I liked Fallout 3 a lot. It and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are two of my favorite games to revisit when I want to play a casual RPG. I realize that these games are flawed, especially when held against their predecessors, but I think they work well enough as new takes on their respective franchises.
In the wake of Fallout 3, something interesting happened. The franchise was temporarily handed back to a veteran of classic RPGs, Obsidian Entertainment, who then developed Fallout: New Vegas using Bethesda’s game as a framework. New Vegas became a cult hit, widely praised for expanding on Fallout 3 and turning it into a proper roleplaying game. I wasn’t sold on it at the time, but at the urging of my friends I decided to finally revisit it.
The game starts off and you are almost immediately shot in the face, robbed by a bunch of post-apocalyptic raiders led by a mysterious man in a checkered suit. You then wake up in a doctor’s office, where you are run through character creation and given your first clues for tracking down the people who tried to murder you.
We have moved quite a distance away from the setting of Fallout 3. As its title implies, New Vegas is set in the rough deserts of Nevada, which is currently being fought over by a state known as the New California Republic (NCR) and The Legion, an army of Roman-inspired slavers led by a man who calls himself Caesar.
New Vegas is quick to show off how it wants to expand on the Fallout 3 experience. The tutorial that follows character creation gets you involved in the defense of a town, which comes with many optional objectives and extra things you can do. You can convince various characters to help out by meeting skill checks in different stats, and there are unlisted bonus tasks you can do if you explore around and talk with people. It’s an impressive intro to the game and it set my expectations quite high.
The writing and quest design are undeniably a step up from Fallout 3. Bethesda’s RPGs tend to have good concepts for quests, but simplistic objectives that don’t permit too much freedom. The choices you do get to make are usually binary outcomes, like picking between whether to help the residents of Megaton or blow up their town. In New Vegas, quests are less linear in their progression. When medical supplies go missing in a camp you could do a stake-out to catch the culprit, but you can also ask around for potential clues or perform a medical analysis of the soldiers if you have the skills for it.
Quests often have multiple layers and options like this, which also lead to very different outcomes. You get entirely different adventures depending on what kind of character you play and that makes actual roleplaying feel super worthwhile. I was especially fond of the dialogue options for skills you aren’t good in. You can say stupid shit and fail on purpose, just because it’s funny.
This level of freedom is much appreciated, but it also takes a toll on Fallout: New Vegas. Few will be able to make it through the game without experiencing major bugs that break entire quests and can have long-term ramifications. Here are some examples from just my one, single playthrough:
- Could not use a hatch leading to an NPC that I had to talk to, rendering an optional objective impossible.
- A quest didn’t trigger its completion status, denying me the reward and making a follow-up quest impossible to start.
- Critical NPCs in two separate quests permanently froze up, making it impossible to continue.
- My character magically knew plot details she never learned because I had neglected to speak with relevant characters.
- Every NPC in a faction base instantly turned hostile on me for no apparent reason, locking off quests there permanently.
- Due to complicated factors, I ended up in mandatory conversations for the game’s main quest where I literally didn’t have any option but to lie using a speech check to escape dialogue.
Even outside of such bugs that could be circumvented with some online troubleshooting and cautious use of save files, the story let me down a number of times. A lot of plot twists come with overlong exposition sequences, like in the DLC Honest Hearts where you are chastised for not asking about every plot detail, only for the game to then force you into a slide-show cutscene where the plot is explained again in full anyway. Several major quests also fell flat due to mediocre presentation, such as one where have to protect the president while he holds a speech for like 3 copy & pasted NPCs.
This becomes almost hilarious (in a pathetic way) when it comes to faction leaders. Any mid-level character can easily just storm into Caesar’s camp or Mr. House’s casino and wipe them out with little effort. It’s hard to feel invested in the stakes of the plot when its problems can be so easily wiped away. Even if you do, the game just carries on and only weakly references your achievements.
Or how about just having some plain awful writing? There is one quest where the only female member of an elite squad of soldiers is traumatized after being raped, and her commanding officer just recruits you, a total stranger, to help her. He just randomly brings up that she was raped in conversation with a random passer-by. This quest is also insultingly simplistic and can be completed in under a minute by just making one skill check. Congratulation player, you cured rape.
My biggest disappointment, however, stems from the game’s faction system. You are encouraged to seek out factions and foster relations with them, so of course I allied myself with The Brotherhood to get that sick power armor. Then the main plot for the NCR happens and you get a mandatory quest to wipe them out. You can’t lie or persuade, you can’t make any kind of meaningful choice, you just have to do it. I mean, you could “take” the Brotherhood’s side and turn against the NCR, but they don’t have an ending attached to them. And with every other faction leader dead… well, it was either treason or quitting the game, and the latter was beginning to feel very tempting at that point.
Not helping at all is that Fallout: New Vegas is still stuck running on the same mediocre engine & framework that Fallout 3 used. The FPS gameplay is barebones and frustrated by enemies that aggressively rush towards you while you fumble with unwieldy, inaccurate guns. VATS is meant to help in this regard, but it frequently glitches out, leaving you with minutes of cinematic slowdown in which nothing happens. This frequently ended up killing me as enemies went unaffected by the bullet time and just murdered me while I had no control over my character whatsoever, and often couldn’t even see what was happening.
The game’s stability is also shaky at the best of times. Aside from the bugs listed above that broke quests, I also had to deal with the game freezing up at random moments or crashing entirely. Combined with the infrequent autosaves, this could cause serious loss of progress while exploring the wide open areas.
Exploration was another issue entirely. New Vegas attempts to shoot for realism, so areas are sized and populated realistically. The game goes through great lengths to make sure that you can always learn how people live, where they get their food, and how the placement of their settlements affects the culture that develops there. It’s an amazing effort, but it’s sparsely implemented. While in Fallout 3 you could find interesting locales just about anywhere you went, much of Nevada is populated by empty shacks, deserted camps, and abandoned villages. There is rarely anything of note to find and usually nobody to talk with, which gave me little reason to keep bothering.
When you do find populated areas, the size also becomes something of a nuisance. Places like Camp McCarran and Nellis are so obnoxiously large that finding out which NPCs have quests to offer becomes a chore every time. Lots of named NPCs don’t have anything useful to tell you and the generic guards are more concerned with repeating the same lines of dialogue to each other (or the walls) than they are with pointing you in the right direction. Hell, sometimes you get to a populated area and find out that there literally aren’t any quests or meaningful content to pick up there at all. Thanks game.
This has turned into a bit of rant, but I felt really letdown by the game. It started off super strong and hooked me in with its open-ended quests and the great areas you visit early on, only to become a boring slog for the mid and end portion of the game. Disappointments just kept piling up and the weak core gameplay loop wasn’t enough to keep me entertained when I could just play better shooters instead.
I am happy for long-time Fallout fans that they got a modern take on the series that does right by the PC gaming classic, and I did have fun with the game when quests worked well. But whenever the game bugged out, quests failed to work properly, or I was locked out of the freedom that is usually so readily available, it was truly hard to motivate myself to carry on.