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Spoiler Alert: If you would rather be surprised by the new content and story of Fallout: New Vegas, you should probably not read this. We’ve tried to avoid dropping any major spoilers, but in a game this detailed, it’s hard to completely avoid them. Read on at your own risk.

When Bethesda Softworks announced a few years ago that they were working on a reboot of the Fallout franchise, Fallout 3, the response from many fans was mixed. One the one hand, more Fallout was probably going to be awesome. On the other, there was another Fallout 3 long-time fans of the franchise were looking forward to, but that would never come: Black Isle Studios’ Fallout 3, the direct sequel to Fallout 2.

Black Isle shut down while their Fallout 3, dubbed “Van Buren,” was still a work in progress, and details of that version of the game have leaked over the years, leading to lots of hand-wringing by Fallout purists. It was going to be turn-based. It was going to have a lot of what made the first games so wonderful. And yet, we will never get to play that game.

Instead, we have Bethesda’s Fallout 3, which, while lovingly faithful to the world of Fallout, has gone in a number of directions that run counter to the originals. That’s not a criticism. Bethesda’s Fallout is amazing, and the sales numbers support that. And yet playing the game is a vastly different experience than playing the original titles. It’s first-person instead of isometric, for one thing, which is more of a nod to the evolution of game design and technology than anything. But there are many other minor differences that hardcore fans have come to loathe, and for which Bethesda is largely (and rightfully) unapologetic.

What, then, would be the most unexpected development in the history of Fallout games? What could Bethesda announce for its next Fallout title that would both mystify casual observers and potentially satisfy the hardcore fans of the franchise? How about announcing that the next title in the series, Fallout: New Vegas, would be developed by Obsidian Entertainment, the studio created by veterans of Black Isle, and headed up by Feargus Urquhart, the team leader on Fallout 2?

The Escapist was present at Bethesda’s Gamer’s Day last month in Las Vegas, got an exclusive sneak preview of New Vegas, and a chance to sit down with Urquhart for a one-on-one interview. You can read the interview here. For all the latest news about New Vegas, read on.

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What Happens in New Vegas

What sets New Vegas apart from Fallout 3, aside from numerous gameplay tweaks we’ll get to shortly, is its tone and setting. Fallout 3 was set in the Washington D.C. area, a part of the United States with a decidedly iconic and perhaps overly dreary tone. As a result, Fallout 3‘s tone was iconic and kind of dreary – a tone that fit the setting and the look of a devastated U.S. capital quite well.

New Vegas, however, is a different animal. After all, how can the destruction (and rebirth) of Las Vegas be anything but absurd? Las Vegas is the city of sin, where money is made and lost in staggering volume and where people from all over the world come to let loose. It’s also located in probably the strangest part of the country, at once part of the stoic desert culture of the Southwest and the kitschy, campy culture of the Great American Interstate society, which is home to monuments like Carhenge and The World’s Tallest Thermometer.

The Vegas-ness of New Vegas will hit you right from the start, says Project Lead, Josh Sawyer: “Fallout 3 started with us being born and raised in a vault. In New Vegas you begin by being shot in the head and dumped in the desert.”

The first few moments of New Vegas will introduce you to the doctor who found you dead in the desert, and put your brains back together to save your life. You will then answer a (very) short series of questions and play an arcade-like game to determine your character attributes. The entire process takes five minutes, after which, the Vegas wasteland spreads out before you and you can literally go anywhere and do anything.

Hardcore Mode

One of the new features in New Vegas about which Obsidian is most proud (and by which hardcore fans are most intrigued) is Hardcore Mode. Hardcore Mode does a number of things, not the least of which is that in it, ammunition has weight, forcing you to carefully consider how much ammo you carry and of what types.

“Hardcore Mode is something you can enable at the beginning of the game,” says Sawyer. “It’s mostly for players that are more hardcore that have played through all of Fallout 3 and want something that’s a little more challenging. Most noticeably, it changes how healing works. Healing happens over time. You cannot just rest to heal your broken limbs. You have to have a doctor’s bag or go see a doctor.”

Hardcore Mode can be enabled or disabled at any point in the game but there will, of course, be an achievement for playing the game the entire way through in Hardcore.

The change in the handling of ammo will have a great impact on how the game is played, particularly since New Vegas adds a vast number of new weapons and weapon types to the already impressive Fallout 3 arsenal.

Guns, Guns, Guns

Here’s a short list of just the weapons Obsidian showed off in the one-hour demo. There are more in the full game. Way more. Twice as many as in Fallout 3:

9-Iron (Fore!)
Grenade Machine Gun (It is what it sounds like.)
Dynamite (In stick form.)
Trail Carbine (A lever-action, rifle.)
Varmint Gun (A small caliber, semi-auto rifle.)
.357 Cowboy Rifle (A Winchester-style lever action gun.)
Plasma Caster (A Fallout 1 & 2 favorite returns.)
9mm Pistol
Grenade Launcher (Death from afar.)
Single-Shot Shotgun (A powerful new scatter gun.)
Caravan Gun (An over-under short barrel, double scatter gun.)

Not satisfied with simply adding a ton of new weapons, Obsidian, in a nod to the PC community, implemented one of the more popular community-created Fallout 3 add-ons: weapon modification. As a result, many of the weapons in New Vegas can be modified.

