Chris Avellone returns to the Fallout world to correct the mistakes of Fallout 3, though the game's bugs mar his effort
Fallout 3 lacked the morally ambiguous quest resolutions, perverse characters, disturbing events and the overall feeling of crushing depression that the series was known for. Instead they crafted a game where good and evil were very clearly defined and quests were simple "Do this or do that" affairs devoid of moral quandaries. You either blew up the bomb and killed everyone, or you disarmed it and were praised as a hero. Faction politics didn't even factor into it since they used Oblivion's very watered down faction flag system that simply registered you as "Kill on sight" or "shower with free items". It was nowhere near the level of interaction that Fallout had always been known for and it angered many longtime fans.
Though I enjoyed Fallout 3 and squeezed three play-throughs out of it thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of the mod community, I was not as pleased with it as everyone else was. With a weak end boss, very low difficulty and an ending that had to have been the most anti-climactic and disappointing conclusion since Final Fantasy 7, I thought all hope for a game done in the true "Fallout style" was lost.
Then I heard former Black Isle developers "Obsidian Entertainment" had been given the go-ahead to make a Fallout spin-off, and that hope started slowly building back up within me. Would Chris Avellone pen an amazing story capable of living up to Fallout 2? Would he fix the dialog so I didn't want to skip it every time an NPC opened their mouth? Would the quests be complex and fun to engage in? Would the morally ambiguous and perverse world of Fallout return in its full glory?
I'm happy to say that the answer to all of those questions is an emphatic "yes".
One of Fallout's greatest strengths, and perhaps Fallout 3's greatest weakness, were the quests themselves. Most of the missions in Fallout 3 had one or maybe two solutions and that was all you were given. Unlike the first two games, the quests had very little flexibility and your choices never really altered the world beyond dictating if someone lived or died. In contrast, Fallout 1 (and especially 2) made it a habit to give you several different solutions to most of their quests, letting you switch sides and manipulate the quest givers throughout the entire mission. Whether it was the clever dynamics of the New Reno family feuds or the myriad of different ways you could alter the final battle the original games were truly open-ended in every sense of the word.
Fallout New Vegas brings this feature back, and then some.
As a matter of fact, it goes so far in giving you multiple quest choices that I actually found some missions to be unnecessarily confusing due to the sheer multitude of solutions and optional pathways they gave me. Many of them allow for betrayal and double crossing as well, which is a welcome change over Fallout 3's cut-and-dried side missions. With quests such as the one in Novac that lets you feed on a man's thirst for revenge by tricking him into murdering anyone you want or a mission late in the game that gives you the "quick and dirty" option of murdering a certain faction leader in his bed at night so you can install an obedient puppet in a coup, New Vegas impressed me from beginning to end. Especially since most of these quests have no real good or evil bent to them and are usually more about "what will benefit me the most" instead of "How can I be nice to everyone so they shower me with free items".
New Vegas also brings back Fallout's trademark "Grittiness" and doesn't shy away from portraying the wasteland as a horribly depraved place.
Watch in horror as little kids nonchalantly chew the corpse of the rat you just killed outside of the Vegas slums. Gasp when you watch a man commit suicide in front of you due to your actions. Stare at the body of a dead hooker as she lies bloody on a table after a man records her in a snuff film. Recoil from the monitor as you see a half a dozen men being crucified right in front of your eyes. Fallout is once again "perverse" and I credit Avellone with bringing the series back to its dark and depressing roots.
Furthering the enjoyment you'll get from these quests is the new Reputation system. Taking yet another page out of Fallout 1 & 2's book, Obsidian brought back the old reputation system that measured your notoriety on a per-town basis. Unlike the Karma meter which meant you could kill off half a town in Fallout 3 and still be viewed as a god by their neighbors, New Vegas does what the old games did and measures your level of acceptance individually by settlement. Some places may idolize you, some may hate you and refuse to deal with you. Others may fear you or distrust you due to minor "slip-ups" you've made while within their walls. It helps create a much more realistic interpretation of your actions and prevents you from "gaming the system" and doing evil while still being seen as a champion of the people.
Simply put, faction play is a huge factor in New Vegas and adds an element to gameplay that the previous game lacked.
Another returning facet of Fallout's gameplay is the old "free form" quests that you are given. These quests do not appear in your journal and are not tracked, but can be every bit as important as the ones that are. They are usually hinted at in dialogs and given to you as suggestions that you may or may not follow. Most can be avoided, but some can have a profound impact on your game. Maybe a little girl who lives in a settlement you are trying to gain the trust of is overheard talking about a lost toy. Perhaps you could find that toy somewhere and earn a boost to your reputation within that area? Or maybe a merchant that belongs to a very important faction mentions they lost a valuable item...and when you just so happen to stumble across it they begin selling you things from their personal stock. These little free form quests are quite numerous in New Vegas and give the game a touch of realism that I honestly didn't expect to find.
