Fallout: New Vegas endures because of big clunky story swings

Fallout: New Vegas has endured in the cultural zeitgeist in a way that few other games have. Even within the Fallout fandom, it’s earned a prized position as a true classic of the RPG genre. That love is still reflected today, in goofy memes and fan art and enduring debates over which endgame is the right one. Even though the game has aged terribly in some respects — characters look rough, and not just from living in the apocalypse — it still persists as one of the high points of the Fallout franchise. The new Fallout TV series is set to premiere on Amazon, so there’s seldom been a better time to revisit New Vegas or play it for the first time.

Fallout: New Vegas opens with an exploration of the Mojave Wasteland, setting up some of the factions vying for control of this region of post-apocalyptic America. This game builds off the lore of the first two isometric RPGs, returning to the West Coast. The New California Republic, a democratic attempt at building back an old America, has expanded too far. Here, at the Hoover Dam, they struggle to hold on to territory. Caesar’s Legion, an army emulating the empire of old Rome, has met the NCR here in a clash of ideologies. New Vegas, a sparkling city of progress run by the mysterious Mr. House, dominates the skyline with its neon towers.

Unfortunately, the player character will need to work up to confronting these forces. The game begins with the Courier being waylaid by a smooth-talking group of goons. You awake in a friendly local doctor’s home, having miraculously survived being shot in the head and left in a shallow grave. You sort out matters in the small town of Goodsprings and then begin your trek into the Mojave.

Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Bethesda Softworks

New Vegas is built on the bones of Fallout 3, and the gameplay is honestly so-so. But the game is elevated by its fantastic writing. There are four possible paths the Courier can choose from: joining the NCR, allying with Mr. House, enlisting in Caesar’s Legion, or pursuing an independent Mojave. There’s a similar structure to Fallout 4, but I failed to connect with the various ideologies of the Commonwealth. They were a little too simplistic and flat. Fallout: New Vegas is anything but that.

The questions posed in New Vegas are much more interesting to me as a player. At first, the NCR appears to be the default good guy faction. But one companion, Cass, openly expresses skepticism of the government. She critiques their expansion with the memorable line: “Nobody’s dick is that long, not even Long Dick Johnson. And he had a fucking long dick, hence the name.” Hanging out with Boone, a stoic and surly sniper I meet in the mouth of a giant dinosaur tower, complicates things further. After enough time working together, he shares the trauma incurred by his time with the NCR.

Every companion in this game has opinions, and they’re interesting. New Vegas has a bunch of wildly interesting ideas, and it’s not shy about running with them. Lily Bowen is a giant nightkin super mutant who wears a giant sun hat and shades. Raul is a ghoul gunslinger who’s been press-ganged into service as a mechanic for a hostile state of super mutants. Arcade Gannon is a doctor and scientist who automatically joins your party if you have an intelligence of 3 or less, because he feels like someone needs to take care of you.

The NCR may be complicated, but Caesar’s Legion poses a serious threat — or opportunity, depending on your decisions — to the denizens of the Mojave. The player is introduced to the faction through Nipton, a sinful town sentenced to a gruesome ritual known as the Lottery. The encounter starts with a guy running at you, hysterically laughing and screaming that he won, he won! You quickly realize that his joy is closer to a wild hysteria, and something truly terrible has happened in Nipton.

A player in Fallout: New Vegas confronts two security automotons, bulky robots with grasping hands that balance on one wheel, with a rifle. Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Bethesda Softworks

Mr. House offers a potential third path, but as I quest around the Strip, I can’t help but realize how many impoverished communities have sprung up in its shadow. I can’t even get in — under penalty of being shot by a giant murder robot — unless I meet specific qualifications. Can I trust the reclusive master of the Strip and its casinos? Or is it worth forging a new path for the Mojave, with no masters or kings?

Each of these factions have interesting characters. Caesar is definitely a bad guy, and I have journeyed through his camp to blow him up in new and satisfying ways many times over the years. But it’s also worth talking philosophy with him, and learning more about the Legion and the sort of civilization they would establish. He’s not a mustache-twirling villain, but a satisfying antagonist to face and defeat.

This is all skimming the surface of what New Vegas has to offer. The cherry on top of this great RPG is a radio station that’s full of bangers, with a particular shoutout to Big Iron. But the game takes big swings, and the overall vision is able to balance both serious themes and some intense goofiness.

Similar open-world RPGs have quickly faded from conversation after their launch. Even a recent big RPG epic like Starfield has fallen off most of our radars. But Fallout: New Vegas fans are still making memes, arguing about the endgame variables, and sharing build tips to this day. It’s a clunky game in many respects, the characters don’t look great, and there’s the occasional glitch. I don’t care. Fallout: New Vegas is still the apple of my eye, and showcases how brilliant the setting can be.

Fallout: New Vegas is available to play on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox Game Pass, and Windows PC via Steam and GOG.

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