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Tuesday 18 January 2011

Fallout : New Vegas

So beautiful... they should have sent a poet...
Let's be clear on this : Fallout 3 was amazing. I completely completed it and its 5 expansions, or near as damn it as makes no difference. So with a spring in my step and a song in my heart (but not anywhere near my vocal chords because that would cause the old and vulnerable to drop dead from fright) I happily plunged right back in to the weird, wild and wonderful world of the wasteland. Wooo !

For those who have spent the last few years as a hermit, entombed in ice deep underground in a cave on Mars, congratulations ! Not only have you finally escaped your cruel and very unusual prison, but you've emerged into a world where you can play a really addictive RPG. Lucky you. Anywho, the Fallout sequence is basically this : you play a lone wasteland wanderer, ~250 years in an alternative future where the culture of the 1950's continued, culminating in a massive nuclear war. Consequently the world is now not only quite untidy, but also chock full of radioactive monsters. None of which are at all interested in cleaning up the place.

Though it may voraciously consume ~100 hours of gameplay, FNV can be summarised in a single breath : like F3, but slightly better. Last time there were fire ants in one town, this time there are fire geckos all over the place. Previously we had the smartly dressed Enclave to contend with, this time it's a legion of really angry Roman re-enactment enthusiasts. That's right people : this is Fallout with radioactive cowboys and Roman soldiers. Someone somewhere has obviously sat down and thought, "Let's make a game for Rhysy today. And let's add some Mongols too, just to make sure. Not enough ? Two words : SPACE ZOMBIES." Sold.

How many other games let you bazuka giant scorpions while dressed like a Roman solider from the 23rd Century ?

First impressions are that it is in fact F3 but in a slightly different location. Be ye not deceived - this IS a different game, though most of the differences are subtle and it's certainly not a massive leap forward (nor did it ever claim to be). It is true that large parts of the game are visually strikingly similar to F3 - far too similar, in fact this smacks a little of laziness. How long does it take to download a different rock texture from the internet, Bethesda ?

But there are differences, some of them subtle, some of them striking. The sky is blue and there is some level of weather, although still no rain for some reason. Without the contaminated water that afflicted Washington D.C., there is as much wild vegetation as there ever was in the Mojave, along with farms and even - in places - snowy forests and the best botanical garden ever. Oooh, preetty.

A 23rd century Roman, a cyber-dog and a wise-cracking doctor visit Kew Gardens

Much as I love F3, some similarities do irk. The Pip-Boy is identical to that in F3, which is a shame because it lacks a proper journal to keep track of your many adventures. Oblivion did this far better and someone should tell Bethesda this, possibly in a loud obnoxious voice with the aid of a megaphone. For some quests are, as in F3, extremely elaborate, and certain side-quests aren't even recorded at all. And while the latest iPad may not yet be able to tell you the status of your limbs, it can access Google Street View, which is infinitely superior to the Pip Boy's mapping technology. Why can't we have a Pip-Boy Tom Tom ?

"At the Lucy 38 casino, kill the Securitron, then proceed - immediately - left."

Gameplay is very repetitive, extremely similar if not identical to F3 - and as addictive as crack, probably. All missions boil down to same few varieties :

1) Go and kill things
2) Go and find things
3) Go and talk to things

Sound dull ? It isn't. For you see :

1) Killing things is always fun, especially given the wide selection of weapons, with new ones to discover at a very suitable rate. And proper weapon choice depends on enemies, so there's lots of variety here. Though for some of the longer missions, this can begin to be a chore. I don't want to kill 500 zombies in a dungeon, I've done this before in F3. And Oblivion too, come to that... hmm, Bethesda, how's about something other than zombies, eh ? Let me get that megaphone again...

2) This is made fun by the graphical beauty of the game. Exploring is cool. Much more variety than F3, although the core is the same. There are certainly more epic locations, like Helios 1 and the Hoover Dam.

3) Curiously absorbing just listening to people, especially the sarcastic ones. And you can't really argue with the likes of Neil the Super Mutant. More importantly, here there are genuinely new features. If you've done right by a faction previously, you'll be able to persuade them far more easily and can even skip quite a lot of minor quests if you choose. Equally, if you've ticked off a faction, they'll not be wanting help from the lowly likes of you.

Wearing a cheap suit and a sheep skull helmet makes people trust you, apparently. I suppose this makes sense in a world where bottle caps have become legal tender.

While it possible to become hated by certain communities, quite what it takes to get them to become automatically hostile I'm not sure. Massacring a dozen or so will make them angry enough that they might feel the need to write you quite an irate letter. To become properly hated, it seems that you must commit genocide by cannibalism against that faction's babies.

For the most part missions are well-designed, and generally better than F3 - shorter, tighter, and with more of a point. Though there is the occasional doozy. For example, the mission to recover a special gun from Vault 34 is so excessively long-winded I wanted to write an irate letter to the game designer, or possibly kill his entire ethnic group by eating their children.

