This is the story of Fisto. A droid abandoned in an old robotics shop, it seemed destined to spend forever in a tube, but one day a wasteland wanderer stumbled in, hacked a nearby terminal and, within seconds, reprogrammed Fisto to be a sexbot, before demanding to be pleasured. “That all you got, robot?” he asked once Fisto had performed its work, swaggering off and stopping only to sign it up for a lifetime of prostitution at a nearby bar (and smooth-talk the proprietor into doubling the finder’s fee). What happens in Vegas, as they say, stays in Vegas. Obsidian’s sequel to Bethesda’s Fallout 3 has plenty more from where that came from. It’s a good thing, too, given the game’s litany of problems.
New Vegas’ aesthetic and narrative nail the concept, a dose of cheery bluff and the nuclear family mixed with radiation, degradation, and man’s inhumanity to man. The open Mojave wasteland is vast, and its balance between space and sites of interest feels just about perfect. A short walk up the road always turns into hours of zigzagging between encampments, caves and cubbyholes, some crammed with juicy items, others looted and burned out, many little more than deathtraps. All offer up something: a set of crockery laid out and abandoned, a smear of blood next to a clutch of empty bottles, a trail of corpses, a treasure map, a stash of drugs, a body shoved in the corner to rot.
It’s a bewitching world, and in its most grisly and far-out encounters shows a preternatural feel for the source material. The Vaults are a highlight: masses of huge clanking machinery folded around tiny pockets of people, miniature cities laced with depressing histories that are revealed over careful hours of looking under beds and in corners. If that’s too serious, be assured that New Vegas swings in every direction. Whether it’s love triangles or superweapons, the ridiculous is played straight and the sombre is undercut with a wicked grin. At its very best, New Vegas plays loose with its tone, shifting from cheery smile to death-ray in a heartbeat. It’s an irresistible combination.
The Mojave wasteland is full of different factions, and during our playthrough our character, a suave lockpicker who mercilessly slaughters any back-talking NPCs, managed for a while to string along rangers, raiders and genteel cannibals. Eventually there’s a Big Choice to be made about these camps, but until then they’re dense networks that interplay smartly and add a spirited layer of texture.
The basic NPC logic can produce more interesting scenarios. Take Boone, one of our companions. During a routine mission collecting caps from deadbeats who’d skipped their bar tabs, our character fell into a fistfight with a debtor. Unbidden, Boone blew the man’s head off in the middle of town. Heads turned, weapons emerged from their holsters, and Boone unleashed hell, killing six civilians before falling under a hail of lead pipes. We ran away minus one companion, vilified by the Freeside community, and leaving plenty of business never to be concluded.
There’s a shonky emergence in these moments, though it also manifests in annoying ways – a stray bullet turning the object of a rescue mission into an implacable nemesis, for example, or an accidental unholstering resulting in all-out war. Fault lines run throughout New Vegas, and one of the areas that suffers most is combat – a rather unfortunate point, since engaging in conflict lies at the heart of the game.
The absence of aim acceleration is one thing, but feedback is almost nonexistent, and not a single enemy offers up the illusion of intelligence. Damage proportional to apparent threat doesn’t figure, so you simply have to get used to housewives wielding rolling pins leaping through shotgun blasts to deliver beatdowns. Fallout 3’s combat also lacked heft, but its weapons were never as powder-puff as these, and its AI did a much better job of negotiating cramped environments. Gunplay in New Vegas, which in theory uses the same elements, is a much looser jumble that never quite comes together.
When technical failings enter the mix, battles become hilariously inept. Gangs of assailants bunch up and glitch into the scenery while your companions do everything they can to get in front of your reticule. When it all becomes too much, VATS, everyone’s favourite comedy targeting system, just about saves things. Freezing the action and allowing individual body parts to be targeted, VATS then executes the shots in slow-mo. The system’s precision and overblown gore make the combat bearable, but only just. The game’s climax, a face-off against many heavily armoured enemies, is an absolute slog.
New Vegas’ technical shoddiness bears heavily on the game, and outright malfunctions aren’t rare occurrences. Walking through the wasteland, texture and object popping presents near-constant distraction. Elsewhere, the jerky framerate clunks and grinds in a bid to spoil your enjoyment of the artistry on offer all around. On four occasions during our playthrough, the game simply crashed. Then there’s a scorpion embedded in the road, its exposed stinger waving lamely; a coyote jogging on the spot; a Deathclaw forever foxed by a miniscule rock. Enter a room and crowds will often spawn in the centre and jerk around a particular point before settling down like good NPCs. An outfit will change in a blink when the day-night cycle switches. These aren’t exceptional instances – they’re ingrained in your journey.
The VATS camera, meanwhile, is awful, clipping through geometry and occasionally freezing up. The wasteland’s full of invisible walls which puncture the otherwise exquisitely tuned atmosphere. Boone resurrected outside a casino a few hours after his psychotic escapade, but wouldn’t move or speak. He’s still there now. And the loading times are simply painful, exacerbated by missions that send you back and forth between bunched-up buildings. Obsidian’s reputation for delivering thematically interesting but technically poor games may be unfortunate, but on this evidence it is not unjustified. After pausing the game to write this paragraph, New Vegas crashed for the fifth time. It all adds up to the type of experience that makes you wonder about the size limit for console game patches nowadays.
Creatively, New Vegas gets almost everything right. Mechanically and technically, it’s a tragedy. So, it’s a simultaneously rewarding and frustrating game, the gulf between what it is and what it could be a sizeable stretch indeed. Few games have built up a world like New Vegas, and even fewer have squandered such opportunities like this.