Tying all of these quests together is the main story of the game, which has you playing the role of a courier who was shot in the head and nearly killed for the platinum poker chip you were delivering. what starts as a tale of revenge against the well dressed man that tried to kill you eventually turns into a huge faction war between no less than three parties who are all after the same thing. While the story starts very slowly and has drawn some criticism from gamers, it really does heat up about a third of the way through the main quest and bursts open splendidly near the halfway point. You can at any time favor one of these three factions and up until the very end betray them and switch sides. You can even take a "fourth option" and strike out as a lonewolf who serves no one and crushes everyone under their metal boot. The choices are, much like how they were in the original two games, well written and numerous. It's essentially the best thing Avellone has done since "Mask of the Betrayer".
One last little check in the "positive" column is the voice work. Bethesda has been criticized frequently by fans for their recycling of voice work and their habit of only using a few actors to do every single voice in one game. Thankfully I didn't see that in New Vegas and was very impressed with what I heard. Even with all the anger over Mathew Perry being cast it wasn't until the ending credits that I finally found out who he had played. The voice work seemed varied and professional, and was some of the best I've heard in an RPG that didn't have "Bioware" on the box.
So the quests, the new reputation system and the story itself are all up to Fallout standards, but what about the gameplay?
Obsidian obviously knew how easy and simplistic Fallout 3 was and it seems as though one of their priorities was to fix that to some degree. While the game is still an FPS at its core, they've managed to change enough of the core gameplay mechanics to make it much more of a statistical RPG than the previous game in the series was.
First off, they revamped the skill system and balanced it out so that it is harder to take advantage of. Not only are you limited to a new perk every two levels instead of one, but they've balanced out the returning perks so that they aren't as broken as they once were. This means a perk like "Grim Reaper's Sprint" doesn't make you a god anymore since instead of totally refilling your AP gauge it only fills up 15 points after a VATS kill. Though on the other hand it also improves the percentages for several skills that were up until now mostly useless.
Another welcome return to the earlier games comes in the form of skill checks. One of the biggest gripes I had with Fallout 3 was how most skills were utterly worthless and never factored in to your dialog. In New Vegas this is not the case, since you'll actually end up using Barter, Science and Medicine in conversations far more than you even will the speech skill, which means that just because you didn't make a "charisma boy" doesn't mean you are locked out of any special quest paths. Barter is often used to gain more money from your rewards and Science can open up some very rare and very far-reaching quest paths that greatly alter the ending. Especially one very crucial 90 point Science check involving Lily and the nightkin which actually alters the ending.
Continuing this trend are the new adjustments they made to VATS which help keep it from becoming the "God mode" that it was in Fallout 3.
Unlike the previous game you can (and will, quite frequently) get hit and die during a VATS attack. You are no longer invulnerable while in VATS and this goes a long way towards nerfing what was essentially the game's biggest problem. Also, with the addition of real iron sights on all of the guns, real-time aiming and shooting is a much more feasible and reliable means of dispatching enemies. Though I can't prove it, I've noticed that for some reason I do far more damage and I'm far more accurate *outside* of of VATS then I am *inside* of it. This is the exact opposite of Fallout 3, which was nothing more than me abusing AP-increasing items and skills while I defeated every single enemy within the friendly confines of VATS.
Though perhaps the greatest balancer and the most welcome tweak to gameplay is how the armor is handled. In what was an absolutely brilliant move by Obsidian, they decided to give armor a "damage threshold" number that increases the minimum amount of damage you must do to the wearer for them to take damage. This makes armor much more powerful than Fallout 3, since even extremely strong weapons will barely scratch an armored opponent. It forces you to carry around special ammo meant for puncturing their protection, something not seen since Fallout tactics.
Yet another addition would be the improved crafting system. With several dozen recipes keyed in to your science, repair, medicine and survival skills it is now possible to be your own merchant and craft the things you need from all of that ordinary junk lying around. This is great for players who don't want to use barter since you can keep most of your weapons repaired by collecting Scrap metal, duct tape, wrenches and wonder glue to make weapon repair kits. This helps alleviate the constant need to repair things that Fallout 3 suffered from and goes a long way towards lessening your "downtime" outside of combat.
Speaking of repair, they've tweaked the item degradation system so that it isn't such of a bother anymore. Not only do items degrade far more slowly than they did in Fallout 3 (I've sucked down dozens of laser rounds and my armor's condition barely even budged...and that's *without* Raul's repair skill) but they added a "cut off point" to the item condition bar so that as long as the bar is full up to that point the quality of the item doesn't diminish. This is a VERY welcome change since it gives you breathing room as far as item decay is concerned. No longer do you need to toss a powerful item aside because it was a little banged up in a fight. Now you can let some of them go as low as 50% before they begin showing any signs of decay.
