... Stays in New Vegas. Yes, it is time for a new Fallout game review.
Fallout New Vegas is Bethesda Softworks' newest offering in the post-apocalyptic retro scene, served up by Obsidian Entertainment.
Many of you (or rather my three readers, in any case) will know my thoughts on Fallout 3 by now, so this game does have some pretty deep shoes of expectation to fill. The open world format delivered by Fallout games, seeded with well structured deposits of intrigue and backstory supplements to those willing to search for them, made Fallout 3 one of the best games I have played. Mainly because it made free-roaming in an open world worthwhile when you found some small supply cache either guarded by raiders or traders or entirely empty leaving you to wonder when the three bears would be coming home. It always delivered something interesting.
But I will not go on gushing about how excellent FO3 was since I pretty much covered it in my original review. So let us look towards the new mewling baby in the Fallout series, already sporting it's first DLC and a wealthy library of community mods to add more depth (or, if you like this kind of thing, god weapons.) Of course, these are only available to the PC players, sorry console guys but you chose to play an FPS on a kids toy...
I decided that, since I don't have a year to review the game, I would simply play the vanilla game sticking mostly to the story mode and go from start to finish, occasionally exploring locations for hidden extras. This should let me get a little of everything and while I am going to skip over the first DLC, I may come back to review them on their own later and reflect back on the base game and how the DLC fits in with the overall Fallout NV experience.
The first good sign was the first time I started the game launcher and it started detecting my hardware to auto-configure the game and the next message said graphics were set for Ultra-High Quality! Ohh I know this is nothing to do with the game itself other than looking pretty, but it does my ego some good to know my rig is still kicking arse with new releases. The money I spent on building it last year it should do...
With the game being activated and managed through Steam, I was sceptical about the mod support for the already increasing library of mods on the Nexus site. The Fallout Mod Manager software used for clean installing and uninstalling of mods for Fallout 3 was still available though and handles pretty much all the modding needs without any conflict with Steam itself, so this made installing anything as easy as before. However, with many new additions I was to find in the vanilla game, there is less need for modding than there used to be as many mods I downloaded were to add features to the game that I felt should have been part of the post-apocalyptic survivor feel of FO3. I will come onto these later, though, and work my way through the initial beginning of the game.
The tutorial was pretty much what you expect, if you have player FO3. You wake up in a doctors house in the middle of nowhere special after being shot in the head. The pretence for all the 'what's your name?' questions and other character building and stat setting exercises flows from this as the doc checks you over. You are introduced to the movement and then the combat by someone else who the doc directs you to. After this you are cut loose and can do whatever you want, however there is some major gap in motivation for your character to go looking for the guy who shot him, beyond the fact your are a courier and he has your package. There is no real nudge from the NPCs to give you any direction and you are more or less artificially funnelled down the correct pat, as any other road than the one you need to head on will lead to quick death. This is different from FO3 where the wastes were pretty much open in all directions, even though some places were pretty tough to pass through. Here you have a range of mountains around you and a couple of paths north and south with no way round. Only one of them is easy enough to go down where you have an encounter you could ignore if you wish, but the lack of any other thing to get your teeth into at this point means you will most likely do it by default your first time round. So, in essence, the story presentation has less to do with your reason for doing it than the situation around the wastes giving you no real choice. It's not a bad thing though as the game itself is still fairly engaging at this point.
Linking into this, a feature that I felt sorely lacking in Fallout 3 - catered for by the mod community at large - has now been added into New Vegas. Disguises. You could download a mod for Fallout 3 that made people think you were one of them by putting their faction armour and clothing on. So dress as a Raider and you are viewed as one by them and they will not be hostile. It was rather cumbersome though as allies would not shoot you still. In New Vegas they take a greater advantage of this feature by letting you try and sneak into enemy locations by outfitting their gear. This will not always work out as more senior officer-like NPCs may see through your disguise. And to cap it all your allies may still shoot you as well. the lay of the land also feel more territorial with areas beyond the Hoover Dam belonging to the Legion, the area around the prison belonging to the Powder Gangers and parts of the north west being Great Khan territory. Pretty much everywhere else has either a strong NCR presence and the occasional roving bad guy encampment.
You have the usual option of some companions to help you on your way, and they do a good enough job of pulling their weight in a fight. They are more configurable than before, as well, giving you options to switch their combat style between ranged and melee, and passive and aggressive stances. The Companion Wheel is a nice touch as well, though it stems more from a console friendly system of management. This does not reduce its effectiveness in the PC game though and gets rid of companion interactions being dealt with in dialogue form. Companions also bring some bonuses to the fray that enhance your capabilities such as perception or strength, and there are new perks in the game you can add to yourself that involve companions. One of them is how they will throw themselves between you and the bulk of gunfire if your health drops low.
If you feel the strong enemy presences in some areas of the map, combined with obviously overpowered creatures at your lower levels restricting the paths you can take, are not enough of a challenge then you can indulge in the Hardcore Wasteland mode. Again, this is something I felt was missing from the whole survival theme of Fallout 3, where you could buy food and drink but they serve little function beyond buffing and minor health increases, and sleep meant you simply did not gain any XP, and if you had levelled to the top then you are hardly going to care about that anyway. The essence of Hardcore mode is that you have got to eat and drink to stay healthy. You need to sleep eventually or you will pass out where you stand (I don't know exactly what will happen there). You have to keep yourself supplied well with meds, and applying them takes effect over time instead of an instant health shot. And Stimpacks do not heal broken limbs. Also, carrying ammo will add weight to your carry pack instead of it being weightless, and this makes heavy weapon specialists a difficult path since one missile weighs a lot more than hundreds of rounds of ammo.
