Three girls are splashing and frolicking in the fountain. Drunk and stripped to their underwear, their New California Rangers uniforms discarded on the pavement. You wouldn't see that kind of lark back east. The fountain water would give you cancer, for one.
Fallout: New Vegas uses the same engine as Fallout 3, but it's set 2,500 miles west of its Capital Wasteland. The air is cleaner out here, the skies bluer and the water eminently more frolickable. Three years on from Fallout 3's tale of water purification, New Vegas opens simply: you've been shot and you're rather unhappy about it.
But Obsidian don't want you to think about that yet. Instead, I had The Strip: New Vegas's long, still-lit street of casinos and hotels, and its bedampened trio of pissed-up fountainwomen to consider. Leaving the girls to their R&R, I headed toward Tops Casino, one of the less imposing blots against the night sky. Most of Vegas remains unexploded – why waste a nuke on the desert? – and Fallout 3's biggest landmarks are dwarfed in seconds. One huge curved edifice is a hotel, still accepting guests and seemingly doing a roaring trade.
Tops, too, is busy. In the back, there's a theatre, the shows organised and performed by a Sammy Davis Jr-a-like. I got chatting to him, the camera snapping into the slow-zoom familiar to the Fallout 3 engine, drinkers in the background suspended in time with their bottles tipped upward to their lips. It turned out pseudo-Sammy wanted performers, people in and around Vegas who could carry a tune or move a little on stage. Handing me four business cards, he kicked off a new quest. It's one of the notable differences with this Fallout: new quests crop up with happy regularity.
Back on the casino floor, I was introduced to Vegas' most Vegas-y touch: high-stakes, hardcore gambling. The possibility of shotgun weddings wasn't confirmed. Games are rudimentary in their application, but blackjack and roulette are nonetheless quick and useful – characters with a high luck attribute will be bringing in the big bucks, rolling jackpots on slot machines. It's here that New Vegas' new currencies become important. The game's two confirmed factions – the slave-taking Caesar's Legion and the New California Rangers – have their own money in addition to Fallout 3's bottlecaps.
We've seen these factions before: both are interwoven into Fallout mythology. Caesar's Legion like to dress in leather skirts and sport fetching centurion-style brushes on their helmets. I'd advise against admiring their sartorial choice though: they're a slaving faction, and friendly dalliances with their leaders will undoubtedly make your reputation plumb new depths. The New California Rangers are the other side of the coin, representing the armed force of the huge New California Republic.
Away from Vegas and back out on the wastes, I found an NCR soldier on duty. On duty inside the mouth of a 20ft plastic dinosaur. He was protecting Novac – a settlement sprung up around a motel (and its dinosaur), and named after a busted No Vacancies sign. Chatting to the NCR dude, it turned out someone had nabbed his wife, selling her into slavery. Novac's a small place – it had to be one of his neighbours who did the wifenapping. Time for some sleuthing.
Obsidian want to up the importance of chatting, bringing the skills you previously used on the field into dialogue. In Vegas, I was able to call on my superlative sneaking powers to smuggle my holdout guns into a strict no-guns casino. The option to try this pops up in regular conversation, your actual skill determining whether a conversational gambit is successful or not.
Back in Novac, I had to use all my wiles and thievery skills to work out who hated the NCR sniper's wife enough to actually sell the poor woman.
Anyone with Fallout 3 experience knows turning invisible is as easy as crouching – in sneak mode I ducked behind a desk, spying a suspicious floor-set safe, and jimmied it open with a familiar lockpicking minigame. Inside, damning evidence – the contract handed to slavers. Time for some frontier justice. The ranger told me to bring the culprit out in front of dino's mouth when he was on duty, with a red beret on as a sign. Luring the slaver out with the promise of something interesting to see, I watched as my sniper chum drew a bead, and popped their target's head like a squeezed egg.
This kind of super-visceral fighting is back in New Vegas, the time-pausing VATS system a tradeoff between Fallout's proper roleplaying roots and standard first-person shootery. New Vegas looks like a fuller, funner Fallout.