the angriest critic : Fallout New Vegas

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Back in 2004, Bethesda Softworks, a video game developer best known for the Elder Scrolls RPG series, acquired the rights to the Fallout series of games. The original Fallout, released in 1997, had been one of the most impressive and respected PC games of its day, combining hardcore RPG gameplay with a post-apocalyptic setting steeped heavily in trappings of the Atomic Age, all seen through a darkly comedic, ultra-violent lens. Its sequel, Fallout 2, was a critical and financial success in its own right and seemed to cement the franchise’s position as an industry mainstay. But in the following years, Interplay Entertainment, who published the series, mismanaged the Fallout brand into utter obscurity. When Bethesda purchased the license, they envisioned a union of the iconic post-apocalyptic setting of Fallout and the action/RPG hybrid style of gameplay that had made their Elder Scrolls series such a success. The end result was Fallout 3, a game that proved to be a greater critical and financial triumph than all previous Fallout games. Which is not to say their weren’t detractors. Many longtime fans of the series complained that Fallout 3 was too straightforward, utilizing the trappings of the franchise without embracing the gleefully fucked-up spirit of the Fallout universe. Too much Road Warrior, not enough A Boy and his Dog, essentially. And while naysayers may have been a bit overzealous in their critique of the game, they had a point. Bethesda did not turn a deaf ear to these criticisms, and when the time came to make a follow-up to Fallout 3, they turned to Obsidian Entertainment, a company that employs many of the same people who worked on Fallout 2and the aborted pre-Bethesda Fallout 3. With the development of the game safely in the hands of people who clearly “got” the unique spirit of the franchise, fans eagerly awaited the next installment of the Fallout saga. What emerged less than two years later was Fallout: New Vegas. Not a sequel proper, New Vegas is instead a spin-off, utilizing the same visual and gameplay style of Fallout 3 to tell a much different story in a whole new setting, while tying in story elements from the first two Falloutgames and returning to the series the black comedy and downright weirdness that had been noticeably absent from the previous entry. Forget the Capital Wasteland; welcome to the Mojave.

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The plot of New Vegas takes place in the western section of the Core Region (the setting of the first two Fallout games), known as the Mojave Wasteland. You are assume the role of a courier, who is awakened after a failed assassination attempt with no memory of your would be-killers or your mysterious cargo. You set out to uncover the identity and motivation of your attackers as you make your way to the glittering metropolis of New Vegas, which is largely intact and operational, in contrast to most cities in the Fallout universe, which were decimated by the atomic weapons of the Great War over two hundred years ago. Along the way, you contend with atomic age robots, mutated freaks and fellow wanderers of the wastes, as well as find yourself caught in the middle of a war between the New California Republic, a democratic union that’s gotten too big for its own good, and Caesar’s Legion, a marauding, Roman-styled slaver army.

Many longtime fans of the series felt that Fallout 3 wasn’t true to the spirit of the franchise, and they were not hesitant to express this opinion (in other words, bitched and moaned all across the internet and flamed any newcomers who happened to be unfamiliar with the first two games). But, with Bethesda passing the development of New Vegas on to Obsidian Entertainment, there was a sigh of relief across the geek nation. Obsidian has under its roof a number of employees involved in previous Falloutgames, among them J.E. Sawyer, previously lead designer on the first attempt at Fallout 3, codenamed Van Buren, as well as the creator of the unofficial Fallout pen-and-paper RPG (both of which influenced New Vegas’ setting, backstory and factions, particularly Caesar’s Legion). As project director and lead designer of Fallout: New Vegas, Sawyer made an concerted effort to include as much fan service as possible without being gratuitous. Old characters return (such as Fallout 2’s super mutant Marcus), as do old factions from the Core Region (namely the New California Republic), classic enemies (Geckos and Nightkin) and fan favorite weapons (such as That Gun, modeled after Decker’s sidearm in Blade Runner, and the classic Pulse Rifle, now rechristened the Plasma Caster). There’s even a Trait called Wild Wasteland that a player can select during character creation which brings back much of the trademark absurdity of the random encounters present in the original Fallout games, but remains optional as to not alienate players only familiar with Bethesda’s more conventional Fallout 3. In this way, New Vegas gets to have its cake and eat it too, and old school fans will have to try pretty hard to find fault with it. Who am I kidding? Until the developers make the (highly unlikely) decision to revert the franchise to a top-down isometric view, turn-based, pureblooded RPG, the

Fallout fanboys will always have something to bitch about.

The gameplay is largely unchanged from Fallout 3, which is unsurprising, seeing as it runs on the same game engine (the Gamebyro engine, which was already obsolete at the time of Fallout 3’s release). It still uses the same first-person shooter/RPG hybrid that made the last game such a success (and inspired ire among Fallout’s old school fan base), but with tweaks to improve the overall gaming experience, most of which are highly successful and are welcome additions.

