Now this is more like it! Anyone who read my preview of the public demo available at Gamescom a few months ago will know that on that day, Bethesda had provided possibly the least inspiring demo ever seen. Between us, my two housemates and I racked up at least 140 hours of game time when it came to Fallout 3. It was an addictive masterpiece, a game that made sleep seem like time wasted, and the working week an exile from the free-roaming 'pleasures' of the Capital Wasteland. We even had to stage an intervention at one point. We weren't sure one of the house's inhabitants was still alive until we saw that month's electricity bill.
Frankly, for a semi-sequel we expected more from the demo that day. Luckily, someone listened.
Having cheekily spent a good hour or so mucking about in dusty Nevada, being taken through a number of gameplay additions by the eager rep, clearly pleased at being one of the few stands in the 18+ tent fully operational a good 90 minutes before the general public were allowed in, the disgruntled chip began to fall from my shoulder and I embraced New Vegas much in the same way you'd embrace a friend you haven't seen in a couple of years and is now sporting facial hair you've never seen before.
I said in the previous preview that New Vegas bore all of the hallmarks of its predecessor. It looks the same at first glance, it feels the same, slipping back into VATS like a comfortable jumper and navigating the Pip-Boy with ease. But, as I minced around yesterday morning, swatting bloatflies out of the sky and shooting holes in geckos, a number of the games new features began to shine through. Obsidian have once again taken on the mantle of another's game - in spite of Feargus Urquhart and co.'s return to the franchise that they birthed, it comes back to them much changed by Bethesda - but, and it becomes more apparent as you play, there are new things afoot here.
A little background first of all. Shot in the head and left for dead in the Mojave desert, the game kicks off in the town of Goodsprings. There are marauding gangs to be dealt with, pesky vermin infestations to be cleared out and a great deal of exploration to be done. The move to the West comes with a frontier-like mentality, there's something about the cowboy (RDR anyone?) to this game, much as there was to the last. You'll recognise the apocalyptic desolation, the dilapidated buildings and the oddly animated characters, but then other things begin to dawn on you - little luxuries that were absent in amongst the stark lifelessness of DC. There are tufts of grass, birdsong to be heard, a blue sky and even the audible chirrup of the odd cricket. The Four Horsemen might have come through, but they were a bit less thorough with the Vegas.
There are cosmetic differences to account for the switch in locales - Sunset Sarsaparilla instead of Nuka Cola - but also new elements readily visible from the start. Time shooting bottles off of a wall makes the tightening up of the real-time FPS element highly evident. Fallout 3 was pretty awful to play as a straightforward shooter, and Obsidian have attempted to go some to rectifying that. VATS are still a big part of the action side of things to be sure, but players can now make the most of their trigger-finger skills too. It still doesn't really compare with dedicated FPS games, but the change is noticeable enough as to be a welcome one. Firing up a level 6, underpowered character, VATS was useless from a distance but, after a few modifications, taking out the sniper busy trying to turn me into a sieve proved possible in real-time...and was surprisingly satisfying.
This brings me along to another tweak: customisation. Blueprints are back, but this time you can customise certain weapons too. Take the example above, for starters. There was no way I had a gun with a default range and accuracy capable of taking on my disturbingly precise adversary. However, a little hint from the rep at my shoulder and a crummy lever-action rifle suddenly became an assassin's dream courtesy of a zoom scope, an extra magazine and a suppressor. That sniper didn't last long. Creation tools aren't limited to weaponry either: there's now an ammunition crafting bench too and, at campfires dotted about the place, you can take advantage of the new vegetation to make food items and concoctions to help restore your health.
Also worthy of note is the new 'Hardcore Mode'. Some people will have found Fallout 3 perfectly to their liking in terms of difficulty. Others, however, clearly clamoured for something a little more and Obsidian have delivered with a new mode that tweaks a few things to make for an experience that the rep present described as 'ball-crunching survivalism'. Stimpaks will heal you at a vastly decreased rate, Rad Away takes longer to get you clean again and ammunition weighs more. No one man armies for you. The biggest difference, though, is that you'll have to monitor your hydration levels, your food intake and sleep regularly to avoid going mad from sleep deprivation. As the name suggests...it's pretty hardcore.
Playing New Vegas from the start, before jumping in to a later save to take full advantage of some truly awesome weaponry - if the words 'grenade launcher machine gun' don't thrill you then you might need to check your pulse - has reignited some of the excitement and anticipation. But, more than that, the curiosity is back, the desire to explore and roam around chatting to crazy people, beating up nomads, saving damsels and then pilfering their homes for payment. One hour isn't enough, we'd like to try forty on for size please!