Fallout: New Vegas

What happens in Vegas...

It was one of the most celebrated RPGs in recent years, combining pitch-perfect writing, a huge open-world and a sense of place so fully-realised that its bleak austerity seemed to seep into your very being. The recipient of a slew of awards and cumulative sales well in excess of 5 million, Bethesda's Fallout 3 was nigh-on perfect.

So how on Earth do you follow that? In the case of Obsidian Entertainment's Fallout: New Vegas, you don't mess too much with a good thing.

Sitting down for an all-too brief hour-long session recently, I had the chance to sample the very beginning of what promises to be a vast game. On the surface, little has changed. The poorly animated characters, the VATS system, your PIP-boy 3000, all look similar. Yet the further you progress, the more New Vegas' tweaks reveal themselves. The question remains, however, is it enough?

Set in 2280, three years after Fallout 3 and 203 years after The Great War left the U.S a radioactive wasteland, New Vegas shifts the focus out west to the relatively unharmed Mojave desert. Full of open spaces, blue skies and scrubby vegetation, it's the perfect setting to build on Fallout's wild-west subtext.

And build it does. So where Fallout 3 tipped its ten-gallon hat at the iconography of westerns, New Vegas goes the whole hog. This is no more apparent than in Hopesprings, the town in which your adventures begin. Home to a general store, a saloon, prospectors and dust-devils, Goodsprings is a cactus-spotted paean to the wild frontier. Albeit with an extra touch of the Fallout series' trademark crumbling degredation.

And of course, no wild-west town is complete without a viscous posse holding the town to ransom, which Goodsprings provides in the form of Joe Cobb and the Powder Gang. Your first proper mission sees you employed by a desperate Mayor to release the town from their nefarious clutches.

Incidentally, it's worth noting that the Powder Gang were set to appear in the original, abandoned Fallout 3 (codenamed Van Buren) from Black Isle, the creators of the first two games in the series. With many in that team moving to Obsidian in 2003, it's only fitting that the Powder Gang should make their return here.

Now, as this is a Fallout game your choices in how to deal with Cobb are as open as the wilderness that surrounds you. In this particular case, for example, you can pal up with him, use the gift of the gab to find some alternative solution, or just shoot him and his friends in the face. We chose the latter, resulting in the increased affections of the Goodsprings townsfolk. We were 'accepted.'

This reputation system is one of the big new features in Fallout New Vegas, feeding into the game's overarching struggle between the uptight authority figures of the New Californian Republic and the slaver army of Ceaser's Legion. You'll have to be careful who you side with, as each choice can have far reaching implications. Aligning yourself with one group will automatically create tensions with their rivals, the strength of feeling ramping up as your ties grow. Choose to follow one path exclusively and eventually the opposing faction will shoot on sight and you'll be locked out of their missions.

Despite what their names may suggest, aligning yourself with each faction isn't just a straight choice between good and evil. In Fallout: New Vegas the boundaries are far more blurred than that. Along the way you'll encounter all kinds of murky moral decisions. You can even choose to play one faction off against the other. It promises to be far more complex than Fallout 3's binary karma system.

Elsewhere, in a direct response to criticisms made of Fallout 3, New Vegas improves the feel of the combat. While the VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) method of pausing the action and strategically targeting body parts remains largely untouched, the real time shooting has seen some changes. Most obviously this manifests itself in the inclusion of real iron-sight aiming, an attempt to overcome the unresponsive, inaccurate feel from Fallout 3.

They've also added a 'Kill-Cam,' offering lovely gory slow-mo deaths, a nice visual flourish formerly exclusive to VATS.

But Obsidian point to some more straightforward solutions too. Whereas the beginning of Fallout 3 gave you weak guns with which you were poorly skilled, New Vegas gives you decent weapons you are reasonably good adept at using. It may sound ridiculously simple, but it reduces it's predecessor's frustrations considerably. You won't be airily spraying bullets around, Stormtrooper-style, any more.

So far we've only discussed incremental changes to the Fallout blueprint set out by Bethesda. They are welcome additions, sure, but they make little difference to the way the game is actually played. That responsibility falls on New Vegas' Hardcore mode.

Hardcore mode transforms the game from an action RPG to a purer form of roleplaying. Rather than glossing over the realities of your journey, it turns them into factors essential to your survival. So while previously you could store unlimited ammunition on your person, now it carries weight and heft. As anyone who wandered through the Capital Wasteland will attest, juggling your resources was a tough enough test anyway. With ammunition now contributing to your limited weight limit, this makes things a lot more difficult.

Your equipment will deteriorate faster too, necessitating frequent tinkering to keep it up and running. Remember when mid way through a firefight in Far Cry 2 your gun would suddenly seize up on you? It's like that. Except this time you'll have three hulking Super Mutants breathing down your neck.

Similarly, you'll have to look after yourself better too. Dehydration and tiredness are now issues. You'll have to eat, sleep and rest often to avoid exhaustion. And you won't be able to use Stimpacks to fix broken bones either, they're only effective against minor injuries. Neglect yourself too much and you'll end up incapacitated in Vegas' arid desert.

Taking on hardcore mode has the potential to change the Fallout experience entirely. It's the game's most interesting addition. Extra fiddling about may not be everyone's idea of fun, but those that make their way through Hardcore may well find it to be a far more rewarding system.

But, as intriguing as it promises to be, Hardcore is just a difficulty setting. An interestingly executed one, admittedly, but that's all it is. Obsidian aren't being coy about it, they see New Vegas as a way of bringing new content and gameplay refinements to an experience that was already superb. They don't want to reinvent the wheel and you can see their reasoning. As a result, Fallout: New Vegas will undoubtedly be a good game. But over-familiarity means it may fall shy of greatness.

E3 Trailer