Fallout: New Vegas
Shot in the head and left for dead in the Mojave Wasteland, a betrayed courier is promptly extracted from a shallow grave by a mysterious cowboy robot before being nursed back to health by a good-natured backwater doctor - and thus Fallout: New Vegas, a search for answers, and a quest for vengeance begins.
Swapping out the devastation of Washington D.C. for the rubble-strewn vulgarities of Las Vegas, publisher Bethesda and developer Obsidian are hoping that a change of setting, a fresh storyline, and a smattering of new features are sufficient to rekindle gamer interest in the award-winning Fallout series. They can hope, but they won't be getting any drooling adoration here, let me tell you.
It's been two years since Fallout 3 wowed the gaming world and rightfully scooped awards by the armful. How things change - or not, as the case may be. Let me be more specific while strapping on my blood-encrusted hobnail boots. We all fell in love with the scale of Fallout 3's post-apocalyptic sprawl, with Bethesda's superb storytelling, with the viciously entertaining V.A.T.S. attack system, and with the unrivalled drive to explore a vast, atmospheric and challenging game world.
What's more, happily blinded by Fallout 3's wealth of plus points, we didn't give a damn about its unstable game engine, ugly design, horribly generic character models, dour colour pallette, shamefully repetitious soundtrack, wooden NPC interactions, and shockingly poor animation. Despite such an array of technical and aesthetic deficiencies, Fallout 3 still deserved the critical plaudits lavished upon it. But this is 2010, not 2008, and gaming has evolved. Unfortunately, Fallout: New Vegas has not and all of the above are still in attendance.
It would be easy to take the easy way out and hold New Vegas aloft as a by-the-numbers but fairly capable sequel that trades on the age-old adage that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But Fallout 3 was, in so many ways, a fractured experience built on decidedly broken foundations - and fixing that which is broken should have been one of Obsidian's core motivations given that New Vegas runs on Fallout 3's dusty old engine and contains all of Bethesda's pre-existing assets.
It's therefore staggering to note that Obsidian's creation is not only hamstrung by all the same technical issues as Fallout 3, it even sports a selection of brand new ones. How wonderfully generous. For example, the visuals still stutter and temporarily freeze, the frame rate is still appallingly inconsistent, and there are still moments of utter frustration as the game occasionally grinds to an unexpected and explicable halt.
But now, in 2010, we also get unintentionally invisible and invincible enemies (no Stealth Boy usage required), NPCs can be found floating against ceilings, enemies become trapped within environmental objects, and the main character's neck is often the length of a giraffe's while in the throws of death. Development time well spent, eh? Or perhaps Obsidian was just busy channelling its efforts into the butchering of Alpha Protocol.
Personally, my favourite glitches in New Vegas arrive as a double-barrelled annoyance connected to the player character. Firstly, and for apparently no reason, when holding a two-handed weapon it's not unusual for suspension of disbelief to be shattered as the stock weapon-change animation cycles repeatedly and for long periods. And, in a similar vein, the trusty Pip Boy 3000 wrist interface either doesn't appear at all when prompted - even though the game pauses as it should - or it is raised so high above the player's actual viewpoint that it's impossible to navigate. Needless to say, expletives have escaped my lips thick and fast when Pip Boy assistance is needed during the heat of battle.
Proceedings may be very samey, but that's not to say New Vegas is completely devoid of at least a smidgen of evolutionary merit. Notable new features include the handy introduction of weapon-wielding A.I. companions, which can be directed by the player to provide offensive backup and also expand the capacity to carry loot. There's also a reputation system that denotes how different factions react to the player's presence and, in some instances, whether or not side quests are closed or offered. For example, wipe out a Viper enclave and other encountered gang members will likely adopt an approach of shoot first, ask questions when you're dead: or, if you prefer, do lots of nice things for a neutral township and they'll be extremely welcoming. Hmm, there's also plenty of gambling and whoring to be had if that kind of thing floats your boat, it is Vegas after all.
Consider the forgiveness we gleefully lavished upon Fallout 3, happily ignoring its glitches because of the narrative depth, the epic scale, and the tactical impact of enemy dismemberment with V.A.T.S. Does New Vegas deserve the same rose-tinted treatment? No, it doesn't. The world map promises epic exploration, but mountainous boundaries spilling towards its centre quickly break that promise. The thin vengeance-fuelled storyline lacks any form of emotive appeal, and a seemingly constant influx of NPC side-quests only appear that way because there are far fewer miles to slog between them. And V.A.T.S., while still entertaining, is unable to mask the fact that it's really just a two-year-old gameplay patch cleverly covering the game's inability to re-create convincing real-time action.
Look, many of those that loved Fallout 3 are absolutely going to love New Vegas, whatever I say here is unlikely to sway your opinion. But let's not labour under the misapprehension that New Vegas is anything other than an inflated and over-priced expansion riddled with the kind of sloppy and destructive bugs that would see most other games given a swift kicking and critical mauling. But I'm being too harsh, aren't I? Lazily focusing on only the negative? Over critical to the point of pedantry perhaps? Maybe so, but I'm not willing to tow the line, and if there's one thing that pisses me off without exception it's a full-price retail tag slapped shamelessly onto a distinctly half-arsed product. Now there's a quote for the box.