Set three years after Fallout 3, New Vegas stars a mysterious stranger, though not a vault-dweller, who recovers from a bullet to the head and ventures forth to figure out the identity of the shooter. Of course, this journey of discovery is just as much about meting out that particular brand of Fallout justice.
Update: We mention later in this piece that Fallout: New Vegas apparently wouldn't have a fast travel system. We decided to contact Bethesda about that ... since just like you, we don't want to spend all of our gameplay time walking from one town to the next. Here's the response we received: "Fallout: New Vegas will have a fast travel system – just like Fallout 3. The guys were just pointing out that unlike Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas won't have any underground tunnels (the metro) linking the various locations."
Shot in the head and left buried in the sand, you're initially being rescued by a television robot named Victory, who has a creepy, grinning, cartoon image of a cowboy for a head and a body that looks like it came from the same transistor pool as Robby the Robot. Victory drags you to safety in the rickety town of Goodsprings, where the wise and friendly Doc Mitchell patches you up. After the Doc asks you your name (you choose it yourself), he hands you an electro-mirror called a "Reflectron" and asks you if he got everything put back in the right place. This is where you customize your age, appearance, and ... sex. Apparently that bullet really worked you over good.
Following a rudimentary game controls tutorial, the Doc has you squeeze a vigor tester "Vit-O-Matic" (modeled after one of those old-fashioned strength-testing novelty games), which allows you to choose your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck). The process replaces the "You're SPECIAL!" book from Fallout 3. Finally, the good Doc subjects you to a series of short personalty tests, which include some Rorschach inkblots and your response to certain statements or words. The Doc says "mother," and you say "human shield," for example. These answers tag your character with certain skills, the last piece of the character-building puzzle.
After you've completed the introductory setup, the Doc hands you a Pip-Boy navigational device and his old Vault-Tec jumpsuit, and you're ready to tackle the outside world. Your first objective is to locate Sunny Smiles, who the Doc says can help you get started on your mission, and you're released into the town of Goodsprings on the edge of the Mohave Wasteland, based on the real-life ghost town of the same name.
Actually, before setting out, you have one last decision to make: to play in Hardcore mode or not. In this mode, you have to keep track of your food and water, pay attention to the weight of items (including ammunition), so you don't get overloaded, and make time for regular visits to a doctor, because stimpacks will not fully heal you. Hardcore mode can be disabled at any time, but it can't be switched back on. If you complete the entire game in Hardcore mode, you'll receive some sort of "special reward."
Sunny is hanging out at the Prospector Saloon, and she asks you to come along and hunt Geckos with her to protect the local water supply. You can follow her if you choose, and she'll present you with a mini-quest that teaches you how to sneak and shoot. You're armed with a varmint rifle -- a very fast and accurate .22 that is perfect for picking off rodents. After you get a knack for shooting, you can stay with Sunny or head off and wander around on your own.
In my hands-off preview, the developer briefly toured the town for the group of press watching, passing by the Goodsprings school house (modeled on the actual building in town), which doubles as a "mini dungeon" that players can explore. He also moseyed on by some "Big Horners," mutated bighorn sheep that look like bison with gigantic horns. There are a few penned up in town, but apparently you'll also encounter them in the wild where they can knock you on your ass.
Our guide headed back to the saloon and triggered a conversation between the bartender Trudy and the local muscle, Joe Cobb, who is looking for a guy named Ringo. Ringo happens to be hiding in the back of the saloon, and his discovery embroils you in the central conflict in Goodsprings: the Powder Gangers.
In the drive-through preview, the developers took the player around town to assemble a few allies -- Sunny signs on, a local prospector donates some dynamite, and a shop owner agrees to help by selling some weapon mods. A short-range scope and extended magazines for a 9mm pistol made combat look a bit more attractive than in Fallout 3. Lead developer Josh Sawyer has spent a "ton of time" customizing the weapons and ammo: some are better against limbs, some are poor against heads, etc. These tweaks discourage the old habit of switching into the VATS targeting mode and queuing up a headshot every time.
