Editor’s Note: This review will cover the PS3 version of Fallout: New Vegas and also a bit of the PC version. A separate review for the Xbox 360 platform is in the works. Also, this review is spoiler-free in terms of specific elements of the plot, so feel free to read on without harming your experience with the game.
How many times have I been looking forward to a new game only to find that when it finally comes out, it’s nowhere near my expectations? It’s happened so much, and quite a bit recently, that I was literally trying to ignore the fact that Fallout: New Vegas was almost upon us. I was just too afraid that it wouldn’t achieve the awesomeness factor that Fallout 3 did. And now I’m going to say something that I didn’t think possible: it turns out, it’s actually better in a lot of ways.
Mostly I say this because there is a much more adult storyline in this one. There are people dropping F-bombs and worse, and some really, really bad people out there doing some nasty things that you will see up close and personal. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Fallout 3, but I always felt like it was kind of like a Disney version of a wasteland, like taking the Pirates of The Caribbean ride where you are kind of scared, but never really think that the violence is real. New developer Obsidian Entertainment really takes us into the darkness on this one, which I think was sorely needed. They took some steps story-wise that I don’t think the core teams at Bethesda would have ever done. And for that alone, it was great to get the new blood in there. If you are going to make an M-rated game anyway, why not really make it that way?
From a game mechanic standpoint, the two Fallouts are almost identical. New developer Obsidian Entertainment tweaked the game engine a bit, and all for the better. For one, it feels a lot more like a true shooter now. Weapons are more free-flowing. You don’t have to drop into the special VATS system in every fight, though you can if you like. I mostly use VATS when I’m getting overwhelmed by enemies and need to pause the action and plan out my next few shots. But I find that I’m much more accurate just free shooting, especially at long ranges. For example, if I use VATS I might see that I have a three or four percent chance to headshot someone standing far away. But if I zoom in by hand without VATS, even just using iron sights, I can almost always score a hit with a well-functioning weapon. In Fallout 3, your scopes could look farther than your gun could shoot, with projectiles just disappearing at long range. Now bullets seem to travel more realistic distances.
A few other things have been changed. You can’t beef up your skills permanently by reading magazines anymore. Instead, they can be used to gain a temporary +10 point bonus to a skill (or +20 with an early perk). After some time, your score drops back to normal levels. There are books that raise your skill by a permanent point (or by 2 with a perk) but they are very rare. In general, this makes your character a lot weaker overall, especially at first. You will need to concentrate on a few core skills that you feel you need, at the expense of a lot of others. I liked this because it made leveling up very strategic. It was painful putting points into Speech for my diplomat knowing that I could sorely use them in Sneak or Guns, but it had to be done to role-play my character. And I did find some benefits to that choice later on. The game does a good job of making every single skill come into play at different points in the game, so however you specialize, you will get to be a hero with your skill choices at some point. And the replay value is very high, because you can work on different skills and have vastly different options.
There is also a crafting system that seems to have come over from Oblivion. With a high enough Survival skill, a camp fire and the right ingredients you can craft anything from a bloatfly slider burger to a paralyzing poison to a time bomb. And you can collect your spent brass casings and reload them at special benches if your Repair ability is high enough. Even spent energy cartridges and flamer fuel can be recycled into working ammo again, so crafting is alive and well in the wasteland. There are even crops and plants that grow now, so collecting ingredients isn’t too difficult, sort of like in Oblivion. It’s almost like being able to create a post-nuclear war alchemist character if you wanted to go that way.
Finally, there is a hardcore mode that makes you drink water, eat food and sleep every day. It also adds weight to your ammo, so no carrying around 300 stinger missiles in your backpack when in hardcore. This mode can be activated or disabled at any time, and works separately from the difficulty settings. So you can play Hardcore Easy or normal mode in Difficult if you like. Personally I like some aspects of the hardcore mode, but not enough to leave it on all the time. I simply role-play that my character is hungry from time to time and munch on some wasteland corn, and that’s good enough for me. If you play the whole game in Hardcore mode, you are given a trophy at the end, and believe me, you deserve it.
Graphically, the game looks very much like Fallout 3. Of course this is set in California and Nevada and Utah so there is more of a Southwest theme going, but expect all the abandoned buildings and scavenging opportunities you had before. Of course Las Vegas looks amazing, probably the best-looking apocalyptic city ever created, and your goal for much of the game is just trying to get there. You can actually see it off in the distance from your initial starting town, but getting there will take you a very long time, by a very roundabout way. If you have ever been to the desert, you know that seeing something in the distance and actually getting there are two different things. Distances are deceptive, and that is represented well here.
The main players in the New Vegas world are the New California Republic [NCR], Caesar’s Legion and the mysterious Mr. House. The NCR basically represents the good guys and Ceasar’s Legion are the bad guys. Who knows what Mr. House’s motivations are, but he runs Vegas like a well-oiled machine. There are also minor players and factions who rule little pockets of the world that you will run into and have to deal with from time to time. Most major factions even have their own money. So while bottle caps are the most popular currency, you will also need to collect NCR’s paper money and Legion coins. Some casinos even have their own chips that you need to play with inside their facilities.
