Fallout: New Vegas Review
It's been two years since Bethesda released Fallout 3, a game that many consider to be their favorite from 2008. In launching it, a divide was created: Bethesda fans on one side, and fans of the classic Fallout games on the other. They disagreed over what makes a game fun, bickered over what a modern game can get away with, and have never gotten along since. This is the internet, after all.
But one studio was in a unique position to bring these two groups together, to bridge the gap and show that the fantastic atmosphere and subtle storytelling of Fallout 3 could combine with the hardcore RPG systems and wider range of choices present in the previous games. All of it would be built on an entirely new location out in the Mojave desert near the Nevada/California border, and it would unify fans of Fallout into one voice of love for one of the most beloved franchises in video game history.
Okay, just kidding - there's almost no chance of people agreeing on Fallout nowadays. Obsidian are not miracle workers, but I'm happy to say that this is the best game they've made yet (and I loved KOTOR2, rushed ending, shortcomings, and all). Fallout: New Vegas makes some great strides to filling in the gaps that Bethesda left back in the Capital Wasteland, but we're still working with that same engine, almost completely unchanged, and a very familiar way to explore, fight, find fortune, and save the world - or at least, the world you find yourself encased in. It's better in many ways, worse in a couple of others, but overall, New Vegas is an evolution of what Bethesda (re)started, not a revolution.
The most obvious difference, right from the start, is the scenery. New Vegas takes place out in the Mojave desert from just inside California over to Las Vegas, and the landscape is a little more pristine, as the bombs from the Great War didn't fall here. Your character is a courier, someone who's supposed to command at least a little respect out in the Mojave, but when you get mixed up in the wrong job, a nice man in a white-and-black checkered suit takes the item you were delivering and shoots you in the face. But his from-the-hip shot wasn't terribly accurate, and after getting tossed into a shallow grave, a rather strange robot digs up your character's body shortly after the killers leave. You'll be left waking up in a house owned by a pleasant old man named Doc Mitchell (Colonel Tigh on Battlestar Galactica), and after a quick character setup screen, you'll open the door to the outside world and start your quest to find your would-be killers and get some revenge. There's no introductory "dungeon", and your chance to edit your character comes when you leave Goodsprings, the village where you begin.
The art style in New Vegas has this clash between classic westerns and the retro-future 1950s sci-fi. From the title screen to the first few minutes after you step outside and into the sunlight, this is a game that's not afraid to lean on concept art and overall design to create atmosphere. That combination of art styles percolates down into the characters, the missions and quests they give you, and even the perks and abilities you'll get.
When the bullets start to fly, as they likely will even in your first quest, you'll quickly realize that while Obsidian did what they can to improve the dialog and introduce new character choices, they considered revamping the combat to be outside of the scope of this project. Still, I find it difficult to fault Obsidian for sticking with a combat system that, frankly, does work well enough most of the time, and it did sell many millions of copies already. And hey, there's something to be said for getting to throw spears at enemies in Roman Legionnaire armor while your Pipboy's radio pipes in a DJ named Mr. New Vegas (voiced by real-life Vegas legend Wayne Newton) introducing Gene Autry's classic "Jingle Jangle Jingle". As silly as some of Fallout 3's combat rules and actual fighting were, Obsidian has embraced it instead of shunning it, introducing a new range of fun and amusing weaponry as well as allowing you to hit specific body parts now with both guns and melee weapons.
You'll also be able to use a new reloading workbench to convert and create ammo, and even make Weapon Repair Kits that you can take with you for field repairs without needing similar weapons. There's an updated iron sights mode that gives you better aim by putting the gun's real sights right in your view, just like your favorite military shooters. And on top of all this, the functionality of one of the best mods from Fallout 3, Weapon Mod Kits, is now in New Vegas: you can buy mods for your weapons that add ammo capacity, silencers, scopes, and more, and add them to your favorite weapons right from the Pip-boy menu.
Throughout your journey around the Mojave Wasteland, you'll find many of those great nooks and crannies with some of the most interesting, non-voiced storytelling that I found Fallout 3 to excel at (far more than actual spoken dialogue, most of the time). You'll see several very strange Vaults to explore, forensics "puzzles" that challenge you to figure out what happened in some old shack or cave when the bombs dropped, and ways to infiltrate and exploit the game's multiple factions while still maintaining both karma (good or bad) as well as a separate range of both positive and negative reputations with the Mojave's inhabitants.
You'll also see wackier and more interesting characters, more lifelike interactions during conversations, and improved lip sync. All of these add up to a substantial improvement on what we saw in Fallout 3, even if a few still-lingering problems, like wooden animations and that vaguely awkward feel of combat, have become even more glaring since we saw them two years ago. One thing I really do appreciate is that while Obsidian couldn't fix everything, the stuff they did add feels right in line with the dark humor of the series. I'm far from an expert on the history of Fallout, but every once in a while this game seems to have a legitimacy, a level of expertise with the series' history in a way that maybe Bethesda, having made Fallout 3 with relatively little influence from the original designers, didn't ever really have down.
Even with some of the original teams and other masters of isometric RPG classics running as leads on the project, Fallout: New Vegas does a fine job of balancing new depth, difficulty, and choice in an entirely modern game without overwhelming people. There's the optional Hardcore mode, which adds a new dimension of difficulty, like the requirement to balance your need for sleep, food, and water, along with several gameplay adjustments that add a harsh amount of realism that limits your ability to heal up damage, forces you to actively keep your companions alive, and generally stops you from carrying around a truckload of stuff to sell. This challenge is added in a way that's entirely separate from the rudimentary difficulty slider (which mostly just fiddles with the amount of damage your character deals out or takes).
