Dean Martin’s ‘Ain’t that a Kick in the Head’ starts playing just as I take the first shot at a two-metre-tall gecko, which proceeds to turn around and breathe fire all over me before a man dressed as a Roman Legionary punches it to death. Welcome to New Vegas, baby.
Fallout: New Vegas was dealt a loaded deck before release. A short development cycle of just 18 months forced the development team to re-use assets from Fallout 3, and it was farmed out to Obsidian Entertainment as a spin-off rather than a full sequel. Luckily for everyone, Obsidian’s team included a lot of the original creators of the Fallout series, and what New Vegas lacked in graphical advancements and stability (the PS3 version was so notoriously buggy that it was almost unplayable), it more than made up for in story and atmosphere.
For those not in the know, the Fallout series takes place in an alternate timeline that diverges from reality after WWII. Instead of smartphones and the internet, this universe gets atomic-powered robotic butlers and laser guns – oh, and a devastating nuclear war between the US and China in 2077 which destroys society and kills pretty much everyone who hasn’t booked their place in a huge underground bomb shelter, or ‘Vault’.
What makes New Vegas so special though is that it isn’t set in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Instead, it’s set 200 years after the bombs fell, with all of the advances you’d expect. The world you’re exploring is part-Mad Max wasteland, part-wild west film and part-fully functioning society. Sure, there are two-headed cows, bandit raiders, and scorpions the size of a Ford Focus, but there are also towns, trading caravans, and even competing governments. Oh, and did we mention casinos? It just wouldn’t be Vegas without the casinos.
This is the world that New Vegas has in store for you, but at the start of the game you’re being told to dig your own grave by a man in a checkerboard suit who sounds suspiciously like Chandler Bing (yes, they paid Matthew Perry to voice a character and no, it isn’t entirely clear what anyone gains from this.) You then get dug up by a cowboy robot with a TV screen in its chest and taken to the local doctor for a spot of brain surgery. A quick tutorial later – most of which is completely optional – and you’re left with a couple of map markers and a whole lot of questions.
New Vegas’ plot escalates from there, but that’s almost the least interesting part of the game. The world is the real star of the show, and whatever direction you strike out in, you’re bound to find something interesting. Fallout 3 only had a handful of side quests to distract you from the main plot, but New Vegas is full of them. Running guns for shady arms dealers, helping out a bandit gang trapped in a quarry, cleaning up the neighbourhood with a group who all dress like Elvis Presley (yes, really). Every encounter is unique, and despite some badly dated graphics and facial animations, each character feels alive in a way that few other games manage.
Those dated graphics may initially lead you to the conclusion that the mechanics are pretty much unchanged from its predecessor, but New Vegas actually includes some pretty major tweaks. Chief among these is the inclusion of a proper iron sights aiming system, which makes the combat genuinely enjoyable in a way that Fallout 3 never did. I’m still yet to find something more satisfying than firing a sniper round from a hundred metres away and being rewarded with a slow-motion replay of my target’s entire head exploding in a mass of gore that would make a B-movie horror director proud.
The game also avoids the trap of scale which some sandboxes fall into, instead opting for a mid-sized map that is packed full of things to do. Exploring ruined buildings and forgotten caves always turns up something interesting, whether a unique weapon or just a huge irradiated fly that really wants to kill you. The map design is also a masterclass in giving the player freedom while also gently nudging them along a predetermined path. At the beginning of the game, you may look at the map and decide to head straight for the titular New Vegas. You’re absolutely free to do so, but you will almost definitely get slaughtered by the hordes of high-level wildlife – ever seen a Deathclaw up close? – along the way.
Instead, you’re encouraged to explore the towns and settlements outside of the glitz and glamour, meeting different factions and building a picture of the world you’ve been dropped into. It not only immerses you in the game but also means that when you do finally stroll onto the strip with money in your pocket and a gun on your back, it really feels like you’ve earned it.
The choices you’re offered and groups you encounter on your travels are far more complex than the classic ‘good versus evil’ that a lot of games (including Fallout 3) often opt for. Binary morality is instead replaced with multiple ideologically different factions, all with their own quirks. The lofty ideals of the New California Republic’s overstretched bureaucracy aren’t borne out by its inability to police its own territory. Meanwhile, the slave-owning, crucifixion-happy Caesar’s Legion can at least promise safety to their citizens, and New Vegas itself, led by the centuries-old Mr House (modelled on legendary eccentric Howard Hughes) has its own agenda, again with its own morally grey pros and cons.
Dystopias are always at their best when they use their setting to play with expectations and probe at aspects of humanity. Games like Bioshock have been rightly praised for this, bringing setting and story to the fore, but New Vegas more than earns its place at the table, too. Every major faction in the game has achieved some measure of safety and security in a world ravaged by nuclear war, but all of them have stuffed a good few skeletons into the closet in the process. This lack of one single ‘right’ side to take leads to a genuine sense of freedom that few games can match.
This shift of focus away from binary morality means that Fallout: New Vegas rewards multiple playthroughs in a way that few other games do. Instead of the classic western-RPG tropes of ‘good ending’ and ‘evil ending’, you instead get multiple outcomes, questlines, allies and locations, all of which overlap and interlock perfectly.
One final honorary mention has to be given to Radio New Vegas, the wasteland radio station hosted by the inimitable Mr. New Vegas. Available on your Pip-Boy – the wrist-mounted computer you’re given at the start of the game – Radio New Vegas accompanies you wherever you roam, playing cowboy songs and Rat Pack classics interspersed with heartwarming banter. Finishing different quests will lead to Mr New Vegas reading out related news bulletins, which is cool, but the real joy comes from wandering the Mojave desert and rifling through 200-year-old office buildings while being serenaded by country and western superstar Marty Robins.
Fallout: New Vegas is an RPG, a sandbox, a dystopian future and a wild west adventure all rolled into one. Despite dozens of playthroughs and hundreds of hours sunk into it, I’m about ready to dust off my cowboy boots, put on my radiation suit and head back to the strip – care to join me?