That’s something you’ll notice pretty early on in Fallout: New Vegas. Obsidian have introduced very nuanced changes to the series in this title, erring on the side of caution and taking very few risks with a clearly winning formula. Reluctance to radically redefine the series after the overwhelming success of Fallout 3 is completely understandable, but Fallout 3 was not without its fair share of flaws. They're flaws which Obsidian have not attempted to rectify, and which are now only more glaring after having been ported into a new release two years after the fact.
In New Vegas you play as a courier, shot and left for dead after being robbed of your delivery. After being rescued by an overly helpful and quirky robot, you set out on a quest for revenge, answers and much, much more. The main story isn’t as engrossing as the one in Fallout 3, nor is the climax as well executed, but one thing that New Vegas does have over its predecessor is the extent of the options available to you. With four main quest paths – each with fundamentally different outcomes on the game world and all of the people and factions you’ve encountered in it – there’s much more scope to mould the world to your own will.
New Vegas contains several distinct factions, each with their own unique identity, goals and, depending on your actions, destiny. The two most powerful are the New California Republic and the Caesar’s Legion, both engaged in a pitched battle with each other for control of the Hoover Dam. Elsewhere you come across smaller but nonetheless crucial players in the world, from the secretive Brotherhood of Steel to the adorable Yes-Man robot and the enigmatic AI Mr. House. Those final two providing some flashes of brilliance in a story that is otherwise not quite on a par with Fallout 3’s.
The factions are central to the storyline in New Vegas, and their feelings towards you are an explicit part of the gameplay; you can form alliances with the factions, attempt to maintain your neutrality for as long as possible, or engage in open hostilities. But not only that, you can also start manipulating, scheming and double-crossing them, all of which has an effect on the outcome of your story. The decisions you take are even more important this time around and the freedom that’s allowed for in the storyline - and through the faction system - really makes the path of your story feel organic. The only trade-off is that New Vegas feels much less focused and coherent than Fallout 3.
The core gameplay is essentially identical to that found in Fallout 3, warts and all, so it includes the same compelling VATS system, but also the same sub-standard FPS mechanics. On the whole the changes that have been introduced are all solid but minor additions. There’s a lot more weapon variety – from boxing gloves to lever-action shotguns and dynamite – and weapon customisation has been introduced, so you can equip your guns with scopes and larger magazines. A crafting system allows you to create your own supplies and, more importantly, lets you pick flowers! And of course there are new perks to take advantage of these additions.
The introduction of a command wheel for giving orders to your companions is another small step forwards. There are now more options and commands available, so it’s much easier to get them to do as you wish. There are plenty of opportunities to engage in gambling (this is Vegas after all), though the selection of games is a little thin on the ground – there are slot machines, roulette and blackjack to choose from, as well a unique and fairly enjoyable game called caravan, which was designed specifically for Fallout.
The graphics undoubtedly look dated. It was a complaint I had with Fallout 3 two years ago as well and - given that New Vegas looks fundamentally identical - the problem has only been magnified with time. Many of the world’s assets are lifted straight out of Fallout 3, and it shows. The world itself is just as big as the one in Fallout 3, but on the whole it feels sparser and less interesting; most of the locations on the map feel like mere rest stops en route to The Strip – which, of course, they are, but this somewhat undermines the sense of wonder and discovery that makes Fallout such a great open world series.
The Strip itself is tragically disappointing. You start off a long way from The Strip, so you can only see the bright lights and tall buildings in the distance, and this really gives you something to work towards. Its entrance is heavily guarded and you need to prove your worth in order to enter, so the expectation is ramped up yet further. And yet... when you finally do enter those gates, it’s a huge anti-climax. It feels less like a huge, thriving, vibrant district, and more like a claustrophobically small and sparsely populated town, albeit one that is heavily guarded and brightly lit.
None of Fallout 3’s flaws have been tackled in the presentation department, either. The dire third person mode that controls as if you’re in first person mode and uses a hideous character model remains unchanged. The camera in VATS will sometimes go haywire, and at other times not land shots on enemies that are in point blank range. Technical flaws, like screen tearing, framerate issues, texture pop-in and glitchy scenery are all rampant. New Vegas even manages to add to the list with problems all of its own: the load times are far too lengthy, even with the game installed, and they only seem to get worse the more you progress through the game; there are also scripting errors, with locals running around in a blind panic as if they’re under attack when they patently aren’t, and I’ve had key characters just randomly appearing out of thin air in the middle of nowhere. There are so many bugs and technical hitches that I could easily spend an entire review just listing and detailing them.
Sound design fares much better. Sound effects, although often just recycled from Fallout 3, are satisfying. The voice work is excellent, and there’s some great humour to be found throughout the dialogue, radio stations and scenarios in the game. The radio stations as a whole are disappointing though; with only 3 core stations and a handful of songs on each, they soon start to run in a loop and overstay their welcome.
Just as in Fallout 3, the main quest lines are actually incredibly short and each can be completed in just a few hours, but it would be a mistake to approach the game in that way because you’ll be missing out on over 100 additional quests. It will take an extremely long time to complete all of the quests and other activities (such as the casino mini-games, or collecting all of the snow globes) in the game, as well as to complete the four main quest paths. If you’re looking for an increased challenge, then the all-new hardcore mode awaits you. Here you approach the game from a more realistic perspective, where you have to keep yourself properly fed, hydrated and rested. Failure to do so will ultimately result in death. Broken bones now require proper medical attention, stimpacks heal only gradually, ammunition counts towards your weight limit and your companions can die.
It is disappointing that the long-standing bugs haven’t been addressed, but to focus on that alone is to inadequately convey the fundamental problem with Fallout: New Vegas. It would be quite easy to partially excuse the bugs given that the overall experience is very enjoyable, but for the fact that it’s so symptomatic of the entire approach taken in New Vegas. It plays and feels the same as Fallout 3, and damn well nearly looks identical; whole swathes of Fallout 3 seem to have been transported into a new release without so much as a touch up. Whilst Fallout: New Vegas does advance the series’ gameplay formula a few small steps, and for many its ability to ride so gloriously on the coat tails of Fallout 3 will be enough to make it a game to be coveted, I can’t help but say I expected more from such a prestigious series.