Once ready, the developer took on the Powder Gangers, a bunch of local thugs, and dispatched several using the standard "shooter" gameplay -- but what really came in handy were the new VATS-based melee weapons. In this mode, every melee weapon has a special move; in the demo, it was "Fore!" with a 9-iron. It seemed very handy for separating heads from necks in slow-motion. I should mention here that while the Killcam views of Fallout 3 return in New Vegas, you can now customize them to be in first-person or third-person, or you can turn them off entirely. (After watching the 300th head pop off, it kinda loses its effect, you know?)
After taking care of the Gangers, your reputation in Goodsprings improves. (The "Karma" system doesn't play as big of a role in New Vegas as it does in Fallout 3, but you can still monitor your rep on your Pip-Boy.) Next stop: Primm, which features a huge roller coaster as part of a decrepit casino called Bison Steve's. You can actually walk along the roller coaster's tracks, climbing up to a point that gives you a great view of the town -- especially if you want to snipe bandits or lob grenades.
After blowing up a few bandits with a grenade launcher from atop the roller coaster tracks, the demo pilot headed into the town of Novac (named after a very old neon sign reading NO VACancy) where the locals make money by salvaging equipment from a defunct rocket base nearby. There's a large, artificial dinosaur here, named Dinky, that serves as the town's gift shop where you can buy items. You can also venture up inside Dinky's mouth and peer out over the horizon, a la Pee Wee's Big Adventure.
There's a large pre-War solar energy plant nearby called Helios One, and you can activate a quest to help get it back online ... or go off on your own and activate a massive, focused laser called Archimedes II. It's hard to resist frying people like ants with this thing, although it won't do much for your good reputation.
The rest of my demo featured an optional area called Black Mountain, which was teeming with super mutants (that were just begging to be laser-blasted). Besides the roving bands of raiders and Powder Gangers, there are two main factions at play in New Vegas: the New California Republic and Caesar's Legion. In broad terms, the NCR are the good guys, while Caesar's Legion serves as the bad guys (they enslave innocent people, after all). The NCR is headquartered in McCarran Airport inside Vegas, while Casesar's Legion controls most of the area east of the Col. It's this conflict that will present many of your quests, although there are multiple optional areas for you to explore and play through. It's also during these quests that you'll pick up your companions.
One of the most significant new gameplay mechanics in Fallout: New Vegas comes in the form of the companion wheel, which is designed for easy access to Companion Commands, including access to companion inventories and behavioral orders. If you want your companions to attack everything in sight, you can set them to be aggro. Or, on the flip side, you can have them be very docile.
From what I saw, this new radial menu system is a very easy to navigate and is much neater and quicker to access than the companion system in Fallout 3. In fact, the companions themselves will talk to you now and tell you if you've done something stupid, like arming a gun expert with a melee weapon. Companions also offer benefits to you in the form of perks, so you'll want to choose carefully when picking a buddy to go exploring with you.
The developers urged that this demo was only a minute sliver of the world of Fallout: New Vegas, and the preview never actually ventured into Vegas proper. Perhaps not surprisingly then, no gambling gameplay was shown, despite it being a substantial part of the overall game. There also wasn't any music in the game build I saw, because the company is still working on the licensing, but the developers assured me that the tracks would be a combination of the late 1950s vibe from Fallout 3 and country western music from the same era. Obsidian is also utilizing a lot of history from Fallout 1 and 2 in this game, although you won't have to know those games to enjoy this one. The new elements, like the Grenade Machine Gun (just as it sounds), offer plenty to engage first-time Fallout explorers.
My biggest concern about Fallout: New Vegas is its undeniable resemblance to Fallout 3. It utilizes the same game engine as the 2008 franchise revival and the technology is most certainly aging. New Vegas looks exactly the same as Fallout 3, and at times you might forget you're playing the "new" game. Sure, the tweaks and multitude of new weapons are welcome additions, but they were entirely necessary to keep fans interested in this franchise -- and perhaps Obsidian hasn't gone far enough with the changes. There are no vehicles in New Vegas (and apparently no fast travel system at all), and players are still going to spend a lot of time inside Pip-Boy menus and the VATS system. Still, if you're yearning for more "Fallout 3," New Vegas is shaping up to be a fun, familiar journey back to your favorite post-nuke world.