Last time we talked about the Fallout series, we talked a lot about immersion. Fallout 3 put you into your character's shoes literally from the moment they were born, right through to their final decision. The world was expansive, immaculately detailed, and at times seemed as though it was ready to come apart at the seams, as the technology lagged behind the ideals. Now, along comes Fallout: New Vegas, which is neither sequel, nor expansion pack. Developed by Obisidian Entertainment, whose staffers include alumni of the early Fallout games, New Vegas takes the technology, gameplay and style created by Fallout 3 and changes the location to the opposite side of the USA. But is it worthy of your hard-earned caps?
If you're familiar with Fallout 3 then you may be initially disappointed with New Vegas. The immersion factor from its predecessor seems mishandled. After Ron Perlman gives you the lowdown on the Mojave Wasteland, you're deposited into the world as a courier who is cornered by a gang of well-dressed thugs, who steal your freight and put a bullet in your brain pan. You wake up in the shack of a kindly doctor, who asks you a series of questions and shows you a series of Rorschach tests to ascertain your stats, which doesn't really work as well as the introductory sequence of Fallout 3, as at any time you can correct the game's deductions about how you want to play (which was frequently wrong). Soon after, you're let loose outside the shack for your first glimpse at the Mojave Wasteland... which is a run down farming town. You'll run around for quite a while at the start of the game, looking for a Megaton, or something else that's as visually arresting, but you won't have much luck. The game gets off to a bit of a slow start.
For us, the explicit story wasn't exactly that compelling either. As a courier who's had his package stolen, your only impetus in venturing forth into the wasteland is to retrieve said package and find out who shot you. Are you out for revenge? That's up to you, we suppose. Retrieving a parcel, whose value is unknown, is not the best way to string you along throughout the game (although the story does pick up pace as you get deeper in), but luckily that's not where the game's storytelling strength lies. It's in the world you explore. Obsidian obviously know how to make interesting side stories, and you can be sure that in every minor location that you visit, there'll be something to learn, some horrible sight to see, or something really cool to do. The world itself is immersive and begs to be explored, even if the main narrative doesn't. The number of quests on offer is impressive, as is the quality of their storytelling. As an example, tiring of the main quest, you may wander into a broken down museum for a strange company and take a tour from one of its barely-functioning robots. However, you'll soon find yourself really engaged in learning the history of the facility as you see its connections to other locations, and what exactly they're hiding on the higher floors...
The gameplay experience that Fallout: New Vegas provides is much the same to Fallout 3 as well. It's a role playing game, with a first person shooter twist. You can gallivant around the Wasteland shooting the stuffing out of everything you encounter, using standard shooter controls or entering 'VATS' and freezing time to target specific body parts. Or, you may have a silver tongue and can convince both friend and foe to agree to you without a fight. There's a thousand different ways you can set up your character, but there are times these choices aren't as important as they could be. You'll find magazines that can temporarily boost your stats to tackle certain problems. And you can guarantee that if you run into a situation that requires a high repair or science skill, there'll be another way around it that requires finding an object, or talking to someone. This means there's a great deal of flexibility in how you play the game, and allows you to see and do more on your first play-through, rather than relying on subsequent games and character set-ups (as the game does not allow you to continue playing past the ending).
In terms of new gameplay features, there's nothing that necessarily sets the world on fire. Mini-games based around gambling, such as 'Caravan' are interesting, but hardly vital to playing the game. The ability to mix flowers and herbs to create tonics, or create ammo or recycle parts at various 'workbenches' around the Wasteland is also a nice addition, but probably not something you're going to be thinking about until you actually come across a workbench. The new companion wheel allows you to more easily communicate with followers, as well as directly healing them - which is a Godsend considering that the AI has not improved since Fallout 3 either, and companions will lag behind, get stuck and find new and exciting ways to kill themselves as often as they can. New Vegas will last you around 20-30 hours if you're just interested in the main quest, and up to 100 or more if you want to explore everything.
The Mojave Wasteland itself has a bit of a 'Wild West' feel. You'll be encountering sarsaparilla by the crate load, running into several saloons, meeting robots with the personality of cowboys, etc. The area is controlled by several factions, the largest ones being the New California Republic (who aim to keep the peace but have a habit of occupying towns by force) and Caesar's Legion (slavers and diction-nazis who produce 'Caesar' in its proper Latin form), as well as several gangs and factions within New Vegas. Your actions with one faction will endear you to them, and antagonise you to others, and the best part about the game is, there is no right answer. The NCR may seem good, but they're far from a perfect 'good' force. The Powder Gangers are thugs and escaped criminals, but were they rightfully imprisoned in the first place? There's a lot of ambiguity in the game that we think is fantastic, and was sorely missing from Fallout 3, and you actually feel as though your decisions have a real impact on the world around you. Often you'll side with one faction on a mission, only to later find you've failed a series of others due to your actions. You can also gain respect in the various towns you visit, and become anywhere from feared to idolised for how you treat them.
Unfortunately, New Vegas is still running on the same engine as Fallout 3 was two years ago, and the game feels every bit of its age. While the Wasteland is expansive and about as large as the Capitol Wasteland of Fallout 3, it's plagued with bugs. It's not uncommon to see enemies frozen in place or bushes and grass floating in mid-air. Characters' faces remain emotionless, even if the voice acting is quite decent. On the 360, we encountered several freezes, so the rule of thumb remains - save early, save often. Despite all this, and despite unimpressive early locations, there are some visually interesting places you will encounter such as a solar power facility, the decayed rollercoaster of Primm and of course, New Vegas itself.
Is Fallout: New Vegas a good game? Unquestionably. Is it better than Fallout 3? That's a little harder to answer. Fallout 3 was a bit of a revolution for its time, providing immersion par excellence, and a world that was actively changed by your decisions (see: Megaton). New Vegas builds upon all of this, providing a deeper world with harsher repercussions for your actions, but somehow missing the immersion of its predecessor. And unfortunately, it inherits all of the problems of its forefather as well. Two years is a long time in the video game industry, and at times New Vegas' technical limitations hold back the experience. If you liked Fallout 3, you will like this game. If you liked Fallout 1 or 2, you might find more to attract you with this title as it re-introduces some of the deeper aspects of the role playing genre. If you like great RPG games, you will like this game. Just prepare to stick with it for the long haul, and explore everything you can. In New Vegas, it's worth it.