"Fallout: New Vegas" is something of a gamble

Your dog makes a "mess" in the house, so you scold it, toss it outside, wonder aloud why you ever got a dog. But later, of course, you let it back in. It stares at you sadly, maybe whines a little, pleading for forgiveness. You can't resist those puppy-dog eyes, so you forgive the pup, give it a scratch behind the ears, a belly rub, let it sleep curled at the foot of the bed.

"Fallout: New Vegas" is kind of like that.

An incredibly bug-ridden game, it'll freeze, crash or flake out in incredibly inconvenient ways, and you'll often find yourself throwing down the controller, turning off the TV and walking away. But at some point later, you'll remember how much fun you were having; you'll wonder what happens next in that quest you were on; and maybe, if you're like me, you'll want to test an idea for getting around whatever damned bug ruined things the last time.

So you'll go back to your couch, turn on your TV, pick the controller back up and get back in the game.

And if that sounds a lot like the experience you had in "Fallout 3," it's no wonder. Although "New Vegas" is technically a sequel, practically nothing has been done to update it. The graphics, the interfaces, the combat, it's all the same as before.

Really, other than the entirely superficial and completely optional new "hardcore" mode, which requires you to keep your character fed, hydrated and rested — and is as easy said as done — there are barely any differences outside of setting and storyline.

It's just fortunate for the developers that their storytelling is so darn compelling.

"New Vegas" begins with what should have been your end: A courier for the Mojave Express delivery service, you've been robbed, shot in the head and buried in the Goodsprings town cemetery. Fortunately for you, a kind Samaritan witnessed what was happening, pulled you out your grave and left you at the doctor's office. Where things go from there is entirely up to you.

The main story, obviously, hinges on you tracking down your would-be killers, but you don't have to if you don't want to. You can freely wander the desert wasteland, helping others or just helping yourself; punishing the guilty or victimizing the innocent; making lots of friends or an army of enemies. And just because you decided to be a nice guy one day doesn't mean you can't be a complete jerk the next.

After all, this is a game that lets you "reverse pickpocket" people, by which I mean you can sneak up on anyone and plant live explosives in their pockets, then scurry away to watch the carnage unfold.

Personally, I played as a paragon of virtue most of the way through. I helped the downtrodden, punished the wicked and supported the well-meaning but slightly corrupt New California Republic, which was trying to bring law and order to the region. But at the end, I was tired of their rhetoric and general ineptitude, so I decided the only person fit to guide the territory to a better tomorrow was me. They didn't like that one bit.  

The game can be played as both a first-person and third-person shooter, with a simple button tap switching between the two viewpoints. However, the aiming system isn't quite as accurate as most games in these genres, so it's not only possible, it's quite probable, that you'll be shooting at someone from point-blank range and missing. This is why you also have V.A.T.S., the Vault-assisted targeting system, where you can pause time and target specific points of your target's anatomy, with displayed percentages informing you as to how likely it is that your shot won't miss.

But I don't mean to make it sound like you're entirely reliant on guns. You can use your fists if you want, or knives, clubs, chainsaws, lasers, pistols, rifles, shotguns, grenades, missile launchers, even mini nukes.

All that sounds pretty good, right? So let's start talking about what's wrong.

For one thing, the visuals are bland and dated, with too much brown and gray dominating the color palette. And art assets are reused so much that you'd think every object in the world was the subject of cloning. Every pot looks the same. So does every oven, every refrigerator, bathroom sink and toilet, box, footlocker, first-aid kit, you name it, except for a few "damaged" objects, but even those are cloned.

(From a developer's standpoint, I understand the reason for keeping things this simple. Because every choice a player makes has repercussions, and all character deaths are permanent, a lot of the game's resources must be devoted to maintaining the world's continuity. Yet just because there's a good reason for something doesn't mean I have to accept it. Frustratingly irrational perhaps, but all too true.)

The bugs in "New Vegas" range from the harmless and amusing to the game-breaking. In the amusing class, if you pick up an object from a table, shelf, etc., every other object on that table will suddenly start to levitate. The game-breaking includes my old favorite of getting stuck in place. If it happens indoors, you're really out of luck, because you can't try to "quick travel" to break yourself free. If outdoors, you might be able to do that, unless the game thinks you were falling, because that disables "quick travel" too. The only remedy is to reload a saved game.

For me, however, the absolute worst bug had to do with a companion who joined me on my journey. If I helped Veronica, a woman warrior voiced by adorable actress Felicia Day ("The Guild," "Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog"), reach the conclusion of her own personal mission, she'd freeze in place, rendering her pretty much useless for the rest of the game. I pretty much gave up on the idea of finishing her quest, because I'd rather have her at my side than get a few experience points. However, after a bit of experimenting -- and a lot of reloading a saved game -- I figured out the freezing bug wouldn't trip if I dismissed our other companion before initiating the quest. Problem solved, but still, there shouldn't have been one in the first place.

The game also crashes entirely too often, especially when you're transitioning from one area to another, such as entering or exiting a building.

Well, I think you get the idea. That's "Fallout: New Vegas" for you, equal parts frustration and fascination.

"Fallout: New Vegas"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks.
Price: $59.99 consoles; $49.99 PC.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: If you can cope with the bugs and aren't a graphics snob, buy it; the self-initiated story is really good. As for renting, the game is too long and too involved for that to be advisable.

Images courtesy of Bethesda Softworks
Top: The lights are on in New Vegas, and the streets are patrolled by unforgiving robots.
Above: If you're armed with a golf club and target an enemy using V.A.T.S., don't forget to yell "fore!" as you club them in the head.

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