Saturday, May 7, 2016

Review: Fallout New Vegas

Not all monuments in this game hail from before the war
Fallout 3 was a landmark game.  It brought new levels of immersion into the fallout universe, and let us explore the nuclear wasteland to a degree of visual detail, at least, that eclipsed the original pair of isometric, turn-based combat games.  It was a challenging, fun, gripping game.  Nevertheless, there were ways in which one could argue it drifted too far from its roots.  While there were a handful of settlements in the D.C. wasteland, most were pitifully small and desperate.  Humans just weren't doing that well, and there was plenty of reason to think they might be exterminated altogether.  And so you ended up spending most of the game delving through the ruins, only occasionally running into any kind of organized groups, and certainly nothing resembling any level of society.  There were no towns on the level of New Reno or the Hub, much less anything remotely resembling the New California Republic.

In a lot of ways, Fallout New Vegas is the answer to that.  The timeline has advanced from fallout 2, and NCR has expanded in both power and territory.  As they encroached into Nevada, they got the Hoover Dam running, only to encounter another massive, heavily-armed force of fanatics coming from the east, all hailing under the banner of someone who calls himself Caesar.  And right in the middle of it all, a mysterious character named Mr. House, has somehow gotten the old Las Vegas strip running again, complete with four major casinos, right in the middle of the Mojave wasteland. The Strip is the biggest urban center for miles around, but there are a half-dozen smaller towns scattered through the area, with varying allegiances and agendas.  This is the wide-open sandbox world in which you get to play.

Lovely NOVAC, my first real home base.
There is still plenty of wasteland to explore, complete with ruins of old warehouses, mines, and, of course, the Vault-Tec Vaults!  But while I often found myself feeling completely alone in shambles of an extinct society while playing Fallout 3, New Vegas provided opportunity for a lot more social interaction.  There are an impressive host of companion characters available, each of which has both personality and their own goals and quests.  Each town you visit has at least one major quest, and there are often several side-quests.  And finally, there several important factions around which the main story revolves.  Will you support the expansion of the NCR, take advantage of the power available to you by allying with Caesar's legion, or play the two against each other by working for the enigmatic Mr. House.  Somehow, no matter who you choose, you ultimately get to visit most locales and interact with most of the key NPC's, but the choices you make in the endgame will have a lasting effect on the game world--far more so than the scant choice you had in Fallout 3.  Best of all, while there is a clear "evil" path that one can take in the game, there are several viable paths that seemed within the realm of what my character might pursue.  It was tough to decide who to support.  Ultimately, I liked the plot of New Vegas a bit more than that of Fallout 3, mostly on the strength of the meaningful choices you get to make.

NCR propaganda directed at their troops
A few things weren't done as well as Fallout 3.  While there is no shortage of interesting locales to visit, most of the "random" ruins and such that were such a pleasure to explore in Fallout 3 are significantly scaled back in Fallout New Vegas.  There are lots of small, one or two-room shacks, some of which just have nothing in them.  The Vault dungeons continued to be some of the most interesting in the game, but with one exception they couldn't hold a candle to the amazing (and often disturbing) vaults of Fallout 3.  James Friel, who wrote an excellent walkthrough for this game, noted that Fallout New Vegas sometimes "lacks imagination."  However, if it fails to put as much effort into its "filler" locations, I thought it more than made up for this with its core story and featured characters.  Finally, I'd estimate that I maxed out my level about 55-60% of the way through the game.  While I was loosely following a walkthrough, as I often do in sandbox games, I had a ton more to do yet.  It's a silly thing, but I missed not getting those little xp rewards every time I succeeded in a skill check, cleared a quest, or took out a raider.

A few notes on modifications.  There is a critical bug that causes endless loading screens and corrupted saves that plagues Fallout 3.  There is also a catastrophically bad design decision to have your character hounded by absurdly-powerful hit squads that respawn and attack every few days, which can really run your character's resources ragged and badly sapped my enjoyment of the game.  Fortunately, fixes for both the loading bug (both of these) and the squads are available and pretty easy to apply from community sites.  Kudos to those folks for saving what would have been an unplayable game otherwise.

This facility featured one of the best side-quests in the game.
This is the game that I've been playing since January, more or less.  It's a huge world to explore, and the Steam guilt-o-meter says I sank a good 115 hours into it to play start to finish.  It was time well spent, as the experience has left me we scores of special moments that will stay with me for years to come.  An easy 5 out of 5.

More Screenshots below the jump.  Warning, some involve major spoilers.