You’re a courier. No, really, that’s your job. It tends to get dull at times, except your latest delivery brought you to a headfirst dive into a shallow grave that you dug yourself. Following one of the more popular western narratives, you’re saved from the maw of death by doctor Mitchell, waking up in a town beset by conflict.
Will you help the locals? Will you betray them? Are you an opportunist, an idealist or a plain old evil bastard? New Vegas gives you choices and consequences from the very beginning, though when you make them is entirely up to you. You can take some time to breathe in the environment – a retro sci-fi with western nuances (from cowboy-themed robots to wild west architecture thrown in among the desolate hills); get used to the weapon mechanics (for a higher degree of realism, you can use the iron sights when taking aim), you even have to get used to the map, which now describes a big segment of the Nevada desert.
The aesthetic differences are obvious – while the A-Bombs of the Great War cut this particular area of the world some slack, full-blown anarchy, raiders, draught and social entropy made up in full. No matter how intact the monuments and buildings appear, there’s a subtle chipping to every background element. Decadence through abandonment, overuse or negligence: the paint on the wooden houses tears away, windows covered by crumbling wood and interiors even more decadent than my own flat on the day before Cleaning Day. Yet the retro-SciFi aesthetics are way more prevalent than in previous iterations and there are multiple electronics to be tampered with – including safes or computer networks filled with notes and various archives.
The towns are connected through abandoned highways, canyons resembling much of Romania’s current infrastructure. Every now and then, you can take a peek inside a diner or gas station, and more often than not you’ll be greeted by your average feral ghoul or raider gang. Deep in the mountains, military bases set up by the NCR (New California Republic) defend the fragile order established by the straight-lace faction of Fallout II fame. Abandoned labs host a sect of ghouls getting ready for a long, long trip, and Caesar’s Legion treats people like cattle in a cruel losing game against the whims of cult fanatics. The best part in this stampede of conflicted groups is that you may choose to take any side and determine subsequent power shifts and quest chains. The bad news is there are only 24 hours in every day that you can spend exploring the complex freedom that the Nevada Wasteland has to offer.
And it flies way, way too fast when you get sucked into something so cunningly designed to keep your interest constant and avert the incredulous gaze of your down-to-earth spouse and the three days you’ve avoided facing bills, your job, friends, relatives, hobbies and pets. You probably never cared much for the mechanics behind a hydrological plant, but the tens of hours of Fallout: New Vegas puts on the table will have you staring at the Hoover Dam like it’s the last building on earth.
A solid kick towards immersion is the Hardcore mode, which adjusts certain rules to increase the realism: our hero has to drink, eat and sleep, stimpaks no longer heal fractured limbs and now work as heal-over-time kits, while ammo has weight. The independence of this particular set of rules is very inspired, allowing all categories of gamers to spice up their journeys without making them tougher than they need be.
It’s also important to know that the character is much more flexible than his Fallout 3 counterpart. Yeah, you can finish the game, even on the highest levels of difficulty, going with Unarmed or Melee in the same manner that you can play Sneaky Geek or Companion Hoarder. All your attributes have balanced values now, there are no dump stats, Bobbleheads (although you can collect something else now) and the Traits also make a comeback – pros and cons packed together, the selection of which is up to the player.
On higher levels of difficulty, a drop of theory helps a long way. You might get scared by the notion that the New Vegas manual is longer than an orthodox sermon, but I assure you that it’s redundant provided you had previous contact with the series. It’s good to evoke for detail, but I find its reading pretty destructive before a first complete playthrough, no matter how strange this may seem.
Every number can be a spoiler and there are no important details that can’t be read or discovered from the game experience per se. I must confess that I wasn’t really looking forward to the same pressing sensation laid out by Fallout 3 that VATS is an exploitable progression tool, that the fights are too simplistic or unbalanced in your favor or that things would be over way too fast. No way – you can use the VATS melee strike only if you’re standing next to your target, you can be fully annihilated while using VATS and some enemies require intense guerrilla tactics, well-planned and equally executed. Don’t think that the game is too hard – it can be finished as a boxing enthusiast, without any weapons, on Very Hardcore (Very Hard + Hardcore), but there are moments in which you’ll drag your teeth on the margins to stand the slightest chance.
Furthermore, VATS got augmented by special moves aside from the classic impact zone aiming, maneuvers with additional effects such as stun, throw, etc. The guns can be modified through various accessories, such as scopes or bigger magazines, and the arsenal is now split into fewer classes (you can no longer pick Small Guns, Big Guns and so forth – it’s just Guns for firearms of all kinds, Energy for the, uhm, energy ones, Explosives for anything that blows up – including the Rocket Launcher – Melee and Unarmed). Also, Throwing was removed and Survival makes its debut – useful to cook stuff at the numerous campfires lit throughout the unforgiving desert.
What always bothered me about moral alignments was the universal, one-dimensional antithesis between good and evil, a white stripe into pitch black. Human relationships – and moral profiles implicitly – are much more complex than it would appear and I don’t think it’s normal for it to be clear on your face if you’re good or bad.
People don’t get what they deserve. People get what they get. And in tone with this ideology, New Vegas proposes two elements: reputation and karma. Reputation decides the attitude of a faction towards the Courier and don’t be surprised if once you’ve befriended the NCR, for instance, you’ll lose reputation points with their rivals. What’s interesting is that killing a faction member while remaining undetected will not lower your reputation.
Karma, however, has close to no impact on the game. It’s not the equivalent of reputation and it only represents an abstract norm bent by the choices you make – theft, philanthropy, murder, betrayal, etc. People don’t change their attitudes according to your Karma level (aside from your potential sidekicks) and you can blow up a hospital with no questions asked as long as you’re not caught red-handed. In other words, sure – you can be the meanest person on the planet as long as you keep it a secret. And though the titles from Fallout 3 are still in the game, they’re only abstract labels that can’t really sever your ties from the peaceful anarchists of the desert.