Fallout: New Vegas is all about more. There's more to do in New Vegas than in Fallout 3, its superb predecessor; there's more complexity to its gameplay mechanics; and there are even more secrets to uncover as you roam the postapocalyptic wastes. Fallout: New Vegas' familiar rhythm will delight fans of the series, and the huge world, expansive quests, and hidden pleasures will have you itching to see what other joys you might uncover. Occasional glitches and performance issues occasionally intrude upon your travels, along with the scorpions and geckos that might accost you. Don't let the quirks frighten you away, however: New Vegas' nooks and crannies are bursting with grimy treasures waiting to be dusted off and admired by intrepid explorers.
This latest trip into the desolate American landscape possesses many of the same elements that made Fallout 3 such a successful role-playing game, but its story doesn't boast as many memorable moments. The large-scale combat scenarios are less epic, and the surprises are less dramatic than Fallout 3's mid-game reverie. Nevertheless, the main tale provides a solid skeleton from which to hang a dumbfounding number of tasks and stand-alone parables. Many of these quests are lengthy, and great dialogue and good voice acting will invite you to learn more about the characters, as well as keep you wondering about what will happen next. A society of ghouls with pie-in-the-sky aspirations is creepy enough to make you squirm, yet blind devotion to their dreams still inspires empathy. Socialites in formal attire run a casino known for its creative menu choices, and if you play your cards right, you might get to make a menu alteration of your own. You investigate the disappearance of a sharp-tongued wife in one town and bring star-crossed lovers together in another. Some of the most fascinating occurrences are the wittier ones. During one quest, a robot with a specialized skill and a gut-busting name might offer a service that surely no game character has ever offered before. A poet in an unlikely place mumbles aloud his difficulties in finding the right rhymes. Like with Fallout 3, the greatest delights aren't in the central storyline but on its periphery.
While the tale isn't as evocative as it might have been, the way it blossoms as you advance, giving you any number of ways to proceed, is extraordinary. The choices you make might lead to a dramatically different experience from another player's experience. The same is true of many supplementary quests. There's a ton of flexibility in how you might approach certain tasks. Maybe you'll fend off the robots defending a long-forgotten museum, but you might also steal an identification card that allows you to walk around (mostly) unharmed. You might provide a drug addict his fix, but if your speech skill is high enough, you can convince him to get on the straight and narrow. One lovelorn fellow will try to send you on a scavenger hunt for spare parts, but a high science skill means you can recommend another schematic and avoid the job altogether. However, there are certain cases in which the game funnels you down a specific path that might come as a shock if you prefer peaceful ends but are forced into a combat scenario with a single viable solution. And in certain cases, the quests just aren't designed particularly well. Searching for a key in a vault overrun with vegetation can turn into a major hassle. Avoiding an artillery bombardment isn't fun in the least and feels out of place given the measured pace at which you move. And an optional quest in which you hop from one computer terminal to another to isolate a virus leads to frustrating trial-and-error guesswork.
Large personalities give an edge to your undertakings. A mysterious man known as Mr. House presides over both the Strip, as well as your own adventures, and his singular focus on fulfilling his needs looms dramatically over the later hours of your escapades. The leader of a Roman-inspired legion is also an ominous presence and a violent counterpoint to the upright and learned leader of the Brotherhood of Steel's local contingent. A ghoulish prostitute, a potty-mouthed head waiter, and a wealthy-but-desperate father all make an impression in spite of their very minor roles. You might even find an interesting kindred spirit to accompany you. As with Fallout 3, you can bring a companion along with you; this is handy not only in combat, but it also gives you an extra inventory for dumping detritus. Interacting with your companion is simple, thanks to a wheel that lets you choose behaviors for your fellow traveler. You can only have one at a time, but you'll encounter multiple individuals willing to join you, and they all make interesting and funny quips when you interact with them. They also open up different quest opportunities, giving you a chance to learn more about what makes them tick.
Fallout: New Vegas' major addition is that of faction favor. You establish a reputation with various towns and organizations by doing them favors or annoying them in some way or another. Which factions you align with has both subtle and profound consequences. If you're liked, a random somebody might run up to you bearing minor gifts, such as an iguana on a stick. (Mmm, tasty.) Or if you've gained a more violent reputation, a mugger might accost you with violent intentions, only to run off when he recognizes you. It's a pleasure to hear random citizens remark on how they feel about you as you pass by, even if the canned comments repeat a bit too often. (It's sometimes bizarre to hear two characters standing side by side deliver the same line, spoken by the same voice actor.)
Your faction relationships also have much more dramatic consequences on your adventure, opening up new quests while closing off others. The game is sometimes a bit opaque regarding how your actions may inadvertently affect the way a particular faction sees you, but this complexity manifests itself in awesome ways as you near the end of your travels. One great twist to this system is that by dressing up in faction-specific clothing or armor, you can disguise yourself and avoid a confrontation. Though, conversely, you might get dragged into battles against allies if you forget to change gear, which might damage a relationship you're trying to cultivate. This reputation system is a bit abstract, but it's a great addition to the Fallout formula, adding even more layers to a template already lauded for its flexibility.
