War never changes, and neither do the introductions to the Fallout games. Just like the previous four canonical games, Fallout: New Vegas opens to a haunting look at a damaged society in a post-apocalyptic world followed by Ron Perlman’s deep voice delivering the opening narration. “War – wr never changes,” he begins, immediately sending a chill down the spine of any Fallout fans – and if you’re reading this, you’re surely a Fallout fan. At least one instalment in the legendary saga should reside in the collections of any hardcore gamer; set in a post-apocalyptic future where the world has been devastated by a nuclear war, each game in the series sees players take control of a character, normally born in one of radiation-proofed Vaults underneath America, exploring the wasteland that has formed topside for the very first time. If you played Fallout 3, you’ll be familiar with this setting. New Vegas, on the other hand, puts you in the shoes of the Courier, a package deliverer for the Mojave Express in Nevada already adjusted to life on the surface. After being shot in the head, buried half-alive, discovered by a robot named Victor, and then revived in the town of Goodsprings, the Courier sets out on a quest to track down the dangerous folk who nearly killed him earlier.

The plot isn’t nearly as enrapturing as Fallout 3’s, and the apparent integrity added by Liam Neeson’s voice talent in the previous instalment is no longer relevant as the only Hollywood star here is Matthew Perry in the role of a character that’s anything but friendly. Despite the less interesting story, the Nevada setting and engine changes are vast improvements over the gameplay in Fallout 3. On top of that, New Vegas provides far more interesting and challenging side-quests from the get-go, some of which have some fairly epic conclusions and provide a great time-sink or level grinding platform, not to mention great bonuses. The karma system is now far more diverse; while you can still lose and gain karma for acts deemed evil or good, you can also gain fame and infamy in specific communities, which will affect the way each community perceives you.

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This is fairly important, since Nevada is occupied by a number of factions who are all competing to own as much land as possible. Fallout 3’s Brotherhood of Steel is now a minor faction, having been all but eradicated from the west coast, and the most notorious factions are the Great Khans, the New Californian Republic and the Legion; respectively, they’re a group of barbarians tied closely to the plot, a surprisingly Draconian “republic” attempting to control the entire west coast, and an army intent on conquering Nevada while simultaneously playing a far too serious game of Roman dress-up. The faction system is great: the game entirely depends on which factions like you and which don’t, and you’ll occasionally lose the opportunity to carry out entire quests. In fact, it’s nigh impossible to complete every quest in one play-through, not only because of their sheer number, but also because of the large number of dependencies on which some quests rely.

If you happen to stumble upon any dead faction members, however – or perhaps create some dead faction members – you’ll be able to rob them of their clothing and then don it yourself in order to blend in with other members. Your disguise will fool other members of that faction, who’ll act friendly towards you if you’re not figured out by guards or a number of other key figures. It’s more or less the only reason to keep faction-specific apparel in your inventory; some of them are fairly heavy and you can’t even fetch a good price for them if you try and sell them to any of the plentiful travelling merchants.

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Having never visited Nevada myself, I can’t talk about the accuracy of the topography or the architecture, but the Mojave Wasteland carries an aura of authenticity with its vast desert areas, abandoned gas stations, sprawling power plants and countless idiosyncratic characters. I’m not sure how the New Californian Republic managed to get from California to Hoover Dam, but the NCR characters look both authoritative and suitably out of place, with Troopers wearing the dark-tinted glasses a cliché for West Coast State Troopers these days. You’ll get used to Fallout’s trademark anachronisms soon enough, something of a consolidation of ’50s post-war culture, contemporary clothes and futuristic technology, paying respects to all eras.

The Strip is relatively small, but no doubt the liveliest area in the game, with a handful of fully functional casinos in which players can try their hand at the slots or engage in games of blackjack. As expected, the majority of the story is unravelled here, and you’ll be assaulted with so many quests within minutes of entering the area that you’ll be given many more hours of gameplay, despite having spent most of your prior playing simply striving to arrive there. In a way, New Vegas delivers a sense of scale that Fallout 3 just couldn’t convey by spreading out the game’s key settlements and inserting vast and dangerous areas between them. That’s not to say these areas are completely barren; old buildings and settlements will be stumbled upon from time to time, offering small quests, a place to rest and some supplies if you’re lucky, enhancing the scavenger-esque nature of the Courier.

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Levelling and perks work in much the same way they did in Fallout 3, but the way your stats affect dialogue is now very different. For example, some dialogue options require a Speech check, which will either succeed or fail depending on how highly you have levelled your Speech ability. Whereas Fallout 3 would use the player’s Speech stat to determine the likelihood of success and then allow the player to attempt the Speech check anyway, New Vegas simply checks whether the player’s Speech stat is above a certain number and the check will succeed or fail accordingly. On the plus side, this means that players with a high enough Speech stat will never fall victim to a fluke and fail the check; but this also means players whose Speech stat falls short of one or two points will have absolutely no chance of passing the check. It’s an acceptable change, but one that didn’t necessarily need to be made.

Fortunately, New Vegas also sports a few better engine changes, including new crafting functionality and a more detailed way to control companions. The former allows players to use workbenches, camp fires and reloading benches to forge new weapons and ammo from spare parts or cook foods from plants and meat found across the wasteland. While you can eat raw meat from a Gecko or Mole Rat that you’ve shot, collecting a handful of random crops and then choosing an appropriate recipe will create a new dish which will be even more effective at healing the player. The other addition is the companion wheel, which lets you immediately change the nature of your companions, encouraging them to surge ahead and attack enemies or linger behind and let you take care of them yourself. Giving the player full control of the AI makes having a companion so much better, since letting them do their own thing normally leads to their premature death.

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Players of Fallout 3 will feel comfortable with New Vegas, with its gameplay enhancements and fresh storyline not just extending the previous game’s confines to a new area but rather serving up a brand new chunk of post-war America and introducing gamers to a completely stand-alone experience. Even if you never played any of the previous Fallout games, you’ll find something of merit here, and the open-world nature of the game and lack of cutscenes makes it easy for anybody to immediately jump in and enjoy, and the incredibly difficult Hardcore mode gives Fallout veterans a whole new challenge.

Ultimately, despite the bugs and nuisances which riddle the game, it’s a solid role-playing experience and one that you should definitely not miss; there’s guns, gambling, challenge and a wealth of in-universe history for the die-hard fans. You really don’t want to miss out on what is surely the closest we’ll get to role-playing perfection this year.