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.
Better still are the odd little vignettes and ambient stories written into the landscape. There's nothing more amusing than creeping into a derelict hotel room only to discover that some previous occupant has left a teddy bear and toy dinosaur arranged with some kitchen implements to create a Toytown knife fight.
Make no mistake, this is a massive game. The map feels more populated and varied than Fallout 3's, from the scrubland frontier villages, through aspirational small towns like Freeside, to the Strip itself, where a tatty semblance of normality has taken hold with neon signs, almost-clean casinos and untainted food and water.
You'll be meeting lots of different factions as you traverse this world and the game's new focus on reputation makes them more than a pointless palette-swap. You'll be doing missions for most of these groups at some point, often bringing you into conflict with others, and juggling your allegiance is trickier than it seems, especially where the main quest line is concerned. There are multiple forces vying for control of New Vegas and sooner or later you need to pin your flag to somebody's post.
There are the dubious crime families of the Strip Omerta, White Glove Society, The Chairmen and the militaristic forces that aim to rein them in: the New California Republic Rangers, Caesar's Legion and even the Brotherhood of Steel, diminished by time but still a powerful presence. Further down the food chain are rough and ready gangs and cliques, charitable groups and traders. The ghouls have found religion. The Super Mutants have their own talk radio station. Progress is on the march.
Lording over all of it is the mysterious and reclusive Mr House, New Vegas' default ruler, whose inscrutable plans dragged you into this power struggle in the first place. Post-BioShock, we've perhaps met one too many toffee-voiced videogame oligarchs ordering us about from afar. But New Vegas just about makes it work, if only because your freedom to ignore or defy the man at the top is unlimited by the linear narratives of first-person shooter design.
Indeed, Fallout remains a procrastinator's dream. My idealistic intention was to plough through the main quests and then explore the margins until my deadline loomed. 50 game-clock hours and 38 quests later, I'd barely scratched the surface of the story, having spent my time being wonderfully distracted by interesting structures and enjoyable side-quests and ooh, what's that over there, let's go and see. I'd visited just under half the locations on the map, was two-thirds of my way towards the Level 30 cap and, according to the Achievements list, there were still at least 16 major quests to be completed. So, yeah: big.
It's all incredibly intuitive if you played Fallout 3 since, on the surface, New Vegas looks, sounds and plays exactly the same. With only a few new creatures and a lot of familiar scenery items, it's initially easy to think of it as a really big expansion pack rather than a game in its own right.
There's more going than just reshuffled assets, though. Obsidian has reintroduced more RPG features, such as crafting. You could make a small selection of weapons in the last game, but that's changed now. You can still create some explosive devices at workbenches, but mostly you'll be putting together your own stimpacks and medical supplies. Camp fires allow you to take the raw ingredients found around the place and turn them into nutritious, stat-boosting meals, while you can even salvage, recycle and repack your ammo supply. Though the world may be crawling back towards civilisation, you'll be living off your wits a lot more.
The Bear Grylls approach proves essential in Hardcore Mode, perhaps the most striking and beneficial addition to the game. Activated at the start, it plays up the survival aspect by introducing numerous realistic variables to your game. You need to eat, drink and sleep: hunger, thirst and sleep deprivation will hinder, disorient and eventually kill you if you don't keep on top of them. Ammo has weight in Hardcore Mode, so you can't merrily stuff your pockets with every shell and bullet you find. Efficient inventory planning soon becomes a pressing requirement.
Most importantly, healing items no longer instantly top up your health, but fix you over time, forcing you to be much more tactical in your confrontations. Crippled limbs must be fixed using the rare Doctor's Bag item or patched up by an actual doctor. You can't simply dash in and spam the hotkey for stimpacks during a fight, but have to really think about how you can take down, say, a cellar full of hulking Nightkin without being squished into a fine paste.
It's a brilliant decision, and one that fits perfectly with the aesthetic of the game, forcing you to fully engage with its radiation-scorched landscape. Before, food and water were simply optional health pick-me-ups. Now they form a balancing act, as you weigh up the benefits of curing dehydration sickness with the radiation poisoning you'll get from slurping out of a manky old sink. It's also great to see an extra layer of difficulty that doesn't rely on simply making your enemies bulletproof (yes, Mass Effect, that means you) but instead forces you to play smarter, rather than harder.
The only addition that simply doesn't work is the enhanced use of companion characters. These were present in Fallout 3 (RIP, Dogmeat) but now come with a command wheel that supposedly gives you more control over them.
Trouble is, what they need is better AI, not a rudimentary selection of orders that are inadequate for the game's many obstacles. Companions bestow unique perks (more if you complete their side-quests) and are very handy for carrying additional items and supplying extra fire-power, but their tendency to dash off into battle against any enemy that passes within visual range, even when supposedly set to 'Passive' mode, makes them more trouble than they're worth.
I lost count of the number of times I turned around to discover they'd sprinted off to tackle a Deathclaw single-handed, standing two feet away from it and firing wildly. Eventually, I stopped reloading to keep them alive and let them commit suicide. Compared to the huge strides BioWare has made in RPG party design, this is an area Fallout 4 would do well to either improve on or avoid altogether.
Your companion's dim-witted nature is perhaps connected to the creaking Gamebryo engine, which still carries a lot of Oblivion's clunkier aspects in its digital genome. Interior maps remain frustratingly vague, character models are still bloated and odd, and both people and objects are prone to random jigging or getting lodged in doors and rocks.
The game can still throw out some glorious vistas the distant lights of the Strip twinkling in the wilderness but mid-range details pop in awkwardly and the frame rate chugs too often for comfort. There are even complete game freezes, usually after prolonged play sessions, though Bethesda assures us that this is a known issue and a day-one patch will fix it.
Fallout: New Vegas is still a fantastic game, only slightly held back by its increasingly outdated tech. Obsidian has created a totally compelling world and its frustrations pale into insignificance compared to the immersive, obsessive experience on offer. Just like the scorched scenery that provides its epic backdrop, New Vegas is huge and sprawling, sometimes gaudy, even downright ugly at times but always effortlessly, shamelessly entertaining.
9 / 10