It's horrendous. There's no hint of what you're supposed to do, the map - lacking Tom Tom technology - is utterly useless. The vault is radioactive, requiring a good supply of RadAway and/or frequent trips back to a doctor. This makes the zombie-killing mission proceed at a pace a glacier would be ashamed of. It is, in fact, boring. But - and it's a but so large it's practically obscene - the payoff is worth it (a gun that can kill any robot instantly). And not to give too many spoilers, but some of the other payoffs (SPACE ZOMBIES !!! WAGNER !!!) are equally rewarding.

The general feel of the game is, as you'd expect, somewhat more civilised than F3. There are still plenty of dangerous inhabitants in the wasteland - in parts, huge numbers of them - but generally less than F3, which makes exploring more about exploring and less about running for your life like a startled badger. Gone is the need to travel anywhere by zombie-infested subway, which I found irksome. Whereas F3 featured the Brotherhood of Steel waging war against the Enclave, this power struggle was only a sideshow of life in a deadly, oppressively bleak radioactive wasteland. And this was reflected in the main story itself, which revolved around a quest for clean water to keep everyone alive.

Not so in NV. Here a veritable maelstrom is brewing between many different organised factions all vying for control for the shiny, shiny lights of Vegas. Not sure why, exactly. One can only assume that in the future, all organisations are composed entirely of alcoholic, sex crazed compulsive gamblers. Hmm. Anyway, chief among these groups are the bureaucratic New California Republic and the much less formal Caesar's Legion. First big choice : whom to side with ?

Caesar's Legion might have cool armour, but they also crucify people which I found a tad rude. But what really doomed them for me was their insistence of pronouncing Caesar as "Kaisar". NO. That's not even a word ! Just for that, mighty Caesar, I'm gonna rape your pets, kill your women, break your house and burn your legs down. And probably I'll do all of that using my heavy incinerator, which is as awesome as ever.

Firery death for all

Weapons and combat in general are pretty much the same as F3, although there are some nice new additions and a nifty new mod system to upgrade them. One thing I missed was the ability to craft new weapons out of junk. Workbenches are still there, so maybe you can - but if so, there are far less quests-for-blueprints than F3. The damage system has been changed, so rifles and certain energy weapons are now the killers of choice. Alas, the Gatling laser is now useless, But the cinematic replays when you snipe an enemy from halfway across the map remain as satisfying as before.

Which leaves only the story. As I mentioned, this boils down to a conflict between the NCR, Caesar's Legion, and in some permutations it can also involve an army of robots, a horde of Mongols and a bunch of people who are nigh-on horny about explosions. All well and good, but it's not quite as well executed as F3. The main story also doesn't lead you towards the side-quests quite as well as F3 did, and sometimes the lack of a journal makes it difficult to figure out how you're supposed to advance the main plot. But the main problem is not the middle, but mostly the beginning and end.

I found the start a little odd. Unlike F3, your character starts fully grown, so has already lived at least 20 years in the wasteland without your expert guidance. They may or may not have amnesia, it's never really revealed. Yet absolutely no-one recognizes you (well, one old dude does, vaguely, but he doesn't really know you so isn't any help).

The actual storyline is engrossing enough, but lacks heart. In F3 you were searching for dear old runaway Dad and his miracle scheme to provide clean water for all. FNV lacks any personal focus. You're helping decide the fate of a city, but ultimately only by deciding who's in charge and it probably won't be anyone you know. And you make that critical choice before the final mission even begins, rather than right at the end in F3. Which makes the ending rather lack punch, somewhat - even if you do have an explosive ballistic fist. The mission itself is OK, but nowhere near the truly epic finale of that in F3. I wanted something bloody spectacular - instead, there's just lots and lots of fighting. Meh, maybe I'm just missing Liam Neeson (but can you blame me ?).

The very final ending is certainly rewarding - Ron Perlman with a very long, thorough narrative explaining what happens to everyone else in the long term. Great. Can I get back to exploring the wasteland now ? No. For no apparent reason, it won't let me. At least in F3, there was a very good reason for ending it there. In FNV, there certainly isn't. So save your game often.

Now of course I've only played one ending. Maybe the final mission is more rewarding if you're a bit more evil, but I don't want to be evil. The sad thing is I can think of numerous ways to make the ending vastly more spectacular without altering the story in the slightest.

Hoover Dam may be impressive, but the final mission there is less so.

Incidentally,  the fact that there are multiple endings is more than a little worrying for sequels,  both for FNV and Washington D.C. Neither of these can ever be used again in a subsequent game. I guess there are plenty more cities in the U.S. (but for the next Fallout I vote for Australia - I want to see radioactive kangaroos, crocodiles and koala bears with lasers for eyes...).

Summary : 9.0 / 10.0. Overall, awesome. Not perfect, but more than good enough to overcome its paltry deficiencies. But don't expect anything startlingly new here.

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