Fallout has changed. Well, in some respects anyway. With New Vegas, Bethesda (and new developer Obsidian) are walking a very smart, if safe, path. It’s obvious from our first look at the game that, although the new Mojave Desert wasteland is clearly a brighter place to be than the Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3, the core game has remained very much intact. You still navigate through menus via a PipBoy, you still level up and add perks to your abilities, and you still use VATS to blow the limbs off anyone dumb enough to mess with you. Sure, your PipBoy now has a pleasing rusty orange glow instead of a low-fi green, but everything else is as it was.
For us, this is the right move. Obsidian have kept Fallout 3’s game mechanics intact because, aside from the complaints of a vocal minority, they worked beautifully well. This also means that, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, the new developer is free to focus on what they do best – telling a story with style and panache.
Set three years after the events of Fallout 3, New Vegas puts you in the shoes of an unnamed courier making a delivery to someone in the Mojave Wasteland. Along the way, you’re intercepted by persons unknown, shot in the head, and left to die in a ditch. You’re found by Victor, a kindly robot with a cowboy-monitor-head, and rushed to the surgery at nearby town, Goodsprings, where the local doctor patches you up. After several weeks of nursing, you wake up in Doc Mitchell’s office, where he runs you through some basic personality and memory tests.
Anyone who played Fallout 3 will recognise where this is going. Through this first playable scene you essentially build your character, just like being born in Vault 101. Mitchell asks you if he managed to reconstruct your face correctly after the shooting, so you set your features. You’re then marched to a Vigour testing machine to set your base stats, and put through a genuinely funny psyche exam (word association, Rorschach pictures) before being ushered out into the wasteland. Like the GOAT test from the last game, you are free to reject the results of the tests if you don’t think they fit the way you’ll play. The whole sequence takes about five minutes, after which you’re free to go about your business. No sneaking around shooting radroaches with an air rifle for the first hour…
And that’s when we first saw the cactus. And the blue skies. And the not-so-messed-up town. In Fallout’s world, the West coast of America wasn’t as badly bombed as the East. Sure, enough nukes dropped to devastate the population, but it didn’t blacken the sky and kill off all plant life. There are still plenty of buildings intact too. The Hoover Dam, which looms over the Nevada desert in real-life, is still standing – handy, as it provides power, and in Fallout: New Vegas everyone is after that electricity.
There are three main groups here: the New California Republic, Caesar’s Legion and (although not yet confirmed) the Brotherhood of Steel. During one part of our demo, we visited an NCR power-plant/research lab called Helios One. It’s run by a chancer called ‘Fantastic’ who seems to have blagged his way up the New California food-chain. After some amusing dialogue (something painfully missing from the po-faced Fallout 3) you agree to help Fantastic increase the output of the factory (currently running at 3% efficiency under his leadership) and divert the power to the NCR’s interests in New Vegas. Well, that’s what you tell him.
Once into the central control room you have a number of options that will either cement your relationship with the NCR, or damage it. We go for damage. Big damage. Our man reroutes the power to an orbital laser, which he then uses to incinerate the NCR troops stationed outside the power plant. It’s spectacular as the giant beam sweeps over the baked floor, evaporating the opposition. Later on in the game, we’re told, that orbital laser can become part of your arsenal as you develop a portable control device for it. Like the Hammer of Dawn from Gears of War, only far more powerful.
Attacks on specific factions will have much more subtle, believable consequences. In fact, everything you do will matter more thanks to a combined reputation and morality system. Our little atrocity will probably evoke retribution from the NCR, but because it was a significant attack on their rivals, Caesar’s Legion might sit up and take notice. Morality is more than just good and evil here. There are many grey areas and because morality is tied into your reputation, it’s possible to be hated in some parts of the world and revered in others. Even seemingly ‘goody-goody’ choices will have bad consequences for some.
This smarter, more natural way of dealing with the world is one of the small but significant changes Obsidian is bringing to the table. It also means that the game will have several different endings too, instead of the single, potentially anachronistic, ‘man/woman saves the Wasteland’ finale. The overall aim of the game is for you to find out who tried to kill you, and why, so it’s safe to expect plenty of plot twists and ‘big revelations’ along the way. After all, this is the same developer who created the mighty, labyrinthine Knights of the Old Republic 2.
There are other tweaks too, which make this new Fallout more of a refined, deeper experience, like the ability to modify weapons with custom parts, or use all your core skills to influence conversations. Obsidian have modified the old chat system to make influencing people seem more natural. So, for example, if you have high stats in a specific skill, the conversation options that appear on screen will be clear and well informed. In other words, you’ll know what you’re talking about. Try to use a skill with lower stats, and your dialogue will sound vague, like you’re BSing it. Which, of course, you are.
The weapon mods make for a slightly deeper experience too, and they add an extra element of strategy to the VATS combat. Some of the examples we saw were obvious things like ammo and shot-power boosts on pistols, mixed with more unusual, but very thoughtful, upgrades like reduced spooling time on the Mini-Gun weapon. Mods will also increase the value of your weapons too – handy when you’re flogging all your 9mms in the second half of the game to make way for more powerful fare.
Inside VATS, there’s also a special attack for each weapon you use. During the very first mission, we were shown how this works with the Nine Iron – in this case, it’s a vicious swing straight at the target’s nuts. We’re not sure how this particular strike works on non-human enemies with questionable genitals, such as Radscorpions (yes, they’re back along with a few new creatures like giant Geckos), and we’re also left wondering what the Fat Man’s special strike is… Still, it’s nice to have the (pretty painful) option, anyway.
However, the biggest mystery at the moment is what the Vegas Strip looks like, and what you’ll be able to do once you get there. Obsidian are currently working on the Strip, and despite several probing questions, the team is saying very little about it. We know to expect lavishness, only with a slightly run-down feel, and all kinds of mad entertainment. Gambling? It’s a certainty. Musical shows? Very possible. Ghoul pole-dancers? Er, maybe.
With the vibrancy of the Strip, the scale of the Hoover Dam, and the varied colour palette of a world that hasn’t been completely levelled by nuclear war, the ‘fresh’ territory of Fallout New Vegas is certainly a more interesting place to be than the Capital Wasteland. Combine that with funnier story-telling courtesy of the new developer, an improved dialogue system and the same half-strategic, half-realtime combat we enjoyed in Fallout 3, and the odds certainly seem stacked in its favour. The first truly great RPG of 2010? Place your bets now.