Writing a review of Fallout: New Vegas is quite difficult for me. On the one hand, the game is essentially a giant expansion pack to one of my most beloved games of this generation. The world is bursting at the seams with player choice, character, humor, and all of the other great things associated with the franchise. All of these accomplishments and accolades are forever tarnished, however, by a myriad of bugs, odd design choices, and a general lack of fun – the most important quality of a game for me.
The story begins with you getting your head blown off in the Mojave Desert. Rather than reincarnate you through some sorcerer’s spell or give you the chance to roll through the wasteland as a zombie (think of the possibilities here!), the gray matter left smeared on the sands is put back in place by a kindly doctor who gives you the chance to customize your character in a process very familiar to fans of the WRPG genre. New Vegas gets straight to business, shying away from the oppressive and claustrophobic opening of Fallout 3. However, what it lacks in initial immersion is quickly made up for by getting to the point and sending you out into the desert to find out why someone would want a lowly courier dead.
I decided to take advantage of my newfound freedom and play New Vegas the same way as I played Fallout 3. I picked a direction and began to walk, nervous but resolute that I’d make a name for myself in the Mojave Desert. Unfortunately, the game had other plans for me, and I was quickly impaled by a Giant Radscorpion. After loading up a save game, I decided that traveling west was perhaps ill-advised, and decided to try the northern path. A few paces later, I was left cleaning out the mess I made in my trousers after running into a friggin’ Deathclaw, the Fallout series equivalent to a Terminator. The citizens of Goodsprings did warn me to stay on the road in my travels, so I can’t say that the game didn’t warn me of the hazards that might await me. I can also get behind the idea of making New Vegas as difficult and oppressive as the Black Isle games in the franchise (this is the Apocalypse, after all), but running into the Grim Reaper every time you traipse off the beaten path is rather annoying. I play these games to explore and have an adventure, and being forced onto a set direction at the game’s outset compromises everything that I’ve come to love about Bethesda RPGs. Some will enjoy the struggle and ability to explore after leveling up a bit, but I myself was confused and bewildered by such structure in a series known for freedom.
I was able to explore a bit after completing several of the opening quests open to me, and developed my character in a similar way to what garnered results in Fallout 3. I focused on guns to start (which now comprises both the large and small variety) in hopes of changing over to energy weapons upon my approach to the end game. Imagine my shock when I was having difficulty putting down anything tougher than a human as my skill with firearms approached their pinnacle. New Vegas employs the damage threshold system from F1 and 2, which means that you won’t be doing more than 1 HP of damage to an enemy unless the weapon packs a massive punch. Seeing as how most firearms barely register on the DT scale, you can easily see how my character could quickly be classified as “broken.” Even worse, in an effort to balance the difficult (but not impossible to use) melee and unarmed skills from the previous game, Obsidian has basically given every player the chance to become a juggernaut. A high skill in either melee or unarmed combined with several key perks creates the equivalent of Jesus Christ with Karate-Chop Action. You don’t even need a high skill if you find the right weapons. I was able to destroy all of Caesar’s Legion using a very specific type of unarmed weapon with no skill points or perks associated with it. I understand wanting to accommodate multiple play styles, but this lack of balance forced me to respec my character (thank God for the PC mod-community) so I could get full enjoyment out of the game. I took my recreated character, who now resembled Chuck Norris and was seemingly as indestructible, through the Mojave Desert to complete the obscene number of quests open to players.
The aforementioned Caesar’s Legion represents a piece New Vegas’ greatest strength: factions. There are numerous factions, and you can ally with nearly all of them by completing certain side quests and tasks. You receive a notoriety level based on your interactions with these factions that is separate from your morality scale. This allows you to keep up appearances with your desired allies while also giving you the ability to backstab them (literally) if you want to. This does a great deal to alleviate the pressures of moral choice that seem to have cornered other franchises into playing either completely evil or totally good characters. I rarely checked my karma scale in New Vegas, opting instead to focus on the relationship I had with each faction. While this is a tremendous step forward that Obsidian should be commended for, it also leads to some odd problems at times. Being shot at because I’m wearing Brotherhood of Steel power armor around my New California Republic buddies seems a bit odd, especially if I’ve decided to keep my helmet off to ensure that my glorious mug is visible to all. Sure, you can sneak into just about any installation provided that you have the right attire, but it also means you’re going to have to walk around with a trunk full of outfits for every occasion.