Anyway, enough about the new features for now and lets get to the meat of the game, since combat is ultimately what the game delivers. The feel of combat is on a par with Fallout 3, and maybe has some slight graphical tweaks that are neither here nor there. Since FO3 was very nicely detailed to begin with then little needed improving on. The weapons all feel pretty meaty and have a range of effects. Some new touches to crippling your enemy have worked their way into the weave and are welcome. Shooting someone in the leg before caused them to limp around, but they did not react beyond this simple animation change. Now they will flail in pain for a while, and look like they are shaking off the effects before continuing to fight, which adds a tactical element to crippling people now when you have several enemies. You can stop one from fighting for a few seconds by aiming for the leg or arm, giving you a little reprieve in a fire fight.
Also, enemies now try to hide behind cover. It is hardly a step in the direction of Gears of War like cover system, where they press against the cover and fire blindly round. They simply stand around with parts of broken building between you and them. They also have a chicken out option when you disarm them or scare them in a fight, making them cower and run away. You can also invest in a perk that increases this effect in combat, and there are dialogue options available if your perks and stats are right where you can intimidate people into running away after a conversation.
To compound the issues with V.A.T.S taking too long to resolve, there is a default setting in the 'death camera' options where killing an enemy with a critical hit will grab the camera and show you a V.A.T.S like slow motion killing. While this might seem good, it is not when you are in a frantic fire fight against 5-6 people and your opening surprise shot, you meant to give you the advantage of a quick kill followed by a hail of bullets or grenade toss, is soured by the game taking control away for a while. Of course, you can turn it off, but I don't see why it was enabled by default, and a quick read of the Steam Forum page for Fallout NV shows I was not the only one who found it irritating and had no idea how to turn it off until they asked.
These are not the only issues that plague the game, though they are the only game design ones I have found that irk me. The rest are pure stability issues with rendering glitches here and there. Namely the eyes of dogs sometimes misplacing themselves on the model and texture issues on the landscape. Worst of all, and the reason this blog has taken me a long time to write, is the constant crashes to desktop and game freezes that I have encountered. Earlier I know I said I set it to ultra high graphics but this is not the issue. After all my PC is very high spec and up to date so if it cannot run on this then what was the game made to run on? Instead, a little research seems to confirm the game has crashes on many different rigs and is more a scattered issue with different hardware configurations. This lands squarely on the laps of Obsidian's design process and Fallout NV is hideously resource hungry and inefficient compared to other titles of similar calibre like ME2 and the new released Portal 2 (Watch this space for the next review). Many fixes and hacks are available but so far I have had no success with them and makes playing the game a chore.
The game does still need a few mods to enhance the playing sensation or fixing features that should have been present. With an emphasis on survival and living off the land in hardcore mode, I find it hard that you can only use the survival features like cooking at a pre-made camp fire. Why can I not make my own? How about a sleeping bag? You need a mod to fix the iron-sight modes too as they are pretty much off centre. Not to mention the myriad of other small bugs. Most people will find use for the many player home mods that add vacant and serviceable structures to the many locations of the game so you have somewhere to put your kit down and store you excess gear. One lone container in an abandoned structure does not really cut it.
Should it be this way? Of course it should.
Eventually you get to parts of the game where you find gambling institutions where you can buy chips in one of the several currencies in the game. Though everything is universally dealt in caps anyway at the vendors so why someone would need the NCR dollar or the Legion Denarius is beyond me. They only have uses in buying chips, and having your winnings paid back out in chips again. I guess it does give you a monetary separation from your main funds so you can have the rest purely to gamble, but you can also sell the currency for caps at a fixed price in all places, though with barter skills you might get more caps per NCR dollar anyway, so again, it makes them pointless. All gambling locations will give you the same standard exchange rates. Want 100 chips? Pay 100 caps. And if you trade in $40 NCR you still get 100 chips, just like you get 100 caps selling that $40 NCR. It is all very rigid and is little more than fluff over dynamic content. Having some places take the NCR dollar only and for it to be more valuable than caps over other places may have added some point to it. Though I admit it would not make the game as accessible as not everyone wants to work out where the best place is to spend what money and play the game alongside a spreadsheet.
I have not yet invested in Dead Money, the DLC released earlier this year, and I might review that one on its own later. So I will wrap this up here with what needs to be said. Fallout NV is both a pleasure to play as well as an appalling disappointment. Given the range of new features worked into the game as well as less of a need to mod and give the game an enhancement it needs like FO3 did, I was very happy to see gameplay mechanism holes being plugged and cannot fault the execution. However, the massive instability in the game itself, to a point of being unplayable some times, is not something I expect to shell out around £30 for when it has a major game design company brand on the box. A lack of updates to date to address these issues makes me want to scratch off the Bethesda logo and see if there is an Electronic Arts sticker beneath it somewhere.