(Contribution to noaddedsugar.ie)
War… war never changes. Games, however, do. The progression between games from the developments in graphical technology to the exploration of new game types and mechanics is a tricky thing to measure, growing organically as each new game release appears, between both indie titles and benchmark blockbusters.
These changes in gaming are seen most clearly between sequels as comparison is easier and natural to draw between two games in the same franchise; this is something that came to the fore of my mind while playing the opening of Fallout: New Vegas. Don your best faux cowboy voice as we delve into the Mojave Wasteland…
More than an expansion pack but not quite a whole new game, New Vegas is a curious extension of Fallout 3 and indeed some people have been reticent about parting with their hard earned bottle caps to play it. Well, my first impression is as follows: break the piggy bank. New Vegas is a whole new beast and has plenty to offer to both Fallout veterans and those curious about the series.
The first marker of a good sequel is response to feedback. Good developers consider what people liked or didn’t like about their previous attempts and build on it; play a few minutes of New Vegas and you will see this in action. As the camera pans over the Mojave Wasteland (as opposed to Capital Wasteland from Fallout 3- getting all regional on us) we’re smoothly introduced to the hero of this instalment. Not the only thing to link this game to Fallout 2, this title departs from the vault dweller protagonist and gives us a wastelander to play with; a luckless courier left for dead after being shot by a mysterious gangster.
After being patched up by the kindly Doc Mitchell, you get to go through a familiar system of picking your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes and a little psych profile to determine what skills suit you. Here we see the arrival of a new skill called ‘Survival’ (Fallout 2 reference number 2, more on that later) and get to pick two Traits. Traits harken back to the original Fallouts and operate like Perks, but they give something both good and bad- for example, I took the Small Frame Trait which makes one more agile but prone to breaking limbs. Our brave courier finds that he was in the middle of delivering a mysterious oversized poker chip and thus the plot thickens to a nice gravy-like consistency, before allowing the player to run around the initial town of Goodsprings first if they so choose. My first impressions are limited to this town but it certainly does give a nice sample of the new game mechanics introduced in New Vegas.
Residents of the town will give information about the Mojave Wasteland and New Vegas, which is run by the wonderfully named Mr House, who presumably always wins, and fought over by the New California Republic (Fallout 2 reference number 3) and Caesar’s Legion. No doubt their struggle will be a centrepiece later in the game. Until then we get to run around Goodsprings helping out the residents and now we get to grips with some of the changes. One of the first encountered is the introduction of special ammo types and gun modifications. I feel that these may be an unnecessary complication but will be very welcome to those who like to find every edge in combat. The weapon mods at least encourage players to keep one prized weapon and work on it until it becomes a thing of beauty with bolt-on silencers, scopes and the like.
It seems natural and inevitable to describe New Vegas in these terms; the terms of comparison to Fallout 3. The new robots have that usual Fallout 50’s imitation splendour, almost camp sci-fi creations with bendy tubes for arms, though these new models have a very strong Borderlands vibe to them and foreseeably could be very annoying. The return of Geckos was something I had been keenly anticipating and they are introduced very soon, in a tutorial mission. Like their Fallout 2 counterparts (reference 4…) the Geckos look somewhat like odd rubbery monsters and at first can appear a bit silly with flapping arms and wide open mouths, but I realised that they actually move and act a lot like real world lizards and it quickly goes from silly to scary. Almost.
Geckos of course are just one of a set of new monsters to hunt and players will immediately recognise their scheme in things, such as overgrown Mantis that replace the old cockroaches. They come at you fast and are admittedly more interesting to fight. Bark Scorpions put a new spin on Radscorpions and coyotes are the natural choice for new desert dogs; minor changes but all part of the new scenery which has gone into giving New Vegas a distinct flavour. Plus, now we have birds!
Part of the tutorial, aside from killing Geckos and wondering why one of the side effects of nuclear war appears to be speaking like a cowboy, is getting ingredients from around the town to make healing powder at a campfire. A variety of items can be made such as drugs, medicines and food, provided the character has adequate Survival skill (the new skill coming immediately into play here) and the right ingredients scavenged from the wasteland or taken from dead foes. This system feels like one that will get tired quickly, not unlike the workbenches in Knights of the Old Republic which became irrelevant once the player had plenty of items, but it does give the player a strong interactive dynamic with the environment and adds towards something which I feel is very key to New Vegas; it makes the Mojave Wasteland itself a character in the game, as much as the NPCs who populate it. I can’t stress this enough- thanks to new mechanics like this and the myriad additions of new things, the Mojave Wasteland itself is presented as one enormous new character to enjoy. This is vital to giving this unusual not-expansion but not-new-game release an injection of substance and the ability to stand apart.
Loading screens, colour schemes, weapons and clothes all have a same-but-different vibe that makes New Vegas just new enough to be refreshing. Naturally there are new Perks too: for example Lady Killer from Fallout 3 is joined by Confirmed Bachelor which adds dialogue options and bonus damage when dealing with men. Rapid Reload does what it says on the tin.
Early conversations and quests, such as helping a man called Ringo (Help, I need somebody…) fend off a marauding gang suggest a well-developed reputation dynamic. This is very welcome as the reputation system in Fallout 3 was sometimes disjointed or lacking completely. After bailing out Ringo, the player becomes liked by the town of Goodsprings and disliked by the Powder Gangers; a simple example but indicative of a more intelligent community system. This even goes as far as letting you use faction-related armour as a disguise, so it’s about more than just protection and looking badass. On the downside of course this means you have to think twice about donning what you take from your enemies, but this is another factor that adds to the realism and richness of the Mojave Wasteland.
Everything in the game from the dialogue, the equipment, the scenery and the new functions has a big Mojave stamp on it, adding to the character of New Vegas. This subtle effect made my first impressions of New Vegas shine; it justifies the development of this side-sequel and thankfully replaces the usual ‘ooh, new game’ vibe as something to draw the player in. If there was any danger of New Vegas just not being new enough to grab the attention of fans, I believe the danger has passed. The Geckos have sunk their teeth into me and I’m certain they will do the same for the next weary traveller.