Fallout: New Vegas (Xbox 360) Review
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360
If the life of a courier was easy, it wouldn't pay so well. The Mojave Desert is a particularly dangerous spot to carry goods. Only the well-prepared and well-armed can survive trips through this wasteland, straddling the border of the New California Republic, and home to vicious, well-organized gangs who'd rather you did the scavenging so they can steal the fruits of your labor. The grimy, neon-lit beacon of New Vegas was one of the few major cities spared in the recent thermonuclear exchange that rewrote humanity's face and changed the planet. That would make it a welcome resting place, were it and the nearby dam not the vanguard of an invasion by the Roman-styled Legion marching from the East. Couriers aspire to a comfortable retirement with endless whisky and Nuka-Cola, not spending their final moments suffocating through a crucifixion.
Sequels don't have to be soulless echoes of previously good games. Sometimes being a sequel is the best thing that could possibly happen to a game. Fallout 3 created a new, 3D installment in the Fallout series, a world neck-deep in a gritty, post-apocalyptic future. But instead of seeing how quickly they could hammer out a sequel, Obsidian tried to add as much as they could to make Fallout: New Vegas even fuller and more alive, to accompany the story of betrayal, war, and the horrors of post-apocalyptic life.
To be upfront, I loved the game. I'd love to ignore other, big, holiday releases to replay Fallout: New Vegas. The more I played the game, the more a single object epitomized why I love Fallout: New Vegas and its predecessor Fallout 3. These games are starting to feel like real worlds. I know an industrial facility is an industrial facility, not because I was told by an NPC, but because it is filled with easily identifiable metal lathes, drill presses, turbines and clamps. The table in an abandoned home might still have a table set for dinner, and I can take the plates (if I desire). The Fallout games aren't the only games to have individually modeled forks, knives and spoons, but Fallout: New Vegas also has sporks! Sporks! I even pissed off a character by stealing his spork!
It's not that sporks are special by themselves. Halo: Reach would not be a better game with sporks. But sporks symbolize the detail and care taken with the world of Fallout: New Vegas. Characters have lives and backgrounds and possessions. Certainly, there are generic "settlers" and gang members with little to say and no function except as cannon fodder in ambushes, but when I find a ransacked corporate kitchen (with scattered sporks), I know why there was going to be a retirement party, who forgot the cake, and why the honoree was retiring early.
The spork also came to epitomize the freedom of choice in Fallout: New Vegas. You could play through the entirety of the game, choosing to ignore sporks, and still have a grand time. You don't need to poke through old corporate data to learn why a retirement party happened. You don't have to scavenge tableware for the caps that serve as cash to enjoy yourself. You can also converse, skulk, thieve or just bully your way through the game with big guns. Save a few, important, scripted events, almost everything in Fallout: New Vegas is at your option. It rewards speedy combat as well as patient exploration.
It's not just paths of play that are optional, Fallout: New Vegas miraculously makes different styles of play optional. Fallout 3 was a stunning game that brilliantly captured the Fallout universe. While it so perfectly captured the post-apocalyptic, dystopian feel of a world recovering from nuclear holocaust that it gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling just to play, it never quite captured the humor of the Fallout universe. Fallout: New Vegas recaptures the humor that helped make the first two Fallout games so memorable. Even better, the wackiest stuff is optional, toggled with a Perk selection, allowing those who like to keep their devastated world grim to do so. It helps that several of the folks developing Fallout: New Vegas were the same talent that worked on the first two Fallout games.
Are you one of those people who gets annoyed that you don't have to sleep, drink or worry about the weight of each shotgun shell in your inventory? Fallout: New Vegas sports a "hardcore" mode that adds tremendous realism to the game. Players have to worry about exhaustion and dehydration (rather than being able to march for days at a time, only using water to heal minor wounds), ammunition has weight, healing meds work slowly, and critical wounds are difficult to cope with. I'm supremely glad the game has this option for those who want the experience, and am even more glad it's optional. Playing this way is like regularly encountering dysentery in Oregon Trail, trying to complete Limbo while losing five or fewer lives, or trying to complete Ghosts 'n Goblins on a single life. In this mode, it's possible to have a save game that leaves you in a certain-death position and leaves you managing resources and inventory as if this were a military supply simulation.
