By Marshall Garvey
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: October 19, 2010
Genre: Action role-playing
Sometimes a sequel to an outstanding game succeeds because it fixes certain shortcomings widely noted about its predecessor. For all the initial backlash it endured over the lead character switch, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty sufficiently addressed the widespread complaint that the 1998 original was too short. Mass Effect 2 benefited from a more open-ended combat system than its predecessor, as well as character-specific storylines that made its story even richer. Batman: Arkham City took the taut (if somewhat short) impact of Arkham Asylum and flawlessly transformed it into a sprawling open-world adventure, with a host of villains many hoped to see the first time around in 2009.
On occasion, though, there comes a follow-up that improves upon the previous game in ways you didn’t realize were necessary. 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas released two years after the tremendously hyped blockbuster Fallout 3 serves as perhaps the best example of this category. Upon release, some felt it was mostly a retread of its predecessor, only this time trading in 50’s Cold War paranoia for classic westerns as its thematic backdrop. A cursory playthrough would seem to validate this view. The gameplay is mostly similar, with familiar enemies that ravaged the D.C. wasteland scattered throughout the west. All the same features are back too, including the companion system and a soundtrack of classic American tunes that juxtapose eerily with the apocalyptic destitution the U.S. lies in now.
As the player weaves their way through the arid desert and equally scorching scenarios, they’ll find that “New Vegas” isn’t a polished retread of its predecessor. Rather, it’s a superior follow-up that improves key functions such as the companion system, musical soundtrack, story choices, weapons selection, combat, and perks. Along with an abundance of taut action, engrossing side quests, indelible characters, and an electrifying atmosphere throughout, Fallout: New Vegas stands not only as an A-class sequel, but one of the finest adventure games of all-time.
The main story picks things up in 2281, four years after the events of the last game. Your character is a simple courier for the Mojave Express, tasked with delivering a package known only as “the Platinum Chip” to New Vegas (the rebuilt, and even sleazier, incarnation of Las Vegas). During this seemingly innocuous venture, the courier is ambushed by a gang led by Benny (voiced by Matthew Perry), leader of New Vegas’s Tops Casino. After being shot and left for dead (as well as the Platinum Chip stolen), the courier is saved and brought to the town of Goodsprings by Victor the Robot (William Sadler).
After being healed, he or she (depending on the player’s choice of gender) sets out to find Benny and the chip in New Vegas, which rests under the control of the seemingly benign but publicly invisible ruler Mr. House (Rene Auberjonois). However, as the story unravels, the Platinum Chip is revealed to be desired by Mr. House to upgrade his robot security army. He seeks not only to maintain control of New Vegas, but also the Hoover Dam, which would effectively give him control of the entire region. He’s far from the only one seeking complete control, as there’s also Benny himself, the New California Republic (NCR) army, and the Roman-styled slaver army Caesar’s Legion.
That’s just scratching the surface, as the courier will discover a seemingly endless and eclectic array of groups looking for some kind of a claim in power. There’s the Brotherhood of Steel, the persistent remainders of the U.S. military looking to claim any weapons they deem potentially dangerous. The Powder Gangers, a cluster of escaped convicts, roam all across the land and make their presence known by hurling sticks of dynamite at passersby. The Great Khans, a ruthless tribe of traders and drug dealers, occupy the canyons and seek to ally with the Caesar’s Legion. The Boomers, a surprisingly friendly community should you survive the fusillade of missiles they launch at trespassers, occupy a nearby military base. In the middle of this multi-faceted civil war is the courier, who goes from carrying out a routine job to being the steward of the scramble for the New Vegas region. Whether you choose to side with Mr. House, NCR, the Legion, or scheme to rule the strip yourself will determine the outcome and the fates of all those who occupy the land.
The plot of Fallout 3, while heartfelt and perfectly suited to the game’s unprecedented scope, was still incredibly linear and even relatively short when removed from side quests. The story of “New Vegas” makes for a vast improvement in this regard. The complex nature of the region’s civil war not only provides a greater variety of final outcomes, but also makes for a greater challenge the more you engage all sides and choose who to assist and betray. Indeed, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the entangled web of alliances and rivalries as Mr. House, the NCR, Caesar’s Legion, the Brotherhood of Steel, the Boomers, the Powder Gangers, the Great Khans, the Kings, and others all jockey against each other for power and security.
Best of all, no one faction presents a clear-cut “good guy” to side with, as each has admirable strengths as well as repulsive flaws. The NCR, for one, project the appearance of an orderly “official army” that seeks to control and protect the land with integrity. But they have no qualms with ruthlessly killing any opposition (even asking you to plant evidence in one situation), and have drawn the ire of many New Vegas residents. The ultra-reactionary Caesar’s Legion may enslave people, but they also carry themselves in a civil manner and can bring much-needed order and stability to the chaos that plagues the land. And of course, if you crave the power and refuse to take sides, you can always choose to take control of New Vegas yourself.
