The Most Lonesome Road
Obsidian hates endings. I make this bold proclamation after going through the wonders of Neverwinter Nights 2, its expansion Mask of the Betrayer, Knights of the Old Republic II: the Sith Lords and–to a lesser degree–Alpha Protocol. Neverwinter ends with a rather lackluster battle followed by a super unsatisfying ending told through slides about how your noble and courageous party were all crushed by falling rocks in the evil baddies inevitably structurally unsound lair. Mask of the Betrayer’s start pulls a fast one by revealing that you didn’t actually die but are now part of some near immortal campaign against the Lord of Death’s wall of damned souls. You gather your allies, storm his city on an extradimensional plane and… stumble around the most barren municipality before the Lord of Death shows up, slaps your soul into your hands then sends you on your way with a pat on your bum. No one needs to go into detail about how rushed the Sith Lords was nor how its ending is bafflingly incoherent if you haven’t peered into the design documents to glimpse what was meant to be fashioned before the game was packaged and kicked out the door before it was done.
Alpha Protocol’s was probably the best of the bunch though its set battle pieces were rather ham-fisted given how reactive the rest of the narrative had been up to that point.
Of course, Fallout: New Vegas continues Obsidians writhing hatred for closure. The battle for Hoover Dam is, much as Mask of the Betrayer, pretty lifeless and uninspired given all the work you’re tasked with leading up to it. I suppose a plane flies over at some point and fire bombs some suckers which is kind of fun.
What does this have to do with the downloadable content? Well, my prior reviews of New Vegas’ DLC had talked about how they were building up this personal, interwoven and persistent antagonist. Unlike the foes at Hoover Dam who basically sort of pop up at the last moment to be slapped around a little like eager puppets in a whack-a-mole distraction, the player has three separate stories constantly speaking of this mysterious Ulysses. In fact, Ulysses had been ghosting the player’s steps long before Obsidian even got around to creating these final four morsels to round out the remaining ideas of their long cancelled Van Buren. One of the first things the player learns is that the courier mission which saw them to the world’s shallowest grave wasn’t initially even meant to be performed by the player. It was Ulysses who passed on the simple task after seeing you were next in line for the position. This uncharacteristic action haunted me until Lonesome Road was finally released. Here, at last, would be a grand personal reveal that would carry far more weight than the detached foes of Caesar’s Legion and the New California Republic who are far more obsessed with water and power than some shmuck who spends his time running up and down mutated roads.
Needless to say, there was a lot of build up for this story and thus there exists no word which can properly describe the disappointment felt when Lonesome Road concluded and its ending slideshow rolled across my screen.
Now, most people complain that the primary problem with Lonesome Road is its incredible linearity. I take no issue with this. It seems clear to me that Lonesome Road was conceived as the ending for New Vegas which Obsidian had no time or manpower to create. Honestly, its title insinuates that there isn’t going to be much to this story. I was fully prepared for a long, narrow walk down an uncompromising path with only my will set against Ulysses. In my mind, this would be the culmination of a very specific technique of narrative development Obsidian has toyed with multiple times in the past. The Sith Lords is perhaps the most elegant execution. Your character is one of maybe a handful of individuals who have been cast from the Jedi Order. However, the exact details for this expulsion and the motivation for you to accept it are somewhat shaped by the players own decisions. A lot of it is smoke and mirrors, of course. Despite their interactivity, video games will never have the same sort of creative back and forth between designer and player as a tabletop role-playing game. There is a fascinating interplay between player and character knowledge in the game, however. The player learns things which the character knows while simultaneously making decisions often with only half the understanding. Based on those decisions, the character’s past motivations are determined. It takes a very specific view of role-playing. Instead of making the character, the player is taking on a specific role. This comes up again in Alpha Protocol. While the player has control over the motivations and reactions for Michael Thorton, they don’t create his entire back-story or personality.
It had been my hope that Lonesome Road would take the same risks. Given how much Ulysses prattles about how your actions formed him just as severely as the world of Fallout was formed by the cataclysmic nuclear war, I anticipated personal revelations which would reshape my entire view of the New Vegas story proper.
