Ashes. All is ashes. All I've eaten is ashes. I've slept on ashes. I'm covered in ashes, following an unfortunate incident in which 31 Finnish journalists mistook me for an ashtray. I thought of Quintin, and how he had talked of sleeping on a mattress made of phoenix down. Perhaps he could spare a cup of water to throw at me, to wash some of the soot from my face. But then I thought of how he'd sneer and say how that water came from the highest mountain spring in Scotland, and that I owed him £500 for it. No. Better to carry on, to my next appointment, to a real world of ashes. To New Vegas!
I was hands-on with this one - no more watching from afar, judging/wondering/scribbling. Exploring/fighting/irradiating!
From the off, it's a smarter game: one that senses you're raring to go off adventuring rather than one that wants to browbeat you with its exposition. Sure, New Vegas enjoys the significant advantage of the Fallout universe having now been established for a new generation, so it doesn't need to painstakingly describe what a Vault is, what happened when the bombs dropped and where those funky blue jumpsuits came from.
It's also pretty clearly having a bit more fun, though: not chained to an epic status quo-defining core story, but instead mucking around with the outliers of the nu-Fallout universe. The intro sequence (pre-recorded, but nonetheless a statement of intent) shows the New Vegas strip, wasting no time in ushering robots, mutants, guys in sharp suits, and NCR snipers into the crumbling glitz.
It's... well, it's slightly silly. And it suits it. We've seen enough sparse wastelands now – far better to toy with the more colourful possibilities of a post-nuclear sci-fi world.
Of course that's just an intro cutscene, and it's not long before we're back to the land of ashes. Before that, we meet a fink. A fink in spats and a pin-stripe suit, and who says things like "I ain't a fink", before shooting you, a nameless courier in the face. Which is pretty damned finky, if you ask me. He's colourful and incongruous against the washed-out night desert, and again a statement that that this is a more wilfully outlandish take on Fallout and before.
Clearly, that may change as the game wears on, but from the half hour or so of random exploration I got under my rad-belt, it seemed to be making a little more effort to catch the eye as well as the mood.
In a sequence that's already been documented in previews last year, you come to in a doctor's surgery. The guy's somehow pieced your shattered skull and splattered brain back together, which also happens to be a pretty smart way of justifying why you then have to define name, face and abilities of an adult character. It's a lot more straight to the point than Liam Neeson's endless, awed muttering in Fallout 3's character creation, and a damn sight more playful too.
The writing and acting seemed a little sharper than F3's oft-wobbly dialogue, but I'll admit I may be coloured in my thinking there, already knowing as I do that Planescape god-brain Chris Avellone has had a major hand in New Vegas' wordsmithery. While my wandering and chatting through the Wild Westy opening town was about as purposeful as a cider-soaked wasp crawling across a lawn, I didn't run into any jarring "a traveller, eh?" you-are-in-an-rpg clunkers. I felt a little more comfortable, a little more absorbed.
At the same time, clearly it's very, very familiar. It would be a mistake, from what I played, to go into this expecting a brand new experience. That was never the offer, of course, but I did have to fight off a distracting sense of Done This. That said, I suspect knowing I wasn't here for long, that this preview session wouldn't be enough to invest in my character, my purpose and my trinket-hunger, didn't help. Rather than take on quests with noble intent, my impulse was simply to see how far I could run.
First I thought I'd shoot a cow-thing, though. That didn't go well. Half the town came after me. Thought I was holding them off pretty well, until I suddenly got gored by a baby cow-thing from behind. Important Lesson: don't shoot the cow-things.
Reload, re-arm, run for the hills. Run, specifically, for the town of Primm – a place defined by a giant, decaying rollercoaster in the shape of a dinosaur. Again, this is a game that seems to revel in incongruity. It doesn't chain itself to ruin, metal walls and real-life landmarks, but works that little bit harder to drop startling sites into the wasteland.
As I was still fairly puny at this stage, and frankly not making a whole lot of effort to be tactical due to keeping one eye on the clock (I needed to head off and interview id's Tim Willits. I can exclusively reveal that he shaved off his moustache at his wife's request), Primm's guards swiftly turned me into a human golf course. Oh well. Should have been a bit more VATy, really.
I'd be lying if I said I'd found vast tracts of New Vegas' world in my brief time there, but I had at least seen spats, a rollercoaster, giant mutant flies, angry cows and the cutest little murderous baby gecko. That'll do, frankly. I know there's a game waiting for me that's going to cheerfully throw visual ideas at me. That's forever appealing.
While there was a sense of pace and mechanics having been tweaked and tightened, I suspect it won't make the impact that Fallout 3 did, sadly. Much of that can be laid at the feet of the engine, which quite frankly looks pretty ugly by this stage. Still rooted in old Oblivion's, there are fundamentally and obtrusively archaic elements to it – most especially the awkward spindle-blocks of the character models. Fresh from seeing the Witcher 2's rugged, hyper-detailed solidity, my eye struggled to take the Fallout engine's Puppets On A Sea Of Gravy aesthetic entirely seriously.
Such a thing doesn't matter once you've subscribed to the fantasy and the world, of course. While I broadly know what I'm in for, it's the writing and the playful perversion of what the Fallout universe allows that's attracting me to New Vegas. Arriving as it does in a sea of military-themed rail-shooters, I suspect it's going to feel incredibly refreshing despite its technical age.