Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: 1st-person RPG
Console: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
Hours Played: 60
Progress: Finished main campaign and reached level cap (level 30)
Almost exactly 2 years to the day Bethesda published the follow-up to Fallout 3, one of the best open-world RPGs of this console generation. This time around the developer is not Bethesda Game Studios however, but Obsidian Entertainment, a group not unfamiliar with taking over a “grade A” franchise, see their development of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II for instance. Now observant people might recall that although decent, KOTOR II didn’t outshine its predecessor, so what about Fallout: New Vegas, did Obsidian manage to elevate it to new heights? Read on to find out…
The world of Fallout is set in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by nuclear war. With this latest title in the franchise the player is taken to the part of the Mojave desert directly surrounding Las Vegas, re-dubbed ”New Vegas”. Relatively prosperous and unscathed compared to much of the rest of the world, Vegas is now under the control of the enigmatic “Mr. House” and his robot army of “Securitrons”, while the rest of the territory around New Vegas is controlled by the armed forces of the NCR (New California Republic), loosely based on the contemporary US military. The NCR is at odds with a threatening force known as “Caesar’s Legion”. Occupying the East bank of the Colorado river these slave-driving warriors model their warfare after ancient Rome, complete with a “Caesar” for a leader and crucifixions as a means of punishment. You take control of a little-known courier who gets robbed of his (or her) parcel and left for dead with a bullet in the head. Dragged to a doctor on the brink of death by a mysterious robot, you embark on a mission of revenge and pursue the culprit.
The main campaign of New Vegas doesn’t have the same sense of mystery and suspense as found in the previous game, even though the setting is different, gamers will be familiar with the overall look and feel of the world. Fallout 3 set the scene brilliantly by situating the player in a secluded vault, ignorant to the world outside, everything was new and ominous. Then there was the urgency of finding your dad who had gone out into this unknown world under mysterious circumstances. None of these great story elements apply this time, the thin undercurrent of revenge does little to engross the player in the story and the main campaign is surprisingly brief and straight forward.
It’s not all bad though, the many side quests in New Vegas provide a much more interesting view of the world and there are many great stories to be told about the different factions populating the Mojave, with the dynamics of the conflict between the NCR and Legion being especially noteworthy. It is always tough to recreate the freshness that comes from re-imagining a beloved franchise but changing the setting to New Vegas from Washington DC seems like a thin attempt to change things up. Nevertheless the writing is solid and the game is chock full of interesting side quests.
Having been in development for nearly two years, we’d expect a series to change more than just the story, unfortunately the visuals in Fallout: New Vegas remain virtually unchanged. Textures appear to be a touch sharper in places, but the game is comprised of the same high-bloom lighting filter, textures and assets with an expansive world to explore. This is not necessarily a bad thing, this is a good looking game, especially considering how big the game world is, but the lack of improvements in the visual department is simply disappointing, especially when you consider that there is no trade off to this lack of visual enhancements. The world map is smaller than what was found in Fallout 3 and New Vegas definitely doesn’t run any better, as a matter of fact it suffers from far more glitches than its predecessor did. How does that happen working with an existing game engine for almost two years?!
The frequent glitches in New Vegas are a large detractor to the overall experience and can surface in a variety of different ways. Game crashing is an occurrence we found while playing its predecessor as well, however I counted at least 12 crashes needing a hard reset of the console while going through the game. If only it ended there, physics are extremely unreliable, and enemies will get stuck in the ground and on their surroundings or simply fall through the game world entirely. While scaling a hill once my character suddenly left the rocks beneath her feet and simply walked through the sky, like Jesus taking a stroll on the Sea of Galilee. There were also many instances where my companions got left behind when traveling between locations or when involved in a side quest they were the subject of and were nowhere to be found for hours. An even more consistent issue is the dropping frame rate, when multiple enemies surround the player or many different weapons are discharged at the same time, the game will stutter relentlessly, occasionally resulting in a complete crash. [Ed. note: Many missions also have glitches that make it impossible to complete them. Best to check the Fallout Wiki before trying anything like attacking turrets in Vaults.] When Fallout: New Vegas is running properly, it is still a good looking game, when the sun rises over the mountains bordering the Mojave desert and the sand is drenched in its light, it is easy to forget about the game’s shortcomings, but these sentiments rarely last.
The music in New Vegas is fantastic, its understated melodies are gloomy, atmospheric and mirror the environments of the game brilliantly. The ambient sound effects however, sadly do not. Obsidian seems to have cut and pasted a narrow selection of sound loops over the different locations in the game far too liberally. Walk through the New Vegas slums of Freeside for example and you’ll hear the periodic crying of kids and the occasional gun fire in the back ground. It doesn’t matter if its the middle of the night with not a person in sight, or broad daylight with people crowding the streets, it is always the same. These poorly integrated ambient sound effects tend to take the player out of the experience as much as the music pulls you in.
There’s a lot of voiced dialog to be found in the game and most of it is pretty solid, but there are certainly times when it seems painfully obvious that the voice talents were reading their lines, especially with the young boy in charge of the museum at the Boomers’ camp. It is unfortunate that there only seems to be a small cast of voice talents in Fallout: New Vegas, an issue we saw in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion as well, where the same voices get recycled amongst many different characters. With a high-profile release like this it’s expected to feature a robust cast of voice talents, not to recycle a small sampling over and over again.
