Fallout 3, Bethesda’s behemoth resurrection of the beloved RPG franchise was one of the most acclaimed games of 2008 and to spite it’s geriatric engine, became one of the defining games of this generation. For the sequel Bethesda left the newly revived series in the hands of Obsidian, a studio formed from the remnants of Black Isle Studios who’s credits include the original Fallout and it’s sequel. With a track record of memorable RPG’s, and members of the original Fallout team, Obsidian was an appropriate heir to the franchise. Built on the foundation of Bethesda’s brilliant adaptation, New Vegas inherits it’s greatness but also reflects the pedigree of it’s developer with a bevy of tweaks that hearken back to the original PC games. The ingredients of success are here and overall New Vegas is a lengthy and satisfying experience, with a complex array of characters, tons of quests and a massive world that will occupy fans for months to come. It falls from grace to an extent however, and is held back from the achievement of it’s predecessor by the archaic nature of it’s hand-me-down engine and a laundry list of unacceptably prevalent technical flaws.
To those unfamiliar with the series’ modern incarnation, Fallout 3 represents one of the best contemporary amalgamations of classic RPG elements, FPS combat and sandbox gameplay. Players are set loose in a post apocalyptic wasteland where they brave the elements, as well as hostile factions, creatures and mutations, as they interact with the haggard remnants of humanity, completing quests and scavenging for the means to survive. With an emphasis on the desperation of post nuclear survival, scavenging is an essential part of the experience. Players will routinely search through debris, buildings, and storage containers for anything from food and chems to weapons or even scraps of junk that can be traded or used to craft useful items. Integral to it’s style is a future-past motif defined by a distinctly 1950’s ‘vision of tomorrow.’ This retro sci-fi design influences everything from the environments and architecture to the dialogue and behavior of characters. Even the songs you can listen to are pulled from that era and enforce the game’s cheeky sense of satire. Dark humor and nihilism further instill it with it’s own brand of comic relief and unique character.
New Vegas brings the series back west where it began, with an aesthetic overhaul that retains the future-nostalgic interpretation, but adapts it to an appropriately “western” theme. Given the games inescapable similarities to Fallout 3 in most respects, Obsidian was wise to pursue a new direction wherever possible. Far removed from the grayish hues of the Capital Wasteland, the red, yellow and tan landscape of the Mohave Desert, is the most distinguished departure from the original. The unique ecology of the arid environment is a welcome change and Obsidian does a great job featuring it’s variety, and imparting it’s western style throughout the experience.
You play as a Courier who, in a CG opening that features an appropriate gangster tableau, is shot and left for dead in the middle of the desert. The game begins when you are resurrected by a friendly doctor from a nearby town. A few rehabilitation exercises allow the player to calibrate his character’s look and attributes similarly to Fallout 3’s G.O.A.T. The storyline, as it’s presented is a bit flat footed. The opening narration, which simply gives you some requisite Fallout backstory and a local history lesson, is a no frills rundown that does little more then tell you plainly what you need to know. As a story it’s fairly un-engaging. The games narrative delivery lacks finesse, and the personal touch of Fallout 3’s father son motivation, but it gets the job done. It’s all about putting the player in the midst of a vast and dangerous world. It’s up to them to do the rest. Story is crucial but is more about the aura and mythology of the wasteland then direct dramatic exposition. You’re on your way in no time, and once the Doc gives you a clean bill of health, you step outside into this complex and troubled world.
The Mojave desert itself is huge. Supposedly bigger then the Capital Wasteland, it can at times seem staggeringly vast, and at others, surprisingly compact given that the Strip’s frequent visibility acts as a focal reference point even at great distances. There is a lot less subterranean segments and thankfully less segregated areas then the previous game’s downtown D.C. sections. This results in a map that’s seemingly more expansive since most of the territory is open and accessible, though less restrained difficulty scaling and rampant wildlife means players are often punished for indulging in free spirited exploration early on. The game does a pretty good job of steering you towards some basic quests that gradually introduce you to the wasteland, rather then thrusting you into it. Players can still wander around to a degree, but there is a clear route almost every player will have to take before they make it to the Strip and while I appreciate and understand the reasons the developers did this, they have effectively blocked off a significant portion of the map with a ridiculous amount of murderous creatures in order to shoehorn the player into a pre-determined path. A little guidance wasn’t uncalled for but the way they did so seems a little heavy handed and contradicts the “go anywhere, do anything” model it’s supposed to reflect.
Aside from some of the obvious bottlenecks, as far as I can tell enemy scaling is almost non existent. If you wander off the safe travel routes into the wasteland before you level up you run the risk of sudden extermination. It’s possible to move in safety but the enemies tend to be slightly tougher and New Vegas features more creatures that travel in packs, which means that if your not extremely cautious you can stumble upon or be sideswiped by enemies too difficult to successfully fend off. Exploration is simply less forgiving to errors and carelessness and resorts to more trial and error that further discourages the free roaming spirit of it’s predecessor. Though this can be frustrating at times the consolation is a heightened sense of danger that’s very appealing and some remote areas that are truly satisfying to discover when you’r powerful enough to do so.
Unlike Fallout 3, which was based primarily upon a Karma system New Vegas is all about reputation management throughout the many tribes and factions of the world. Karma exists but as far my experience went, seems like a virtually pointless carry-over. There are a surprising number of locations to encounter and a staggering number of individuals to interact with as you negotiate the region’s various leaders and precarious political climate, deciding who you want to ally yourself with and who you want to bring down. To simplify things there is a broader dichotomy based on the less complicated hostility between the two largest factions, the NCR, the acting government of the region, and Caesar’s Legion, their rival to power. This wider narrative arc centers on the conflict over Hoover Dam and the approaching battle between the two sides, and encompasses whatever political affiliations the player chooses to make with the remaining tribes. How the player interacts with these groups will define how the final battle plays out and given the number of possible coalitions and rivalries, there is an amazing amount of incentive to play through the game repeatedly in different ways.
Favor is gained by completing quests, infamy by rejecting them or simply displaying hostility to the members of a given faction. With so many groups, New Vegas has a ton of quests to enjoy and while the game’s tendency to mark any little endeavor as a “quest” means that many are simply errands, most are fairly substantial and overall there is significantly more content here then in Fallout 3. Given the game’s relatively short development cycle and the nature of it’s complicated, politically structured gameplay, it’s not surprising though that certain loyalties and dialogue options can become awkward or in some cases illogical. The immense amount of branching conversations and quests can lack continuity at times and seem a little rough around the edges.
The gameplay hearkens back to the original games with a slightly more hardcore RPG approach, and an increased difficulty level that is less forgiving up front. Overall the game expands upon the various facets of Fallout 3 making it a more complex, challenging, and ultimately satisfying affair. The primary difference is with health management. Whereas in Fallout 3 stimpaks were the far superior method to instantly regenerate health, here consumable items (all but useless before) grant you more health and do so gradually over time which allows the player to supplement themselves strategically during extended fights. Character skills have also been tweaked and now include “Survival” which further determines the players resistance to the environment and their effectiveness with alternative sources of health. There are more items and a greater variety of ways to augment your characters stats manage your status which, coupled with the increased difficulty, greatly enhance the games’ sense of lean post apocalyptic survival. For players looking to get even more out of this type of gameplay Hardcore mode is particularly satisfying. Increasing the number of factors that effect your character’s performance to include, hunger, dehydration and the need to sleep, it isn’t tedious like you’d expect but a highly gratifying extension of the survival experience.