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The combat system functions essentially the same as it did in Fallout 3, but seems somehow more balanced, as you can now operate as a competent, even deadly Melee or Unarmed character even early on . Melee attacks now have V.A.T.S.-specific attacks after you’ve reached a certain skill level, which adds some needed depth to Melee combat. For the more firearm-inclined player, true iron-sights have been added on all the guns to improve accuracy outside of V.A.T.S. Also, Big Guns and Small Guns have been combined into a single skill (called, you guessed it, Guns), meaning if you want to effectively wield a minigun, you don’t have to bump up a skill that won’t be helpful until you finally get your hands on one around level 14. The weapon selection has been expanded greatly, although the differences between many of the weapons are often slight and feel mostly cosmetic. The weapon moding system, which allows you to customize your weapons with any number of scopes, suppressors and extended mags, is an excellent addition that increases not only your weapon’s combat effectiveness, but also its resale value. Different types of ammo (high velocity, hollow point, armor piercing etc.) give guns much greater versatility, but take some getting used to, as the same standard ammo that punched through Power Armor inFallout 3 will make little more than a dent in New Vegas.

The reputation system has also been retooled, and is now highly faction-specific. Raze an NCR camp and you’d best prepare yourself to get shot at by every Ranger in the Mojave. Likewise, working with them against Caesar give his Legionary Assassins ample reason to shove a machete far up your ass. This extends to smaller factions, as well. Staying on everyone’s good side can become quite the juggling act and more often than not you’ll be vilified by at least one faction for some misdeed (real or perceived). I found this an excellent compromise between the reputation system of Fallout 2 and the karma system of Fallout 3, but I wouldn’t call it perfect by any stretch, as some factions have vastly disproportionate penalties than others. For example, early on I sided with the Legion and slaughtered all NCR troops at a particular location to gain their favor (since my tendency in Fallout games is to play just to the right of Col. Hans Landa on the morality scale). Later, when I made it to the Strip, I was attacked repeatedly by NCR military police, while the Securitrons watched on indifferently (and in some instances, joined in on the attack). Though, strictly speaking, the Strip and the NCR are separate factions with different reputation ratings for the PC, because they have such a vested interest in one another, the NCR get carte blanche to do as they please in Vegas. Now I’m stuck slapping on a Stealth Boy every time I enter New Vegas, which kind of puts a damper on my experience at the game’s namesake location. Also, there are far more NCR encampments and bases than Legion strongholds throughout the Wasteland, meaning you get your ass handed to you significantly more often if you side with Caesar. Bottom line: on your first play through, side with a faction other than the Legion if you want the greatest range of experience throughout the game.

In addition to traditional difficulty levels, Fallout: New Vegas offers the more ambitious player the option of Hardcore Mode, wherein bullets have weight, hydration and nutrition are essential and health aids heal over time rather than immediately. I haven’t much to say about Hardcore Mode, as I haven’t yet given it a go. As its name would imply, its geared towards the hardcore gaming crowd, and I’m more of the leisurely sort. I like to enjoy my gaming experience and am not wont to tackle a game at its highest difficulty just so I can jack up my Gamerscore. But hey, if that’s your bag, by all means do it to it.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with games today, Fallout: New Vegas was rushed out the door with an inordinate amount of bugs, and these range from mildly irritating (freezing, artifacting) to downright rage-inducing (corrupted save files, quests glitching and becoming impossible to complete). One has to take into account that this game is running on a long outdated engine that is being pushed to its absolute max, and in that light Fallout: New Vegas is an amazing technical achievement. Still, you cannot help but be annoyed by the sheer amount of flaws present in the finished product. Bethesda and Obsidian were quick to release a patch, but this matters little to those of us (like myself) without Xbox Live, and early reports indicate that the patch has failed to correct a great many problems. This is not to say the game isn‘t an immensely entertaining experience, but it does prompt me to caution one not to jump in without a decent (read: saintly) degree of patience, because it’s going to motherfuck you at least a handful of times.

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I’d love to tell you how the story of Fallout: New Vegas comes to a end (at least for my character; there are 12 different endings), but the truth is, at 50+ hours of gameplay, I’m nowhere near the end. And that’s not a bad thing; indeed, quite the contrary. New Vegas is nearly twice the size of Fallout 3, with more than twice the depth. Those left wanting more after Fallout 3’s main campaign and five DLC modules will not be disappointed. Fallout: New Vegas plays on the strengths of its predecessor, fine-tuning some gameplay aspects and bringing to the table a story that at once seems more epic than Fallout 3’s, yet more human (and decidedly less messianic). It has the benefit of the shooter/RPG hybrid gameplay that propelled the series back into the limelight and all the weirdness and atompunk sensibility that made the franchise a hit in the first place. Technical flaws (numerous though they may be) aside, the core concept and execution of Fallout: New Vegas has everything a fan could ask for. As a die hard fan of the series (excluding, of course the Xbox-only spin off Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel. Seriously, fuck that game.), I can say that this game exceeded all my expectations and is a triumphant return to form for the Fallout franchise.

– Adam Rosina

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