In this video game image released by Bethesda Softworks, a scene is shown from the post-apocalyptic game "Fallout: New Vegas." (AP Photo/Bethesda Softworks)
The lights of Vegas have always been a draw, but for a wasteland traveller trudging around a post-apocalyptic desert, a night's rest in a luxury penthouse suite never seemed so appealing.
Fortunately that's in the cards in "Fallout: New Vegas" ($49.99, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC), Bethesda Softworks' latest entry in its popular role-playing shooter series.
"Fallout" titles capture an idyllic 1950s vision of the future, but the Vegas setting prompted developers at Obsidian to bring the series into the Rat Pack era. The dichotomy between the vast desolation and the walled-off glitz is wonderful, motivating the player to find a way into the big city.
Players who grew accustomed to the Capitol Wasteland of "Fallout 3" will feel right at home in the Mojave Wasteland, and there's plenty to explore.
This "Fallout" doesn't begin in an underground vault.
Your character is a courier sent to deliver a package in New Vegas, and he's shot and left for dead in a shallow grave. You wake in the town of Goodsprings to a doctor who patches you up, helps you customize your look and strengths, and sends you out into the unfriendly world to face raiders, death claws and geckos.
You're once again equipped with a Pip-Boy 3000 so you can manage your inventory, repair weapons and check maps to plan the next quest; navigation, attacks and character dialogue are exactly the same.
Gone from the Pip-Boy radio DJ booth is Three Dog. His replacement, Mr. New Vegas, is a Casey Kasem-style character by Vegas legend Wayne Newton. He'll keep you abreast of the happenings around the area.
It's been a couple of hundred years since nukes destroyed most of the world, but they apparently spared New Vegas, a renamed city powered by the nearby Hoover Dam that looks like a throwback to the days when hotels like the Sands ruled the Strip.
Unfortunately, the gate is patrolled by large security robots that demand a passport or want you to submit to a credit check to show you have at least 2,000 bottle caps ("Fallout" currency) to spend in the casinos.
I was a little short, so I headed back out into the wasteland for hours of more exploring, killing, pillaging and scrounging.
The game features three main factions, the New California Republic, Caesar's Legion and Mr. House, and there are competing smaller gangs such as the Kings and Great Kahns that have various allegiances.
Your character can still gain or lose karma with certain actions, but "New Vegas" introduces a more localized reputation feature, which really adds to the complexity of the characters. Killing a member of a particular group could put you on the outs in one area, but it could also win you favour with a rival faction.
At one trading post I ran into a young Brotherhood of Steel scribe named Veronica, who described herself as a procurement specialist though she proved quite deadly with a weapon.
A much improved companion rotary menu offering eight different commands made it much easier to take on quests with a partner.
We were gaining strength and picking up better weapons while assaulting raiders that I was emboldened to attack on my way into the gates of Vegas, a ridiculous approach that somehow worked.
Once inside I was able to visit various casinos where I could use caps to buy chips to play blackjack, roulette and slots, and meet the casino owners, who all have seem to have an angle.
After briefly meeting the guy who shot me at the beginning of the game, I was also able to score a cool machine-gun that shoots grenades. It's one of the many new weapons you'll stumble on throughout the area.
For "Fallout" veterans looking for an even tougher challenge, the game offers a hardcore mode in which food and water become more important and ammunition adds to your weight load.
"Fallout: New Vegas" offers players a vast new wasteland to explore, plenty of humorous character interactions and enough new creatures and weapons to continue the fun.
Bottom line: It's a blast.
Four stars out of four.