Fallout: New Vegas Preview

Leaving Las Vegas… in ruins.

If sci-fi movies, alternate-history tales, post-Apocalyptic stories and other forms of speculative fiction have taught us nothing else about the dystopian future, they’ve clued us in to this much: Never be the courier-guy. Being the courier-guy sucks donkey balls. Oh sure, it seems like a free-wheeling, make-your-own schedule sort of gig as long as you make the delivery more or less on time… but there’s always some kinda shit-deluxe catch—stored data going bad and dangerous in your head, or big, Illuminatoid meta-conspiracies that you’re the last to find out about… or, much more often, mundane packs of garden-variety goons out to cap you, take your package and leave you for dead. The much-awaited Fallout: New Vegas stays on point with this cautionary message and simply promises more of what makes the Fallout series such gamer-crack, while offering players a thorough tour of a splinter-universe, Las-Vegas-and-environs that went straight from Rat-Pack to Tac-Nuke.

[image1]It’s gratifying enough that the Fallout series has, in terms of setting, circled back to its fictionalized West Coast(-ish) roots; now add the fact that Obsidian was founded by some of the same folks who made the original Fallout games of yore… and the post-Apocalypse never looked so promising. So it came to pass that I spent a few days with Obsidian and Bethesda (in the real-world, pre-Apocalyptic Las Vegas we have come to know in this timeline) for an in-depth look at how Sin City has fared after The Big One.

If you’ve somehow never yet dipped your gamer toes into the radioactive pool that is the Fallout universe, here’s all you really need to know. The timeline for the world you know skewed off somewhere in the era of Arms Race/Bomb-Shelter-1950s America—enthusiastically-creepy advertisements, pop-culture, signage and all; Global Nuclear Hilarity ensued; survivors eventually crawled up into the radioactive wreckage, many from self-sustaining fallout shelter complexes called Vaults; and what remains of the American landscape, inanimate or animate, falls roughly into the two categories of Blown Up and Messed Up, often with significant overlap. The rest is scavenger/survivor wits, getting on various factions’ Shit Lists, and Coping With Post-Nuclear Horrors for Fun and Profit.

Set several hundred years after the Bombs have fallen—and a mere three or so years after the events of Fallout 3, although the two game-stories are narratively-insulated from one another—Fallout: New Vegas takes place in the desert sprawl of the Mohave Wastelands, which includes the kinda-sorta still-functioning ruins of the Las Vegas Strip, plus surrounding points of interest ranging from minor incidental boomtowns to Hoover Dam (incredibly still providing a measure of electricity to the region).

Fallout: New Vegas eschews the extended childhood/Vault-dwelling orientation segment of Fallout 3, replacing it with a much briefer character-generation scheme to get players right into the action. After the already mentioned left-for-dead incident, the player finds himself on the mend in a town called Goodsprings. The immediate goal is to find out exactly who whacked you on your courier-mission to New Vegas, and what they took from you, and why. And presumably, to take some names and kick some retributive ass, not necessarily in that order. After some questions and tests designed to get a sense of the player’s play style and personality—and yes, some of them involve Rorschach blots and/or word-association games—you’ll have your SPECIAL stats (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck) assigned and will be ready to face the world proper.

[image2]Fans of the most recent Fallout 3 and its ration of subsequent DLC content expansions will feel right at home. It’s a skill-and-stat-intensive RPG game bolted onto a first-person exploration engine, suitable for FPS-style play… but modded with the brilliant VATS combat scheme, which allows the otherwise real-time gameplay to be paused at critical junctures to examine enemies for potential weak spots, target specific body parts and—action points permitting—even queue up several targeted attacks in a row for a devastating, gangbusters-style breach-and-clear on a room full of mutated baddies (or everyday, unpleasant fellow humans). At its most elegant, it’s a best-of-both-worlds kind of scheme, allowing for both the urgency of point-of-view immersion and the deliberate application of bullet-time, tactical finesse.

