Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Fallout New Vegas is a great game. I've logged hundreds of hours in New Vegas, and that's just since Steam came to Linux. It's widely praised, and lots of people have lots of great reasons for loving the game. I recently played through it again, and I think it's still my favourite Fallout game, and one of my favourite post-apocalyptic RPGs.
New Vegas was released in 2010. It's had plenty of time for gamers to develop nostalgia around it, and I'm no exception. A lot of what I love about the game are wrapped up in fond memories of being new to "modern" cRPG games (I rediscovered video games with the PS3 after a long absence.) I don't think there's a neat and tidy answer to why New Vegas is special. There aren't any groundbreaking game mechanics, it didn't push technology to its limits. It reuses assets from Fallout 3, it's got essentially the same skills for your character, it uses the same VATS interface and controller scheme. If you knew nothing more about it, you might think it was just another DLC for Fallout 3.
And yet it stands apart. Here are some of my favourite New Vegas features, in no particular order, and without regard for significance to the actual game.
Sunny is one of the first characters you meet in Goodsprings. She teaches you to shoot, to forage, and to craft. Sunny is brave, helpful, encouraging, pragmatic, and positive. Sure, she's firm, but she's also clear in her lessons, and she doesn't let you settle for second best. Sunny wants you to succeed, and to succeed in the wasteland is to survive.
If you're wondering why this is a big deal, then you haven't played Fallout 3.
Look, the wasteland is a miserable place, full of mean people who want to kill you either because they want what you have, or they just want you dead. Sunny Smiles is like a tall drink of cool purified water compared to most of the other people you encounter out there, and I think she's the game designers secretly modeling behaviour. Sunny doesn't just want to help you survive, she wants to help you help others. She gladly aids you in defending the town against Powder Gangers, while some other members of the town choose not to take sides (thereby taking a side, in my opinion.)
We don't all identify with the idea of being a "hero." Some of us prefer to be the anti-hero, or the drifter or loner, or the villain. It's a video game, so it's OK to be whatever you want to be, but Sunny is a bright and shining example of what a hero in the wasteland can be.
Also, her name is Sunny Smiles. What style.
Roleplaying games are supposed to give you choices, and they're supposed to be meaningful choices. The eternal problem with computer RPGs is that they're pre-programmed. They don't have the ability to adapt to the player's whim.
New Vegas doesn't transcend that limitation, but I challenge you to play it and not be surprised by some of the options it gives you. Sure, it's annoying when you discover that Activate toilet actually means take a drink of radioactive toilet water, but what about the playthrough when you discover that you've managed to take a skill that provides a new way to exact revenge upon the man who shot you in the head? So many dialogue options are dependent upon your SPECIAL score or skill ranks, so you can play through the game multiple times with new options every time.
I've never much of a fan of the "western" mythos. I lived in the Mojave and the Inland Empire, I've been to Vegas, and I have no romantic notions of the region or culture, past or present.
Turns out, all the west needs to be appealing is a nuclear disaster.
The west coast and Vegas is perfectly suited for the futuristic 50s of the Fallout series. So far as I can tell, cowboys were the reigning fad in the real world 50s. They were to the 50s what vampires were for the 90s, zombies were for the 00s, superheros were for the 10s. Setting a Fallout game in the radioactive wasteland of the west is a natural fit. Everything benefits. We get weird ghouls, supermutants, deathclaws, brahmin, preying mantises, and the misguided wanderlust and optimism that comes from facing a great big frontier.
The VATS system isn't unique to New Vegas. Fallout 3 has it, too, and it's not any different. I first experienced VATS in 3, in fact, and it confused me so thoroughly that I walked away from the game for several months and played Dragon Age instead.
Eventually I figured it out. I came to understand that my character had action points (AP), and that as long as those action points lasted I could pause the game so I could target my enemy with the precision that would come from having a computerized targeting system. It's a brilliant way to express how the player character gains a momentary advantage, using technology and skill that helps in combat.
For me, turn-based combat is one of the defining components of a cRPG. Some very famous RPGs don't feature it (Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment, notably) but for me it's essential. It mirrors how combat is done in most tabletop RPG systems, and it gives you that disconnected overview of the world, with plenty of time to consider your strategy even in the heat of the moment. I love how games like Dragon Age and Shadowrun implement turn-based combat with absolute and clearly defined turns, and I don't imagine I'd like VATS in those worlds. But VATS for Fallout blends RPG objectivity with the frenzy of realtime combat. There have been fights when I don't use VATS, and others where I use nothing but VATS. It's a brilliant system, one of the best features of Fallout, and in some ways it's a perfect demonstration that a cRPG, for all its limitations, can add something unique to the game experience that a tabletop can't (although Dead Earth combat comes close.)
Images from Fallout New Vegas owned by Bethesda.