Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Fallout: New Vegas had big shoes to fill. Ridiculously oversized, Shaquille O’Neal-type shoes. In this metaphor, Shaq is Fallout 3, one of the best games of 2008 and one of the best RPGs of all time (IMHO). Upping the difficulty factor is the case that Fallout 3 developer Bethesda Softworks handed off Fallout: New Vegas to Obsidian Entertainment, a matter of some concern of which I’ve written about before, and will address further in this article.
In the interests of providing what can remotely be considered a “timely” review, I’ve decided to write this prior to actually completing the game (if New Vegas is anything like it’s forerunner, that could take weeks or months). But I’ve spent some time in New Vegas proper and the surrounding Mojave Wasteland, followed the main storyline and completed numerous side quests, leveled up my character and played around with the new elements Obsidian introduced. In short, I feel qualified to render judgment on Fallout: New Vegas, even though I may not be in possession of all of the facts.
Fool me Twice…
Let’s back up for a sec. Let’s say I told you that a major game developer had released a hugely successful, sprawling open-world RPG set in what is essentially another developer’s IP (intellectual property), then handed off development of a sequel (highly anticipated, of course) to Obsidian Entertainment. What game am I referring to? Our judges would have accepted: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (KOTOR 2, hereafter) or Fallout: New Vegas.
Here’s the thing: these games are quite similar, and to some extent far more similar than one would want, in the “those who don’t heed history are doomed to repeat it” sense.
Disclaimer: While I’m about to comment on the reported bugs and glitches present in the released version of the game, they will not factor into my analysis per se of Fallout: New Vegas. My reasoning is threefold: 1) I haven’t encountered many bugs, and seemingly none of the more serious ones that others have suffered, 2) I can’t say I’m surprised, and if anything, I was fully expecting something of the sort and was ready to put up with such, and 3) Bethesda has announced a major patch/update to be released in the coming weeks that should solve most if not all of the problems. End disclaimer.
In both cases Obisidian’s game developers were able to plug into an existing game engine. Neither KOTOR 2 nor New Vegas drastically differ from their predecessor. They share the same mechanics, gameplay, graphics, and even design. With such a head start it is surprising that Obsidian would get so much wrong, make so many mistakes along the way of crafting a new game. It’s also surprising that Bethesda Softworks, who I have to believe was aware of Obsidian’s track record of game development – [cough] KOTOR 2 [cough] Alpha Protocol [cough] – would allow New Vegas to ship with so much still broken and/or buggy.
Obsidian Entertainment is like that gifted misfit, the student with so much potential yet hindered by behavioral problems. You keep giving them the benefit of the doubt because when they actually try they’re capable of amazing things, but you never quite know what they’re going to do when called upon. Maybe Obsidian was feeling the pressure to perform, because New Vegas is more hit than miss.
A Change of Scenery
Perhaps the best decision Obsidian made was a new setting. The Capital Wasteland was fun and all, but it wasn’t interesting enough to return for another 40 hours+ in a sequel. And while they could have chosen another major metropolitan area, the similarities would still have been numerous, given that a New York or Chicago or L.A. would have suffered the same fate as D.C. in the nuclear war of Fallout‘s history.
The idea of setting a sequel in New Vegas, not a primary target when the bombs fell, allowed Obsidian the opportunity to do something decidedly different. The idea of exploring a city with power and public works that actually work populated by people that are more than mindless raiders or apathetic vagrants is terribly exciting. And this isn’t just any city; it’s Vegas. And not our Vegas, but the New Vegas of the Fallout fissionpunk (think steampunk but with nuclear fission replacing steam power) universe. How cool could this have been?
I ask the question, because the reality doesn’t quite live up to the potential. The Strip itself feels somewhat deserted. There seem to be plenty of NPCs wandering around, the occasional stripper/prostitute, an NCR trooper coming off of what appears to be a 3-day bender, security bots a’plenty, but almost none offer any sort of meaningful interaction. And there are only 3-4 casinos in operation, and though they have different motifs, they’re really not that different. Freeside, the more rundown part of Vegas surrounding the walled-off Strip, is populated by more interesting characters offering more to do. More interesting still is the surrounding Mojave Wasteland, but it feels like Obsidian missed an opportunity here. Aside from a different color palette and slightly different geography, the Mojave isn’t all the different from the Capital Wastes. Where Fallout: New Vegas could have really distinguished itself from its predecessor is right there in the title of the game. If only.
Tinkering with the Toy Box
Sure, I could talk about the new party member interaction wheel, the new ironsights, and weapon modifications that are available (all of which are pretty sweet), but I want to focus on the most interesting change that Obsidian introduced.
In Fallout 3, you had to be concerned with your radiation level. Certain environments were especially radioactive, and nearly all food and drink, which could be consumed to heal your character, had some level of radioactive contamination. If your Rad level got too high you suffered from radiation poisoning, and could even die if steps weren’t taken (e.g. taking Radaway medicine, finding a doctor). Fallout: New Vegas takes things a significant step further by offering a new mode of play: Hardcore Mode.
I was especially excited at this prospect, and when I fired up the game I decided to start out my first playthrough in Hardcore Mode, and no matter how difficult or frustrating it might become, and despite being able to turn off Hardcore Mode at any time, I vowed I’d play through to the end entirely in Hardcore Mode. What’s exactly at stake?
1) In addition to radiation levels, you must also constantly monitor and manage your food and water intake and your level of rest. Failing to keep all four of these things in check can lead to negative effects for your character (e.g. dehydration, starvation, sleep deprivation, death).
2) Stimpacks (Fallout’s version of the “health pack”) no longer heal instantly, but slowly over time. More serious injuries that result in disabled limbs require a Doctor’s Bag or visit to an actual doctor to heal.
3) Most nearly everything you can pick up and carry has weight. Including ammunition.
I really have to applaud Obsidian here. The thing about Fallout 3 is that it was presented as something of a survival RPG. When I first ventured out of the safety of the Vault and into the Capital Wasteland, I was gladly transported out of my living room and into every post-apocalyptic fantasy I’d ever indulged in (don’t deny you haven’t done the same). But things were never as treacherous as they seemed. Radiation exposure was never that much of a concern, Stimpacks were never overly difficult to come by, and with some strategically placed points in Strength along with the Strong Back perk (and ammunition magically having no weight), your character was a one-man pack mule carrying a veritable arsenal with enough ammo to successfully execute a coup in a small third-world country single-handedly.
Enter Hardcore Mode in Fallout: New Vegas.
I believe Adam Sessler made the comment around the time of E3 2010 that Hardcore Mode would be something most gamers would try but sooner or later opt out of (don’t quote me on that). While it has been challenging, that has been a good deal of the fun. By any standard Fallout: New Vegas is still far from “reality,” but the need to constantly monitor vital statistics, micro-manage your inventory to avoid overencumbrance, and so forth is an attempt at adding a more realistic layer to the gameplay.
In the end, it’s like I told my friend. If you liked Fallout 3, you’ll be forgiving of Obsidian’s missteps and ultimately enjoy New Vegas. If Fallout 3 did nothing for you, you’d best avoid the Mojave.