Yes, that's a Kick in the Head

Fallout: New Vegas Screenshot

HIGH Getting to the final boss and talking him out of a fight.

LOW The innumerable bugs and crashes.

WTF Man, where to begin? The gang of Elvises? The blond-wigged Nightkin in love with a robot? This whole game is screwy.

Although much about it was praiseworthy, Bethesda's open-world role-playing game (RPG) Fallout 3 suffered from a weak and uncompelling core narrative and a ridiculous ending. It was a notable aberration in a series known for the quality of its storytelling. Disappointed fans of the older games were heartened to learn that Obsidian (largely built from the ruins of series originator Black Isle Studios) were going to handle the writing duties in the sequel, New Vegas, and their hopes for a return to that storytelling quality have largely been fulfilled. Though it doesn't fully realize its potential, Fallout: New Vegas has an interesting plot that the player can shape in rewarding ways.

Like Fallout 3, the major plotline in New Vegas boils down to a conflict over resources. In this case, it's the water and electricity from Hoover Dam. These things have made the Mojave desert a relatively hospitable place with functioning agriculture, and have resurrected the casinos of Sin City. Drawn into the power struggle while trying to make a delivery, the player gets to make the plot's most interesting decision by choosing who will rule the desert. New Vegas also improves on Fallout 3's story in that this judgment actually deserves some contemplation, because each of the major factions vying for control has serious flaws.

Obsidian's writers carefully use both dialogue and quest objectives to characterize the disorganized democracy, the callous technocrat, and the brutal dictator. Fallout 3's ludicrous karma system is de-emphasized in favor of a more robust reputation system in which different groups judge you by your service to their interests. This fits the game's moral ambiguity well, although that effort is undercut by its cartoonish neo-Roman villains. Even in this bit of silliness, however, the superiority of Obsidian's creative effort shows. Simple touches like the way the Romans pronounce Latin served to tell the story of Caesar's Legion long before some NPC informed me it had been founded by a pedantic linguist.

However, Obsidian didn't fully pick up the environmental storytelling mastered by Bethesda. Explorable locations generally feel smaller and less involved than in Fallout 3. It seemed like I explored the same cave in New Vegas a dozen times over, just with slightly different decoration. This repetition was more jarring than in the previous game because it occurred so often in natural, rather than man-made, spaces.

The spaces that have been fully elaborated are sometimes incoherent. The luxury hotel rooms on the strip don't have windows, not even the boarded-over ones common in the wasteland. One vault I visited had a backstory that climaxed in a battle, but although the area was strewn with traps, mines, and tons of ammo, there were no guns. Nor was there any mention made of what might have happened to the vault's children, although this is understandable as most of the settlements in the Mojave appear not to have any children at all. These are small things to be sure, but they cumulatively made the whole game feel just a little off.

Fallout: New Vegas Screenshot

More significantly, the story doesn't really make use of its setting. Las Vegas is a place associated with riches, fantasy, and organized crime, but New Vegas focuses on political, rather than economic, conflict. That story is well told, but it's one that would have worked just as well, or even better, had it been set in D.C. New Vegas features a number of excellent side-quests involving the Strip's ruling families and maneuvering between the various trading consortia active in the region. Had Obsidian built the game around these ideas rather than relegating them to side-quests the story might have fit better with its location.

The core gameplay remains as compelling as before, although Obsidian made small and welcome changes to the way Fallout plays. The expanded repertoire of enemies makes the wastes more interesting to cross, and these foes generally pose more interesting tactical problems. The (optional) hardcore mode requiring the player to keep his character hydrated and fed while managing ammo that actually has weight is nearly perfect, enforcing a disciplined and frugal style of play that fits the universe perfectly. Obsidian's dedication to ensuring that every problem has multiple solutions also deserves praise; even the game's final boss can be talked out of a fight.

On the other hand, the expanded crafting system (though an excellent concept) doesn't quite work. Crafting locations are too far from safe storage places, and the recipes can only be seen when you're ready to start, which can lead to an irritating round trip if you forgot to bring the pressure cooker to the water purification party. The proliferation of empty casings, ammo types, and aid items made inventory management a chore due to the lack of sorting options.

To the extent that the tweaks improve the game, however, they are overwhelmed by the appalling quality of the code. Obsidian has never been praised for its QA, and Fallout 3 was infamous for its instability on all platforms. New Vegas lives down to, and even below, these reputations. The game crashed regularly, and even when it didn't I often had to quit down to the dashboard as some persistent memory error prevented a a quest objective from being recognized, or caused the game to stutter. Occasionally, I would fail quests I hadn't begun for reasons that couldn't be discerned. Even simple things don't work—at the base of some stairs in a tunnel, I fell right out of the world, a problem so obvious it is difficult to believe the area was checked at all.

Due to the bugs, it felt at times like I was fighting New Vegas rather than playing it, and the weariness I felt at the prospect of that battle sometimes was not outweighed by the draw of exploring yet another minimalist location or mowing down more legionaries. That's a real shame, because Fallout: New Vegas almost manages to perfectly synthesize the different strengths of Fallout 3 and its predecessors. Had the world design and the code been as excellent as the writing, we might have had a masterpiece on our hands. Rating: 8.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 80 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times with one alternate ending path).

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, sexual content, strong language, use of drugs. The V.A.T.S. retains all its bloody characteristics from Fallout 3, with limbs being blown off regularly. A few characters may be skimpily dressed, but "sex" involves nothing more than a screen fading to black. Drugs and alcohol provide numerous benefits, with addiction posing only a minor challenge. Save this one for older teens.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Primary and incidental dialogue is subtitled, but occasionally some background dialogue is not. A change in music and certain sounds are used to indicate that the player is under attack; unless you are sneaking there may be no visual indication that a nearby enemy is after you.

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson grew up in the hot lands of Alabama, where he was regularly mooned by a cast iron statue. He played his first games on a Texas Instruments 99/4A computer, although he was not an early adopter. He eventually left Alpiner behind, cultivating a love of games that grew along with the processing power of the home computer. Eventually, however, the PC upgrade cycle exhausted him, and by the time he received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina he had retreated almost entirely to console gaming.

Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.
Sparky Clarkson

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