Another critical improvement this time around is the companion system. This may be the most flagrant upgrade, for while F3’s companions were sufficiently memorable characters, controlling them was a somewhat laborious chore. This was due to having to engage them in conversation just to perform simple tasks like staying put or adding some of your extra items to their inventory. “New Vegas” rectifies this inconvenience by adding a “companion wheel” that allows you to select tasks apart from engaging in conversation. Moreover, the lineup of tagalongs is splendid from top to bottom. Highlights include Craig Boone (a widowed former NCR troop with impeccable sniper skills), Rex (a dog with a transplanted, visible brain you can acquire from the Elvis-obsessed Kings gang), and Raul Tejada (a ghoul janitor rescued from a super mutant fortress who always has a wisecrack no matter the scenario).
Additionally, those who enjoyed the combat and gameplay system of F3 will be satisfied with FNV’s approach, as will all newcomers. The V.A.T.S. aiming system, which allows the player to target individual body parts of enemies to attack, is retained with a few more exclusive attacks. There’s also new weapons, as well as a weapons modification system that allows upgrades like mounted telescopic sights, rate of fire modifiers, and expanded magazine capacity. The reputation system (gauged through the “good or evil” severity of your cumulative actions) is back, as well as a “faction loyalty” guide that measures how people in each community view your actions.
The atmosphere of the game is mesmerizing. FNV offers a scenic and vivid terrain to explore, making simply wandering the desert as fulfilling as any main plot or side ventures (Aided by a familiar enemies gallery that includes new scares like rattlesnake/coyote hybrids called Night Stalkers, as well as Super Mutants called Nightkin who remain invisible until they jump out and assault you). Even the most seemingly aimless trekking is worthwhile to witness visuals like the New Vegas strip’s gaudy lights ablaze at night, or the Hoover Dam as the NCR occupies it for a final showdown with Caesar’s Legion. The majestic but haunting vibe is augmented by the soundtrack, which rings with classics from the likes of Marty Robbins, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Kay Kyser.
While Fallout 3 had a solid voice cast anchored by Liam Neeson and Malcolm McDowell, New Vegas tops it with an even deeper lineup. William Sadler, Rene Auberjonois, Wayne Newton, Kris Kristofferson, Rob Corddry, and Danny Trejo all bring impeccable characterization to their roles. Trejo’s haggard but forceful voice perfectly suits Raul Tejeda, who despite being a Ghoul retains a sharp sense of humor and gratitude. Sadler, one of my personal favorite supporting actors in film and television, gives the right inflection as the reassuringly friendly (but not always honest) Victor the Robot. While his role isn’t as intricate as that of Three Dog in the previous game, Wayne Newton’s velvet tone makes Mr. New Vegas a perfect radio deity for the sleazy glitz of the Vegas strip and the hazardous wasteland that surrounds it. The character actor/voice acting stalwart Rene Auberjonois gives Mr. House the ideal level of gravitas and mystery. No performance adds to the western vibe as superbly as country music legend Kris Kristofferson’s Chief Hanlon, an NCR ranger chief who’s exhausted by the length of the war and the mishandling of troops by army leaders. And of course, Ron Perlman returns as the omniscient narrator.
It’s the mark of a top-tier sequel that it can be wholly appreciated on its own, without needing to be tethered to previous canon for a full understanding. All of this praise of course isn’t to demean Fallout 3 which was itself not only an all-time great title but perfectly executed updating the franchise for the 3D RPG platform. The fact that FNV retains almost all of the fundamental aspects of its approach and prudently improves them speaks highly of how much F3 got right. That said, if you’re a stranger to the lexicon of the Fallout franchise, FNV provides a perfect introduction and an exhilarating experience all its own. As the development of “Fallout 4” continues to remain in speculation, it’s sensible to hope it too will further the gameplay and customization options even more. But as far as retaining the best elements of predecessors is concerned, hopefully what happened in New Vegas, won’t stay in New Vegas.
Original trailer from E3 2010:
(Author’s note: At the time of this review’s writing and submission, I’ve yet to play any of game’s DLC campaigns. In the event that I do, I will update this piece accordingly to address and summarize them.)
About Marshall Garvey
Marshall Garvey is a graduate of UC Davis in history, and a gamer since third grade. He has many favorite games, among them “Batman: Arkham City,” “Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” “Resident Evil 4,” “All-Star Baseball 2001,” “Banjo Kazooie,” “Silent Hill 2,” “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion,” and “Fallout: New Vegas,” among many others. His other interests include baseball, football, boxing, politics, music, movies, jogging, playing trombone, and writing, and he is a devoted fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Twins, and Oakland Athletics. He recently finished two tenures at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, CA, the first being as an intern at the National Archives wing and the second as a staff writer for the Nixon Foundation. Right now, he’s working on two books for the Sacramento Historical Society, one about the history of baseball in the city and the other about the Governor’s Mansion. He is also the creator of his own trading cards franchise, the United States Presidents Baseball Club, which can be visited at: www.presidentsbaseball.com. You can also see his writing about baseball at: www.brushbackpitch.com