Platform: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Publisher: Namco Bandai
The problem with looking at New Vegas, Obsidian's sprawling new chapter from the Fallout universe, is one of perspective. As a piece of cold, emotionless technology it is unimpressive at best and painful at worst. As a video gaming experience it's exhilarating. Fallout becomes a war between the factions of art and science.
Most of what makes up New Vegas, positive and negative, is transplanted directly from the still-warm corpse of its father, Fallout 3.
You are once again transported to the post-apocalyptic ruins of the United States, now four years after the events of Fallout 3 and 204 years after that nasty business with the nuclear war. The Mojave Wasteland is the new setting, a slightly dustier, somewhat cheerier region when compared with the Washington DC, mainly because the glittering city of New Vegas survived the war relatively unscathed. This feat is partly due to the Hoover Dam, which provides precious electricity to the region and forms the centrepiece of the game's plot.
Not that you care about any of that to begin with, as you are too busy bleeding out in a shallow grave. But you will later. Or perhaps you won't, such is the open-ended nature of the world of New Vegas. To begin with, your only goal is tracking down the dirty rotten scoundrel who tried to whack you. And then you're set loose on the entire wasteland.
As with its predecessor, the sense of freedom in New Vegas is paralysing. From your starting point you are free to go wherever you want and talk to whomever you wish.
The main quest line will lead you slowly towards Vegas itself, but before to long you're bound to be distracted by a man who needs you to save his girlfriend from radioactive geckos, or an offhand remark about an abandoned robot factory. While it is a bleak desert you're wandering through, everything is spaced perfectly for you to stumble across the next deserted shack or underground robot factory.
The major (and most exciting) twist in the game's tail is the addition of factions. There are three big groups in the Mojave that will command your attention. The New California Republic is a federated group whose goal is to bring democracy back to the broken world.
Their forces are spread thin as they try to police absolutely everyone all at once, as well as hold of Caesar's Legion.
The Legion are a large group of merciless slavers who model themselves on the ideals and fashions of ancient Roman soldiers. Legion modus operandi generally involves recruiting the strong, burning the weak and using the leftovers as pack mules. These two groups are fighting for control of the Hoover Dam, with the enigmatic head of the New Vegas Strip, Mr House, also vying for your attention.
You can side with one and burn the others, pretend to work for one while secretly doing another's dirty work, or simply ignore them all and let Vegas drown in anarchy. The faction system is very different to the karma system from Fallout 3, and lets you play a lot of different games.
Instead of simply deciding to pick the good or evil choice, you now have a reputation with each faction in the game. This includes the big three, but also the myriad of smaller gangs, townships, families and business associates scattered across the wasteland. Protect a town from an invading gang and become their hero, but expect to meet some new enemies down the road.
Praise the particularly impressive crucifixion technique of a group of Legion soldiers to gain their trust, but if an NCR trooper is watching you might be ostracised from certain civilised areas.
The reputation system is leaps and bounds ahead of your average morality slider. I often found myself weighing up a decision based on the repercussions it might have later on, instead of simply deciding to 'play evil'. Things can get very complicated very quickly once you realise that you've sided with a group of homicidal maniacs that are great in a fight but may not agree with your business mantras about gambling and hookers. The new focus on social and political machinations is nicely aided by a lot more peaceful solutions to quest situations. Peaceful for you, anyway.
But sometimes you will get into fights. Aside from all the new and colourful characters there are new enemies to contend with as you blaze a trail across the Mojave. Mutated geckos, hovering death bugs and half coyote, half rattlesnakes will block your path, along with old favourites like radscorpions. Luckily the combat has been tweaked nicely since the previous game.
VATS is still your go-to system for pausing the action and blowing off specific body parts at your leisure, but real time combat is now a more realistic options.
Targeting has been improved and ironsights have been added for all firearms, meaning you can now actually play out fights like a first-person shooter if you need or want to. There's a wide variety of weapons available, and now you can even find an upgrade bench and put together your own special types of ammunition.
Companions have also been improved. There are close to a dozen capable sidekicks who you can recruit in the game, and while they maintain a lot of the quirky AI madness of Fallout 3 (such as a grating inability to find doorways), they definitely come in handy.
Your buddies can be ordered around using the new companion wheel, which makes controlling and talking to them a breeze. The ability to actually chat as well as each companion having their own personal quest to look into keeps you deep in the Fallout atmosphere.
And it's lucky there is a heaping helping of that atmosphere, because technically speaking New Vegas is sort of terrible. The game directly reuses Bethesda's Fallout 3 engine, right down to the hairstyles, animations, sound effects and models.
From a purely graphical standpoint it makes New Vegas look pretty dated, but it doesn't detract from the game itself. Eye candy aside, Obsidian have done an excellent job of making New Vegas look so fresh and new considering it has identical machinery to that 2008 title.
Unfortunately, one aspect that does make a reappearance is glitches. Fallout 3 was famous for its huge collection of bizarre, and sometimes game-breaking glitches, and New Vegas carries that torch. Some have been patched since, but expect to see people on invisible computers and rotating heads on the harmless end, as well as vanishing NPCs or a soul destroying inability to save your game in more serious circumstances.
Obviously a game as massive as this, with so many branching possibilities, is bound to have a few kinks, but hopefully the worst of them get cleared up before ruining too many people's days.
Despite the engine being dated, clunky and full of bugs, Obsidian honestly deserve a lot of credit for taking what was already there and deciding to build on the gameplay and writing aspects of things. New Vegas is much better written than Fallout 3 and has a story that is miles more interesting.
The dialogue is often genuinely witty and I even found myself enjoying reading through the usually-dull quest notes. The voice-acting is also above par, with a few notable celebrities and a cast of professionals putting in solid performances. Mr New Vegas is voiced by Mr Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, who actually does a fantastic job presenting the game's fun, nostalgic and sadly very short soundtrack.
It would be very easy to see New Vegas as nothing more than a copy of Fallout 3, or even just a rather nice expansion. That would be wrong, however.
Fallout: New Vegas is a title which manages to surpass its Game of the Year predecessor. The addition of a more nuanced dialogue and social integration system, along with the tweaks to combat make it a joy to sink 100 or so hours into.
Add to that a compelling set of quests, a well written plot and a series of interesting characters and you've got no reason not to head to the Strip.