Fallout New Vegas + DLC
In a sense New Vegas was Fallout 3.5. Released just two years after part 3, using the same engine and systems but in a different setting; similar to the quick succession of Fallout 1 and 2.
In another sense it was entirely its own beast; sadly, it ended up being a mutant, unwholesome beast. New Vegas was developed by a different studio, Obsidian, which among it numbered some former Black Isle employees. A sense of nostalgia hangs over the game, evidenced not just in the location it takes place (the Mojave, adjacent to the core region) and the numerous references to part 2 in particular; but a general nostalgia for a bygone age of deep, sprawling crpgs. Seven years earlier, about five years after the release of Fallout 2, Black Isle was working on their version of Fallout 3, now only known by its project name ‘Van Buren’. Elements of that game were eventually incorporated into New Vegas. Perhaps they would have worked better in Van Buren, and Obsidian didn’t have the time or resources to recreate their vision of Fallout 3 in New Vegas.
Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. The general consensus seems to be that Obsidian did the best it could, given the creative limitations it was placed under by Bethesda and by the constraints of the engine. While I don’t deny that’s part of the game’s flaws, I think it went deeper than that and part of the problem is simply that it’s just not a very compelling story.
Again I can be brief about the underlying mechanics and engine: very much the same as Fallout 3. New Vegas did bring back the wasteland feeling a bit more with a heavier emphasis on crafting items and even a realism mode of sorts. The engine felt awkward in part 3 and it continues to do so here.
New Vegas was the first game to introduce a branching story line, where you eventually have to choose to work exclusively for one of three factions and thus decide the fate of the region.
So what’s my gripe with the story of New Vegas? The plot for once does not revolve around a clear-cut end-of-the-world/destroy-all-humans scenario. What Obsidian tried to achieve is a world with no obvious black/white division. The idea is you can choose for either a) an independent, autocratically ruled Mojave, b) ruled by a brutal regime, but one that will impose law and order, c) go for annexation by a democratic, if ineffectual state, or the megalomaniac d) I’ll rule this place myself option. The final confrontation concerns taking control of Hoover Dam. Perhaps not the most exciting staging ground, but it makes sense in a post-apocalyptic world where a massive, intact power station would be immensely valuable.
So all of this sounds good in theory, where did it go wrong? Basically none of the factions make sense or are sufficiently fleshed out for any of the above to work. The game is still burdened with a good/evil karma system that makes nuance impossible. Caesar’s Legion is meant to represent the rule of the strongest, the harsh justice of the wasteland. Instead they are clearly the villains: crucifying villagers, keeping slaves, eschewing technology. We are told they bring a fair rule to the lands they’ve conquered and keep it safe from raiders, but nowhere in the game do we actually see this. All we’re left with is a laughably themed faction, that’s basically as silly as the hockey mask gang from Fallout 3. The NCR on the other hand is supposedly a well-meaning, but corrupt, bureaucratic, and in a way, equally imperialist modern nation state. How does this translate? Slightly higher taxes in one town and a caravan stuck at a checkpoint. I’ll take that over the crucifixions, please. Other factions are equally one note (Boomers, Vegas families). With the Black Isle crew unfortunately also Fallout 2’s sense of humor resurfaced: this time we get to look for a sex-robot named Fisto. Groan.
Further wasted potential: the player character itself. The Courier is the only non-vault Dweller/Vault Dweller descendant protagonist to date. But nothing's done with this conceit. No backgrounds to choose from, nothing to reflect your character is a seasoned wastelander rather than a clueless rookie from the Vaults. This is hand-waved through the most cliché of crpgs plot devices: amnesia. This can be made to work (think Planescape Torment), but in New Vegas it just leaves us with a blank, bland canvas. The only time the Courier's past really comes into play (though poorly at that) is in the DLC, which I'll expand on when I discuss Lonesome Road. But since it's still Fallout, your character must be given a Pipboy, which is handled offhandedly in the intro: here, have this priceless piece of tech for absolutely no reason! This kicks off an unmotivated, dangerous journey to get back a mystery package from the people who tried to kill you. I suppose post-apocalyptic FedEx pays a hell of a lot better than it does now to inspire such loyalty.
Now it may seem I'm being extra critical of New Vegas, only because it was more ambitious than Fallout 3, but didn't quite achieve its goals. But to do a morally ambiguous, complex story justice, you actually need to deliver in the writing department. The Mojave just feels shallow and self-important at times (and seriously, screw Cazadores). To be clear, I think New Vegas is the superior game. Somehow I find it more frustrating to play, because at times you can catch a glimpse of a great game, but most of the time it's just decent.
OK, from all the whining it's clear I was disappointed by the game, but let's leave on a high note and mention the good bits: consistently high quality DLC; great atmosphere, not necessarily post-apocalyptic but a retrofuturistic wild west sort of vibe. Many of the smaller locations were well designed, the greater emphasis on crafting/collecting helped sell the survival mode; New Vegas itself was a great location and some of its denizens (I like the Kings, Mr House should have had more screen time) were interesting. The companions are the best in any Fallout game, with actual personalities and usually a personal quest of sorts, exploring their background.
Fallout New Vegas DLC
Together with Old World Blues and Lonesome Road, Dead Money is part of three DLCs which are loosely interconnected through certain shared characters/mentioned events. The arc kicked off with Dead Money, an Ocean's Eleven type of heist story. You get abducted, stripped of your gear and forced to work for a fanatical BoS elder who wants to get inside the vault of a creepy abandoned casino. You get some interesting new companions (for the duration of the DLC unfortunately), look for some MacGuffins and then break into the vault. Sadly the DLC ends just as it seems to be getting started. I suppose the ending was aspiring to be meaningful/deep, but I can't say it worked out that way. It also introduced some questionable lore elements (holograms, matter transformers). The more high-tech stuff gets retconned into the setting, the more dubious the claim becomes that this world went to nuclear war over oil reserves.
A standalone DLC, perhaps my favorite New Vegas DLC, through virtue of its original location more than through its plot. The story is a ho-hum sort of revenge/redemption plot. We get to meet Joshua Graham aka the Burned Man aka a possible companion from Van Buren-that-never-was. He wants your help to protect a peaceful group of tribals from a hostile group of tribals. You agree of course, get to run through beautiful Zion National Park for a few hours, a nice break from the monotonous desert, collecting various odds and ends and enjoy some of the best examples of environmental story telling in the franchise.
Old World Blues
Again very different in tone and atmosphere than the previous DLC and the main game. Old World Blues is basically a very silly romp through a so-bad-it's-good 50s sci-fi movie. Expect to fight giant mechanical scorpions and such. You find a gun that has a dog's brain in it and sniffs out enemies. The Big Empty is another original location but I think it would have been a more substantial experience if it had been integrated into the plot of the main game. Now it's just a lightweight if fun diversion.
The last of the DLC which wraps up the arc and finally provided us with more info on the character Ulysses, mentioned in the main game as the person who got us into the whole mess in the first place. You get to trek through the Divide, a more-than-usually radiated place (Fallout sure does have a lot of those), filled with bullet sponge enemies. At the end of it all waits Ulysses, with the rather disappointing conclusion to the story. Apparently he wanted revenge for something the protagonist did in the past, that as a player you a) had no choice in or b) even knew about. Again this is not great storytelling. (A better example: The Walking Dead season 1 and your decision to rob the car or not). I found it impossible to sympathize with Ulysses’ plight, especially as we are never shown why we should care about the destruction of the Divide in the first place. Instead of character drama we get unconvincing histrionics. A lackluster ending to the tale.