‘Fallout: New Vegas’ 10 years on: why Obsidian’s RPG is still unbeaten

Heartache, by the numbers

I always seem to find a reason to return to Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout: New Vegas. It will live indefinitely in my Steam ‘Favourites’ category, because looking through my 65 hours of save games is like reliving multiple past lives.

When it came out in October of 2010, I remember being on board the hype train. I had played a lot of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and then Fallout 3, warts and all, which was my first proper introduction to the series when I was in my mid-teens.

Having grown up on a diet of 3D platformers and Pokémon, meaty RPGs with such worldbuilding and mechanical nuance felt frankly alien to me. I got lost in these inspired worlds so quickly because I hadn’t played anything remotely like it. Particularly with Fallout, I was hopelessly addicted to its premise, too.

Some of the political commentary naturally flew over my head in favour of “Woah, Deathclaws” and cool head explosions, but the broad strokes concerning the mythos of American exceptionalism stuck. With New Vegas in particular, it was fascinating to watch extremist groups flourish and war with each other in the wake of an apocalypse, and study what aspects of society they decided to rebuild or leave behind. Framing this situation against a monument to human excess – The Las Vegas Strip – made for one hell of an atmosphere.

Plenty of role-playing games use factions to give colour to their world, to the point where I’d argue it’s become something of a crutch in open-world RPG game design ever since 2010. But precious few games back that commitment up with the agency and clever writing that Fallout: New Vegas provided, and that’s where they fall short.

Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas. Credit: Obisidian Entertainment

Instead of monochrome choices which doom or venerate gangs, you take part in smaller scale operations in the Mojave that explore their intentions and motivations prior to any ultimatums. This helps you understand the organization at large and feel a greater sense of place in the world. Take the first few engagements in Goodsprings, Primm and Nipton, for example – New Vegas’ opening really is a masterclass.

The Powder Gangers are presented as the ultimate antagonists at first, harassing an innocent town in Goodsprings to settle a score. But as you make your way to Primm, you start to realise that the dynamic in New Vegas is really not that simple.

The first time you meet the NCR – the supposed moral peacekeepers of the Mojave – they’re hapless and outmanned, on the outskirts of a town besieged by the failures of the movement’s own bureaucracy. A breakout at their own “correctional facility” gave rise to the Powder Gangers, who have now taken over Primm. The sheriff’s sleeping, decapitated body is still warm in an outskirt shack when you arrive… one example of the impeccable environmental storytelling in New Vegas.

For the player, it proves more difficult and thankless to work with the NCR to restore order than it is to solve the problem yourself – in the end, they bring high taxes and overbearing rule to the struggling, innocent residents. You start to see the difficulty of trying to brute force old-world values and laws on a lawless society, a thread that unravels over the course of the game. And then we get to Nipton, which is where you really start to see the bigger picture. Here we find another major faction, Caesar’s Legion. The brutes are toying with their food, crucifying Powder Gangers and razing a small town just to send a message.

Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas. Credit: Obisidian Entertainment

But when you find the ravaging troupe they don’t want to instantly kill you, as you have come to expect from the gruesome scene. In fact, Vulpes Inculta would rather explain his reasoning. Nipton was a town overrun by crime, lorded over by a corrupt mayor cutting deals with the NCR and the Powder Gangers, playing them against each other and betraying his constituents in chase of greed. Inculta instigated a lottery to figure out who would live and who would die out of the criminals he has caught in his trap. To him this is justice!

And instead of conventional RPG quest design, where you would meet an escapee begging for help, you find a criminal in an abandoned house, who was beaten by the Legion but not killed thanks to the principles of the lottery. When you tell him that you’re going to try and save the enslaved, he says “Don’t act like you’d be doing me a favour. I don’t give a fuck”.

This for me encapsulates why New Vegas is so good. It is consistently toying with your expectations less than two hours in. You don’t even know why you were left for dead at the start of the game, but your mind is already racing thanks to the unique political landscape of this inimitable experience.

All of the gameplay systems hold up well, but revisiting New Vegas over the holidays has really given me the chance to thoroughly appreciate the game’s remarkable ambient soundtrack – provided by Inon Zur – which followed me throughout the wasteland, sending shivers up my spine.

The problem nowadays is that it’s a pain in the arse to get it running properly, at least on PC. A next-gen port would be much appreciated, just to make it playable without too much effort. Saying that, I don’t think it needs to be reskinned or have any of its features updated if a remaster was on the cards… Fallout 4 tried this and undermined a lot of New Vegasbest systems. It’s brilliant as is, I’m just sick of the crashing!

I’ve found a somewhat happy medium by avoiding tacky visual patches and just installing some bug fixing mods, but that shouldn’t have to be the case to play a modern classic like this. And even so, it still crashes quite frequently – though I’m almost glad it does, or I might play it too much…

Of course, the future looks brighter than ever for all things Fallout: New Vegas as we enter 2021. InXile, Obsidian and Bethesda are now under one roof at Microsoft, following its Zenimax acquisition. Hell, we learned this week that InXile is hiring for an FPS RPG right now… The finest minds in Fallout have an opportunity to collaborate and reinvigorate a forlorn franchise without any of the bullshit – I sincerely hope something comes of it.

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