Monday, August 20, 2012

Xbox 360 review: Fallout: New Vegas

Following the success of Bethesda's revival of the post-apocalyptic franchise in the form of Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas carries on much of the legacy, adding in a few new gameplay features as well as a somewhat different approach to the layout of the world. This time around, the story follows a courier who has been tasked with delivering a platinum poker chip to one of the Mojave's VIPs. Unfortunately, the Courier has a run-in with a rather unfriendly New Vegas thug named Benny, who shoots and buries him in a small town graveyard. Miraculously, the Courier survives and - following a series of optional tutorial tasks in the town of Goodsprings - sets out to unravel the mysteries surrounding Benny and the Platinum Chip.

It becomes quite apparent early on that the Platinum Chip is of great value to a number of the major factions of the Mojave. Despite its appearance, the Platinum Chip is embedded with hardware that allows it to interact with certain computers, and it has the potential to turn the tide of the long-running struggle between the New California Republic and Caesar's Legion over control of the Mojave. The element of making decisions that influence your karma is still present in New Vegas, though it is not as important a factor as in Fallout 3. Instead, making alliances and enemies is key. Aiding certain factions will open up some quests while barring access to others, and it is impossible to be on everyone's good side at any given time. You will have to think carefully about which paths you wish to take, though this presents a huge element of freedom, as no two playthroughs will be quite the same.

In fact, the freedom to do whatever you want is what makes New Vegas so much more accessible than its predecessor. Whereas Fallout 3 started you off in a vault and then sent you on a path through the Capital Wasteland - an area largely designed around ruined buildings, empty streets, and narrow subway tunnels - Fallout: New Vegas allows you to have your run of the desert, every one of its vast open expanses ready to be explored. Granted, there are some areas home to wildlife and enemies that require some leveling up before you can hold your own against them. But the sidequests feel less like a required means of boosting EXP in order to progress further in the main game, and more like the developers put thoughtful care behind nearly each and every one.

Because New Vegas still has electricity and clean water, it is much easier to find fresh food. This in turn decreases the likelihood that the Courier will receive radiation poisoning. The variety of enemies also differs from those in Fallout 3. Instead of facing down the hulking super mutants time and time again, the Courier will have more frequent run-ins with the mutated wildlife of Nightstalkers and Cazadors, as well as groups of Fiends, Powder Gangers, and whatever factions you choose to align yourself against. Leveling up progresses in the same manner, and a number of perks - including bloody mess, better critical hits, and earning experience points at a slightly faster rate - are retained. Some perks will be earned over time based on repeated behavior, such as a higher damage against specific enemies after you have killed enough of them.

Unlike Fallout 3, New Vegas does not opt for major focus on one single story. True, the game follows the Courier from start to finish, but it takes on a multi-layered approach, shaping the different factions and exploring their investment in the treasures of the Mojave. The more time you spend getting to know these groups, the more rewarding the experience will be. That said, the original plot point concerning Benny builds up for the better portion of the first half of the game, but never reaches the boiling point one might hope for. Each ending to his story ends up feeling lackluster in comparison to the choices made regarding the NCR, Caesar's Legion, or Mr. House.

The atmosphere is top-notch, and the team behind New Vegas really captured the essence of the American west and found a way to perfectly balance it with a retro future setting. Beyond the Elvis impersonators, strippers, and casino thugs that line the streets of New Vegas, there are plenty cowboy-themed characters, farmsteads, campgrounds, and mines scattered across the Mojave to keep the exploration side of things interesting. While you visit them, you can tune your Pip-Boy to a few radio stations that play the music of Dean Martin, Kay Kyser, Marty Robbins, Guy Mitchell, and more.

The voice actors put forth quite a performance, too. Matthew Perry does well in his portrayal of Benny, but the companion characters are the ones who often steal the spotlight. Lily is a Super Mutant who was once an old lady, and thus expresses many grandmotherly tendencies. Danny Trejo voices Raul, a ghoul who is handy at repairing your equipment, but could often care less to jump feet first into a tense situation. Felicia Day lends her voice to Veronica, a young member of the Brotherhood of Steel who provides you with a plethora of information (and opinions) regarding the various factions in the Mojave. Even Rex, the cybernetic dog who does little more than bark, adds a little personality to your company.

Fallout: New Vegas is not the prettiest game current-gen consoles have to offer. Some textures will take a moment or two to pop, and though character models move fluidly, their facial expressions are limited. But with everything else that New Vegas does well, it's easy to look past the visual shortcomings. There's a whole lot to explore in the Mojave, and no matter how you choose to approach it, know that you will have blast doing so.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

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