Even though I personally don't want to play this way (I prefer escapist, post-apocalyptic fun to a tedious, post-apocalyptic, inventory-management exercise), I'm always in favor of giving players more options to customize their play experience. Hardcore mode turns survival into a sub-game all its own. Guns have iron sights for those who want to aim and shoot, but the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.) remains for those who want to emulate the classic turn-based mechanic of the original Fallout games. Fallout: New Vegas gives players so many options to customize their experience that it's a more personal game, and extensively replayable.
From the opening credits, Fallout: New Vegas feels a lot more active than past Fallout games. Perhaps it's the game's setting – close to one of the few cities to survive thermonuclear disaster and near the most important source of electricity in the former American West. There's a large-scale war going on between the New California Republic, a proto-state with an actual standing army, and the Legion, a Roman-inspired force led by "Caesar," with armies as efficient and brutal as any Rome ever fielded. The landscape is littered with large, well-organized gangs and militias, and while many towns may not want to fall under NCR rule, they fear judgment and mass crucifixions at the hands of the Legion. It's a tough environment for a simple courier.
Even these factions provide a lot of choices. Fallout 3 used a simple "Karma" mechanic. Do good things, and good people liked you. Evil people, however, might shoot you on sight. Fallout: New Vegas keeps the Karma, but most groups react to you based on your reputation with that faction. You might be the nicest guy on the planet, saving innocents, petting dogs and turning the other cheek, but the people in the town of Nelson don't know you from Adam until you help them. Conversely, you might be a right bastard, executing innocents, eating dogs and cutting off all four cheeks of those who've crossed you, but the folks of Nelson will still trade with you (at least, until you go all cannibal on them or sneak live grenades into their pants).
Fallout: New Vegas quickly forces you to take sides for or against nearly every faction. It's hard to ride the saddle of neutrality, meaning that big sections of the game are immediately shut off to you (except as shooting galleries). That's a big incentive for replay, since no matter which path you choose, you'll miss out on lots of game segments. That's the way to make choices in gameplay meaningful. And meaningful choice is critical for both immersion and fun. It makes for a real, living world that feels right.
I won't spoil the game by going into detail about encounters – just let me say that beyond the gritty realities of day-to-day life in the wasteland, there are splendidly entertaining encounters just bizarre enough to be plausible and wild enough to be memorable decades later. Fallout: New Vegas also draws more heavily on the lore of Fallout and Fallout 2, now that the game is back west of the Continental Divide. Fallout: New Vegas is still completely accessible to those who never played the classic PC games, but it constantly references the Hub (a central trading town from the first Fallout) and gives more details on what happened after the downfall of The Master.
If exploration is your cup of tea, Fallout: New Vegas is easily the best purchase you can make this year. Shacks, caves and secret shelters litter the landscape, and lots of cool objects stand out on the horizon to entice you to explore – gigantic statuary, a T-rex that anchors a salvage town while serving as a sniper nest, and the Vegas strip itself. There's nothing as universally familiar as the Washington Monument, but there are more landmarks that make the landscape memorable. And just as in the real Las Vegas, where I find myself often navigating by the Stratosphere tower, Fallout: New Vegas provides recognizable landmarks.
It wouldn't be fair to give Fallout: New Vegas a complete technical pass, but I had so much fun that I'm inclined to forgive its sins. In a game this complex, Deathclaws sometimes get caught in the geometry, and the game did freeze more than occasionally. Perhaps it's my many years of PC gaming before the dominant console era, but the fun is well worth the glitches. Just remember to save often. At least I can give Fallout: New Vegas credit for autosaving so frequently that crashes were rarely a serious problem. But I repeat, especially on overland treks, save frequently!
I can't praise Fallout: New Vegas enough, so I'll stop shortly, but there's one more thing to mention. Fallout: New Vegas continues the tradition of Fallout 3 with some amazing voice acting, and a radio station that intersperses the music with news of the wasteland praising your noble deeds and decrying your atrocities. The radio DJ is Mr. New Vegas, voiced by Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton. Love or hate his music, you never knew how much you wanted Wayne Newton (or at least his voice) following you around and telling the world about everything you do.
I'm not done with Fallout: New Vegas. The central plot is just one, small part of the game. There are tons of side-quests left, zones of the wasteland I haven't explored and entire towns I wasn't allowed to enter. There's so much more to play and explore!