Now, just because the NCR is "good" and Caesar is "bad" does not mean that’s end of the story. Quite the opposite. The NCR does some very bad things, and asks you do some of the same if you work with them. The Legion may be bad, but they have strict laws and codes that in general work out in favor of the people of the wasteland, as opposed to total anarchy anyway. You may even begin to admire them and what they are trying to achieve. In a sense the Legion are fascists and the NCR are a modified democracy with a few totalitarian tendencies. You can work for whoever you choose, or just try to keep your head down and solve your own problems, which is the main plot of the game.
In fact, I was trying to play a character who only looked out for themselves. I had little interest in working for any of the factions at first. But life, and the people in this game, have a tendency to impose on your world. Whether it’s helping out a poor town that has been nice to you, or becoming nauseated over something you see one of the factions do, or even just needing a job to earn some caps, you will probably be pulled into the various wasteland intrigues. In fact, after several hours playing, I found my quest guide packed with tons of non-plot missions. Suddenly I realized that the various faction missions had taken precedence over my personal one. I don’t know how that transition happened, but it did, and I didn’t mind. That is the mark of a truly good non-linear game.
I’ve mentioned the adult factor and I think it’s an important one. Every previous Fallout title going back to the original one did the whole "pull back the curtains and discover the world" as its main point of interest. You lived in a vault or an isolated tribe that came from a vault all your life and suddenly had to journey out into the big, cruel world. Everything was new. In New Vegas, you’ve lived in the wasteland for a long time, so you know what to expect, kind of like the players of the game do at this point. I would guess most players of New Vegas have looked at Fallout games before, and probably Fallout 3. Given that, it’s nice that our character starts out somewhat worldly. And given that, the developers had an opportunity to really do something special, and they did. They made the wasteland a much crueler, darker place, as I imagine it would actually be once most of society breaks down into survival mode.
The lands of New Vegas then are less like a game, and more like reality in that respect. People curse a lot, but only when it’s appropriate for their character. You wouldn’t expect a grizzled, drunk caravan leader to say "frakin" or "gosh darn it" when they get angry, and here, they don’t. You also would not expect the violence to be sanitized, and believe me, it’s not. It’s both in-your-face and insidious now, and I don’t know exactly how to describe it other than perhaps depraved. There are lots of different kinds of evil, and sometimes it can even act politely or wear a pretty face. Who knows, perhaps you will embrace your evil side too.
Along those lines, the Karma system has been overhauled to be much more realistic. What you do for a community affects your reputation with them, which is different from karma. Helping a town kill bandits will raise your reputation with them, while lowering it with the bandit gang in question. Stealing guns out of the town armory won’t affect anyone’s reputation, so long as you don’t get caught. And items aren’t stupidly tagged as stolen either, because really, nobody can tell a stolen shotgun from one you bought from a trader. You can sell stolen equipment to anyone, same as the gear you got by more honorable means. Now if you steal too much, and I mean waaaaaaay too much, from one group, they might start to suspect that something isn’t quite right and lower your reputation with them. But for the most part, karma is more of a measure of how you see yourself, while reputation is how different groups think of you. And your reputation with different groups is listed right on your map beside the waypoints they control.
One more new feature that goes along with reputation is the ability to disguise yourself. If you put on the armor or clothing of a faction, then other members of that same faction will treat you as a friend, so long as you don’t do anything suspect while they are around. You can use this to infiltrate different camps and kill the occupants if you are careful. Certain higher-level faction members, guards or officers, will see through your disguise, so you need to be careful when employing this method. But if used carefully, it can let you pass through the territory of a group that hates you, so long as you are willing to carry the heavy uniforms of your enemy around all the time.
Also, most companions you can recruit have a large backstory (you can have one humanoid and one non-humanoid in your party at the same time) that is quite interesting to follow. Every companion gives you a perk, has unlimited ammo for their default weapon and can be upgraded. There is also a companion wheel that makes controlling them a breeze. And if you aren’t playing on hardcore mode, they can’t be killed, so use them freely.
In fact, the only area where I marked down New Vegas was in gameplay, because this is the buggiest PS3 game I’ve ever played. One evening I had the game crash five times in an hour. This happened when trying to go into and out of different areas, like the NCR prison. A patch was recently released that I hope will fix this crashing problem, but even so, I can still trigger a crash by trying to repair a pair of NRC face wrap armor suits I stole from a chest outside of Primm, or sometimes randomly when exiting from a house back into the large world map. On the PC side, I did have a crash one in a while, but nothing like I experienced on the PS3. A little more stability would give New Vegas a truly perfect score.
So we have a better shooter engine, crafting, a hardcore mode, more detailed companions, strategic leveling up and a truly M-rated plot. All of that adds up to Fallout New Vegas being a good bet, and in many ways, surpassing its predecessor. This is one wasteland that you will want to play in. Just be sure you have free time because it can take 40 or more hours to play the game, and three or four times that if you do everything New Vegas has to offer.