Reviewing Fallout: New Vegas has been a daunting task. As the latest entry in the long running and venerable Fallout series, I didn't want to rush my playthrough simply for the sake of providing a timely review. I'd rather be thorough. Bethesda left pretty large shoes to fill with 2008's Fallout 3, a game I poured a good 300 hours into, so handing the series off to Obsidian Entertainment left me feeling skeptical. Does New Vegas live up to the high standard set by Fallout 3, or is it merely a pale imitation?
New Vegas starts with a bullet to the brain. Set sometime after the events of Fallout 3, you play as a non-descript male or female courier on a delivery with a mysterious but important item: The Platinum Chip. You are ambushed by a man named Benny and his thugs, who then steals your precious cargo and delivers said bullet to your brain. Of course, it wouldn't be much of a game if you actually died before you even began, so you are revived by a kindly old man whose head occasionally spins in a grotesque manner. From there you'll determine your skills and stats before embarking on your quest to recover the Platinum Chip and to avenge your own near-death. From there, the game sets about the task of making sure you never forget you're a courier by throwing an inordinate amount of fetch quests at you.
The game's other major plot point involves the mounting tension between the Mojave's 2 ruling factions: The New California Republic and Caesar's Legion. During the course of your long journey, you'll come to know them well and make friends or enemies out of them and a multitude of various smaller factions that live in the Mojave Wasteland. You'll learn their unique personalities, individual motivations, their dark, dirty secrets, or you can simply annihilate anyone who looks at you wrong. A lot of the factions have interesting characters to talk to and most will have at least a few errands for you. What's interesting to note about the factions in New Vegas is that while helping the NCR is considered "good" and helping Caesar's Legion is considered "bad", most goals are not so transparent and will involve many shades of gray rather than a simple black and white choice. Those moral ambiguities translate into many of the missions as well, which tend to have multiple ways to complete them.
There is a glaring issue with the factions in New Vegas, however, which comes in the form of the Karma system. Doing good gains you Karma while doing bad loses it, just like in Fallout 3. New Vegas also judges you based on Fame/Infamy with various factions. The problem now is that if you complete a seemingly innocuous mission for one faction, you'll likely gain Infamy with another, even if the mission appears unrelated to other factions. You'll often be left scratching your head wondering what arbitrary thing you did to make them angry. Another strange quirk is that apparently, the game puts a higher value on personal belongings than on life. Early on in the game, you'll encounter the Powder Gangers, a group of escaped prisoners who love dynamite and attack you on sight. Killing Powder Gangers raises your Karma level (even though you're simply defending yourself), yet stealing their belongings results in a loss of Karma. It makes no sense at all. Why penalize the player for doing what it takes to survive? Scavenging the belongings of your fallen opponents is how many players will acquire almost all of their goods in this game. The Karma system is littered with bizarre inconsistencies like this.
Basic combat in New Vegas has not changed much from Fallout 3. The uninitiated will still be put off by what is perceived to be sloppy gunplay. The thing to remember is that this game is an RPG first and an FPS second. So while New Vegas has added the ability to manually aim down a set of iron sights, the most effective way to fight with ranged weaponry will still generally be V.A.T.S. For those who never played Fallout 3, V.A.T.S. is sort of an "easy" button when it comes to combat. The action will pause, allowing you to target specific body parts on your opponent, showing you a percentage indicating the likelihood of hitting your target. When you unpause the action, your attacks are made for you in slow motion. There are a variety of magazines and chems you can take to increase your range, accuracy, firing speed, etc to improve your performance in V.A.T.S. It's a system that works well enough, though you'll sometimes have trouble actually highlighting the body part you were hoping to target.
That having been said, there are quite a few new weapons and toys to play around with in New Vegas. From lazer tommy guns, to exploding fists, to fireball launchers, you're certain to find a few weapons that suit your personal taste and playstyle. I tended to gravitate toward melee weapons such as the Super Sledge or Ballistic Fist, myself. Afterall, the Gamebryo engine was originally built for Elder Scrolls IV, a game based primarily on melee combat, so the fact hat melee combat in New Vegas feels best is no surprise. You can also mod a number of weapons now. Primarily purchased from vendors or traders, weapon mods will do things such as increasing fire rate, reducing a weapon's weight, or adding a scope. Returning from Fallout 3 is the ability to craft certain "improvised" weapons as well. This system has been expanded upon to include item and ammo crafting at workbenches, reloading benches and campfires. In theory, it allows you to make use of a lot of the seemingly useless junk you accumulate during your travels. In practice, the crafting interface is incredibly cumbersome as the menus can not be sorted or organized in any way, leaving you to scroll through dozens of unavailable combinations every time. It will also kick you out of the crafting menu each time you make something, and many of the items you can make really are not worth the effort.
