Fallout: New Vegas review: War sometimes changes, a little

Days like this, I'm happy we review experiences rather than products here at Joystiq.

How could I hope to evaluate the worth of Fallout: New Vegas, a full-price game that's practically identical, both graphically and mechanically, to another game that was released two years ago? How could I tell you whether or not it's an insult that you're being asked to pay $60 for a game that's so technically deficient that it scarcely feels past the beta stage?

Luckily, we're talking about the experience, and that's easy enough. If you loved Fallout 3, you're going to love this. If you hated it or weren't interested enough to give it a shot, you're going to be more confused than ever what all the fuss is about.

Welcome to the Mojave Wasteland. Much like the D.C. Wasteland you knew and as the name would imply, it's a nightmarish dump, spotted with oases of humanity, nature and commerce. This is a dustier wasteland though, and one that you (blessedly) don't have to navigate via subways: Just pick where you want to go and head there.

While Fallout 3 tracked your hero from birth, New Vegas begins with a rebirth of sorts, casting you as a courier who's been brought from the edge of death after a delivery is interrupted by a mysterious assailant. The vengeful courier scrapes together what supplies she (yes, I went fully lady) can and heads out into the Mojave in search of retribution and her missing package.

In a sense, Fallout 3 players know exactly what to expect here. You'll walk the vast expanses between towns, half purposefully and half just exploring, taking on odd jobs and bigger missions. All the while, you're deciding what kind of courier you're growing, be it a science whiz who's great with a pistol or a fast talker who packs a mean wallop with a sledgehammer.

Those decisions aren't quite as significant this time around as New Vegas introduces magazines that can give a 10-point (or 20, with the right perk) bump to any skill. It's not enough to turn a Helen Keller into Annie Oakley, but it does help to de-emphasize super high levels of specialization in any one field. It makes for a more flexible experience, albeit one less tailored to your character type.

Most of Obsidian's other additions to what Bethesda's turned out with Fallout 3 are more cosmetic. Sure, New Vegas allows you to harvest plants to use as stat-boosting chems, upgrade your weapons, and quickly give partners commands via the "companion wheel." They're all neat, but aren't really compelling enough to alter the way I played the game. There are certainly more tweaks than your standard expansion, but nowhere near what you'd expect from a traditional sequel. Fallout: New Vegas is neither, so perhaps it makes sense that it would fall somewhere in the middle.

New Vegas is perhaps best thought of as an alternate reality version of what Fallout 3 could have been, if set in the American Southwest. The Mojave is still horrifically beautiful like the D.C. Wasteland, but in a much more peaceful way. The songs beamed across the radio waves are still way retro, but with a distinctly country twinge. The urban crusader Three Dog has been replaced as host by the far slicker and more disconnected Mr. New Vegas (who is, no exaggeration, brilliantly played by Wayne Newton). Special note for those whom, like me, thought of the radio in Fallout 3 as a sort of constant companion: Don't expect the same connection here. It's not just that I didn't like the songs as much (I didn't) -- but there simply aren't enough of them. After hearing "Big Iron" twice in a row (I had already memorized all the lyrics by this point) I finally had to relent and turn the thing off, something I never would have considered in Fallout 3.

The only other major overhaul is Obsidian's faction system, which lets you earn the respect or hatred of the Mojave's tribal clans. Did you help out soldiers from the overbearing New California Republic? Be careful, you might incur the wrath of the Kings, a gang solely devoted to the image of the long-dead Elvis. Did you off an explosives-toting Powder Gangers just to score some cheap dynamite? You better hope his gang doesn't hear about it (spoiler: they always do).

By presenting no clear "bad" or "good" clans, Obsidian really lets you figure out the groups you identify with and cast your lot with them, free of the constraints of traditional morality. Unfortunately, this can make things a little confusing, especially in the game's main quest line, which concerns the clans battling for control of New Vegas. A couple of times I completed a quest only to find out I'd ostracized a group I had no clue would care about my actions. Others, I'd see whole quest chains appear instantly failed because I had no idea they existed, let alone that I was losing my chances at them.

For me, Fallout is about a series of adventures rather than a singular quest, so I wasn't terribly bothered. But I do wish options had been laid out just a bit better.

The Mojave is still horrifically beautiful like the D.C. Wasteland, but in a much more peaceful way.

No, I can only point to one real, genuine, unequivocal misstep Obsidian has made here (OK, two if you count the soundtrack): It's a technical embarrassment. Three times the game locked up on me completely, forcing me to restart the 360. Entering the outside world is more often than not accompanied by 20 seconds or so of the framerate slowing to an absolute slide show. Load times regularly hover between 25 and 50 seconds, in spite of a full hard drive installation. That's not so bad when you happen upon the occasional building in the Mojave Wasteland, but quest lines that take you in and out of several buildings in a row are utterly demoralizing.

Obsidian hasn't even fixed the kludginess inherent to Fallout 3. The camera still gets stuck in the wrong location for dialog sequences and A.I. pathing is still comically unnatural. If I were looking at Fallout: New Vegas as a product, I'd say it's shocking that it's being released to the public in this state.

But as an experience ... well, tech problems are enough to take you out of it occasionally, but not to write the whole thing off. Heck, I bet technical failures are all but an oddly endearing series hallmark for some of you; I know I'd be lying if I said I didn't get an odd kick out of the lousy pathing. Sorry, other glitches: You're still obnoxious.

Paradoxically, New Vegas doesn't make good on much new on any front, and it takes a hit both as experience and product for it. As fond as I am of the idea of an alternate reality Fallout 3, we shouldn't forget that game was released in late 2008, and Obsidian's contribution to the franchise looks and feels every day of two years old, maybe more. But it's still a giant, cool, twisted, funny world to explore, chock full of a staggering number of adventures. Is that really the sort of experience you can afford to pass up?

This review is based on the 360 retail version of Fallout: New Vegas provided by Bethesda.