Fallout 3 was a solid game, but in many ways, it didn't feel like a true sequel to the previous Fallout titles. It was set on the other side of the country, and all of the references to the previous games were distorted by time and distance. You can meet the Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout 3, but they're actually a rogue branch that behaves very differently from the Brotherhood in the first two games. You can encounter Super-Mutants, but they're not quite the same as the ones you knew in the previous titles. Fallout: New Vegas may not have a number after the name, but in many ways, it is more of a Fallout 3 than the game that actually bears that name. It's a lot more closely connected, both in world and mechanics, to the first games in the franchise. This is to be expected, as Obsidian Entertainment, the developers of New Vegas, is largely comprised of staff members from Black Isle Studios, the creators of the original Fallout games. However, being more closely connected to Fallout doesn't inherently make Fallout: New Vegas a better title.
As you'd expect, New Vegas is set in the Mojave Desert some 200 years after the nuclear apocalypse that nearly wiped all life from Earth. For unknown reasons, the Mojave was spared the worst of the nuclear attacks, and it is in better shape than the rest of America. Even the Hoover Dam is still intact. Unfortunately, this also means it is a target for every power-hungry individual in the area. The New California Republic is attempting to bring the Mojave into their fold but is opposed by Caesar's Legion, a group of fanatics who wish to return the world to Roman-era rules, complete with crucifixion and misogyny.
Trapped in the middle of this is New Vegas, the remains of the great city that has remained a center for gambling and sin. It's run by the mysterious Mr. House, a powerful individual who claims to be hundreds of years old and polices the strip with an army of robots. New Vegas opens up with your character being shot in the head. You see, your character is a courier for the Mojave Express, and he was assigned to deliver something to Mr. House. You were waylaid, your delivery stolen, and your body left in a shallow grave to die. You wake up in a doctor's office in a small town, having miraculously survived your execution. Now you have to find the person who shot you and retrieve the stolen package. It's a simple quest, but it'll determine the fates of the Mojave Desert and New Vegas.
The writing in New Vegas is quite a few steps above that of the previous game. The quests are more interesting and involved, and there isn't a "good" or "evil" side, although Caesar's Legion comes awful close to being cartoonishly evil. Your choices in the game feel like they deserve a little more thought, and not every choice will feel like the right one. There are a lot of memorable characters, both new and old, and some intensely clever writing. However, the weakest part of the story is the main plot. I had tons of fun doing the available side-quests and working with the various factions, but when it was time to deal with the main story, I had a tough time caring. Most of the interesting stuff happened outside of the main narrative, and my choice, which determined the path of New Vegas, didn't match up to what I'd expected. It's still a step above Fallout 3's lackluster main plot, but it feels like there could have been more.
New Vegas looks very similar to Fallout 3 at first glance, but there have been a number of significant mechanical changes under the hood. The skill system has been revamped to be more balanced and useful. Passive skills like Science and Barter now appear as conversation options with regularity to make side-quests easier or unlock new bonuses. Whereas the previous Fallout games had some skills that weren't worth the investment, there are no such skills in New Vegas. The new Survival skill seems to be of limited usefulness, but it shines brighter in Hardcore mode.
The Perks system has also been slightly revamped for balance. Players now receive Perks on every other level instead of every level. This makes your choices significantly more meaningful, since you only have 15 over the course of the game, instead of the 20- 30 that you had in Fallout 3. There's also a greater variety of Perks, and some of the more useful ones have been toned down a bit. Players have the option of picking two traits at the outset of the game. Traits are special attributes that are neither negative nor positive, but they offer bonuses — and some drawbacks. Good Natured increases the default level of all your non-combat skills by 5 but lowers all your combat skills by 5 in exchange.
Combat mechanics have also seen a significant change with the reintroduction of the Damage Threshold for armor. In Fallout3, armor was a defensive boost that reduced damage by a certain percentage. In New Vegas, things work a little differently. Most armor still has a passive damage resistance, but it also has a Damage Threshold, which reduces the damage you take from attacks by a flat number. Essentially, heavy armor is capable of shrugging off small-arms fire, so you have to think differently about how you approach certain enemies. It's easy to tear through lightly armored enemies with a machine gun, but a soldier in heavy power armor might require something with more kick to break through the Damage Threshold. You can manufacture special ammunition for your weapons to make this easier, but you still have to be careful about who you shoot.
Alas, the improved combat in New Vegas still isn't very fun. Battles usually come down to either one-shotting everything in your path or long and tedious slogs against enemies that you can't really damage; there doesn't seem to be a middle ground. New Vegas keeps combat light, as there are many ways to avoid getting into fights, and fighting is a bad idea in a lot of quests. This doesn't make it any more fun when you are thrown into a section where fighting is your only option. The worst is the final game segment, which is a long and tedious battle against a large group of foes. There's no real option except to fight, and it's one of the few areas where playing a non-combat character feels pointless, except for a conversation against the very last boss. In a game mostly based around choice, it's rather frustrating that the developers fell into the trap of making the final area a mandatory fight.
It's important to keep track of the various factions in the game. New Vegas retains the good/evil "karma" meter from the previous game, but it also brings back the Faction Alignment from earlier Fallout games. Your actions don't just determine how good or evil you are; they also determine how much the various factions like you. Doing quests for a faction or allying yourself with its interests can gain friendship. On the other hand, working against the faction can cause its members to loathe you and try to have you killed. While you can balance your faction gains carefully, you can't make everyone happy. Allying with the New California Republic to take out a stronghold of Caesar's Legion troops is going to make you an unpopular guy around Caesar's folks. One of the neat features of the game is that faction respect is not a simple like/dislike meter. If you really anger a faction but help them out of a bind, they'll treat you differently than if you had always been on their side. You'll almost certainly get either the NCR or Caesar's Legion hating you by the end of the game, but the rest can be made friendly with relative ease.
