Chugging down toilet water in Fallout: New Vegas

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.