If Fallout 3 was just ‘Oblivion with guns’, what are we to make of New Vegas? Fallout 3 with lightbulbs? The only certainty is that some bright, self-important spark is working day and night in a musty forum thread, dreaming up a new reductive phrase to denigrate Obsidian Entertainment’s new entry into the Fallout franchise in the same way they did Bethesda’s. But they were wrong then and they will be wrong now, because while New Vegas is unmistakably built upon the fundamental gameplay and structure laid out in Fallout 3, it’s a formula that any student of that game will be happy to see repeated, and Obsidian’s numerous embellishments result in what is, in many respects, a deeper and more compelling experience.
By now, your eyes will have no doubt wandered to the score at the bottom of the page, but please suppress the urge to point out that Fallout 3 is one of the small handful of games we have awarded full marks. New Vegas is an extension rather than a fundamental rethink, to the point where the engine is virtually untouched and the majority of the assets and textures look extremely familiar – indeed, the graphics and framerate are both noticeably weaker. Of course, we don’t expect Obsidian to re-model every mundane item in its expansive world, but it serves to dilute the impact and sense of grim surprise that made Fallout 3 so memorable.
Another slight misstep lies in the fiction itself. Las Vegas is a counterpoint to Washington in terms of both geography and what it represents about American society and culture: one has the declaration of independence, robotic presidents and was the epicentre of the nuclear catastrophe; the other has vice, plentiful electricity, gangs of Elvis impersonators and a vivid blue sky. New Vegas is more frivolous and absurd by design, but while this approach has considerable strengths and a rich vein of humour, it lacks the weight of Fallout 3’s oppressive greyness and canny skewering of American history.
Where New Vegas forges ahead is in everything beneath the surface and beyond the fiction. The standard of writing is generally higher, and of the characters you can engage in conversation there are more that stick in the mind. This is helped in no small part by a higher standard of voice-acting, and subtly improved NPC animations during the frequent dialogue sequences. Bethesda has yet to develop an alternative to zooming the camera directly on to the face of whoever is talking while the world freezes behind them, but at least here they move their heads from side-to-side and boast recognisable facial expressions. Make no mistake, this isn’t Mass Effect 2, but Obsidian has taken a small step in a positive direction.
Indeed, New Vegas is, for the most part, a game defined by small changes: skill magazines grant a temporary boost of 10 points in the corresponding discipline, which is far more useful than the tiny, permanent increase awarded by skill books; most weapons can be modified with components like telescopic sights, lighter stocks and beam splitters; there are different types of ammunition, from armour-piercing to hollow-point, with regular ammunition now increasing the rate at which your weapon degrades; an in-game incentive system awards extra perks for completing challenges like killing a certain number of mutated insects or finding the bodies of fallen couriers; there is a comprehensive crafting system that enables you to create weapons at workbenches, ammunition at reloading benches and natural remedies at campfires.
These are ornamentations, and engaging with them is more a matter of choice than necessity, but New Vegas makes significant improvements in ways that can’t be ignored. Principally, the main quest-line is no longer the dullest and most linear aspect of the game, beginning as a simple whodunit before evolving into a branching story of warring factions wrestling for power, where your choices genuinely feel like they’ll affect the way the narrative concludes – and, like Fallout 3, there’s no option to continue adventuring when it does, though the 30-level cap goes some way toward compensating for this.
The conflict between the different factions bleeds into a larger system that gives your actions and decisions greater meaning in the context of the world. Deeds in a specific settlement or for a specific clan will alter your standing across a range of 15 possible stages, from Idolised to Vilified. Reputation dictates how people will regard you, who will attack you on sight, the prices you’ll be charged by shopkeepers, and even the missions you’ll be allowed to accept. Fallout 3 often felt like a collection of disparate missions in an enormous sandbox, with no one part directly affecting another. New Vegas is different – there’s an underlying structure to its landscape, a greater sense of society.
New Vegas won’t help Obsidian to shake its reputation as a purveyor of technically flawed but theoretically excellent sequels to other studio’s games – the bugs here are numerous, and occasionally infuriating – but it’s difficult to conceive of anyone who loved Bethesda’s re-imagined universe feeling any differently about this. On the most base level it’s more of the same, but with a generous handful of new features that allow you to carve your own path more convincingly. If we had played Fallout 3 and New Vegas once each and were offered the chance to play one of them for a second time, after much deliberation we’d choose New Vegas. There can be no more telling indicator of a job well done.