This doesn’t happen. Instead, Obsidian has fabricated some complicated scenario which ravages a place simply called The Divide. I can’t help but taste wasted potential across the entire length of the story. To me, Obsidian wanted to tell this kind of story but they simply didn’t know how. Maybe the build up had proved too much, I can not say. However, the themes–as limited as they are–on the Lonesome Road all explore the stripping away of the superficial differences between Caesar’s Legion and the NCR. Here, both serve as enemies as the endless red dust storms and radiation have reduced both to near mindless ghouls who work together insofar as to destroy any intruders into this ruined sanctuary. Ulysses is unabashed in denouncing you for creating this particular wasteland. You as both the player and character are equally baffled by this judgement. It does the story no justice that most of it is told through Ulysses’ discarded journals which require discovering. Ulysses himself is far too obtuse and poetic to communicate anything and unlike the other DLC there is no supporting cast to offer further clarification. The only friendly entity is a copy of the robot ED-E who only beeps (and only beeps about some stupid children’s show because it’s far more important to detail a robot’s background than the protagonist’s).
Through the rambling, it seems the player made a delivery to a town on the Divide which somehow started up because the courier made frequent passes through the Divide while doing deliveries. It’s hard to gauge a chronology partly because there’s so few points of reference and partly because Ulysses prefers the sound of his own voice over making sense. I can’t help but feel some of the vagueness is in part because it was so hard trying to wiggle Lonesome Road’s story into the greater New Vegas whole. At some point it was a major focus in the fight between the NCR and the Legion even though no one talks about the Legion penetrating that far into NCR territory (or even that the Divide was that necessary of a supply line). Another major problem is that the player determines the Courier’s age, so it seems really strange if you’re playing a young Courier how they could have possibly been employed long enough to discover, chart and ultimately lead enough people to the Divide for a town to grow up before the Courier ultimately delivers a package which brings about its end.
This mysterious package, it turns out, is the activation code for the numerous nuclear warheads scattered throughout the Divide. Apparently, in the Old World, the Divide was a major military outpost with hundreds of nuclear armaments pointed towards China. Ulysses’ plan is to return to this location and launch the warheads at both the NCR and Legion–since he sees them as one and the same. He requires your presence for some sense of poetic justice, I think. From what I can gather, he was in the Divide when the Courier unintentionally delivered the package that tore it apart so he was one of a few “sane” survivors. The Courier, somehow, delivered the activation orders and pissed off before the explosions since there is at no point any response that indicates the character’s knowledge differs from the player’s. And the player certainly doesn’t know anything about this place before stepping in it.
Ultimately, it’s a jumbled mess. Even as I try to write this review, I can’t recall the content very well. Unlike the last three, there’s very little that’s memorable about a journey which should have been the crowning achievement for the entire game. I know I was grossly disappointed with how slap-shod all the prior references to Ulysses ended up becoming. His meddling in Honest Hearts, Dead Money and Old World Blues turns out to be incredibly incidental. His plan is haphazard and carelessly thrown together. The player is offered a choice at the end of the road–whether to bomb the NCR or Legion (or both or none)–though there isn’t any truly compelling reason given to do either. Ulysses’ desire is framed as villainous though it’s not justified nearly as well as any of the other antagonists. One of the highlights of New Vegas, for me, is how understandable Caesar is when you sit down with him. Sure, he’s a slaving, misogynistic asshole hellbent on a megalomaniac conquest spree but at least you can understand how he got where he was. Likewise, Elijah’s obsession is well established and explained so when you hunt him down and see the extremes he’s gone to you know how he got to the end of his road. Both offer far more compelling antagonists than Ulysses and neither had as much time devoted to them.
Lonesome Road is simply yet another disappointing ending in a long series of disappointing endings. Perhaps its best accomplishment is its visual design which does convey a sense of tragic destruction near wiped clean from the greater Fallout universe with the passage of time. You look over the Divide and get a sense of what the world would have been just after the bombs fell. Standing atop the ruined overpasses running through a city seared of its identity, there’s an awesome horror at the massive sense of loss and destruction. The best way to enjoy the Lonesome Road is probably by walking it alone, turning off Ulysses’ prattle in your ears and ED-E’s chirping by your side. A solitary stroll down a path the Fallout world has tread again and again across a land thrice devastated. With wind whistling through empty concrete windows like souls bemoaning from the abyss, you can’t help but truly think, “War. War never changes.”