For years now the Fallout games have been telling us that war never changes. The series itself, meanwhile, has been in an ongoing state of flux: Fallout 2 initially appeared to be an expanded facsimile of its predecessor, and yet buried beneath its surface lay a number of important tonal differences - notably an increased fondness for juvenile humour and tongue-in-cheek nods to pop culture. Next came Fallout: Tactics, a curious but not entirely unsuccessful attempt to at squad-based strategy. Then the franchise entered its darkest period: Interplay descended into financial turmoil, the third true game - known at the time as "Van Buren" - was cancelled, and the entire Black Isle team was laid off. To add insult to injury, these losses were followed by the release of Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel - a dire, Interplay-developed shooter that dragged the license into a dark alley where nasty things were done to it. Long-time fans affectionately dubbed the game "Fallout: PoS".
Then, of course, there was Fallout 3. When Bethesda announced it had acquired the Fallout brand from Interplay, the established fanbase greeted the news with a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was an understandable reaction, up to a point: the preceding disappointments were very painful for a lot of us. But while the final product split opinion among veteran devotees, the fact remains that Fallout 3 saved the brand. True, it departed considerably from some of the established lore, but it was a pretty damn good game in its own right, and one that brought Fallout to a colossal new audience. Ironically, many of these newcomers are now worried about the fact that New Vegas has been developed not by Bethesda, but by Obsidian - a studio now home to many Black Isle refugees.
Please forgive me for the extended history lesson, but it's important to consider all this when appraising New Vegas, particularly if you're one of the many people who only joined the party in 2008. You'd be forgiven for expecting this game to be a re-skinned reprisal of the game we played two years ago. That's really not the case. Sure, much of the core experience remains unchanged: it's the same engine, after all, and while the setting has shifted from Washington to the Mojave - trading Fallout 3's green hues for a dusty orange colour scheme - the basic mechanics and presentation are pretty much identical. This is another epic post-apocalyptic RPG, played from the first-person perspective, with a combat system that lets you pause time to cue up carefully-aimed shots. So far, so Fallout 3 - but the contrasts lie in what Obsidian has done with these returning elements, alongside their approach to quests and the tone of the adventure.
For all its side quests and distractions, Fallout 3 was ultimately a fairly clear-cut tale of Good vs. Evil. It was the story of one character's life, beginning with their birth in Vault 101 - one of the town-sized shelters which protected a lucky minority from the nuclear war that ended life as we know it. When your Dad went missing, you followed him out into the Wasteland - a world of mutants, gunfights, and the struggling remnants of humanity. Eventually you became aware of a fascist threat to what was left of civilisation, and you took appropriate action. You could destroy the bad guys or you could help them achieve their goals, but either way there was never any doubt about who the villains were.
New Vegas, on the other hand, begins with you being shot in the head. You're no Vault-dweller - you're just an everyday courier who happened to take the wrong job. A helpful robot digs you out of your shallow grave, and then you set out to find the men who installed a 9mm hole in your skull. As you follow your would-be murderers, you'll see a lot of strange and terrible things: insects the size of cars, roving packs of bandits, innocent people left to die on crosses. You'll meet pin-striped gangsters, slavers who model themselves after the Roman Empire, and the soldiers of a bureaucratic republic out to colonise the entire Wasteland. And throughout these encounters you'll wonder to yourself, "Where are the good guys?"
Obsidian's New Vegas is a land of violence, deception and muddy morality. The good/bad karma system of Fallout 3 has been replaced with a localised reputation mechanic, one that finds individual settlements and organisations reacting to your every decision. The last game boasted a wealth of quests and mini-assignments, but here almost every conversation will lead to a new entry on your to-do list. There is somewhere in the region of 90 major quests to undertake, plus dozens upon dozens of smaller tasks to handle. Sometimes there will be an obviously kind or cruel way to complete your objectives, but often you'll be left to decide for yourself what constitutes the "right" way to proceed.