As you journey across the Mojave, you'll come across a multitude of interesting characters, some of whom may be talked into accompanying you. The companions have a lot more personality to them in New Vegas than they did in Fallout 3, and you'll get to know them well thanks to the inclusion of backstory missions. A mentally deranged "Nightkin", a floating robot and even a cyborg dog are just some of the many companions in the game. They each also grant the player with a unique perk that is only active so long as they are accompanying you, such as enhanced stealth capabilities or bonus effects from whiskey. Interacting with your companions is also made easier thanks to the Companion Wheel, which allows you to quickly access all of their functions, change their strategy, open their inventory, heal them, or just have a conversation. It's a nice feature since you can't directly tell them where to go or what to do otherwise. Mostly, you'll find your companions serve their purpose best when you just load them up with junk from your own inventory, essentially turning them into pack mules. In Fallout 3, your companions were too weak and would be gone forever once killed. In New Vegas, your allies are practically invincible and will merely be knocked out for a brief period once their HP reaches 0. It almost makes them TOO effective, as you can often just kind of sit back and let them do all the work. Also, you'll probably notice them getting stuck on objects pretty often or just standing right in your way, so be prepared to deal with a certain amount of frustration in that regard.
The Mojave Wasteland is a big place and I tried to see as much of it as possible before starting this review. Setting out on your journey is an initially daunting task, as there are around 200 different locations on your map waiting to be discovered. Some of these locations are towns or cities, some are caves full of creatures and treasure, but there are also a few too many places that are nothing more than a campfire and some bedrolls with nothing much to see or find. The map is blank when you first begin, of course, so you'll essentially be flying blind. I recommend unlocking the "Wasteland Explorer" perk around level 15 or 20 as it makes the task of exploration much more manageable. It'll display every location in the game on your map, though you'll still need to travel manually to the places you haven't actually been to yet. You can fast travel to any location you've already discovered, but otherwise, your mode of transportation will always be your feet. It can take a long time to traverse the landscape, so some sort of vehicle or mount would have been nice. Oblivion had horses, and seeing as how New Vegas is built upon that same tech, why not give the player one of those robot horses they show during load screens? Also, if you've played Fallout 3, much of the Mojave Wasteland will seem unremarkable to you from an artistic standpoint. It's mostly the same browns and grays, but there aren't any places that inspire any sort of "wow" factor like there are in Fallout 3. Even the New Vegas Strip is somewhat underwhelming, especially since it takes such a long time to reach it initially. A little more variety would have been nice.
I'm just going to come out and say this, cause there's no easy way to do it: New Vegas is an ugly game. The Gamebryo engine is 5 years old now and it really, really shows. Fallout 3 wasn't even a great looking game in 2008, so it would have been great if Obsidian had enhanced the tech at least a little. You'll have static conversations with creepy, dead-eyed NPCs who walk around like robots. You'll see giant chunks of land literally missing because game can't draw them in quickly enough, as well as the usual bouts of crippling slowdown. It's not pretty and I sincerely hope the next game in the series uses better tech. The audio portion fares better, fortunately. There are a number of radio stations built into your Pip-Boy to provide ambient tunes as you wander the Mojave. The music selection this time around has an appropriately Western sound to it, though there seems to be less of it than there was in Fallout 3, so you'll hear songs repeating pretty often. There are a few amusing DJs, though, particularly on "Black Mountain Radio" which features a Super Mutant DJ who offers tips for Super Mutants on how to treat humans. The voice work is generally well acted, but after hours of play, you'll begin to notice that many of the NPCs in the game sound exactly the same since only a handful of people comprise the entire cast of them. Still, at least their parts are well written and well acted, which is the important part.
New Vegas was a very difficult game to assign a score to for this review. Many will consider it great on its own merits, and I don't necessarily think they're wrong. On the other hand, for a game that's being billed as a full sequel, it is nearly identical to Fallout 3 in so many ways that it could best be described as a huge expansion pack. Again, many people won't have a problem with that fact, as they simply wanted more of what was offered in Fallout 3. It's a buggy game, rough and unpolished, but it's large, expansive, thoroughly engrossing and you'll definitely get your money's worth as well. Even with over 70 hours of playtime already, I still feel like I'm only just scratching the surface. So if you've got time, patience, a love for Fallout and a desire to loot and explore, Fallout: New Vegas is the game for you. With DLC already on the way for the Xbox 360 version, it's a game that will keep you busy for the foreseeable future.
Fallout: New Vegas is available now for the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3