Last but not least, we have a vast improvement on the whole companion system. In Fallout 3, companions were mostly a nuisance and added very little to your combat effectiveness. In New Vegas this is changed and companions not only have much improved AI, but also have their own storyline quests that alter the ending you receive. It's certainly nothing new since Fallout 2 did this, but the fact that I actually became protective of both Boone and Lily whenever I used them says a lot. Especially when the only NPC I ever moderately enjoyed being around in Fallout 3 (Paladin Cross) didn't even register a response from me when she died.
With all of these tweaks, modifications, alterations and improvements, I'm proud to call New Vegas a Fallout title. Obsidian has truly brought the classic gameplay back into Fallout and created a sequel that lives up to the standard the originals set twelve years ago
Though I'm sorry to say that it isn't all sunshine and rainbows in the Mojave desert...
Fallout 3 had a lot of bugs, and unfortunately all of those long squashed bugs (and then some) have returned in New Vegas.
The first thing I realized was that they forgot to put the proper 64bit ATI driver (atimgpud.dll) in the installer, which means that anyone using an ATI card with a 64 bit operating system would not get proper HDR or water effects since the only included file is a 32bit one. This was a known problem with Fallout 3 and was discovered over a year ago on the official boards yet is still being shipped unfixed in this sequel. All they had to do was set up a check in the installer for both your video card and your OS then place the proper atimgpud.dll in the main directory...but apparently that slipped their mind.
Another mistake is the memory management, which is even worse than Fallout 3 at launch. Sadly, the game manages RAM about as well as a sports car manages gas. It frequently crashes to desktop on both me and my friend's PCs as well as nearly everyone I've spoken to online. To top it off, the game doesn't free up all of the ram it used prior to the crash and will continually crash to the desktop until you reboot your PC to free it all back up again. Looking at my problem report logs I noticed that I had 16 desktop crashes in the 43 hours it took me to complete the game, which is totally unacceptable in a triple-A title. Though a RAM management mod fixed this problem in Fallout 3, there is so far no such fix for New Vegas.
Though I'm willing to look past some of the quest glitches due to their high level of complexity and the sheer amount of integers and possibilities they have to account for, there is one thing I really wish I didn't have to put in the negative column:
While Mark Morgan's classic Fallout 1 and 2 tunes triumphantly return as background music, the radio stations which were such a wonderful part of Fallout 3's experience just didn't excite me this time out and I stopped listening to them entirely about a half of the way into the game.
Though Fallout 3's large number of fan made modded radio stations remedied the very small list of songs it continually repeated on its own radio station, it at least had enough variety to last me one play-through before I had to add some homemade ones. New Vegas, unfortunately, has even less variety in its music than the previous game. Even the ones that ARE there are mostly forgettable and lack the jazzy battle-friendly jingles that made combat with the radio on in the DC wasteland so exciting. Other than Blue Moon and Jingle Jangle Jingle I didn't like any of the new songs.
The only station I *did* enjoy was Black Mountain radio, but its range was so small that I rarely found myself adventuring close enough to it in order to receive it. Also, by the time I did get that far I ended up killing one of the station's hosts which turned the radio to static and ended its hilarious run.
In the end, I think Obsidian was fully aware of how bad Fallout 3 was. So aware, in fact, that they make several jokes at its expense. I laughed hard when "Yes Man" told me I might be able to beat the game with a gigantic robot that shoots lasers but, quote, "That wouldn't be very fun, now would it?". It was an obvious crack aimed at the god awful Liberty Prime scenario in Fallout 3 that Bethesda recycled from the Mehrunes Dagon scene in Oblivion...and Chris Avellone called them on it.
You'll also find another joke pointed at Bethesda's direction when Tabitha, from Black Mountain radio, explains how the "new generation of mutants" are idiots that only run up to you and attack you. This is obviously responding to the controversy caused by the unfair and inaccurate portrayal of mutants as mindless killing machines in Fallout 3, something that has thankfully been remedied in New Vegas.
Fallout 3 was a game that never felt like an official Fallout title to me, yet I managed to get enjoyment out of it thanks to the mod community and nearly 10GB of fanmade add-ons. With New Vegas, however, I don't have this problem. The game is tougher, better balanced, has significantly better NPC interaction, brings in some well thought out faction play and has a much better story than its predecessor...making it the kind of game I wish Bethesda could have made two years ago.
While it certainly isn't perfect and needs both a texture mod to replace the washed-out Xbox level graphics and a few patches to iron out the poor memory management, New Vegas is considerably better than Fallout 3 and deserves to be given a chance.
If you were like me and cheered as Brother None from the "NMA" website secretly leaked information from Todd Howard's private press meeting for Fallout 3 back in the day and felt betrayed by what Bethesda did to the series then this game is Obsidian's "Make up gift" to you.
Let's just hope they keep the gameplay advancements Obsidian made here in New Vegas and transfer them to Fallout 4.