Fallout: New Vegas is in playable form at gamescom this week. We sent Keza Macdonald along with get an hour with the Obsidian update, interview a developer and tell you why “New Vegas’s ideological diversion” is going to make-this a worthy update to Fallout 3.
[All text, Keza Macdonald.]
On the surface, everything about Fallout: New Vegas looks the same; the interface, the fonts and prompts and PIP-boy alerts, the greys and washed-out browns of the post-apocalyptic wasteland, and unfortunately the rather woodenly-animated characters with their odd plasticiney faces. But under the hood there are significant changes going on – changes that will be particularly attractive to those captivated by Fallout in the late Nineties, before Bethesda resurrected the series.
If there’s one thing that defined the first two Fallout games, it’s shades of grey – not just in the desolation of its gameworld, but in its choices. In Fallout 1 and 2, doing the right thing was hard, and that’s when you could even tell what the right thing was. You might murder a criminal tyrant in control of a whole town only to open the door for a righteous crusader to take over and impose his own mortally strict moral law.
Obsidian is hoping to resurrect this more ambiguous feel in New Vegas, says the game’s lead designer Joshua Sawyer. “We tend to like our worlds very grey,” he jokes. “Our characters are hard to figure out, our choices are hard to make. I think that we’ve approached Fallout New Vegas with that in mind. […] we still do have some circumstances where the player can just choose whether to be good or whether to be bad, but ultimately those kinds of choices are not particularly interesting. It’s kinda like saying ‘Do you like chocolate or vanilla?’.”
“In New Vegas there’ll be lots of situations where the ramifications of what you do might not be particularly apparent, or you’ll be stuck in this agonising situation where the right thing is also causing bad things to happen elsewhere. It’s bigger than right or wrong.”
The game begins with a cutscene that introduces us to the big players in post-apocalyptic California; the New Californian Republic, a sort-of democracy, and a slaving organisation called Ceasar’s Legion. It’s classic Fallout, a decaying American dream with neon strip-lights and cheery Fifties radio music lighting a devasted Fifties diner, zooming out to encompass the New Vegas strip, with its flashing signs pointing to nowhere, advertising what no longer exists.
You play an ordinary citizen of the wasteland, a courier ambushed for your package on a seemingly routine delivery. You’re somehow revived after a shot to the head by Doc Mitchell of Goodsprings, a fairly typical wasteland shanty town. The detailed character creation system is the same as it was in Fallout 3 – you distribute points between Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck.
After that, Doc Mitchell gives us a series of questions to determine what skills and traits we should choose for ourselves. First it’s word-association, which throws up some interesting options – Mother = human shield, Darkness = silencer – then a series of agree/disagree questions, and finally a Rorschach test. After that, we stumble out into the harsh daylight of the wasteland, left to fend for ourselves.
Quests in Fallout: New Vegas can be obtained from individuals or from the different factions controlling the game’s world. You’ll have a local reputation and a reputation for those factions, which will affect what opportunities your character gets; Obsidian isn’t afraid of closing things off to the player. You might do some jobs for Ceasar’s Legion just to avoid pissing them off, illustrates Sawyer, but then find yourself met with steely eyes and zipped lips when trying to get help from ordinary folk in the wasteland’s sparse towns.
Trying out New Vegas’ first combat quest – killing the geckos that plague Goodsprings’ wells – throws up some changes to the combat system, which is a mixture of VATS, more traditional first-person shooting and, for those who chose to explore it, vastly improved unarmed and melee combat. You can aim down your sights with the left trigger, and pausing time to target individual parts of enemies’ bodies is no longer the easy way out that it once was.
“Basically unless you’re right on top of a person you’re not going to see a 95% chance to hit across the board,” elaborates Sawyer. “I wanted to make it more like a tactical choice – if you go for a headshot success is not guaranteed… VATS should be approached as a power-up, like bullet-time, as something that supplements real-time as a special resource. This is how we approach it with Vegas.”
The original Fallout games were also known for their mercilessness. The Vault-dweller was alone in the wilderness, and he or she was basically guaranteed to die. Step too far in the wrong direction and you’d be murdered by mutants stronger than you could imagine. Head West against advice from well-meaning allies, and you’d die of radiation poisoning before you got further than a few miles. In Fallout 3, meanwhile, it was quite possible to over-buff your character so much that you could blast through almost anything.
“The world should feel a little bit more like a dangerous place. You can’t just go wherever you want,” says Sawyer. “I was a really fan of Fallout 1 and 2 and I do believe that exploration is a big part of the series, including 3. What I want is for people to feel like they have to be a little careful… it makes the player feel like they’re actively engaging the world, and if they take on difficult things they feel rewarded for it.”
Even without Hardcore mode turned on – a super-realistic mode that requires your character to stay hydrated and pay particular attention to radiation poisoning – the game doesn’t automatically scale to your character in the way that Fallout 3 did, at least not off the quest paths. “Once you get off the beaten path you can get into a lot of trouble. If you ignore everyone saying that a place is dangerous, and ignore the signs saying keep out, very dangerous, then you’re going to die,” Sawyer asserts.
The technical improvements upon Fallout 3 are certainly welcome, but it’s New Vegas’s ideological diversion from Bethesda’s new-style Fallout that’s most exciting. With more morally ambiguous quests and a much less compromising wasteland to cautiously explore, New Vegas could resurrect what it was about Fallout that made us fall in love with it in the first place.