“You can buy mods at a lot of different places,” says Sawyer, “like one of the most prominent groups you’ll find in the wasteland are the Gun Runners. And there are a lot of different groups that sell mods. They make them for explosives, energy weapons, all sorts of different stuff. You simply have to buy them.”

Once you equip a mod on a particular weapon, that weapon will show up in your inventory with a plus icon, telling you that it’s been modified. The mods will affect the look of the gun, as well as its performance.

“Every mod that you can add to your gun, with very few exceptions, will always show a new model or new texture,” says Sawyer.

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Fallout: New Vegas will also introduce some changes to V.A.T.S., the point-based weapon targeting system introduced in Fallout 3 as a sort of bridge between the turn-based combat of the original games, and the first-person combat of modern action titles. Obsidian made a number of tweaks to V.A.T.S. in New Vegas, including beefing up the melee, to make V.A.T.S. more of an option for bashing people over the head.

“We didn’t really want to take anything away from V.A.T.S.,” says Sawyer. “We just wanted to make sure the real time stuff was improved. So we did things to improve the responsiveness, we improved in-sight aiming so there’s more connection to what your gun is shooting at. It’s not about taking away from V.A.T.S., people use V.A.T.S. all the time, it’s a really good tool in the game and there’s a lot of RPG stuff that ties into it. We wanted to make sure that people wanted to play the game in real time and that it’s as responsive as they expect it to be.”

The Wasteland

But Fallout isn’t only about weapons. It’s about the story, the quests, the adventure and most of all: the wasteland. By way of introduction to the vast Vegas wasteland of New Vegas, Obsidian showed off a few new areas in their demo, like the towns of Good Springs, Primm, Novak (the home of Dinky the Dinosaur), the super mutant encampment at Black Mountain, the military/scientific installation Helios 1, Camp McCarran, site of the real-world Las Vegas airport and the city itself, New Vegas. We didn’t get a very good look at Camp McCarran or the New Vegas strip, since, according to Sawyer, those areas are still “under construction – both literally and figuratively,” but as Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart told us in our exclusive interview, the world of New Vegas is so flat and wide open, you can actually see the New Vegas strip from almost anywhere in the world. It’s a potent reminder that the wasteland is a vast, barren landscape, and that the New Vegas strip is a monster of a setting, rising up above the surrounding countryside like a monolith.

“We tried modeling it after the Mojave desert,” says Sawyer. “When you go out there, there’s not a lot of rolling hills, it’s mostly big valleys that separate the mountains. When you’re outside of Vegas, there is a lot of open views. Vegas itself is kind of walled off. People that are wandering outside are more desperate and getting into the Strip is kind of a challenge in itself. You can’t just walk in.”

The setting allows for more than sightseeing, though. The vagaries of desert living have led the survivors in the Vegas waste to congregate in small townships, which you can visit and where you will naturally find quests. Yet in addition to the towns, larger groups of survivor factions are at work behind the scenes, each attempting to dominate the wasteland.

Fans of the series will probably remember the New California Republic, the militarized new government of the West Coast. The NCR returns in New Vegas as a force for good or evil, depending on how you play it. You will also rub elbows with Caesar’s Legion, a slaver outfit, various bands of super mutants, and more we don’t yet know about.

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Reputation

In addition to quests and plot development, interacting with the different factions will change the way your game plays out by way of the “reputation system.” Each time you make a decision, take an action, save a character, don’t save a character, complete a quest for a faction or work against them, your reputation with that group will be affected. In action, this works as an addition to the Karma system, whereby your stature in an individual community, or with a particular faction, has real-world implications and will affect the dialogue options you are given, the quests available to you and how people treat you in the world.

Obsidian showed off a key quest in the game that could have a significant impact on the character’s relationship with the NCR and various towns in the wasteland, depending on how the character chooses to complete it. Unlike in Fallout 3, where you could nuke the town of Megaton and maybe two or three people would notice, Obsidian promises that your actions in New Vegas will have a dramatic affect on how the game plays out.

“With reputation, it’s really supposed to represent what people know about you,” says Sawyer. “It is important to us that your standing [with] factions change, and as factions react to you, you get a palpable benefit from it.”

Each action will contribute a reputation modifier, and the sum of those modifiers will affect how you’re treated by other characters in the game.

“This can manifest in a number of different ways,” Sawyer says. “People might give you free things, they might give you discounts at places. If you terrorize a town, they might actually be terrified enough to give you a tribute. If you screw around with one of the bigger groups, like Caesar’s Legion or NCR, they might send hit squads after you.

“It’s not just good and evil, it’s basically whatever you do with that group so you can have a lot of different relationships with different groups in the game.”

As the character’s introduction to the world suggests, the story of New Vegas will be told – at least in part – as the player progresses through the world looking for who shot him in the head and left him for dead. Your character was a courier, carrying something important. You were killed for it, and you will eventually want to get it back. In the course of your adventures you will discover the many settlements that make up the Vegas wasteland, uncover the power (both electrical and political), water and human struggles that will shape the world in your wake.

With the combination of the radically different Western U.S. setting and Obsidian’s unique Fallout sensibilities, New Vegas promises to add more then simply “more Fallout.” From this first look, it seems like the next installment could feel a lot like a completely new game and according to Bethesda’s Pete Hines, New Vegas will be roughly the same size as Fallout 3. “You won’t be playing it quickly,” he says. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.

Fallout: New Vegas is scheduled for a Fall 2010 release for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

Russ Pitts is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist.

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