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SummaryThe Fallout 3 that should have been
The GoodThe main plot is great, and very well-written. Although there are certain questionable elements that may raise eyebrows (Caesar's Legion in particular), they are arguably acceptable, even if not strictly preferred over other potential decisions.
While it can be easy to criticize OE's daring, fantastical take on the wasteland's new antagonist, props have to be given for the choices and consequences within the game. (Almost) every action you make has a consequence, and it's not just limited to the community itself. People will respond to you based on your reputation and your past deeds, and your actions will have thorough reverberations in the course of your journey. FONV doesn't just follow the footsteps of its predecessors (1 and 2), it takes their legacy even further by giving you the freedom to almost do whatever the heck you want, and observe the aftereffects in multiple places.
This is further emphasized by the grey values held by the different factions and key characters in the game; even though by historical accounts, Caesar's Legion leans towards evil and the Followers of the Apocalypse towards good, in the context of the game itself, good and evil are controversial, and can only be judged based on which side you choose to side with. Without giving anything away, (almost) everybody has his/her own agenda, and you will be hard pressed to side with one faction without feeling a bit guilty about doing away with another.
Obsidian recognizes the strength of choices & consequences in their baby of course, and they do not shy away from exploiting this. Conversations play a hugely important role now, although this can sometimes be problematic (see the "didn't like" section). Basically, it's a throwback to the first two Fallouts (admittedly I haven't played enough of Fallout 3 to offer a more detailed comparison between it and FONV, but what I'd seen of 3 didn't impress. I'll end the comparison here). The humour is spot on (if anyone recalls Keeng Rat! from Klamath, you will notice some mobs similar to that); sarcasm and wit are also present and not overboard, which is a very good thing given that Fallout's humour is subtle. You can lie, you can intimidate, you can persuade, and best of all, you can persuade, lie and then intimidate (if I'm not wrong, only for one particular NPC though). Too bad there isn't Karma Sutra anymore, although now there is Lady Killer (and Confirmed Bachelor), which doesn't really do much but provide a few more dialogue options with selected NPCs. Nevertheless, the choices from Lady Killer don't overstep their boundaries into disbelief.
Quests are also extremely varied. There are some interstitial sidequests that are a bit too long for their own good, but hey, you can always choose the violent way if the NPCs refuse to give way to you. It is unfortunate that some are a bit too lengthy for their own good, but I had fun with most of them while they lasted. Nevertheless, even quests that assign you trivial tasks, are consistently designed and, with the exception of a few, rarely feel out of place. I don't think there were any quests that made me think "why the hell should I care?" because often I got to ask for payment or some incentives - a neutral, mercenary dialogue option that is necessary to convince me (the player) that I don't run a charity organization for every NPC that approaches me with chores to do, and that XP/leveling up is only a metagaming pursuit that's not pertinent to the context of the game. Anyway I'm digressing - the variation of quests is laudable, and many are innovative, even if a bit short. Detective quests and even an interrogation session are but some of the many cool things you get to do in the game, and that you have multiple permutations of ways to accomplish them makes them even more satisfying to accomplish.
I should also bring up the companions. Each has his/her/its own back story, and even though I never found all of them in my first playthrough, those I found are interesting in their own rights. Boone's tragic tale may border on the /emoslashwrist personality, but it is very well-fleshed out. Likewise, Rex is a companion that just may have some surprises in store if you talk to him on occasion. Then of course there's Rose of Sharon Cassidy, whose last name should strike a familiar chord with Fallout 2 players.
Lastly, I want to talk about the areas you get to visit. If some of the quests are really well-written, then there is a good lot of dungeons/localities that are some of the most intriguing ever designed in a video game. Again, no spoilers here - Vault 11 and Vault 34 are two places you absolutely must visit on your trip to New Vegas, and of course, the broken grandeur of The Strip is something I really like. NPCs also have their own personalities, and talk with varying accents depending on where they're based.
