM, and in fact an awful lot of what it does, will be familiar to anyone who's played the original Fallout games. America and the USSR nuked each other, and the remnant of a semi-legitimate military/scientific organisation sends you out into the wasteland many years later to explore. You'll wander a dusty geigerworld fighting mutants and grumpy men in makeshift armour, visiting settlements and talking to many people, discovering a sinister plot along the way. Character levelling works similarly, with a high emphasis on core attributes like strength and intelligence, which are directly tested in dialogue, and skills like medicine, lockpicking, and crafting having a drastic effect on what your options are when it comes to resolving fights and subplots.
All that carries over to Trudograd. Your character from the base game (or a new one you create, who will start at level 15 and answer a few questions in a dream sequence to determine the outcome of earlier events) is sent to the city of Trudograd to track down an experimental pre-war weapon that your bosses think can shoot down an Earthbound asteroid. It's a solid hook, and as this expansion is confined to one city, the condensed space makes the main plot thread feel closer, and more connected to everything else you're doing.
That's not to say it's exactly overflowing at the moment. AtomTeam estimate that about 30% of the game's stories and side jobs are in, and the rest will be done in six months or so. There are five city districts are far as I can tell, which work like the named locations in Fallout: you move between them on a functionally flat world map, and appear in a top-down 3D area when you reach one, or a random encounter along the way triggers a fight. Those random encounters can be avoided with the right skills, or faced head on for a fight and some combat XP and resources.
They're very lacking at present. I was able to skip the humans ones with a Speechcraft check, but was repeatedly attacked by wolves, sometimes several times in a row. My stealth and survival skills would fail, but then the actual map for the fight would load, and the wolves mostly stood around at random spots on the map until I used a side alley to avoid them and recommence my journey.
I wasn't exactly sorry that was possible, because combat is its weak spot, although the first of two caveats to that is the obvious "it's in early access and needs balancing" one. It works, again, much like Fallout's did. Real time movement switches to turn-based grid action when someone throws down, with move order determined by initiative, range by up to 10 action points (depending on a character's stats and perks), two active weapon/item slots, and the ability to aim at specific body parts for special effects.
Damages are a bit uneven, and while everything works, it lacked the solid, punchy satisfaction of some of its peers. Getting stunned on a critical hit is a death sentence, totally skipping multiple turns, and I've no idea who, if anyone, was a recruitable meat shield. There's no shortage of options, as Trudograd's crafting system offers a range of homemade guns, knives, and bombs, and perk points given upon each new level can be put into mostly combat-oriented special attacks, powers, or bonuses (these apply retroactively, so a "1% per level" bonus will give a full 20% if taken for the first time at level 20).
I didn't enjoy the combat, but that's at least partly because of my other caveat: it's very easy to avoid. I feared I'd made a mistake by creating a frail, poor fighter of a character with bags of personality and the Speechcraft skill instead, because that is often a miserable RPG path. But despite my meagre skill in punching and a failure to find any NPC lackeys, I realised late in my time with it that I'd sailed through 32 quests, and killed only one person. And even that was optional. Well, I suppose two, if you count the one that someone else shot to protect me after I screwd up a skill check. And you might count another two who were executed by revolutionaries while I did nothing. The wife of one of them certainly did. But hey, that's why... what don't we do, kids? We don't marry scumbags.
The talking approach works very well indeed, and there are lots of skill checks in its many dialogues to convince, threaten, or bargain with people for alternative paths through its quests. It helps that almost everyone you talk to has a fair bit to say, and will likely have a hand in a quest at some point. There's enough going on with them that I felt comfortable ditching some of the very first characters I spoke to simply because I disliked them personally, even though it probably meant missing out on potential side jobs and/or XP. You gain a great deal of XP for simply chatting to people enough, and I've had some fun mini-adventures just doing the odd jobs I normally find a chore in bigger games.
I've talked a writer into walking into a minefield. I gained a level after listening to some old women ramble on a bench. I've sucker-shot a top hatted millionaire with a crossbow, then taken a pastry of his corpse and eaten it. At one point during an interesting, text-based side mission that reminded me of the weird text adventure bits of Space Rangers 2, I failed to bluff a common guard, alerting a whole base to my presence, but subsequently bluffed his boss into surrendering the entire base without a fight. I have been in precisely zero fair fights, but I've told enough barefaced lies to convince people I'm very dangerous. You can just brazen it sometimes, and I enjoyed that very much. It helps a lot that there's a consistent vein of gentle humour, with a distinctly Eastern European (the dev team are dotted about all over the place) fatalism and surrealism that keeps the potential grimness at bay without becoming wacky.
Some side jobs only appear when new characters show up midway into the game, and open a new dimension on several other NPCs. There's a particularly good one about an interview that I twigged onto early but played along with anyway for the fun of it, and another bit where I met someone new, and was sure - sure I'd heard his name mentioned, but couldn't remember where. And just the fact that I vaguely recognised his name was enough to make me back out of an offer he'd made. I loved this moment. Look at this! I'm roleplaying in-character thought processes in an RPG. Crikey, it's been too long since that happened.
But. But but but. What's here is interesting, and more like its influences (in the interests of fairness, I should point out that it's inspired by other classic RPGs like Deus Ex and Baldur's Gate too) than the many other games that have staked a claim to this territory... it is a bit lacking at present. You'll be getting about a third of an expansion, and while you can absolutely start here, its strengths make me feel its empty spaces more keenly. The main plot hits a dead end much faster than some of the subplots, with one whole area being conspicuously devoid of people.
Dead characters sometimes sort of lean back and hover in the air instead of falling over. Skills are measured from a counter-intuitive 0-300, the survival elements are sort of pointless (and cooking currently doesn't work), and there are the usual minor proofreading issues, and the quest log could use better notes about which name is who. More seriously, I had a hard time early on with frequent crashes. A support page on GOG vastly improved - but didn't fully eliminate - this issue.
Trudograd might be a hard sell for players used to modern RPGs. It's far more approachable than most consciously retro-inspired RPGs, and it modernises the formula and structure of Interplay's legendary post-apocalypse adventures about as far as such a tributary game could. I'm on board. I want more. But if I'm being candid, I would have preferred to wait for its full release.