'War,' he says, 'war never changes.' What he doesn't mention though is that apparently neither does Bethesda Softworks' choice of engine, which has been stuck since 2006's The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. It hasn't aged well and that's New Vegas' biggest problem; that many of the complaints that have been levelled at both Fallout 3 and Oblivion – such as the console-centric interface – are still in place.
It's a shame, really. Bethesda has delegated Fallout: New Vegas to Obsidian Entertainment but, while Obsidian knows precisely what it's doing with New Vegas (probably because the studio is led by members of the original Fallout's team), they are held back by the technology available to them. Obsidian has an idea of what Fallout: New Vegas should be; something anarchic and wry, but it's hard to inject a sense of humour into identikit characters that stand like planks of wood when you talk to them.
That's the bad news. The good news is that, while the technology might be holding Obsidian's vision back, it hasn't stopped it completely. There are still times when New Vegas' wit and charm shine through like a beacon, making it clear that the Fallout universe is about more than just underground vaults and super mutants. It's about playing 1990s cynicism and guilt against 1950s expectations of what the future would be; it's about a post-nuclear wasteland where everyone has their own robot butler.
The opening sequence is the biggest hint of this, casting players as a courier who narrowly dodges death, rather than an inhabitant of one of the underground vaults that have become Fallout's signature. There's no quest for the water chip nor search for Liam Neeson; you're not the Chosen One of Arroyo or anything. You're just a guy who gets shot and gets a bit peeved about it. At first we were suspicious of the direction Obsidian seemed to be heading, but then it struck us that vaults aren't integral to Fallout's universe, merely something within it. It made us look back on Fallout 3's reliance on the vaults as a fan service, rather than an attempt to go forward with the fiction – something New Vegas mostly achieves.
New Vegas is still ready to draw on the series' backstory on occasion though, bringing out factions like the New California Republic and the Great Khans from the earliest Fallout games, each of which have grown to become big players on the political field. It's another sign of growth as, where Fallout 3 had only the Brotherhood of Steel and the Enclave, New Vegas features plenty more factions for you to deal with. Caesar's Legion, a tribalistic and militantly authoritarian gang that's part private army and part raider, is one of the bigger ones, though there are still plenty of smaller factions, such as the Powder Gangers.
Into this mess of rivalries comes the player, a Mojave courier who gets double-crossed when asked to deliver a platinum poker chip to a man on the New Vegas strip. Betrayed and shot in the face by a man with a chequered suit and a script ripped straight from The Sting, you only survive because of the timely intervention of a local brain surgeon, who puts you back together. Handy, that.
'Look at the inkblot and hope your perception lines up with these three choices'
After that you're booted out the door and, in typical open-world fashion, allowed to do whatever you want. You can pursue the chequered man and resolve the main quest, or just wander off into the desert and explore.
Whichever you choose, the actual mechanics of the game are much the same as in Fallout 3 or Oblivion, which means you'll spend much of your time meandering around the wasteland at a ponderous speed, constantly distracted by the markers on your compass which indicate nearby things of interest. It could be a cave, a railway station, a town or just a fridge filled with body parts lying at the bottom of a crater; New Vegas is a game where you want to explore every distraction, not just for the pitiful XP bonus but because the wasteland has a tendency towards the batshit loony...
Fallout: New Vegas isn't just a straight aping of Fallout 3 though, as there's an awful lot of extra abilities and features which players can make use of this time around, the most prominent of which are new crafting skills. As well as maintaining and making your own weaponry, Fallout: New Vegas lets players make their own ammo and, more interestingly, expands the complexity of combat by creating several ammo types, such as hollowpoints or armour piercing rounds. There are lesser ammunitions too, which will degrade weaponry faster.
The fact that enemy armour now factors into the game beyond just reducing damage brings a whole proliferation of smaller changes to gameplay, making some of the lesser skills from previous games a lot more important this time around. A decent unarmed or repair skill can now be the difference between limping away from a battle or being dragged away, for example.