Fuck George. He's the gambler standing at the entrance to Nellis Air Force Base. Behind him: nothing but craters and bombed-out houses. The Boomers control this area, a community that protects itself by shelling anyone who gets in range, but I need to get in and George knows how to get past the bombs. He wants 200 bottlecaps for his services.
This is the world of Fallout: New Vegas. It's harsh. Hell, I only have 200 caps because I killed the doctor who saved my life and scooped a bullet out my brain. So when George demands these caps for doing little more than standing on a path, while I've had to slam pool cues into the skulls of helpful medics, it upsets me.
I hand them over, as I can't see any other way in. After a terrifying bolt through a barrage of bombs, following George's instructions, I make it to the compound. The Boomers are surprisingly cool, if a bit overprotective. They agree to not shell me any more, which is nice of them. I find it difficult to blow up people I've met socially, too. I head back to George. It's not just his opportunism that angers me. He offered to repay me double the amount of caps if I survived. I'm his dirty little gambling fix!
I grab my spiked knuckles and start whaling on him. Every punch makes me feel a little bit better. He runs off into Nellis and I run after him. The Boomers promised to leave me alone, but George? He's fair game.
As is anything in his radius. Bombs are indiscriminate jerks. I only realise my huge mistake when he reels at one of my uppercuts and I explode a second later.
I should have known better. New Vegas might be cleaner than Fallout 3's Washington wasteland, the Mojave desert having got off relatively lightly during the nuclear apocalypse, but it's still a game about survival. Shot in the head, buried and presumed dead, you're caught up in a revenge tale that turns into a battle for control of the region, with you in the Clint Eastwood role. Do you track down the man who put you in the ground, explore the desert, beat up some nearby gang members, or look for a faction to join?
What would Clint do? Or, in my game, an athletic, red-headed lady I named 'Buck'. Lady Buck, I decided, was simply going to be an extension of me. If I found the people I was dealing with personally repugnant, I'd give them Wasteland justice. I plumbed for my usual mix of lockpicking and stealth skills, eventually regretting my Thief-centric approach to character creation. My advice: New Vegas is so skewed towards dialogue that, for the first run-through at least, you should put as much as you can in Speechcraft and Barter skills. Even the final bosses can be chatted into submission if your stats are high enough. You can't lockpick a mouth. Oh, and you should probably avoid Hardcore mode for that first runthrough. It's the triathlon of New Vegas, a gruelling slog designed to sap your strength as you play. It's not for the ill-prepared.
Wandering the wasteland now, two years on from Fallout 3, I'm both happy and disappointed. I've long wanted more of the same from Bethesda, and this is the hand that New Vegas deals. But while it's good to be back, the leap from one game to the other isn't nearly as large as it should have been. New areas, characters and factions, but the same clunky inventory and character models. Two years to stay exactly where you were.
Fallout's world of cracked asphalt and rolling deserts can still impress. Whacking the view distance up to max is chilling: futuro-'50s buildings poke into the air, a giant wireframe cross stands on a hill, and at night Vegas glows on the horizon.
The world goes about its business, delivering some amazing random encounters. After a save, I stumbled across two small gangs fighting it out. I leapt into the fray – mostly to try out my newly acquired rebar club: a lump of concrete on the end of twisted metal rods. Combat is still lightweight: swinging kilos of concrete at someone's head only feels powerful when they explode in a shower of gristle at the end, or in VATS where you're given choices of where to hit with different chances of success. My rebar broke the face of the Powder Ganger's leader, leaving a ragged red lump where her smile used to be. I reloaded, and this time sat back, watching the battle play out. At one point, a Ganger limped off to safety and pulled out a Stimpack, healing himself.
The central story is a big improvement on the dad-quest of Fallout 3. You're following the trail of the man who shot you, as it snakes across the Mojave through the major urban areas, drip-feeding you tasks that vary from sorting out a town's escaped prisoner problem to a ghoul infestation with a brilliantly overthe- top ending. Scenarios and characters that I'm loath to go into detail over, as their tricky little problems should be experienced first-hand. Twisty moral conundrums are laid at your feet as you pick and choose who to piss off (and you'll always piss someone off). When a game asks you to lead someone into a sniper's line of fire, but doesn't specify who, you definitely have to confront your id.
It's not overtly encouraged by the game, but you can just head for Vegas. Giant Rad Scorpions and Deathclaws stand between you and The Strip, and you'll end up aggroing every one of them, but you're given impressive leeway to just stumble across points of the story as you wander. But eventually, all roads lead to New Vegas.
It's here that a surprising second act kicks off. Structurally things get messy: you're used as an emissary from Vegas to talk to the factions. While there you can take up more missions, or simply report back to Vegas without having much to do with them at all – pretty much invalidating the entire endeavour. Don't do that. The factions are interesting, particularly the Caesars: a vast army with nasty predilections, based on the Roman Empire. They crucify people, for Jupiter's sake. Even the lesser factions, like the Elvis-impersonating Kings or the mafia-inspired Omerta, have been teased out of Vegas tropes.
There's something for everyone, different personalities and points of view to empathise with or despise, depending on how you're playing. So the Romans felt my wrath, and I helped the leader of the Kings fix his robot dog (by bashing in another dog's head to replace the brain). My reward was having the dog as a companion. There are eight companions to pick from, six human and two not, and you can have one of each if you find them. They back you up in fights, and you can set their state via a control wheel, but the most important addition is they bring a perk to your character sheet. Rex's perk will find and mark nearby items for you to collect. I could have swapped him for ED-E, a floating robot who's good for spotting people and fighting from afar, but Rex, with his glowing skullcap, was too cute. I was on a 'nice' playthrough.
But I could so easily have played nasty, and aligned with the Romans. Or ambivalent and aligned with the NCR – the other main faction and strangely likeable people, just doing what they can to survive. Those choices, and the wonderful way the game accepts and adapts when you make them, make New Vegas worth your time and money. I had a lot of fun, but I never uncovered anything as wonderful as Fallout 3's Oasis or Little Lamplight.
There are things to see, sure, but the rewards aren't nearly as interesting in New Vegas. I didn't get as much out of heading for intriguing things on the horizon as I did in the previous game. With some new technology and the ambition to create a full world as compelling as the previous game's, it could have been wonderful.
More wasteland to wander. New Vegas is good, but the failure to move the series on makes it feel a tiny bit stale.