Your next Fallout adventure begins with an iconic image from the Vegas underworld: a desert execution and an unmarked grave. One robot rescue later – and after some character creation decisions made through the medium of an excruciatingly dull doctor – you're asked a very important question. Would you, in your role as a post-apocalyptic Fedex worker mugged en-route to the Vegas strip, like to continue your travels in hardcore mode? My advice would be that you most certainly would.
Playing Fallout: New Vegas in hardcore mode is a revelation. It feels how its already worthy predecessor was meant to. The vast amount of clutter you can sweep into your inventory starts to make sense, as much of it can be sold. Medicine and the new Survival skill suddenly become central, and the blinking lights of a Nuka-Cola machine can signal your salvation.
For existing Fallout players, it's refreshing just to be forced into a character reboot – after 80-plus hours in Fallout 3, you could critically damage a Deathclaw with a raised eyebrow. But on top of this, the limits imposed by hardcore mode enforce a fresh appreciation for the nutritional potential of your inventory, your health, your addictions, your tactics and your relationships with the inventories of the NPCs around you. It makes you far less blasé about the game's systems, and makes tactical combat (and, at some points, its avoidance) a necessity rather than an occasional dalliance. The fact that your ammo now has weight means that you might become more appreciative of melee weapons, too.
Above all, you'll get to know doctor NPCs a mite better. Sleeping on the stray mattresses you come across, though now a necessity to avoid sleep deprivation, is no longer an instant cure-all, and stimpacks only heal over time. More urgently, only a doctor's bag or a trained physician can heal criticals and broken limbs. A shame, then, that my early reaction to the insufferable dullness of the saintly Doc Mitchell was to go about his face with a nine-iron. He died a hilarious death, if a somewhat unwisely inflicted one in terms of my continued survival.
As with life in the real world, in hardcore mode you need regular access to water. You'll stash and guzzle everything and anything to stave off thirst: beer, wine, spirits, Nuka-Cola and even dirty toilet water. In Fallout 3, your first encounter with a lavatory was to experimentally use it – expecting a standard FPS flush noise – only to be somewhat startled when you heard your character lapping water from the bowl. Back then, you made a mental note never to do that again. Not ever. Yet play New Vegas in hardcore mode and you'll find yourself actively seeking out postapocalyptic restrooms, and positively sighing with relief as you greedily guzzle at the U-bend.
Whether or not you leave Doc Mitchell's house in hardcore mode or as a GP-slayer, there are things you'll notice as you first trot through the Mojave Wasteland, particularly if you've played Fallout 3. For a start, there's the feeling that you're on a new frontier, an active participant in a strange futuro-Western. This cowboy feel is gently introduced in early missions, such as one that has you choosing how to re-instigate the rule of law in a town called Primm – saving its deputy sheriff from escaped outlaws as tumbleweed rolls around beneath a clear night sky.
On top of this, if you thought that bongo, bongo, bongo, you didn't want to leave the Congo and that Fallout 3 radio playlists were a delight, just wait until you hear New Vegas's country and western station, Mojave Music Radio. The satisfaction of scuttling after a Powder Ganger hoodlum who's criticalled both of your legs with dynamite, and managing to hack off his arm with a machete, increases inordinately when it's done to a plaintive southern belle singing, “I'll be your cowgirl, if you'll be my cowboy”.
Something else you'll notice early on (though perhaps not in the opening town of Goodsprings, which is a tad dull) is an overall improvement in characterisation and dialogue. Here, it honestly does feel as though some tenets of the Black Isle legacy are dripping through into the Obsidian melting pot. Sure, dialogue trees remain limited and conversation brief – but through vastly improved voice acting and some genuinely interesting characters, the condensed dialogue feels streets ahead of the often insipid lines Bethesda offered up back in Washington DC.
Some decent examples of this crop up in a mission I played from later in the game, a sequence that takes place in the REPCONN rocket factory entitled Come Fly With Me. This is the cheery tale of a group of ghouls who show some marked similarities to the real-world Heaven's Gate cult, so obsessed are they and their leader Jason Bright with 'the great journey' into outer space. Their associated missions are largely familiar to Fallout 3 players: clear out or placate the gribblies occupying the basement; fetch this; fetch that; go and see if so-and-so is dead; push this button; watch the fireworks... the usual jazz.
However, there's a level of storytelling and characterisation here that goes beyond many of the incidental plots in Fallout 3. For a start, there's the fact that just as there are some crazy religious beliefs going on, there's a similar situation with the Nightkin (blue beasts from the army raised by The Master in the original Fallout and driven mad by the over-use of Stealthboys), who are taking orders from an imaginary god called Antler. There's a ghoul who's a lot like Clint Eastwood and who has a taste for “fine-looking ghoulettes”, a human so traumatised he believes he actually is a ghoul and an ancient HR issue involving the use of Stealthboys and the ladies' changing rooms to contend with. As noted, a lot of the chat feels shortened (and there aren't multiple ways to bring the quest's ending in) but there's greater subtext and texture. In itself, a quest might be simple, but Obsidian never stop surprising you with their ability to create new situations and funny characters within the familiar Fallout world.
