Two centuries after a nuclear war destroyed the United States and much of the world, civilisation is slowly reasserting itself in the American West. Two powerful blocs have formed. The New California Republic follows the ideals and goals of pre-war America, believing in a land of freedom and opportunity. Caesar's Legion is an army of fascist thugs who believe in rule by strength and superiority. Between these two forces lies the Mojave Wasteland and the city of New Vegas, a fiercely independent state ruled by the enigmatic Mr. House and his army of security robots.
A courier, bearing an important parcel for delivery to New Vegas, is shot in the head by an unknown assailant and left for dead. Nursed back to health by a local doctor, the courier sets out to complete his mission, find the assailant and recover his commission. But as the courier delves deeper into the Mojave Wasteland, he (or she) discovers a land poised on the brink of a great change, and that she (or he) may ultimately hold the balance of power.
Fallout: New Vegas was released in late 2010 and is a stand-alone successor to the first three Fallout games. It was developed by Obsidian Entertainment, the successors to Black Isle, that company that created the franchise and the first two games in the sequence. Bethesda, who bought the licence for the franchise and made Fallout 3, contracted Obsidian to make a new game in the series. This move was popular with fans (particularly those doubtful over Bethesda's handling of the series), since it allowed quite a few team-members who worked on the first two games to produce a new Fallout title. There were even able to incorporate some elements of the cancelled 'original' Fallout 3 that Black Isle were working on when they were shut down.
Anyone who's played one of Bethesda's Gamebryo/Creation engine games (Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Skyrim) will be at home here. The game is played from a first-person perspective, although a third-person viewpoint is available as well. You create your character, deciding his or her name and gender and deciding their appearance. There are no classes, with instead you pumping skill points into the areas you want to develop (guns, speech and science are highly recommended). Every two levels you also get perks, special bonuses to certain skills or abilities. You're then set loose in the game world with an initial mission - find the guy who shot you - but also the freedom to wander off, explore, speak to people, pick up initial jobs and so on. It's also up to you whether to play as a heroic wanderer, a practical money-hunter or a psychopathic maniac.
The opening town in the game, Goodsprings, has a number of missions you can do for money and experience (some of which also act as tutorials for the game's combat system). Due to the geography of the Mojave (as depicted in the game), your pursuit of your nemesis leads up a valley through several other settlements, where side-missions are never far away. In this fashion the game encourages you to build up your character before confronting your enemy in New Vegas itself, without restricting your freedom (you can simply ignore everything and go straight to the city if you really want to).
However, there is one massive difference between New Vegas and the Bethesda games: Obsidian have some of the best writers in gaming working for them. Bethesda, to be charitable...don't. In particular, they have little truck with either violence being the only solution to problems or in moral absolutes of black and white. You often find that missions can be accomplished through dialogue or bargaining rather than violence alone. Your skills impact on your dialogue choices in a way that didn't happen in Fallout 3, immediately opening up a vaster number of options. If you have a high medical skill, for example, you can simply tell a medic how to make the best use of his resources rather than going on a long and dangerous mission halfway across the map to find the same info in a textbook. In addition there are situations where there are two options and each option has both positive and negative consequences and neither is obviously the 'right' choice to make. You have to make the choice which makes the most sense for your character, given their allegiances.
There is also a faction system at work in the game. On the larger scale, the armies of the New California Republic and Caesar's Legion are clashing for control of the Mojave, and in particular the tactically important location of Hoover's Dam, which provides power for most of the region. You can ally with either side and perform missions for them, but this will ultimately destroy your reputation with the other side and close down your ability to do missions for them as well. New Vegas doesn't allow you to have your cake and eat it. It forces you to make decisions and stick to them. There is also a second layer of factions at work in New Vegas itself, with Mr. House determined to maintain the city's independence whilst the local representatives of the New California Republic tries to convince him to join them. There's also another faction in New Vegas which seeks to eliminate Mr. House and seize control themselves. Once again, you can choose which side to join.
However, and this is where New Vegas really impresses, the game also gives you a very important option: to be yourself. Can't choose between the NCR and the Legion? Ignore both of them. Or wage war on both of them whenever you find them. Don't like Mr. House or his enemies? Eliminate both of them, seize control of Mr. House's immense army of robot sentries and rule New Vegas yourself. No character in the game has plot-armour. You can be in a high-level strategic conference with the NCR's senior-most general, but you can, if you wish, shoot her in the head. There are consequences (the NCR will turn on you and try to hunt you down wherever you are, and further missions from them will not be available), but you can do it if you wish. The game doesn't force you to do anything you don't want to, and gives the player an impressive amount of freedom.
Where the game also scores big over Fallout 3 and Skyrim is its treatment of companion characters. In those games, companions are basically extra weapons platforms and a mobile bonus inventory. They don't really talk to you and after a while there is no point interacting with them other than what they can do for you on a practical level. In New Vegas, each potential follower has a quest associated with them and their own allegiances and preferences. Bringing ex-NCR sniper Boone into a Legion camp will result in Boone going on a killing spree. Come into conflict with NCR troopers and Boone may leave or even turn on you. This applies to all of the companions, who also seem a bit chattier than in Bethesda's own games. In short, in New Vegas companion characters bring a lot more to the table than their Bethesda counterparts.