Obsidian seems to have heard one of my minor complaints with the original Fallout 3, which featured a relatively small number of side quests. It would appear, unfortunately, that less is indeed more in this case. The plethora of quests feature a great deal of personality, but they can’t hide the fact that there’s lots of fetching, lots of wandering, and lots of visiting locations over and over again while looking for that one specific spot you’re supposed to visit on the map. Most of this can be blamed on the game’s engine, which was creaking and sputtering with Oblivion years ago and simply hasn’t aged well. New Vegas doesn’t do a good job of telling you what to do at times, and the general tedium of the mission design sets in early. I was hopelessly lost with certain mission objectives in the title city, though in the game’s defense, this never reaches the level of complete bewilderment found while trying to explore F3’s idiotically designed DC subway system. I can compliment the way that most quests and objectives are linked in the some way to the main story or the many factions that populate the Mojave Desert. This does a great job of creating the illusion of a living world; even one that is separated by countless obnoxious loading screens. It also means that you’ll have to make multiple characters to see everything that the Mojave Desert has to offer. New Vegas will keep you busy during these Holiday months. There are lots and lots of things to do, but there’s simply nothing as memorable as my experiences in F3’s Capital Wasteland.
Obsidian added several other key features to improve the core gameplay from Fallout 3. You can now aim down the iron sights of your gun rather than just having the camera zoom when you aim. I found this feature rarely useful given my character’s final specs, but this should help shooter fans feel (a bit) more at home. The Companion Wheel allows for easy control of the AI partners you can acquire during your travels. These characters are invaluable to your survival, as they will probably prove more effective at combat than you are until you come close to the level cap. Hardcore mode gives the truly masochistic a chance to feel like a true wasteland survivor. You have to consume water, food, and make sure to get enough sleep to survive. In addition, ammo also has real weight, and stimpacks won’t fix broken body parts. I’m sure that there will be a group of gamers who just eat this up, but I myself do not. There’s a difference between immersion and tedium for me, and I figured we learned that lesson when Naked Snake was setting broken bones in place and eating raw crab through a menu six years ago.
I can argue back and forth about most of the gameplay issues I have with the game, and I’m sure that they won’t hinder the enjoyment that some players will have with New Vegas. What is inexcusable, however, is the state in which the game was shipped to players. Obsidian and Bethesda essentially released a half-finished product, as this is perhaps the buggiest game I’ve ever played. Make no mistake, playing Fallout: New Vegas was an endurance trial at times. The number of times the game froze, I fell through the earth, fought enemies who were stuck in walls, ended up stuck in a wall myself, and found myself unable to reload or shoot my gun were simply stunning. We’ve all come to expect some issues from these large, opened ended games, but New Vegas pushes this level of tolerance to the breaking point. There is simply no reason that a game should ship with save and performance issues, period. The PC community is admittedly large and varied, but the number of problems facing players with relatively new graphics cards and top of the line gaming rigs is baffling. Bethesda has been quick to patch the game, which shows a great level of commitment for the product. New Vegas is much more stable in its current form than it was upon release, but there are still issues here and there. The game should have been pushed back at least a month, and releasing a product with such glaring issues is a giant slap in the face to the consumer. I’ve tried my best to be objective towards the current state of Fallout New Vegas, but there is, understandably, a bad taste in my mouth left over from the first month of the game’s release.
I can’t classify my experience with Fallout: New Vegas as “fun.” The greater emphasis on traditional RPG mechanics tore me out of what was an otherwise immersive experience. The excellent writing and role-playing was tempered by the poor voice acting and lack of high-end production values. And the ambitious quest design and layered decision making proves too much for a failing engine. Fallout: New Vegas is more Fallout, and will probably make fans happy in the long run. For me, Fallout 3 was a five star dining experience. I paid sixty dollars for a steak roughly the size of a fist, but the taste and memory of that experience will last forever. Fallout: New Vegas is like ordering sixty dollars worth of food from McDonald’s. You certainly get more bang for your buck, but the meal is simply hollow and unsatisfying. Fallout: New Vegas will have to satiate me for a while, but I will be remembering that juicy steak long after I’ve forgotten my experiences in the Mojave Desert.