"Fallout: New Vegas" Delivers Old-School Action and New-School Glitches

I met a man named Benny tonight on my way out to deliver a package. Snappy dresser, with the kind of accent that comes from watching too many holo-vids. Guys like Benny's boss rely on me to discreetly move valuables from point A to point B. We aren't as well-armed as a full caravan, but we aren't as conspicuous, so we have an easier time moving unmolested among the unwashed post-apocalyptic masses.

That is, unless some ambitious wannabe with a chip on his shoulder wants to use some insider information to make a play for his boss' throne. Guys like Benny are never satisfied being the number-two man in the organization. That's why Benny has the package, and that's why I'm bleeding out in a shallow grave.

Benny's a bastard. I think I'll kill him.

If you were expecting Fallout: New Vegas to be a wasteland monomyth along the lines of its predecessor, think again. It's a Cormac McCarthy spaghetti western that draws liberally from some of the older Fallout mythos to gets back to the series' roots and remind us exactly how twisted they are.

To look at it, you'd think that New Vegas is the kind of sequel you'd see in the old days, absolutely true to its predecessor's form and reliant upon it for positive reinforcement like an insecure child unsure of its own worth. Technical expansions are limited to various tweaks to systems put in place by Fallout 3 developer Bethesda Game Studios. Coming from New Vegas developer Obsidian Entertainment (a house practically built by Fallout series alums), the sheer volume and sheer arbitrariness of these tweaks gives New Vegas the feel of an overeager nerd trying to retcon out undesired changes to his favorite continuity.

The reality is a little less obvious, as New Vegas is more a sequel to Fallout 2 than to Fallout 3. Obsidian may have drawn liberally from Bethesda's work on the Gamebryo engine, but the "what" of their work—story elements, characterization, and the like—varies wildly when compared to the very by-the-numbers parallels evident in the "how." Nine out of 10 screenshots for Fallout 3 or New Vegas could come from either game, but New Vegas' moral grayscale presents a contrast with Fallout 3's unambiguous Capital Wasteland stark enough to ignite an East Coast/West Coast turf war.

In so doing, though, Obsidian managed to take a set of completely functional software assets and drive them right into the ditch. New Vegas is practically irradiated with bugs, from painfully obvious yet relatively benign ones (equipping certain weapons after modifying them results in a giant error message superimposing itself over your character) to game-breaking monsters (long play sessions on New Vegas' 360 version are currently crippled by what appears to be a memory leak that eventually freezes the game during level loads).

New Vegas' saving grace is—well, that it's Fallout. Obsidian may not be able to program their way out of a wet paper Pong clone (see also: Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights II), but they certainly know the series they helped create. New Vegas is a panoply of tough decisions from its beginning onward. Character creation is a gauntlet of blessings and curses with implications stretching much farther than Fallout 3, whose philosophy of overcoming personal obstacles consisted of a map with a big glowing X over the location of the guy who trains you how to use Power Armor.

Equally difficult is the task of picking a path for growth. Obsidian did a bang-up job bringing some of the more poorly performing elements of Fallout 3 up to spec. Playing through New Vegas-era Fallout is no longer a matter of picking a weapon skill, a tech skill, and medicine. Now that every weapon skill shines in its own way and every tech skill is on par with every other, New Vegas players have more freedoms in how their characters survive the wastes.

And forget about trying to pick out the bad guy here. New Vegas has bastards and innocents in equal measure, and every time one conveniently lines himself up in your crosshairs, pulling the trigger pretty much guarantees that you're killing off some perfectly decent individual's childhood friend. Nothing in New Vegas is cut-and-dried, and this gives what could have been just a rote revenge tale significant traction.

Fallout: New Vegas is a delicious way to enjoy losing 60 or so hours of your life, if only you can suffer through its few dozen unresolved irritants. (And if you've played through a few of Obsidian's other games, you probably already know the answer to that.)