"You’re awake. How about that! Let’s see what the damage is…"
You woozily sit up and spit blood as Doc Mitchell pries the metal bullet fragments out of your skull. “I hope you don’t mind, but I had to go rootin’ around there in your noggin to pull out all the bits of lead. I take pride in my needlework.”
The benevolent medical practitioner of the irradiated ghost town of Goodsprings — located on the outskirts of the near-decimated New Vegas — has taken a shine to you. And thank god. Just a little while ago, he hauled your half-dead carcass out of a shallow grave, where you were lying bloodied and face-down.
Welcome to the first moments of Fallout: New Vegas, the follow-up to 2008’s sublime post-apocalyptic masterpiece Fallout 3. After going from a happy birth at the onset of the last game to the near-death beginning of New Vegas, you can see straightaway — you aren’t in the Capital Wasteland anymore.
What Mutates in Vegas, Stays in Vegas
So other than New Vegas starting with your near-death instead of your birth, what’s different out west? At first, not a whole lot. Rolling a character in New Vegas is virtually — and intentionally — identical to how it went in the Capital Wasteland; it just has a different coat of paint on it. “Your options here are pretty much the same as those in Fallout 3,” explains project director Josh Sawyer.
After Doc Mitchell drags your lead-filled face in from the desert (and away from the hungry giant geckos ready to digest you without a second thought), he patches you up and asks you your name. Make your choice, and he’ll hand you the Reflectron™, a mirror-like device, and then kindly ask you to let him know if he “left anything out of place.” In gameplay-speak, it’s your chance to customize your appearance and — since you’re not a 19-year-old Vault dweller anymore — your age, too.
Next, you use a barroom game machine dubbed the Vit-O-Matic vigor-tester to allocate your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. character points, while a hilarious word-association and Rorschach test administered by the Doc substitutes for Fallout 3’s G.O.A.T. The latter lets you dole out your skill specialties, with a great LOL moment when the Doc asks you to choose the first thing that comes to mind when he says “mother,” and one of your options is “human shield.” In our demo, Obsidian producer Larry Liberty selected Barter, Explosives, and Guns as his skill specialties. Remember this for later…
After Doc quickly has you walk around the room to orient yourself with the game’s first-person controls (a third-person option will again be available), you’re handed a Vault 21 jumpsuit to replace your hospital gown, along with the Doc’s old Pip-Boy 3000. Medically cleared, you’re free to go anywhere you want in New Vegas to try to figure out what the hell happened to you, who shot you in the face, and why they wanted you dead. Y’know, the important stuff.
It's a Nice Place to Visit, But...
Yes, that open-world freedom is yours once more — it was Bethesda’s definitive stamp that made this epic roleplaying series what it is today — but you should really ask yourself if it’s such a good idea to venture out into the Wild West. Especially as a lower-level character.
The local Super Mutants, we soon learned, are not to be trifled with if you don’t have the muscle to back up an attack. These ruthless roamers should keep you from wandering too aimlessly in early portions of New Vegas; they’re worse than Deathclaws any day.
And why wander off so quickly when Goodsprings is so pretty? Its picturesque purple-skied sunsets almost made us forget about the whole apocalypse thing, while its quaint ghosttown setting hosts plenty of interesting creatures to keep your wanderlust sated. Creatures like the fenced-in herd of mutated sheep — dubbed Big Horners for their honkin’ horns — smack of Fallout 3’s irradiated bovines, the Brahmin, giving returning gamers a fuzzy feeling of nostalgia.
Goodsprings’ people are just as pleasant. The Prospector Saloon — cheekily located next to Chet’s general store (booze it up, then head one door down for your hangover cure!) — is home to the affable Sunny Smiles and her dog, Cheyenne. The grizzled, middle-aged Easy Pete, meanwhile, sits quietly on the general-store porch with a grin that hints at the many stories he has up his sleeves. But introductory chats with any of the folks around town reveal something’s amiss — a conflict’s brewing, and it’s one you’ll quickly find yourself sucked into.
Kill 'Em All?
After chatting up the locals, you trigger the “Ghost Town Firefight” quest. And with a name like that, guess what you’ll be doing? It seems the Powder Gangers — a band of outlaws who’ve stolen the town’s powder kegs — are set to attack Goodsprings and loot it, and now you’re tasked with recruiting as many of the townsfolk as possible to defend it. Or you could partner up with the Powder Gangers instead and burn the whole damn place to the ground. Your call.
And it’s here that New Vegas slowly distinguishes itself from Fallout 3. After deciding whether to speak with Ringo to help the townsfolk or to the Powder Gangers’ Joe Cobb if you want to plunder Goodsprings (Obsidian took Ringo’s good-guy route for our demo), you’ll have to hustle — in our case, to convince the townies to help you in the imminent fight. Sunny and canine companion Cheyenne don’t need much convincing. Follow her to the Mojave Wasteland to kill a few giant mutated geckos, and she’s easily swayed. Better yet, you’ll get to test one of New Vegas’ unique weapons, the Varmint Rifle; this low-power .22 does significant damage to limbs and has a high critical-hit bonus.
