There was a point while playing Fallout: New Vegas when I said to myself, “OK, this is going to be fun.” Up until that point, I hadn’t been sure. I enjoyed Fallout 3 (300 hours in and still counting), and all of the Fallouts that had come before, so there was no reason why I shouldn’t have enjoyed this game, but yet, I wasn’t sure. There was just something … different.

In Fallout: New Vegas, you will play as a courier who’s been shot and left for dead. Your mission: Find the men who shot you. That’s it. Nothing so lofty as saving (or ending) the lives of all of the residents of the Capital Wasteland, or finding a water chip your family needs to survive. In New Vegas, as befitting a game set in the City of Sin, your objective is revenge.

Along the way, however, you will explore a wasteland as rich and varied as that of any other Fallout game. The colors are brighter, the mood lighter, but this is Fallout as you’ve always known it – perhaps better. You will encounter The New California Republic, who, having tamed California, have carried their humanist spirit east into the Mojave Desert. You will also meet Caesar’s Legion, a slave army led by Caesar, a would-be warlord king.

As you search for the man who done you wrong, these two great forces (and others) will wage battle for control of the Mojave and the still-functioning Hoover Dam, arguably the most important piece of real estate in the world. You will travel to blown-out Western towns like Novac, built around a motel and a dinosaur tourist attraction, and Nelson, a town being overrun by Caesar’s Legion. You will meet many people in your travels who will call upon you for help, but whether you come to their aid or not is up to you. You can barrel through this land on your own personal quest or you can take sides (any side) and make the Mojave Wasteland a better – or different – place.

What makes New Vegas satisfying is not how much choice it gives you as the player, but how much it limits you. You cannot, for example, trudge through the wasteland willy nilly without encountering some severe obstructions, whether those obstructions are impassable mountains or unbeatable creatures. You can explore, just within limits. You will need to be wary of your surroundings and cognizant of your abilities. Yet, even if you do nothing more than simply follow the main story, you will still explore a generous chunk of the wasteland, which makes the smaller side missions and random encounters feel more like gems in the rough that enhance your play when encountered, rather than missed opportunities you have to seek out.

Yet all of this is subtle. You won’t feel this after only a few hours. What will hit you in the face like a ton of bricks as soon as you start playing New Vegas is the fact that this game has a sense of humor. This is as evident in the overt quirkiness of Novac’s gigantic Dinky the Dinosaur as it is in the subtle touches that grace practically every element of the game. Gone is the dreary stodginess of Fallout 3, in which even the rare bit of humor added to the overall sense of doom. New Vegas, by contrast, seems content to let the misery of a post-nuclear wasteland speak for itself, and focus instead on the dark humor that makes living in that world interesting in and of itself aside from the archeological fun of seeing familiar places as they would look post-apocalypse.

The humor was what put me off, to be honest. Fallout 3 was many things – some good, some bad – but it was never hokey. I was afraid New Vegas, by contrast, with the injection of a vibrant sense of dark humor and awash with more colors than brown, would be hokey. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Step after step and encounter after encounter, the Mojave Wasteland astounds with its understated charm. In one corner of the map you may find a regiment of NCR rangers slowly turning to ghouls from overexposure to radiation although they don’t know it. In another, a mutant driven to insanity by the thoughts of cows. In still another, the diary of a man who’s lost everything, even the will to live. Even your own story, that of a hapless courier shot and left for dead for the trinket he was carrying, is tinged with multiple layers of interpretation. The game is in turns poignant, funny and desperate, and just enough of each so that all can be observed.

The point at which I decided it would all be OK was random. I was walking from one place to the next and happened to spot an odd shape off the trail. I walked closer and noticed it was a refrigerator laid on its back with the door ripped off. Inside was the skeleton of a man wearing a hat. No explanation given. I took the hat and put it on and went about my business. There was no sinister purpose to this interaction. No overt message, or secret meaning. Or was there?

I could have imprinted many a lesson onto this encounter, written my own story behind this man’s fate, but whatever meaning I assigned would be my own. Was he some courier like me who’d bee killed, then dumped into a fridge? Was he a joke left there by the game’s developers in a nod to the horrible MacGuffin from the even more horrible Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull like the fossils of dinosaurs left in the earth by a trickster Christian god? It didn’t matter. He was there whether he meant something or not and whatever meaning was intended was so veiled it may as well have been a quark, or Darth Vader in the cave. Whatever meaning was to be assigned was for me to assign. That, in itself, is meaningful enough for me. Any fears I had that the newfound sense of humor would be obtrusive or hokey vanished in an instant.

Die-hard fans of the original Fallout game will also be pleased at the addition of “Hardcore Mode,” which assigns weight to ammunition (although, oddly, not to bullet components like lead) and requires you keep your character hydrated, well rested and fed. This mode can be turned on and off at will, although you earn an achievement for starting and playing all the way through on Hardcore. This mode may be a turn-off for casual players who simply want to experience the Fallout universe without all of the RPG baggage, but it’s less obtrusive than it would seem at first.

Crafting is also vastly improved in New Vegas. Players will be able to create a much larger selection of items from scrap materials and, unlike in Fallout 3 all of the recipes are available to you at the start of the game, though some items have skill level prerequisites. You can make your own stimpaks out of a relatively small number of ingredients for example, but only if your “medicine” score is high enough.

Another welcome change is the addition of the Companion Wheel to replace the frustrating dialogue-based companion interaction. With a single button press, you can access an array of companion commands, changing their attack mode, asking them to wait or follow or accessing their inventory. It’s a much improved way of dealing with companions, even if the companions themselves can still be annoying.

Still, as remarkable as all of the changes to the formula may be, they don’t quite mask the fact that some of Fallout 3‘s most aggravating problems still exist in New Vegas. You will still, just as in Fallout 3, encounter enemies who have lodged themselves into mountains, or become trapped under railroad tracks. You will still, occasionally, find that your arms have become invisible. And certain missions will randomly crash and become unfinishable. During my playthrough, for example, I was initially unable to complete the Jason Bright storyline due to his failing to appear at a key location.

It’s disappointing to see such an otherwise brilliant and polished game suffer from years-old bugs, and unfortunately our review score for the game has to reflect that. Reviewing 2008’s Fallout, I felt inclined to give a certain amount of visual glitchiness a pass because that game covered so much ground, from a development point of view, and was simply awe-inspiring in many respects. Seeing the exact same bugs in a new game, two years later, is harder to excuse. Truth be told, I enjoyed New Vegas a lot more than Fallout 3, but I can’t give it a full score on the basis of the bugs alone.

Bottom Line: Fans of either the original Fallout games, or 2008’s Fallout 3 will find plenty to love in this new installment. New weapons, characters and locations, plus a fresh sensibility marry to make New Vegas a near-perfect continuation of the series.

Recommendation: There is more than enough game in this package to justify the expense.

[rating=4]

What our review scores mean.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Russ Pitts hates giving four stars to a game he will likely be playing all winter. But dammit, guys, you had two years to fix the engine bugs. You don’t deserve that fifth star.

Game: Fallout: New Vegas
Genre: RPG
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: October 19th, 2010
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Available from: Amazon (360), Amazon (PS3), Amazon (PC)

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