When Bethesda released Fallout 3 in the fall of 2008, it was lauded as one of the greatest open-world role-playing games of the time. Now, two years later the juggernaut of a franchise has another addition to its repertoire with Fallout: New Vegas. It appears that Obsidian didn't feel the need to change much about the successful formula, as the similarities to its predecessor are so significant I often want to call it Fallout 3: New Vegas. Since the first game was so widely loved, that's certainly not a bad thing, but New Vegas does feel like a giant, awesome expansion.
The Fallout series takes place after a nuclear war and the U.S. is desecrated, a shell of its former glory. Humanity emerges from the tragedy as selfish and power-hungry as ever. Despite the bombardment of numerous nukes, the city of Vegas managed to survive the war mostly untouched. In the aftermath, a group of people formed touting the values of the old governmental system and called themselves the New California Republic, or NCR. Thanks to the Hoover Dam, the NCR and citizens of New Vegas have access to clean water and power, something most areas lack. At odds with the NCR is the Legion, a dictatorship lead by a man who renamed himself Caesar. Based on the Roman methodology of conquering other civilizations, the Legion absorbs nearby tribes and enslaves a portion of their population. The NCR and Caesar's Legion butt heads over control of the area, and tensions are high.
You're a courier in these troubled times with no defined background. Just a seemingly regular guy or gal, you're tasked with delivering a package to the New Vegas strip, but let's just say complications arise. Though the story provides pops of color and a few necessary minor twists to keep things interesting, it's predictable just the same. There are three possible endings to the main quest, and similar to Fallout 3 at launch, once you complete it you won't be able to continue your journey through the wastelands unless you re-load an old save. This is a bummer, especially since that was a major complaint with Fallout 3 and Bethesda later fixed it with downloadable content.
When you enter the Mojave Desert for the first time you'll notice that the landscape looks similar to the previous wastelands, but now there's actual vegetation around. While most of it is dried up, you can find and harvest fresh fruit, seeds, and herbs, which you can use to whip up concoctions like healing powder or stimpaks. Though the game is still really difficult when you're inexperienced, the main missions lead you along a relatively safe route to the New Vegas strip, where the story starts to get interesting.
At first I enjoyed the fact that each faction you can help seemed to have shades of grey instead of a black or white morality scale – the New California Republic is bloated and ineffective at protecting its people, but the tight ship the Legion runs with slave labor is off-putting. Then I realized you gain Karma for murdering Legion members and lose Karma for killing NCR troops, so the lines weren't so blurred after all. While it's a little disappointing and short, you won't (and shouldn't) be spending most of your time on the primary quest.
Apart from the key story, there's a plethora of side missions to play through and they're what makes the game truly shine. The great thing about the open world of New Vegas is just that – there are few limits to exploration. There's almost an overwhelming amount of places to find and every time you turn around someone will want your help. Just when you think you've explored every nook and cranny of an area, you'll realize that there are underground sewers to brave or some other previously undiscovered sector. Some quests are short and of the "go fetch" variety, while others are truly epic tales that overshadow the chief storyline. Deception, cannibalism, space travel and drug use are all themes found in off-the-straight-and-narrow places. Expect to spend approximately 100 hours (around the same as Fallout 3) if you want to see and complete every mission available in the game. Depending on how you treat people, their opinion of you will change. If you're kind to a small town of folks and help protect them from hostile groups, they'll idolize you, while the opposing group will hate you. These opinions are important as they'll determine how aggressive the different groups are toward you.
The wasteland can be a lonely place, but you don't have to wander alone. There are several companions that will join you on your quest and will have issues of their own they'll want you to help with. You can be accompanied by two different friends at a time, one of the robot or animal variety and one person (or former person). Each companion offers a special boost and their kills give you experience points, but they can also be more trouble than they're worth. I lost track of mine constantly, and there's no easy way to hunt them down. Even more irritating is their terrible A.I. Although you can easily hop a three-foot-tall fence, your buddies have to go the long way around until they find a direct opening. Still, despite their obvious flaws, it's nice having others around while you fix the world's many problems.
If your relatively silent pals don't comfort you enough, you can also tune into radio stations with Mr. New Vegas as the prime DJ, voiced by Wayne Newton. He's much less irritating than Three-Dog from Fallout 3, but the songs and stories still repeat often, meaning you won't want to be tuned in for the entirety of your playthrough.