Glitches may give you a few minor fits, but the PC version of Fallout: New Vegas is not in the same rough technical shape as its console counterparts, possibly thanks to a sizeable patch delivered a day after its release. That doesn't mean there aren't problems here. We encountered some bugs, such as a friendly quest giver inexplicably attacking us, even though he didn't show as an enemy on the directional radar. Characters might still randomly freak out as if you're about to attack for no discernible reason, only to return to their normal locations a moment later and act as if nothing had happened. But we encountered only a few scripting problems, and the game never crashed. Most complex role-playing games suffer from technical hitches, and this one is no exception. However, the oddities in this version aren't exceptionally disruptive, which makes it easy to stay invested.
If you played Fallout 3 or The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which used the same game engine as Fallout: New Vegas, then you won't be surprised by some of the other minor foibles, although many of them seem exacerbated here. Characters get easily stuck on the environment and run in place, for example. There are also occasional pauses as you explore this gigantic world, and the frame rate tends to drop somewhat when there are multiple characters on the screen at once. Nevertheless, striking lighting, smoother edges, better overall performance, and shorter loading times than on consoles make Fallout: New Vegas on the PC stand tall. The game evokes a great sense of place in which the postapocalyptic future meets the recent past. Your first glimpse of the neon-lit Strip at night will have you pausing to take it all in, after all those hours of traversing the bleak wastelands. This isn't a pretty game, exactly, but it delivers a world you can believe in and is consistent with Fallout lore. Swirling dust storms cloud your view, crumbling edifices demand to be scavenged for simple treasures, and spore-spewing monsters hide in tufts of green overgrowth. When you see an interesting building or installation in the distance, you're always inspired to check it out, and more often than not, there's something interesting awaiting you.
The audio also contributes to the grimness of your travels, though it shares some idiosyncrasies with Fallout 3. There are radio stations to listen to, and while the toe-tapping tunes evoke Vegas through and through, hearing the same small selection of songs gets old fast. The main soundtrack is improved over Fallout 3's, using twisted twangs to summon images of cowboys roaming the blighted wilderness, driving two-headed Brahman instead of traditional cattle. Many of the symphonic swells, on the other hand, would have been more appropriate in a fantasy game. But the sound effects usually scratch the proper itch, especially where combat is concerned. A sawed-off shotgun produces a lot of oomph, and the satisfying thwacks of a rebar club make it a satisfying go-to weapon. But while the guns and sledgehammers make a big impression, subtler effects, such as the deep rumbles that indicate a quest completed, are just as satisfying.
The muffled splats you hear when you activate the Vault-Tec Automated Targeting System (aka VATS) also make an impression. Though you can aim down your iron sights, slow controls and stiff animations still make for slightly awkward real-time gunplay. Luckily, entering VATS and targeting your enemy's limbs leads to all the same rewarding, slow-motion splatters of blood and irradiated goo that made Fallout 3 such a brutal blast. The returning "bloody mess" perk may not have much gameplay significance, but it does result in limbs, heads, and other viscera flying through the air, which is often both gratifying and hysterical. Many of your creepy returning opponents are the usual suspects: supermutants, radscorpions, and the like. Others are new but equally enjoyable to fight, such as the nightkins, which are hideous mutants that cloak themselves using stealth-boy devices. You fight a lot of human enemies as well. Those battles might affect your standing with one faction or another and often pit you against named characters that might have had quests to offer or dialogue to deliver had you aligned yourself differently. As a result, some skirmishes have more impact than Fallout 3's less meaningful encounters versus nameless brigands.
When you aren't out fighting foes or questing for the greater good (or to the detriment of all humanity), you might want to try your hand at a bit of gambling. Outside of the casinos, you can play a fun little card game called Caravan with various individuals, which takes a bit of time to learn but might get you addicted to purchasing cards to add to your deck. Once you make it to Vegas proper, you can cash in bottle caps or faction-specific currency for chips and play some blackjack or roulette or maybe plunk a few coins into the slot machines. These games are much as you'd expect, but the slick presentation makes them enjoyable and addictive all the same. If you'd rather stay focused on more traditional role-playing tasks, you could always head to a work bench to create some ammo from raw materials or apply a weapon upgrade. Or perhaps you'd rather use a campfire to cook up some healthful items from the monster bits you've gathered. It's nice that the game gives recipe enthusiasts something to do, though the prevalence of weapons, armor, and aid items mean you can safely ignore these elements if you prefer.
Fallout: New Vegas is an expansive and complicated RPG that encourages you to see and do as much as you can. This is an explorer's game, always lavishing new and interesting quests on you and giving you a lot of flexibility in how you approach many of them. It builds upon Fallout 3's mechanics in interesting and esoteric ways, making it a comfortable evolution to one of 2008's best games. A few glitches and performance issues occasionally let it down, yet Fallout: New Vegas is periodically awesome and often compelling. If you crave an expansive and flexible adventure in which your choices actually matter, this is one gamble that will pay off.