The presence of the Nightkin and their Master-less roaming also flags up the fact that New Vegas takes place a lot closer to the areas once covered by the first two Fallout games in glorious brown-o-vision.
The plot deals with Fallout 2's New California Republic in a battle with a militaristic and slave-hungry faction called Caesar's Legion, which has risen on the other side of the Colorado river. It's going to be fascinating to compare this land to the one portrayed in the Black Isle classics. How, for example, will New Vegas compare to the delights of Fallout 2's New Reno? It's not an area I reached in my playtest, but the promise of casinos that reward successful gamblers with food, drink and free hotel rooms (yet reward overly successful gamblers with a ban from the manager for cheating) is compelling. Whether it's Tops' Rat Packstyled ultra-security casino, the Lucky 38 tower casino where the city's leader, Mr House, is holed up (similar to the realworld Stratosphere) or the super-glam Ultraluxe, you'd be wise to ensure your baseline Luck stats are decent before sitting down at the Blackjack tables. There's a strip club called Gomorrah nearby, too, although those expecting high FO2-style naughtiness levels are likely to be disappointed. A faint tinge of embarrassment still lingers among developers and fans alike when it comes to that game's New Reno and its schoolboy reputation, even though no other game since has let you, or your much put-upon in-game spouse, embark on a career as a fluffer in a porn studio. Probably a good thing, too.
As with Fallout 3, many locations are based on real-world places – if you visit a settlement in the Mojave Wasteland, chances are it exists in some form somewhere in the Las Vegas environs. Primm and its trademark rollercoaster, McCarran airport, Boulder City and a place called Searchlight are all real places – the latter is a New California Republic military camp in the Fallout universe, subjected to a Legion nuclear bomb and now full of poor souls undergoing the gruesome ghoulification process.
There remains a high degree of silliness in New Vegas, however, which has the potential to go above and beyond the already fairly silly Fallout 3. In what remains of Freemont Street in Vegas, for example, you'll discover the Kings gang. Led by a chap called 'The King', they're mission-providing crooks who base themselves on Elvis Presley – working out of the King's School of Impersonation. The King even owns a hound dog. Simply put, if there's a Vegas trope in existence, it seems to be going into the game – if there's not an option to marry your companion on a whim in a chapel of love, Obsidian will have missed a major trick.
Despite the silliness, New Vegas will still be edgy. In fact, Obsidian are re-introducing a shade of darkness to the fabric of Fallout that sticks the knife in far deeper than Bethesda did. There are moribund tales such as the one that has you working out who within a small community has sold someone's wife into slavery (minor spoilers follow). A sullen chap called Boone works as a guard for the motel town of Novac, sniping would-be aggressors from the mouth of Dinky the Dinosaur – a crumbling tourist attraction that still features a working gift shop. His wife is long gone, but he asks you to discover who organised her kidnap, and then to lead them in front of Dinky and into his sights. You can, of course, lead any of several poor buggers to a certain death, but New Vegas's extra edge of darkness comes through the discovery of a receipt that shows the slavers paid extra for Boone's unborn child.
Characters such as Vulpes Inculta of Caesar's Legion, meanwhile, simply ooze menace as they bark at you – in this case amid the crucified bodies that pepper the “town of whores” that was once called Nipton. This charming character, complete with a wolf-pelt hat and his own line in the massacre of the innocents, could even become a missiongiver in the true Dark Brotherhood sense, if you don't mind your karma taking a notable hit.
An early play of New Vegas suggests, then, that it's darker, funnier and more engaging than its Bethesdan forerunner. If you're a wasteland devotee, you're certainly right to be excited. There's little doubt that it captures the underlying spirit of the first Fallout far better than Fallout 3 did – the dark comedy is more cutting and the people you come across are often deeper and more interesting to toy with. It's an altogether fiercer game.
Even if Fallout's visuals are getting rough around the edges, the VATS system can still be relied on, after so many hours of play, to provide the goods in terms of belly laughs at the sheer outrageousness of its representation of slo-mo body-rips and flailing mid-air carcasses.
For me, however, it's hardcore mode that remains the stand-out champion of Fallout: New Vegas, engendering a fresh appreciation of roleplaying systems and combat that I would previously only sleepwalk through. That said, there is another achievement that shouldn't go untrumpeted: the way that New Vegas somehow hoodwinks the gamer into really, really liking country music. I'll be Obsidian's cowgirl, if they'll be my cowboy. So will you when New Vegas releases towards the end of October.