If you've played Fallout 3, you won't miss a step when transitioning over to New Vegas since it's largely the same in terms of gameplay. Wandering the desert, you'll meet friendly people and kill aggressive monsters and thugs. Or maybe you'll kill friendly people and become friends with the thugs, though you should still kill the monsters. New animal foes are present in the West, including but not limited to pesky Cazadores (giant flying insects that will poison you), Giant Praying Mantises (er, they are what they sound like) and Nightstalkers (a scary crossbreed of rattlesnake and coyote). All these creatures sport colorful designs, making them pretty to look at while you shoot them. There's something intensely satisfying about lighting an enemy on fire with a flamethrower, then capping them in the head with a .357 Magnum and finishing them off with a Plasma Rifle. Killing is never a chore, and always an adventure.
Speaking of shooting (Pew! Pew!), you can play the game from either a first-person or third-person perspective. Third-person allows for a useful vantage point (you won't find yourself randomly attacked from behind), but the animations are goofy and it's impractical for shooting on the fly. First-person mode is more useable and though you lack a full 360 degree view you can finally aim down the sights with your gun, making it easier to play like a first-person shooter while your V.A.T.S. is recharging. Designed to make the game less of a shooter, V.A.T.S. (stands for Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) allows you to pause the action and select specific body parts of your target. Want to decapitate a coyote or shoot off the arm of an aggressive gang member? Go right ahead. To keep the system from being abused and completely unbalancing the gameplay, every shot you fire takes up a certain amount of action points. The more powerful the weapon, the more action points it will use.
After you complete enough quests or bring death upon a whole town you might notice that you've leveled up. Fallout: New Vegas uses the same character building system as Fallout 3, so S.P.E.C.I.A.L. determines your basic character stats and skill sets and perks are back. The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. acronym stands for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck. At the beginning of the game you'll be able to allocate points to whichever stat you'd like, then build out your skills and finally choose a perk. Choose wisely, because although a super strong but unintelligent character might be able to carry a bunch of stuff around, he or she won't gain as many skill points to divvy up later. The skills are the same as before, ranging from lock picking to speech to bartering to guns -- you'll have to think carefully about how you want your character to engage with the world. Although it won't happen every time you level up, you will be prompted to pick perks. Perks are fun and can either help build out your character by increasing your V.A.T.S. accuracy, level you up again immediately, enable Easter eggs that are otherwise locked away, or allow you to om nom on human flesh to regain health. It's great that the breadth and depth of the leveling system remained untouched, but I found myself selecting practical perks over and over to increase my S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats and the experience points I'd gain.
Since New Vegas is known for its gambling, there are more ways to earn caps (Fallout's form of currency) than before. On the strip you can try out the slot machines or play blackjack, and while in the wasteland you can play a game of Caravan with drifters. Caravan is a unique card game that slightly resembles blackjack but requires more strategy and allows you to build out your own particular set of cards. I didn't find it necessary to play much of any of these mini-games as I had more than enough cash by looting every abandoned house I found or every dead body I created.
Though now you can aim down the sights in first-person mode and there are new weapon and ammo modifications and gambling mini-games, the biggest addition to the game is Hardcore Mode. This option makes surviving so much more difficult that the game actually recommends against enabling it. Becoming sort of a Sims situation, you'll have to make sure you regularly feed, water, and rest your character. Adding to that inconvenience is that everything – including ammo – counts toward your weight limit. There are also limitations on your ability to fast travel – if your character would dehydrate by the end of the journey, you won't be able to embark until you've had some water. It's more realistic and offers a degree of difficulty that's hard to find later in the game, but it's not for the faint of heart.
Fallout: New Vegas uses the same engine as Fallout 3 and comes with the same technical issues. Animations have no weight to them, lip synching ranges from good to non-existent and the artificial intelligence is dumber than a rock. More often than not you'll run across an enemy or ally who just can't seem to figure out how to get around that corner. These flubs are certainly humorous, but the choppy framerate and terrible load times are no laughing matter. Load times on consoles range from annoying to downright painful, ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes. New Vegas can run smoothly, but also slows down or freezes intermittently, so save often.