Frankly, Fallout: New Vegas was kind of a mess, a sprawling RPG held together by duct tape and Wonderglue. You’re walking along and BAM! A burned-out car randomly springs you 35m in the air. Or, mid-conversation, someone’s head rotates 360º. There’s even the recent revelation uncovered by hobbyist coders that, because its predecessor lacked functioning vehicles, Fallout 3’s Presidential Metro Train section involved slyly affixing a giant piece of carriage-shaped armour to the player and fooling them into thinking they were riding it.
This, it happens, is the necessary price of near limitless freedom, because while other open-world games of the time such as Batman: Arkham Asylum, Just Cause 2 and Assassin’s Creed Revelations were arguably more polished experiences, none matched New Vegas’ dizzying scope. Every item is a physical entity you can pick up and put down, every person is someone you can talk to, steal from or kill. Fortunately, any technical inconsistencies simply add another strain of unintentional humour to a game already bursting with it.
That’s the series’ legacy – a post-apocalyptic apple-pie America made markedly less bleak by talking trees and pneumatic fists – and New Vegas takes the concept to miles of Mojave Wasteland full of extraordinary sights and sounds. Quests are a series high, both in terms of player choice and sheer off-colour comedy. Examples include Elvis impersonators The Kings asking you to find a replacement brain for their cyberdog, gathering a group of escorts (cowboy ghoul, sex bot) for a wealthy client with unusual tastes, recruiting entertainers for the Tops casino, whipping a gang of unruly NCR soldiers into shape, stealing eggs from Mojave wildlife (easier said than done with roaming irradiated scorpions and fire geckos), and either preparing or sabotaging a rocket launch.
All quests have multiple solutions. Beyond the Beef, for instance, sees you preventing the son of a rancher becoming the main course of a cannibalistic society’s banquet. You can steal the recipe for an imitation-flesh pie, drug the wine to render everyone unconscious, break out the son and lead another human sacrifice into the freezer, or frame the father by collecting blood samples from his son and planting them in his room.
Missions such as this effectively demonstrate the network of systems working furiously under New Vegas’ surface. Karma determines how others react to you, whether with warmth, furrowed brows or all-out violence, based on previous actions. Factions record your prior interactions with them, and will reward or punish you (kill members of Caesar’s Legion and he’ll greet you with hostility). Dialogue also varies according to what choices you’ve made, what you’re wearing and who your companion is. Show up to The Kings’ School of Impersonation with Cass and members might say, “Hellooo, cowgirl! You mind if I talk to your lady friend instead of you?”
And that’s without getting into the 13 character skills. You can talk your way out of most anything, or barter for an important item instead of battling over it. With a high enough Sneak ability you can find a peaceful solution, and with advanced Lockpick or Science talents you’re able to uncover alternate paths. New Vegas is like a school test where every single question is multiple choice, but also you get to shoot mini nukes at people.
Today, the Wasteland feels a little mechanical, what with robotic animations coupled with an outdated conversation system that freezes time suddenly as your silent protagonist strikes up a chat. Famously, you can punch a sleeping person, have him calmly sit upright, then proceed to chase you out of the house. It’s almost as if someone digging into the sand of Bethesda’s Mojave would eventually hit the rusty cogs keeping it turning.
But stilted as it is today, New Vegas should be lauded for its ambition – a quality Fallout 4 looks to surpass. There’s something oddly fitting about walking into the unpredictable, sometimes inadvertently irregular desert as your Pip-Boy’s antenna picks up Bing Crosby’s crackly crooning, “Something’s gotta give.” For better or worse, some things did.