Persuading the aging, apathetic Easy Pete to lend a hand is a bit trickier. Everyone knows he’s got a stash of dynamite, and it would really come in handy in the upcoming fight. He doesn’t seem to want to cough up the boomsticks, though. Remember when Obsidian chose Explosives as one of our character’s primary skills back in Doc Mitchell’s office? Here’s where we get to see it in action. Selecting the dialogue option with [Explosives] in front of it quickly changes Pete’s finicky tune, and he happily hands over his stash of dynamite.
“Using skills in conversations is an emphasis for us,” says Sawyer. The idea in role-playing terms, he clarifies, is that if you’re talking to someone about explosives and that happens to be one of your strongest skills, you’re going to know a lot about them. Apparently, having an emphasis in certain topics means that if they come up in conversation, you’ll have a higher chance of influencing fussy characters. Sounds logical to us!
We got to flaunt our expertise again a few moments later. Moseying on over to the general store, we kindly asked selfish ol’ Chet to donate some supplies to our defending-the-town cause. At first, he wasn’t in a real giving mood, but with a simple [Barter]-tagged sentence — again, one of our low-level avatar’s strongest attributes — we changed his mind, earning us, among other goodies, a 9-iron (more on this shortly) and some weapon mods.
As in most RPGs, you won’t always succeed when you’re trying to sweet-talk characters, but Obsidian is building the game so you’ll always have the chance to do so. They’re also making sure you can apply every single skill — including speech, sneak, barter, and explosives — in conversations. It’s an engaging level of non-combative RPG gameplay that Fallout 3 lacked.
As the Powder Gangers enter Goodsprings’ borders, they’ve got one thing on their minds: wiping the town off the map. Flanked by the citizens you’ve recruited, however, you’re ready to fight for the town’s survival. As the battle ensues, another of New Vegas’ fresh features rears its head: the Companion Wheel. Remember how unwieldy it was to try to manage A.I. cohorts in Fallout 3? Heck, we got so sick of canine sidekick Dogmeat being unreasonable that we sent him back to Vault 101 for our own sanity, let alone safety.
But banishing buddies to your base shouldn’t even occur to you in New Vegas, thanks to the Companion Wheel. From this easy-to-navigate menu you can talk to your pals and direct them to be aggressive or passive, heal themselves, and more. Obsidian ordered our Goodsprings amigos to go on the offensive, while our hero whipped out the 9-iron he was given earlier.
Naturally, Fallout 3’s never-got-old V.A.T.S. pinpoint-targeting system returns, allowing you to pause the game and aim at specific limbs and regions of your opponent’s fleshy husk. Not that exact targeting matters much when you’re bludgeoning someone with a golf club at point-blank range. In fact, New Vegas is much more friendly to those who wish to pursue melee-focused characters, as each melee weapon will have a special move that costs more Action Points (AP) to use but yields specific bonuses — higher damage or, in this case, knocking the target to the ground. You unlock these melee-specific feats by having a high skill in that department.
After taking out the attacking Powder Gangers — including blowing up a few at a time with a well-chucked bundle of dynamite — you’ll earn good karma that contributes to your path in the game. On top of karma, you’ll also nab something New Vegas calls “reputation” — either good or bad — that acts as kind of a local karma. For instance, if you’re a complete jackhole in one town, your rep turns southward and the people there might attack you. Conversely, in the case of Goodsprings, if you helped save the town, your reputation will go up, which gives you bonuses like having a free bed to sleep in at your convenience and/or a discount at the store.
As our time at Obsidian comes to a close, the team warps us ahead to the heavily irradiated Black Mountain area. A radio station at the top of the mountain has fallen under the control of “Tabitha” — a “woman” who tyrannically rules over all of the mountain’s Super Mutant inhabitants and has decreed that all humans be shot on sight.
After being greeted by a surprisingly Tabitha-hating Super Mutant, Neil, we deftly used our Speech skill to convince him to help us storm the mountain and get rid of her. As we snuck to the top, we dodged falling rocks and killed elite, mutated, Stealth Boy–addicted commandos called Nightkins. We also nabbed the grenade machinegun, an amazing firearm that does exactly what you’d think it does.
Sneaking into the radio-broadcast studio through the roof, we again wielded our savvy conversation skills, this time to convince the Nightkin to attack the Super Mutants instead of us. Persuading Raul the Ghoul to come along with us (another chance to test out the handy Companion Wheel), we finally reached Tabitha. She was none-too-pleased about us trying to (A) kill her, and (B) whisk away the object of her affection, Raul. If the long-haired wig and red women’s eyeglasses didn’t tip you off before, you learn here that Tabitha is neither human nor female: “she” is actually a male Super Mutant gone completely insane. “No, I won’t let you have my Raul!” he shrieks. Eliminating Tabitha gave us some serious practice time with our grenade machinegun — and plenty of belly laughs.
No Gambling Here
With New Vegas giving gamers a whole new piece of the post-apocalyptic world to explore, we had to ask: Why isn’t it called Fallout 4? “[The formula]’s not a radical departure,” Sawyer tells us. “It’s akin to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City compared to Grand Theft Auto III.”
Fair enough, but if New Vegas is half as engaging as what we’ve seen in just a scant couple of hours — and if it’s as good as Obsidian’s high-quality track record leads us to expect — then we’re all going to have a really difficult time thinking of it as anything less than an absolutely worthy, full-blown sequel to the epic delights of Fallout 3.