I kind of despise Fallout 3. It’s bland, in its level design, its art, and its writing. The actors behind the characters are (like all Bethesda actors) complete villains: their voices are so completely unemotional and uninteresting that they sound like they’re acting from beyond the grave. It takes things from the original Fallout games (games I enjoyed) and updates them in the least imaginative ways possible. Turn based combat? It’s now a shoddy slow-mo combat mode, a poor copy of the kind of tactical brilliance and visual excellence found in Max Payne games, and ultimately the only thing that stops the gunplay from being a broken, unplayable nightmare. Try shooting something out of VATS in Fallout 3. I think this is what people think of when they trollishly mutter about “dice rolls” determining their bullets’ paths. Every gunshot feels wrong. The sounds are off, the animations are all wrong, and the interface can barely keep up with human input. VATS fixes the horrible controls and responsiveness, and reveals new problems: every other shot will hit an invisible barrier, or miss completely, even if there’s no chance of a miss. Combat is a demoralizing, unpleasant kind of busy-work.
Fallout: New Vegas wasn’t developed by Bethesda. It’s been farmed out to Obsidian, who really seem can’t escape from their gun-for-hire roots (unless it’s to produce the awful Alpha Protocol). New Vegas is also a better game than Fallout 3, and it’s certainly a better game than Alpha Protocol. It’s also a bit boring, despite having held my interest for 40 hours. It repeats almost all of the same mechanical and interface issues seen in Fallout 3. The new “true” iron sights mechanic feels better than the previous aiming, but there’s still the same bogus math behind the scenes. Try this out, devs: go play a game like Deus Ex. Hell, go play Singularity or Wolfenstein. Watch how those games have a base spread of fire for each gun, and how upgrades tighten that spread, depending on gun type. There’s never a time when my fire just fucking misses, if I’ve lined up the shot and my skill is high enough. That’s the problem at the core of VATS. Even when firing at point blank range, I can miss, sometimes because VATS glitches (actually, this happens quite often), or because the game’s math decrees it so. If the way you fix your broken shooting system is to introduce a broken slow-mo system, you’re well and truly screwed. The game feels like and action-shooter-RPG in every respect but the act of pulling a trigger. It’s surprising, because Bethesda’s system for To-Hit-Ratio and damage in Oblivion was strait-forward and fun. Here, melee is the best option, because as in Oblivion, assholes can’t dodge a lead pipe, but they can certainly resist its damage (though melee was useless in Fallout 3, so I have to credit Obsidian again for unbreaking it).
But I’ve played a ton of New Vegas. I can certainly censure Obsidian for not removing Fallout 3‘s multitudinous interface issues, completely wretched voice acting, and crappy game engine implementation (that extra half-step-while moving problem is even worse in Vegas), I have to appreciate that they approached this new Wasteland with more than an ounce or two of thought and originality. There are things ingame that aren’t brown anymore. There are also trees and foliage. The world instantly becomes a few times less boring, thanks to these additions. There are more than 3 good guns. You can mod and upgrade guns in a way that’s fun, if limited to a degree I’d prefer it wasn’t. Upgrades are visually evident on every gun (that last should be a requirement for every game, EVER). There are more monsters and character models. Melee isn’t completely broken. Energy weapons aren’t completely broken (by this I mean that a player can set out to master these two tracks and not create a character destined for swift death). Water doesn’t irradiate you instantly. Cars don’t instantly irradiate you. As a result, it’s possible to explore most areas without bringing 50 Radaways.
The writing is also better, by a small measure. Obsidian does not commit the awful sin of having a 3 hour long tutorial that cannot be skipped, as did Fallout 3. They do make you answer a surprisingly annoying set of character-forming “questions,” though. Certainly, Caesar’s Legion are a boring lot (though their acting is what really ruins interactions with them). The game can feel a little small-scale (every Casino has its own loading zone in the strip, because the engine can’t handle more, apparently. It feels nothing like a city and everything like a corridor with glowing doors), and many of the locations feel perfunctorily written and designed (Primm is a complete nonentity, aside from its delightful cowboy robot). The central plot and quest line feel both inspired by and derivative of (awfully) Bioshock.
New Vegas also competently recreates a variety of standard RPG quest tropes and traditions. There’s a Vault full of Thorian Creepers (I mean spore humans), a vault full of radiation, a messianic ghoul leader, betrayal within a small community, and gang allegiances. It’s all competently executed, though the rigid, instantly-boring graphics and animation rob the world of any excitement I might have found in its fictions. Despite all of this, it feels like what Fallout 3 should have been: an inferior first person version of Fallout, with a host of “modern” FPS and RPG innovations thrown in to keep things from getting boring. New Vegas recaptures a bit of the wit and cynicism that Fallout 1 and 2 honestly expressed and Fallout 3 callowly pantomimed. Certain characters were written in such a way that they produce amusing and entertaining dialogue (the aforementioned robot cowboy), while others produce similarly passable dialogue that’s absolutely murdered by the actors (Cass is the worst culprit. Amusing dialogue, horrid acting).
The radio stations are alright, but there aren’t nearly enough songs. There are 27 songs in New Vegas, while Fallout 3 had 37. Somehow, Bethesda managed to make those 37 sound like double that. Obsidian also managed to make it so that the same song would play back-to-back, so that probably has something to do with my hatred for the soundtrack. Likewise, fallout 3 had the outrageously hammy Malcolm McDowell murmuring on about America in a surprisingly (for that game) entertaining way. New Vegas replaces him with a silly, one-note joke station about stupid, stupid mutants.
New Vegas is also broken in about 20 other ways. I’ve had to download patches, sneak altered .dll’s in, and mod the crap out of this game, just to get it to work. I’ve had to reload countless games, waste hours of play time, and generally cover for a mountain of shit Obsidian, Bethesda, and Microsoft QA left in the game. Really, it’s like they went in and broke a bunch of stuff and then shipped the game. It still crashes my system regularly.
I’m not sorry I’ve played 40 hours of New Vegas. It can be a fun, engrossing game, when it’s not breaking, or the engine, UI, and developers aren’t tarnishing the experience. Apparently it sold 5 million units already. I hope this means Obsidian can make another game, a non-Fallout, non-Alpha Protocol game. One that isn’t Dungeon Siege 3, also (though maybe Square Enix will make these people produce a non-broken game, so…). I’d love to see Obsidian make a game whose play is at least equal to its writing (though they really need to work on never, ever writing Alpha Protocol-quality dialogue again). I can’t say I care what Bethesda does next. probably another Elder Scrolls game with a depressingly bad and broken leveling system and wooden, awful celebrity voice-work. maybe John Carmack and company will teach Bethesda how to make a game with guns and bullets. I can dream.
PS: So Rage looks like Borderlands mixes with Doom mixed with Fallout 3. I think it’s going to better than all three games, because it won’t be hilariously, ironically character-less and toneless like Borderlands was, and it won’t be shit to play, like Fallout 3 was. Maybe if we all believe in faeries…
PPS: The screenshot save/notation system for New Vegas is really very good.