One of the cooler aspects of New Vegas is that the game is designed to allow any character to succeed. In Fallout 3, you had the ability to talk through a few missions here and there, but combat was your first option. In New Vegas, it's entirely possible to find non-combative solutions to most of the challenges. There was a 10-hour period during which I did not have to fire a single shot to solve any of my quests because there was always another solution. On the flip side, if you want to play a combat-heavy character who chooses the most violent and direct solution to all your problems, that's also a valid option. New Vegas is extremely good about giving the player options — most of the time.
New Vegas also places an increased emphasis on your companions. As you progress, you collect a stable of computer-controlled assistants. You can have one humanoid partner and one non-humanoid partner at a time, and the others wait at your home base. This was also true in Fallout 3, but there's a much greater focus on your allies in New Vegas. Each of your companions can now be directly controlled with the companion menu wheel. By talking to your partner, you can tell him/her to use melee or ranged weapons, follow closely or stay behind, to be aggressive or passive, etc. Each companion is also significantly more useful in combat. The companion gives the main player a temporary bonus perk as long as s/he is in your party. More importantly, companions gain boosts depending on your character's charisma stat to dramatically increase the damage and defense of your allies. If you play a character with high charisma, you can let your allies take care of the fighting for you. Several become so incredibly effective that they can kill powerful enemies before you can draw your gun.
New Vegas includes all the difficulty levels that you saw in Fallout 3, but it also has a new Hardcore mode, which is distinct from the difficulty level. In Hardcore mode, everything is geared to be more realistic. Your player has to eat, sleep and drink to survive, and your companions permanently die if they are badly injured in combat. Radiation poisoning is more dangerous, and injuries don't go away unless you find a doctor or a rare doctor's bag item. Healing items are less effective and ammunition is heavier, so it's harder to carry as much as you could in the regular game.
Hardcore mode forces you to play differently. You have to be more thoughtful about what you pick up and more cautious in combat, but it doesn't completely change the game. Tactics that work in the regular difficulty are nearly suicidal here; you can't rush in and let your companions soak up damage unless you want to lose them forever. Likewise, items that seemed useless in regular New Vegas take on greater significance in Hardcore mode. The random food and drinks become the difference between life and death.
New Vegas is not without some serious problems, as it's one of the most bug-filled releases I've played in a long time. The original Fallout 3 has its share of bugs, but New Vegas eclipses it. For roughly every hour of the game I played, I encountered at least one major bug that required me to restart the game or reload from an earlier save. The companions were the worst; they got stuck in walls, gained mysterious injuries that never went away, and had quests that broke or disappeared from the map. Several of the major quests had bugs that rendered them impossible to finish unless I reloaded to a save from several hours earlier and replayed the entire mission.
The frame rate chugged and stuttered constantly, and New Vegas is one of the rare Xbox 360 games that required me to manually empty the console cache or else the loading times would increase until the game became impossible to play. It is a sign of New Vegas' quality that the game is fun enough to make it possible to overlook these serious glitches. Toward the end of the game, I rushed through missions because I didn't want to deal with the constant barrage of glitches that would inevitably result. Obsidian Entertainment has a history of releasing games that are buggy or unpolished, but New Vegas seems to take the cake. The buggy gameplay will be the most make-or-break issue for potential buyers. It isn't a matter of whether you'll encounter a major glitch, but more a question of when and how many. More than anything, this makes the game difficult to recommend. New Vegas is an incredibly fun game when it works, but it works a lot less often than any game should.
New Vegas also suffers from some frustrating level design. Many of the areas do not appear to have been designed around the system's limitations. For example, many quests are set in the ruined area outside of the New Vegas strip, and they involve running back and forth between two loading screens. An easy quest is constantly interrupted by multiple loading screens, which gradually get longer the more you play. It's made even worse when the in-game compass and waypoint system bug out, forcing you to wander around in an attempt to find poorly marked doors. While exploring the Mojave Desert, you'll often find large mountains that block all but one path to your location. It seems that you should be able to climb these areas, but they're blocked by invisible walls.
New Vegas isn't the best-looking game. The Gamebryo engine is showing its age, and most of the characters don't look very good compared to most modern titles. There is some nice art design in some of the areas, and the graphics aren't bad enough to detract from the game. It would have been nice to see more variety in the areas, but this could also be said about Fallout 3. On the other hand, the voice acting is of good quality. All of the important characters have good voice actors who do a solid job with their roles. There are many celebrity voices, such as Felicia Day and Danny Trejo, and they rarely feel forced into their role. It's a far better use of recognizable voice talent than Liam Neeson in Fallout 3. Some of the lesser voice actors are a little repetitive, but it's relatively rare and most of the voice work is excellent.
Fallout: New Vegas is very close to being a great game. On the surface, it looks like a simple expansion pack to Fallout 3, but the mechanical changes and improved writing elevate it to something more. In almost every way, it improves on its predecessor and adds new and interesting features. There are times when New Vegas feels like one of the best games of 2010. Unfortunately, all of the improvements are marred by the constant tide of glitches and bugs that can lose hours of your progress. Multiple occurrences of this over the course of a 40+ hour game is inexcusable. Until Fallout: New Vegas gets a major patch that fixes the problems, it can only be recommended to gamers who have a high threshold for frustration.
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