Sometimes, in order to step up, you need to take a step back. Over the last couple of weeks, Bethesda Softworks has shown the world's gaming media what it thinks is the strongest line-up in its history, a line-up which announces its arrival as a publishing force to be reckoned with: Rage, the comeback game from new stable-mates id Software; a very different vision of the future of the FPS, Splash Damage's Brink; modern-day dungeon-crawling in inXile's Hunted; and of course, Fallout: New Vegas, the follow-up to 2008's smash hit Fallout 3.
But Bethesda, the developer, is absent from its own star parade. Helming New Vegas in its place is Obsidian Entertainment, a seasoned RPG understudy that's done stand-in duties for BioWare in the past (on Knights of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights 2). There's a world of difference between BioWare's style and Bethesda's, and another leap again back to Obsidian's Black Isle roots. But if you were looking for a radically different take on Fallout from New Vegas, you'll be disappointed. Chances are, though, that you weren't, and you won't be.
Obsidian has slipped into Fallout 3's clothes as comfortably as it once assumed KOTOR's mantle. New Vegas is technically and mechanically almost identical to the older game. As he walks us through a demo, creative director Chris Avellone reveals a number of tweaks and additions to Fallout 3's character development, conversational storytelling and the crunchy, stop-start hyper-violence of its VATS-powered combat. But the engine is plainly unchanged and to all intents and purposes, the game looks just the same.
It doesn't feel quite the same, however. It's three years later. The Mojave desert, though still identifiably post-holocaust, is nowhere near as ruined or bleak as the Capital Wasteland. Buildings stand whole, there's a pale wash of blue in the sky, scrubby vegetation clings to the landscape and some warmth and colour have seeped back into the scene. Although he doesn't take us there, Avellone teases us with glimpses of the still-standing Las Vegas Strip dominated by the huge Stratosphere tower, McCarran airport in the foreground.
Where Fallout 3 had you emerging from the buried Vault into a hostile world like a visitor from another planet, New Vegas casts you as a surface survivor, a functioning member of some sort of society, and starts by surrounding you with a few friendly faces. You're a courier who's been left for dead by bandits, but a mysterious robot named Vic - displaying Vegas Vic, the city's cartoon cowboy mascot, on his chest - recovers your body and takes you to Doc Mitchell to bring you back to the land of the living.
A rapid character-creation process allows you a few more options - creating an older character, for example - and suggests the skills you might take according to your answers to the doctor's personality questionnaire and Rorschach test (you don't have to follow these suggestions, naturally). The skills, like the stats, are all familiar and include combat skills like explosives as well as social skills like bartering. A scavenged Vault jumpsuit and Pip-Boy personal interface ensure that you'll feel at home, and you're dispatched to the saloon of the village of Good Springs (like many of New Vegas' locations, a real place) to meet a female hunter called Sunny Smiles who'll walk you through the tutorial quests.
It's at this point that you're offered a chance to play in New Vegas' new Hardcore mode for "veteran players". In Hardcore, healing from stim-packs only happens over time and cannot mend broken limbs, ammo has weight, and you'll need to drink regularly to stave off dehydration as you wander the wastes of the Mojave. If Hardcore proves too much for you you can revert to Normal at any time, but once you do that, you can't go back, and you won't get the special achievement for completing the game on Hardcore.
Appropriate to its location, New Vegas has a Wild West, frontiersman feel. Dust devils cross your path, an old prospector called Easy Pete rocks his chair on a porch, and Trudy, the down-home saloon-owner, wants help against the bounty hunter Joe Cobb and his gang who are holding the town to ransom. This is all after you go hunting for Geckos (one of many references to Fallout 2 Obsidian is folding into the game) to learn, or re-learn, your way around the real-time, first-person combat with optional tactical pauses via VATS.
The carefully-crafted prologue ensures there's a low-level weapon for every weapon skill in the area, and conversational options for all the possible powers of persuasion in the mission to defeat (or, of course, side with) Cobb's gang. It introduces you to the new special abilities unlocked with every melee weapon in the game - a nine-iron golf club comes with a destructive blow called "Fore!" - and New Vegas' biggest new element, a reputation system.
A new entry in the Pip-Boy gives you a perk for a particular location or faction if your reputation with a faction changes. Defeat Cobb and you earn "Accepted" with Good Springs - "folks have come to accept you for your helpful nature". Ultimately, this system plays into the game's principal narrative struggle between the New Californian Republic (NCR) militia, based at McCarran, and a group of slavers called Caesar's legion. If you know Vegas, you can probably guess where you'll find their HQ. Whichever you side with, the other will be your principal enemy in the game.
Other factions like the Brotherhood of Steel and the Super Mutants are around, naturally, and can be played against, for or even toyed with. Avellone shows us an assault on the stronghold of the Super Mutant Tabetha, a mentally unstable, hulking brute in a blonde bob wig and love-heart glasses. It's possible to pave the way to her death by turning two generations of mutants - the tough first generation and the "dum dums" from the military base in Fallout 2 - against each other, exploiting their paranoia in radio transmissions.
This mission is also an opportunity to show off the new interface for companions, which allows you to give them orders via a wheel system without needing to dip into dialogue. We're accompanied by a friendly, funny Latino ghoul named Raoul, who also serves to display the lighter touch of Obsidian's writers. Tabetha's head is blown clean off with his help - and also that of some ridiculous modified weapons, like a grenade machine-gun with an increased rate of fire (weapon mods from the PC modding community have been included in the game).
Our final excursion is to Helios 1, a Poseidon Energy power station occupied by the NCR. Reputation with that bloated, bureaucratic faction grants you access to the station's inner sanctum, where a surfer dude posing as a scientist, calling himself Fantastic, runs the plant at 1 per cent efficiency. Get past the pre-war security system and you could re-route the power anywhere you like: to McCarran to benefit the NCR, to Fremont to help out the local poor, evenly across the whole region... or to the plant's dormant defence system, an insanely powerful orbital laser. You can then command it at will anywhere in the environment: your own, private apocalypse.
Avellone uses it to turn on his NCR allies and decimate their troops. In doing so, he demonstrates Obsidian's gleeful embrace of the player freedom and destructive abandon that were the hallmarks of Bethesda's already legendary revival of Fallout. But there's also a richness, a texture here that really harks back to the original Interplay games - not surprising really, given Obsidian's own Interplay heritage.
That texture is evident, above all, in the warped Americana of the locations: the distant threat, promise and perverted glamour of the Strip; its humble echo in Primm, with its seedy casino entangled in a rollercoaster; a roadside motel community calling itself Novac after a broken No Vanacies sign, with a sniper nest housed in the mouth of a cheesy dinosaur statue; the lonely, bald rocks of Black Mountain surveying it all. New Vegas will give you a chance to unfold your own story somewhere that's at once real and unreal, familiar and utterly fantastical and strange. And that, surely, is what role-playing games are all about.
Fallout: New Vegas will be released for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in autumn 2010.