Graphically, the game looks a little lacking compared to Skyrim with its high-res textures installed, but otherwise looks credibly impressive. There are some great environment and sound effects that convincingly sell the illusion of being in the desert. There is some clunkiness; rock faces and mountains are sometimes surrounded by invisible walls to prevent you climbing over them, which is odd. But otherwise the graphics and sound effects are strong. The interface is unchanged from Fallout 3 and is mostly fine, but there is no way of instantly accessing your quest log, inventory or skill sheet with a single button. Instead you must activate your PIP-BOY (a wrist-mounted mini-computer) and cycle through the pages, which is a cumbersome process, even though the game freezes whilst using it. You can assign weapons, healing packs and other items to hotkeys, however, which does help.
For combat, you can either engage in direct combat FPS-style (now enhanced by the addition of iron sights) or use VATS. In this mode combat is paused and you can target an enemy's limbs before resuming the battle. This was generally nice but not essential in Fallout 3, but is more important in New Vegas. Throughout the game you will face a relentless type of flying insect called a 'cazadore', which is exceptionally deadly. Blowing their wings off, ridding them of their devastating speed, in VATS is a good way of dealing with them. Combat is thus a bit more involved and satisfying than in Fallout 3, with a larger and more interesting array of weapons. There's also more focus on melee combat, which is useful in close-quarters battles where stopping to reload a firearm could be fatal.
Like the other Fallout games, New Vegas is set in a radioactive environment where the very soil and water is hazardous. Unlike the other games, the New Vegas area did not take a direct nuclear hit during the war so these hazards are much less prevalent than in Fallout 3. Coupled with a lack of famous landmarks (aside from Hoover Dam), New Vegas sells the idea of being in a post-apocalyptic world less effectively than Fallout 3. However, it does do a better job of selling the illusion of a post-post-apocalyptic world, where the apocalypse was a long time ago (now more than two centuries) and civilisation is starting to reassert itself. For those who do feel the environment is less threatening than previous games, you can activate a hardcore mode which forces you to sleep, eat and drink on a regular basis, as well as giving your ammo weight (preventing you from lugging tons of it all over the place). A further optional mod by the game's project lead also makes the game more challenging still (by halving the amount of experience you get).
New Vegas has a formidable array of memorable characters to talk to and deal with. Your companions are fully fleshed-out individuals with complex motivations and backstory. Boone, a devastatingly competent sniper and soldier, is working through the pain of the loss of his family to raiders. A Super Mutant who allies with you is suffering mental problems (the result of exposure to a dangerous technology) but is also tormented by memories of her grandchildren, who died decades earlier. Mr. House believes he can restore peace to the world and presents you with rationales as to why this is so, but is also an egotistical narcissist with no real idea of his true nature (as a hilariously over-the-top obituary - penned by himself in the event of his death - proves). Caesar himself is a deluded sociopath who justifies the mass-slaughter of innocents through dubious rhetoric (which you can attempt to argue him out of, or can choose to remove his head instead). Even minor characters, like the explosive-obsessed 'Boomers' who've taken over an old military base or the doctor who patches you up at the start of the game, have their own stories and characteristic tics. The voice acting is also superb, with a special shout-out to Michael Hogan (Saul Tigh from the new Battlestar Galactica) whose voice is the first thing you hear in the game (after Ron Perlman's traditional opening narration, of course).
The combination of these factors is that Fallout: New Vegas is the best game released by Bethesda to date (although it was not developed by them). Obsidian have crafted an open-world storyline based on choice and freedom of action to go with the open-world setting. There are complex moral choices to make, memorable and three-dimensional characters to interact with and the ability to solve problems without always resorting to guns and violence (you can even defeat the end-of-game enemy through dialogue, rather than weaponry). The faction system gives rise to a large number of different possible endings as well. With New Vegas Obsidian have finally added a freeform, flexible and complex story worthy of the freeform, complex and open nature of the game engine that Bethesda have created.
Unfortunately, the game is let down by some minor technical issues. The game is now in a much better state than at launch, where it was a bit of a mess. Most of the bugs have now been fixed, and I actually had less crashes than I did with Fallout 3. However, an ongoing bug prevented me from loading saved games from the start menu, which was a bit silly. I had to start a new game each time and then load from within the game world. Fortunately, loading is so fast that this was not a problem (adding maybe 5 seconds to the load process). Still, the fact this known issue was not fixed (and, with support for the game now ended, never will be) at some point is irritating.
Fallout: New Vegas (****½) is a long, impressive roleplaying game set against a complex, morally ambiguous backdrop which gives the player real freedom in the narrative sphere as well as the simplistic exploration-and-shoot-things area. Despite some minor technical issues, it is a brilliant game and the best thing released by Bethesda since Morrowind, and the best game produced by Obsidian to date. It is available now, packaged with its excellent expansions (which I will cover separately), in the UK (PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3).