There's also a rather complex card game you'll play called Caravan, and you'll actually be building your deck as you go, using classic four-suit playing cards from the various casinos that were spread throughout the Mojave Wasteland. Optional elements like this have been placed there and notify you, but they don't require you to dive into them immediately. It gives you the chance to explore and expand your Fallout experience at your own pace, and take on new challenges when you feel you're ready.
While the story here in Fallout: New Vegas starts out small - a simple revenge tale, just like the search for your character's father in the last game - you get caught up in a whirlwind of warring factions, battles over who controls Hoover Dam and New Vegas, and a feeling that you really are tipping the scale of all of this in the favor of who you want to see running the place. This is facilitated by a new faction system, not unlike that seen in, say, World of Warcraft, where you can get in good with one group but become hated with another - all separate from the good/bad karma system. While you can disguise yourself as a hated faction and move amongst them, there are still some huge limitations, so overall you'll feel like you're really making a choice here. Obsidian isn't afraid to let you know when you've made your choice, either, as at some point you'll do something to get at least one "Quest Failed" message for a quest you didn't even know existed. This can be a bit sudden and the presentation of such a notification could be better, but the game can't know in advance that you randomly decided to lop some dude's head off, either. Either way, it's still better for the developers to tell you you just made a serious choice so you have the option to load your game and choose otherwise.
One of the issues with Fallout 3 was that many of the non-combat solutions to problems often involved some combat anyway, and there often was a "right" solution that gave you a better reward than others. These false choices often tricked gamers, but in New Vegas, the designers have done a better job giving you a bigger range of choices for dealing with situations like hostage scenarios, warring factions, and mutual agreements between hot-headed characters. This time around, the best solution might not be the most obvious one, and sometimes there will even be an extra level of conflict you'll have to deal with on top of that. Your rewards can differ greatly, too, so it's not just the story that you're affecting. You'll feel like the choices you make create branching paths that don't necessarily merge back together the same way at the end.
The 1940s and 50s era is a goldmine for pop culture that I'd now consider to be underrated and under-used, but one of my favorite things about Fallout is how heavily they borrowed from this era. Music is a large part of any Fallout game, and the new soundtrack here is excellent, even if it does seem rather short at first. For some reason, early on in the game, you're almost guaranteed to hear a few songs twice in less than a half-hour, even though there's actually over two hours of licensed music in total. There's also a bunch more in the way of original score - some new, and some pulled from past Fallouts. It may not seem like it at first, but there's a ton of music in the game, and the problem is that there's just not enough variety earlier on with the two radio stations you can initially access. Tossing in artists like Etta James, Bing Crosby, Patsy Cline, and the like would have done really well in those opening few hours.
Unfortunately, the Fallout: New Vegas experience is fraught with a pretty large range of bugs, some of which are hilarious and fun, and others which will just lock up the game. I found several crash bugs in both the 360 and PS3 versions, problems with the Caravan card game not starting properly, and plenty of issues with NPC pathing and animations (which, admittedly, that is pretty much par for the course for anything running on Gamebryo tech). On the PS3, I saw some serious ragdoll physics freakouts, one of which sent a headless body flying about a mile off into the distance. Beyond that, it seemed like the 360 version was still superior, as it had antialiasing enabled for smoother visuals and seemed to be at least a little less prone to crash - and, according to a Bethesda press release, it'll get new downloadable content first, too. One thing I want to note is that while I have found a lot of bugs, I haven't found one yet that ruined my save game or broke progress on a vital quest, but I would still recommend that when you play, you keep multiple save games just in case.
The PC version of New Vegas is, from a technical standpoint, the best one you can get and it even costs $10 less, but it's got its fair share of problems as well. It's got built-in mod support, higher-resolution textures and better visuals (on a well-enough equipped PC, at least - the system requirements have hardly increased since Fallout 3) and support for gamepads as well as a mouse and keyboard, giving you the precision required to make tough shots without having to lean on VATS. Games for Windows Live, one of the most hated parts of Fallout 3 on the PC, has been dropped entirely and replaced with a full Steamworks implementation along with Steam achievements. Sadly, this version also seems to have many (if not most) of the issues and crash bugs that the console versions do, but at least on the PC you have a quicksave key to make saving your progress at any time pretty much instant.
There is one particular bug I've found after posting this review: Steamworks' cloud-based save game storage isn't working. At this point, Steam will delete your current saves and replace them with an old one on their servers, so until this is fixed, you should either play with Steam in offline mode, or use the console to make manual save games (hit the tilde key, then type "save asdf" or whatever name you want in place of "asdf"). You can still load manually-created saves from the normal game menu. We can presume that this bug will be fixed sooner rather than later, as it can kill your progress, but be warned.
With a hugely expanded perk system, new traits you can use to give your character both an advantage and a disadvantage, warring factions to join or make enemies out of, plenty of new features to dig into, and better dialogue, Fallout: New Vegas is better than Fallout 3 in many ways. Not everything has improved or changed, though, as the denizens of the Mojave still move and act unnaturally, and the vast number of bugs and issues are very difficult to just ignore. Even with all that, though, this is still the best game Obsidian has ever made, and finally we are seeing this studio live up to the potential we all knew they had. Now we just need some patches to fix a few bugs...