The controls will feel familiar to most gamers because of the 1st-person shooter inspired control scheme. Aim down the sights with the left trigger button, fire with the right, enter VATS (targeting menu) with the right bumper, block while holding melee weapons with the left bumper. The left thumbstick controls character movement while the right controls direction. Although the button mapping makes sense, the responsiveness is extremely frustrating. There seems to be a prevalent delay between button press and on-screen action, especially when activating the Pipboy (B button) and jumping (Y button) — a platformer this is certainly not. The hot key menu on the D-pad returns to allow easy access to weapons and health items, however your companions can only be controlled through a radial menu that appears when you engage them in conversation. We’d rather have seen some more direct control over your allies by directly pressing a button on the game pad without having to walk up to them.
Fallout: New Vegas is a 1st-person RPG (although you can change the camera view to a very ineffective 3rd person view) where you earn experience by completing quests, defeating enemies and performing challenges. By leveling up you are able to increase your skills, which determine everything from your aptitude with guns to your ability to get better prices from merchants. When leveling up at times you’re also granted the option to choose a new perk, these can be permanent enhancements to your character like never being knocked down in combat or receiving a damage bonus when using rifle-based firearms. For anyone who played Fallout 3 this won’t come as anything new, there have however been a number of gameplay additions in this follow-up.
Most are minor and not all that exciting, Obsidian added a crafting system for instance that allows the player to combine certain food products into health items and scavenged mechanical parts into ammunition. The problem with this system is that most crafted items need at least four different ingredients of which there are countless different versions. It gets way too tedious to keep track of all the different components you’re supposed to retain in your inventory just so that you’re able to craft a few bullets. The value of this process is especially in question when you consider that most of these creatable items can easily be purchased simply by selling the loot you’ve scavenged. Of more value is the option to recruit companions, of which you can have up to two with you at any time. One will always be a non-human ally (a robot or animal for example) while the second will be a humanoid one. The combat prowess of these companions is extremely useful, especially with the humanoid allies, which can be further enhanced by equipping them with more powerful weapons, armor and aid. As mentioned in the “graphics” section of this review, there are numerous glitches that occur while traveling with companions, which can be a constant source of frustration.
Morality has been a pervasive theme in the Fallout franchise and once again your actions in Fallout: New Vegas have an impact on your “karma” and how you’re viewed by the populace of the Mojave. Changes in karma remain painfully arbitrary however, it mostly boils down to taking a hit in karma by stealing or killing someone unprovoked, while an increase in karma comes from doing good deeds and killing bad guys. Obsidian attempted to deepen the experience by factoring in the relationship the player has with certain factions, which impacts how opposing factions may treat you. Although good on paper, this all falls painfully flat as your allegiance with a certain faction almost never excludes you from interacting with opposing factions. You can now wear armor or outfits relating to a certain group as a disguise, entering the territory of an opposing faction will result in immediately being attacked, aside from some consequence-filled decisions towards the end of the main campaign, this is the only time your “fraternizing” with certain groups really seems to have any impact on the rest of the world.
Although it is easy to harp on the seeming lack of forward progress with this follow up to Fallout 3, it must be noted that the best part of that title, the many (side-) quests open for exploration along with the excellent writing, is still very much present. It is funny how you can easily get to the final part of the main campaign (although most likely not win the ensuing boss battle), in less than 10 hours, yet it can take upwards of 100 hours to complete all the side quests in the game. I had a great time exploring the Mojave and taking on the different missions that awaited me. Almost always engrossing tales were told through these quests and more was revealed about the fascinating Fallout universe. The presentation of Fallout: New Vegas makes it very difficult to see it as a full-fledged sequel though, instead it feels more like a “companion game”. This doesn’t mean however that there isn’t value here, there is so much to do and see that you’ll stay occupied for a long time to come. At the end of the day however, I was disappointed that the prospect of a new chapter in the Fallout saga proved to be so very similar to the last one.
Fans of Fallout 3 will feel right at home with New Vegas, although the main quest is a bit thin an uninspiring, the many side-quests are great. Unfortunately the gameplay behind these quests, along with the visual presentation has remained virtually unchanged after two years. To keep the franchise from stagnating Bethesda needs to reinvigorate the series in a big way, a new graphics engine and updated gameplay features would go a long way towards making us excited about a new Fallout game again. In the mean time we feel obliged to like Fallout: New Vegas but ultimately greet it with a heartfelt “meh”.
+ Side-quests have some great writing
- Main campaign is nowhere near as immersive as in Fallout 3
- Once again we’re prevented from continuing the game after finishing the main campaign
+ Sweeping game world
- Many frame rate issues
- Glitchy physics and numerous bugs
+ Beautifully atmospheric music
- Repetitive sound effects
- Recycled voice cast
+ Intuitive button configuration
- Poor responsiveness, especially while jumping and accessing menus
+ Same great quests with satisfying gun-based combat
- Not much in way of innovation
+ Completing everything can be a 100 hour undertaking
- Feels more like an add-on and less like a fully featured sequel