I finished playing Fallout: New Vegas last Monday night. As so many have said, it's basically more Fallout. I'd put it on par with Fallout 2, where for me, Fallout and Fallout 3 are just a notch above. No major deviations from expectations, but there were a few things I really liked. And if you've played it, the picture above should be a healthy hint.
Obligatory spoiler warning: Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas revelations of a serious calibre follow.
As a technical gripe and preface, I really hope Bethesda either scuttles or dramatically upgrades Gamebryo for whatever they're doing next. The engine is seriously showing its age. It does fine with the environment, but really falls flat on people. Not only are they, at best, individually unsettling but the engine seems very limited on how many of them can be in a space at once. Hitman: Blood Money had a fantastic scene in New Orleans with some extremely dense crowds. And it's over four years old.
In contrast, you hit the Strip in New Vegas and it feels so empty. It's been talked up by countless NPCs on your way there, but the place itself is terribly sparse. Upon entering the club portion of the tawdriest casino, supposedly the Strip's most popular establishment, there were maybe four patrons and the bartender. Oh, and two dancers awkwardly gyrating on a massive stage that totally dwarfed them. All the spaces in New Vegas feel very cavernous. And without sufficient NPCs to fill them, going to the Strip feels more like you're at a Tuesday night concert waiting for the opening act nobody likes to start.
I can't imagine this is intentional, but an engine limitation. And it's really exacerbated in the game's climax, where Caesar's Legion attacks the Hoover Dam. The entire game you're told Caesar has been massing his army for four years, waiting to overwhelm the New California Republic's defenders. But when the attack comes, how vast is Caesar's Legion? Hundreds? Thousands? Not even close. It's maybe 15 legionnaires. Underwhelming doesn't even begin to cover it. It's not even enough guys to field a professional hockey team.
Now I realize it's absurd to think the game could simulate a battle with hundreds of participants, but it also shouldn't tell me that's what is supposed to be happening! It could have been setup that Caesar sent the bulk of his legion across the river, diverting the NCR's forces and then sent in elite commando units to take the Dam under the cover of darkness. But there's not even an attempt to reconcile the tremendous gulf between what the game says is occurring and what is actually happening for the player. I can't say it's anything but disappointing.
And the worst part is, otherwise Caesar's Legion is fantastic. They're a great antagonist, one of the best I've seen in a game possibly in years. They're strong because Obsidian got two things with the Legion right that greatly contribute to them being designed as a strong antagonist. First, they have a real presence in the world and to its inhabitants. People are talking about the Legion (sometimes exaggerated, sometimes not) well before you ever encounter them. When you finally do, you come across them leaving the town of Nipton (a real place in California) after they've killed or crucified the entire populace. Then they disappear and you don't cross paths with them again for hours. It's simple foreshadowing, but so many games have antagonists appear two minutes before you defeat them and they're never seen again.
Second, Caeser's Legion is well realized. Using the Roman Empire provides a wealth of characterization that requires almost no effort at all. And rather than just slap plumed helmets and leather skirts on some NPCs, Obsidian did a good job drawing upon real Imperial Roman characteristics. The use of proper Latin pronunciation, e.g. "v" as "w" and all c's as hard c's (so it's "Wall-ay" not "vall-e" and "Kai-sar" not "Seeser"). Caesar's Legion doesn't have spies, they have Frumentarii (the actual Roman secret service). Even small details, like the description of how the Legion fought at the first Battle of Hoover Dam exactly matches the maniple system the Romans actually used to defeat the popular phalanx used by other powers in the ancient Mediterranean (at least until Marius reorganized the legions again in 107 BC, which ultimately contributed significantly to the downfall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire). And Caesar fighting against a corrupt, oligarchical New California Republic and its Senate is hardly a coincidence. Using the Roman Empire as a cultural basis for their antagonist is such a good move for Obsidian because it makes the Legion feel distinct and foreign without needing to create an entire believable culture from whole cloth.
In contrast, The Enclave in Fallout 3 appear almost literally out of nowhere. They're just the Bad Guys that do Bad Things. If you've played (and remember) Fallout 2, you may be a little more aware of The Enclave and what they're about. If you haven't, they just seem like a slightly better equipped version of the Brotherhood of Steel with a tailor that digs the Third Reich. The only foreshadowing at all is the wandering eyebots broadcasting messages from President Malcolm McDowell. And while the final encounter with the President isn't bad, the Enclave really does come out of nowhere and they have little purpose beyond just "Be Evil."
Of course, I've always been into the history of the ancient world and took several years of Latin in undergrad, so I'm probably both an easy sell and more appreciative of the details than others. And I've recently been listening to an excellent podcast that covers the entire history of ancient Rome that I cannot recommend enough.
Aside from the technical shortcomings of the combat interactions with the Legion, the moral ambiguity in their actions is unfortunately torpedoed (yet again) by a heavy-handed, point-based morality metre. These systems make having any kind of grey area impossible. While the Legion's actions are undoubtedly harsh, they are (like the actual Roman Empire) welcoming and fair to those that do not resist Legion/Roman control. And the NCR isn't exactly a paragon of virtue. It's bureaucratic, corrupt and clearly far more interested in Hoover Dam for their own interests than for the Mojave's.
What boggles the mind is New Vegas implemented a faction-specific karma system with surprising nuance. Instead of single good/evil axis, the faction relationships understand the difference between mostly good/a little evil and see you as a "Smiling Trickster" and mostly evil/a little good granting perception as a "Merciful Thug." But the global karma system undermines all of this, especially with regards to Caesar's Legion, where almost every action nets you evil karma. It's unfortunate, because the opportunity to provide some good "ends justify the means" hypothesizing with regard to the Legion could have been very interesting.
One final note: New Vegas does the epilogue right. One of my favourite things about Fallout 1 & 2 is the lengthy epilogue that details the effect the player had on places they visited and people they met. This was jarring absent in Fallout 3 where the epilogue addressed only a few areas and even then, only briefly. The epilogue of New Vegas is remarkably detailed and satisfying.
New Vegas had the ingredients necessary to surpass the excellent experience Fallout 3 provided. Unfortunately, shackled to aging tech and unable or unwilling to scuttle design inertia, things didn't quite bake up right. As far as antagonists go, Caesar's Legion completely outshines The Enclave. I just wish it had improved that much in other aspects. It's still a great time, but is fated to be "Yeah, it's more Fallout" rather than "It's the best Fallout!"
Oh, and I can't believe there wasn't a quest named "Sic Semper Tyrannis." That's either marked restraint or a huge oversight. Not sure which is better.