Reviewed: November 11, 2010
Released: October 21, 2010
War might not ever change, but Fallout's had a long, change-filled trip back home. Fallout: New Vegas, the most recent addition to the franchise, was developed by Obsidian Entertainment, which employs many of the original creators of the series, and published by Bethesda Softworks, makers of Fallout 3. It carries the mark of both companies, and for fans of the series, Fallout: New Vegas is a long-awaited trip home in all senses of the word.|
Set in southeastern California and parts of Nevada, New Vegas starts as a revenge story, as you play a courier shot in the head and left to die, out to hunt down the man who nearly killed you. However, it quickly becomes an epic story of the battle between three factions. The New California Republic is a bastion of pre-nuclear-style civilization in the inhospitable post-nuclear wasteland. Caesar's Legion is a brutally patriarchal band of pseudo-Roman survivalists, soldiers, and slavers looking to create a new society to fit the new world. Finally, Mr. House is the mysterious ruler of New Vegas. These three factions need your help to determine the fate of the titular city, but there's always a chance to be the wild card, go all in, and- well, there's not really a poker metaphor for taking over a city, but I'm assuming you follow where I'm going.
The first two Fallout games carried themselves largely on the strength of their dialog and world building, and the writing is strong throughout with even minor characters having lines that make them stand out from just being meaty quest depositories, such as The King, the charismatic leader of a gang that operates out of an Elvis impersonation school. There were even points in the game where I was sure that I was doing the right thing, only to see the lengths I had to go to and reload, not wanting to follow through on what I had to do for entirely emotional reasons. Additionally, the companions are all interesting, engaging characters, from Veronica Santangelo, the Brotherhood of Steel scribe looking for a way to save her quasi-knightly order from fading into irrelevancy to Lily Bowen, a former member of the Master's super-mutant army who struggles with the dementia brought on by old age and overuse of Stealth Boys.
The atmosphere of the game captures the feel of a post-apocalyptic society on the mend. A genteel radio host in New Vegas broadcasts a show that details goings-on in the wasteland, and there are debates over providing electricity to towns in the region from the operational Hoover Dam and HELIOS-1 solar plant. That said, society hasn't recovered entirely, and you'll find your share of towns terrorized by raiders or who've become stuck between the NCR and the Legion. In Hardcore mode, where combat damage is more lasting and you need to manage hunger, thirst, and sleep, soda and salty foods might get you the energy you need to keep going, but they'll dry you out. The attention to detail and the ways the game represents how the world works are continually impressive.
Especially early on, the game feels like a western, with the player waking up from their brush with death in a re-populated ghost town and sent on a quest for revenge that takes them through lawless territories overrun by dynamite-wielding bandits. Left to find your own way in the world, there are few humans early on that will attack on sight, with bandits and the scattered NCR presence judging you by your deeds for and against them. Once you reach Vegas, though, the time for revenge is almost over, and the plot shifts gears into Machiavellian machinations as you work for each of the three factions trying to take over New Vegas. None of them seem entirely on the up-and-up, and taking the oasis of civilization for your own might not make things much better.
While the game offers meaningful choices throughout, it's here that the missions begin to weave together into a complex tapestry of events, with various factions offering you different ways to complete missions to their own ends, leaving the player stuck in the middle. Additionally, the game's quest status tracking is excellent, and it's possible to be awarded for quests you already completed before meeting the NPC that formally assigns them to you. If you want to scout out the burning town on the horizon before a New California Republic sniper tells you to, you can talk to her about it later for full rewards, which lets the game branch out and become far less linear.
Many of the game's rough spots seem to be inherited from Fallout 3. Combat is somewhat clunky and often feels like it requires VATS, the game's menu-driven bullet time targeting mode, but VATS bugs will allow melee enemies to rush up to you as you fire off shots in slow motion. The map on the Pip-Boy wrist-mounted computer is frustratingly vague, and the quest marker can often leave the player with no real idea where they're meant to go. The character models are somewhat uncanny, and strange engine problems have NPC’s getting stuck in walls.
That's not to say the game is completely without new problems. The wasteland is scattered liberally with invisible walls that force you through dangerous passes when you should easily be able to climb over hills and take a shortcut. While it's not much of a problem if you follow the main plotline, as soon as you head off the main corridors of the game and start taking optional quests, you start running into invisible walls with a stunning regularity.
Another issue specific to consoles is that while the PC version ships with GECK, a modding tool supported by Bethesda, which has already let users fix many of these issues and added an impressive amount of new content, console gamers are stuck with whatever official patches and content additions Bethesda releases. It's a hard choice, though, since Fallout: New Vegas can be one of those games you might want to play while hanging out on the couch with friends, rather than hunched up to a monitor. It's up to the user whether sacrificing fast and easy fixes, customization, and content additions is worth playing it on a console.
Despite these issues, though, Fallout: New Vegas feels like a love letter to the fans. Borrowing ideas liberally from games that were planned before its original publisher went under, and written by the original writers, old-time fans of Fallout will find themselves immersed in a world that they haven't seen for quite some time, and new players might be drawn in enough to pick up the games that started the series. Even people who didn't like Fallout 3 might be pulled in by the quality of its writing and its return to the setting's roots. From its dusty beginning to its explosive crescendo, Fallout: New Vegas may well be the best RPG of the year.