Amid all the superficial, mechanical familiarity, however, there are a host of subtle improvements. One of the biggies is the new so-called ‘companion wheel’, a pop-up interface that provides a very streamlined method for managing any non-player-character companions that might join you throughout the game. The single interface allows players to oversee, at a glance, each NPC’s health, inventory, and stim-pack usage situation, and is also used for base AI behavior and/or issuing specific commands.

Another improvement to the game is the addition of weapon mods. Much anticipated amongst fans of the previous games, the modding scheme allows players to customize their weapons by adding improvements such as scopes, custom stocks, extended magazines, magnetic accelerators (for energy weapons such as plasma rifles), and other refinements to the core weapons they’ve already come to rely on.

Returning to the Fallout game-scheme is the Reputation system found in the first two Fallout titles. Separate from and in addition to the Karma scheme utilized in Fallout 3, the Reputation system tracks a player’s popularity, or lack thereof, with the various factions that play such a crucial role in the New Vegas iteration. The Brotherhood of Steel, the townships of Goodsprings and Novak, the New California Republic (back from the old games, its familiar-looking California State flag, now adorned with a mutant, two-headed bear, a nice touch)—all these factions will come to have their own relationships with, and opinions of, players as they roam the Mohave Wastelands. And with little else in the way of readily-available distractions beyond scavenging food/ammo and taking regular Geiger-counter readings, news of the player’s exploits travels fast.

[image3]Make the right friends—or enemies, for that matter—and you just might find yourself with some new dialogue choices with non-player characters that you didn’t previously have access to. Stats and acquired skills can likewise influence the dialogue-options scheme; greater-than-average experience with, say, a particular type of weapon can cause dialogue options to splinter off in new directions, and yield new discussion-topics with NPCs who can accommodate you. In a world already blown to smithereens, who’s going to trust a newbie with, for example, more high-yield explosives? If, on the other hand, you’ve already demonstrated some aptitude…

While we’re on the topic of splintering off: Though decidedly decimated, the ‘Strip’ of New Vegas proper is in decent shape by Holocaust-survival standards and is even pulling down a fair amount of electricity from Hoover Dam to light up a post-nuclear facsimile of its pre-war self. But this is not, and never has been, the Las Vegas of the Blue Man Group, Penn & Teller, and family-friendly skyline-shapers like the Luxor or the MGM Grand.

Things went rather differently in this timeline, and the New Vegas that survived the nuclear fire is the old-school Vegas of the Rat Pack, of Sinatra and The Sands, of Fear and Loathing (to underscore the point, Sinatra’s version of ‘Blue Moon’ is the background tune to the game’s teaser-trailer). From what we’ve seen, the only recognizably-dominant landmark connecting this New Vegas to ‘our’ Vegas is the conspicuously-familiar tower that resembles the present-day Stratosphere. In terms of environments, the strip of New Vegas looks like the closest thing to preserved, functioning Civilization the Fallout series has yet offered; it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the forthcoming game.

One final note: New Vegas, in response to player feedback, will also feature a dreaded new ‘Hardcore’ mode. In the Hardcore scheme, stimpacks require elapsed time to have a healing effect, crippled arms or legs require exceptional medical skills (and a Doctor’s Bag) to treat (stimpacks won’t cut it), players must drink water to avoid death by dehydration, enemies are even tougher to kill—um, yay?—and, in a nod to the original game, all that ammo you’re carrying around has weight. This is the way the world ends—not with a bang, but with a hernia.

Fallout: New Vegas is slated to ship later this Fall (hah!)—and there are no guarantees that what happens in Vegas will stay there, what with all the factions and major-league stuff like Hoover Dam to fight over. Also, a little editorial intrusion: If there isn’t some chance to stumble over Area 51, or its rough equivalent, then by God, this splinter-universe is even more messed-up than how the Bombs left it. We’ll have a full review of the Apocalypse ready to download to your Pip-Boy when Fallout: New Vegas ships later this year. Here’s hoping the radioactive winds blow on some other guy’s dice.

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