The only mistake that Fallout: New Vegas makes is the one that it was completely entitled to make – and the one that was always going to prove inevitable anyway: it isn’t adorned with the intoxicating shock of the new. Fallout 3 felt so miraculous back in 2008 that selecting it as the finest game of its year was something that almost everyone did without a second thought, and the same is obviously unlikely to be said here too. But there is no sense in beating around the bush: New Vegas is almost certainly the better game of the two.

For one thing, it is nowhere near as relentlessly pessimistic and bleak, neither visually nor in its overall tone, and this makes for a very welcome surprise. The West Coast’s marathon distance from the location of the nuclear fallout means that the ‘Mojave Wastelands’ (as the state of Nevada is referred to here) feature plants and wildlife – though some of it hideously deformed – and lush, alluring blue skies. You’d step outside in Fallout 3 and feel instantly uncomfortable; here, whenever you wander outside as the sun is rising, you feel strangely enamoured and refreshed; a feeling that propels you through most of the game’s opening few hours.

When you finally get to see the titular New Vegas it won’t take long to assess that it is very much like the old Vegas, and it stands as one of the few locations to be almost completely untouched by the 200-year-old nuclear apocalypse. Wandering around this place is completely disorientating at first, but not only is it used as a source of much rich humour, it also serves as the backdrop for a vicious power struggle involving the control of the Hoover Dam. Three very different factions are locked into this battle, and how you manage your relationships with each of them represents the game’s very best new addition.

The reputation stat shows how different characters and factions feel about you, and it is determined by how you interact with them directly, and also how you interact with their enemies… And pleasing all of the people, all of the time is completely impossible. This means that certain quests will get locked out if they involve a faction who you’ve turned upon (or neglected, or betrayed) so multiple playthroughs are quietly encouraged. The companions that you can pick up on your journey are also now far less cumbersome than they were in Fallout 3, with a new dial menu system making directing them a whole lot less stressful.

And although Fallout 3’s characters were drawn with much humanity and frequent flashes of enticing warmth, the game wasn’t exactly buoyed by a great deal of leavening humour – which is something that New Vegas has a very generous amount of. It isn’t riddled with gags as such (although there are definitely some rather superb ones present) but the air of self-awareness along with the incessant barbed sarcasm in much of the dialogue, creates an oppressive atmosphere that suits the themes of the game perfectly. Voice acting, predictably, is outstanding.

So although on the surface it may appear to be little more than a larger-than-normal but retrograde expansion pack, Fallout: New Vegas has turned out to be not only a fully-fledged sequel, but an entirely distinctive one at that. It welcomes repeat playthroughs much more readily than Fallout 3 did, and taking in all of its sights will be, for devotees at the very least, an essential (and genuinely rewarding) pursuit. The lack of cavalier rawness may mean that it isn’t singled out for the sky-high praise that its predecessor was subjected to, but it doesn’t matter. It definitely breathes the same air.

Watch the Fallout: New Vegas trailer here:

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