The BadSome of the writing is just hideous, though only present in a few of the sidequests. Take note of Jules, Red Lucy, Vault 3 and the mercenaries at Jacobstown. It's sad because these conversations are unconvincing and remove the illusion of consistency in the game. Of course, I tend to be very picky about writing, and it was even harder not to be as I made a mental note to scrutinize even the minor details in the scripts while playing the game. I like MCA and Eric Fenstermaker's works, but I dislike Fallout 3 so I treaded more warily despite FONV being developed by Obsidian.
The inconsistent quality of writing is evident not just in dialogues, but in computer terminals too. Structural errors which are obviously unintentional are not uncommon, and it is a fair guess to say that these were written by the same people responsible for the poor dialogues. Regardless, if you're not so critical, you may overlook this problem more readily, but for those who like consistency in writing, it is noticeable.
There are also one too many fetch quests in the game. It's more of a nitpick here though, since I didn't set out to accomplish every fetch quest the moment I got them, opting instead to wait until I passed by the location before conveniently doing the task.
The game is also incredibly easy to play, if you don't stray from the intended path. There are locales where you may find yourself in more trouble than expected, but these are, by all accounts, infrequent. Save for the occasional deathclaw gangbang, or stumbling upon a cazadore nest too early, you will rarely find yourself breaking out into a sweat even on Very Hard + Hardcore.
Speaking of the latter, Hardcore is a cool concept, but in practice it is quite an inconvenience. It is nice to be able to play as a struggling survivor in a harsh, barren environment - except the environment is not really harsh and barren. Purified water can be commonly purchased cheaply at most merchants, but even then there's no practical point to it since you can just quick travel to several destinations that provide unlimited supplies of free, purified water and drink away. Food supplies are also quite common, and I never found myself having to deal with a shortage of food (by the end of the game, I was hoarding about 40lbs of "-150 hunger" food).
Ah and about the ending...without giving away spoilers, it's not as climatic as I'd hoped it to be. This is, of course, subjective, but when you're told of your upcoming participation in a grand battle, only to find yourself dealing with small sections of troops in regular intervals, it becomes less exciting than it should.
Lastly, I need to talk about the bugs and glitches too. It is really too bad that, despite certain quests being really well-designed, they never reach their full potential because of glitches and bugs. Missions can sometimes end abruptly even though you are tasked to wrap things up by talking to a key NPC; on another similar note, if some quests are not accomplished in their designated order, their dialogue scripts will turn out to be confusing since they aren't prepared to deal with unorthodox choices. These do not break the game, but they really hurt the sense of immersion that it provides.
-edit- Forgot to mention the graphics. It's still ugly as sin. Facial textures can sometimes appear washed out, and most characters (especially females) still look like they've undergone Botox surgery. The landscape looks suitably bleak and expansive, and at night you get to see the glow of the Strip standing out like the last surviving member of the wastes, which is a nice aesthetic touch; however, textures still look flat up close, especially at night when there appears to be forced ambient lighting. To say it looks like a 2002 game 60% of the time is not an exaggeration.
The Bottom LineWell that's a lot to take in, isn't it? Once you can get over the fact that it's real time first person, it's easy to accept this as the true successor to Fallout 2. Ok give and take some, I really, really loathe some of the dialogue options, and the glitches really take away a large chunk of the experience. But all things considered, Obsidian has nailed the feel of Fallout. Great humour, great level designs, very good dialogue, and very compelling (sub/)plots that will keep you awake for hours on end are what make New Vegas such a joy to play.
It's not about getting phat lewt. It's about experiencing the sum of its parts. And that, IMO, is also what defines Fallout.
(btw: a lot of content from Van Buren aka Black Isle's Fallout 3 has made its way to New Vegas. Things like POSEIDON and Nellis Air Base were, if I'm not wrong, originally planned for Fallout 3. That should make a lot of fans happy, to see this content resurrected)