When I played Fallout: New Vegas at E3 earlier this year, I got the impression that it was basically more of the same -- there was the same faction-based open-ended gameplay as Bethesda's acclaimed Fallout 3, the same VATS-flavored first-person shooting, and the same dialogue-driven story, albeit in a new setting.

After playing through about the first 90 minutes of New Vegas, however, I think I might have been wrong. I don't think it's exactly the same as its predecessor. I think it might be better.

The main difference here is that rather than just wandering out into the Wasteland looking for Dad, you start out with a conflict. While there is the expected opening montage ("War" still hasn't changed -- surprise!) explaining the in-game factions like the New California Republic and the Caesar's Legion, the scene quickly changes to a first-person view, at which point a Vegas swinger type in a zoot suit apologizes for your bad luck, shoots you in the face and leaves you for dead.

That's a far cry from the first game's Vault mini-story, and while I appreciated Fallout 3's buildup at the time, I think I prefer New Vegas' quicker kickoff. Actual character creation is handled by one Doc Mitchell, who is there when you wake up to tend to your wounds, customize your character's looks, and distribute skill points through word association and Rorshach tests.

There is an extended tutorial quest to walk you through movement, combat, and the best ways to use your PipBoy, but if you just want to get with the post-apocalyptic questin', you can do so.

Once you've been cleared by the Doc (very obviously voiced by Battlestar Galactica's Michael Hogan -- I couldn't help but call him "Colonel Tigh" in my head), you're more or less free to wander the world. There is an extended tutorial quest to walk you through movement, combat, and the best ways to use your PipBoy, but if you just want to get with the post-apocalyptic questin', you can do so.

And there's good reason to -- having a clear enemy to hunt down from the outset made the first part of New Vegas feel more directed than Fallout 3. The open world and sidequests are still there (slightly more alive and colorful than the Capital Wasteland, actually -- most of the desert you explore hasn't yet been completely bombed out by radiation), but I was propelled through my session by the storyline: what I was courier-ing for whom, and why this zoot suit shot me.

I also got to hear a little bit about Caravan, the gambling pastime that Obsidian built specifically for New Vegas (the game will also have more traditional games like blackjack and roulette). It involves betting on cards that you can collect throughout the storyline -- I would know more, but at the time, I hadn't yet picked up enough bottle caps to play.

There are a few other additions as well -- perks are back, along with "traits," which are returning to the series after being absent in Fallout 3. They're special abilities that come with a price -- "Good Natured" will boost your social skills at the cost of some attack damage, and "Wild Wasteland" will create some "interesting" encounters, both good and bad. Traits are optional, but they seem like they could both add some variety to the game, and make for some excellent replay value. Radio stations are back, but I only heard Mr. New Vegas playing some swingin' tunes for the desert denizens.

VATS feels better -- it feels smoother and easier to use.

I couldn't tell you specifically why, but VATS feels better -- it feels smoother and easier to use. In the first title, I often found myself just playing in real-time, but in New Vegas, I much more instinctively pulled up the VATS system, both for the great camera views and to help me set up my shots. I used the new VATS against a faction called the "Powder Gangers," chucking dynamite and decapitating them with laser pistols in slow motion.

New Vegas is still Fallout -- it plays the same as the first title, and while the animations and models are new, it's got the same retro wasteland aesthetic. If you loved Fallout 3, you'll probably like this one, and if you hated Fallout 3, New Vegas probably won't change your mind. But the subtitled sequel does seem to improve on Bethesda's formula in a few significant ways. In the first hour and a half or so, it's cleaner, faster, and smoother than the first go-round. And that may make visiting the Wild West Wasteland an even better experience than exploring the Capital.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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