Version tested: Xbox 360
It's lunchtime. I'm walking to the Post Office to post some packages. As I pass a small hardware shop, I remember that I've been meaning to get a shovel, and wonder if it's worth picking one up now.
Then I stop. Something about this unbidden thought sets off alarm bells. Why do I need a shovel again? It comes back to me: I need a shovel because I want to dig up the unmarked graves in the cemetery where I was shot in the head by a post-apocalyptic gangster to see if there's anything useful in them.
That's when I realise Fallout has dug its radioactive claws into me yet again.
New Vegas may jump across America for its setting, and forward several years in the timeline, but it's a seamless continuation of what Bethesda set in motion in 2008 with Fallout 3. And you can put aside any concerns regarding the decision to hand over to Obsidian for development duties on this spin-off; while the studio stumbled with its fun-but-flawed espionage RPG, Alpha Protocol, there are enough former Black Isle people still roaming its halls to make New Vegas feel authentic, right down to the last detail. In fact, those who felt Fallout 3 deviated too far from the series' role-playing roots may even find they nod appreciatively at some of the deeper elements New Vegas reintroduces.
Obsidian could have restricted its ambition to inheriting Bethesda's game engine and turning out more of the same, and most of Fallout 3's sizeable fanbase would have been quite happy. That it's gone to the trouble of developing both the series' narrative and it gameplay mechanics speaks highly of the studio's attention to detail.
Déjà vu doesn't last long. Things are the same, yet different. There's no Vault-based opening this time, as the game takes place long after the remnants of humanity have begun rebuilding the world they left behind, their underground homes left to junkies, gangs and mutant plant life (or transformed into kitschy hotels).
This isn't the barren, blasted wasteland of Washington DC from the previous game. There's plant life, some of it edible. There's a semblance of order, thanks to the soldiers of the New California Republic. Even the quaint bottle-cap currency has become slightly more official, vying for economic dominance with the banknotes of the NCR. Just as Red Dead Redemption poised its tale in the dying days of the Old West, so New Vegas sets you down in a post-apocalyptic world on the verge of forging a new society.
That's not to say post-nuke Vegas is a stable environment. Raiders and gangs remain a problem, but not as much of a problem as the Legion, a vast army of slaves and psychos ruled by an imperial-minded despot called – what else? – Caesar. The Legion is cutting a bloody swathe through the New Vegas territory, threatening the fragile peace and workable economy that has developed.
Your role in all this is a tangential one, at least to begin with. The game opens with you digging your own grave before a mysterious man puts a bullet in your head. You awake, somewhat miraculously, in the ramshackle home of a smalltown doctor, who patches you up and takes you through some basic orientation that doubles as your character creation.
From there you're free to roam and, like all Bethesda's RPGs, you can set off in any direction and pretty much guarantee that you'll stumble across something of interest.
There's still a lot of crap lying around the game world but, as with Fallout 3, the wheat-to-chaff ratio is brilliantly designed to tweak your obsessive-compulsive tendencies. As you dig around, opening desks and cabinets and crates, you might spot a stat-boosting book tucked under a table or a valuable health item lurking amongst the Pork N' Beans, and realise that some canny developer left it there with the express purpose of rewarding your Womble-esque rummaging.