More of the Same – Fallout New Vegas DLC
“Ya know sometimes the journey beats the destination, and especially when your spurs go jingle, jangle, jingle and you meet some nice gals along the way.” ~ Mr. New Vegas
So, I’m still working my way through a full second playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas. I’ve written before of my love for the game and spoken at lengths with those closest to me about it. It’s a wonderful little piece of design that highlights some of the points we’ve cover on this blog in regards to world building. While I enjoyed Bethesda’s Fallout 3, the expertise and skill that Obsidian brought with their spin-off just can not be rivaled. I like to compare them as such: Fallout 3 is a spectacle but New Vegas is a world.
After its release and my first time running through the deserts of the Mojave, Obsidian released four DLC (downloadable content) packs for the game (technically five but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend three bucks on a bunch of guns). These are almost closer to actual expansion packs of the nineties style of design. They’re pretty meaty additions themselves, typically sporting a couple of main quests, side quests, handful of NPCs and companions and entirely new locations chalk full of villains and loot. They are, from every angle of design, more of the same. And when I loved the original so much, that is probably the best praise I can give.
However, as they are still the same, both feature very prominent issues. So while most of this post will probably be detailing where things went wrong, I do want to stress that I’ve enjoyed both of them. They exhibit the intriguing thematic driven stories that draws me to Obsidian’s work time and time again with well fleshed out characters and creative transformations of real world locations re-imagined in Fallout’s post apocalyptic world.
But let’s get on with the show.
Dead Money is the first of the released DLC which I chose to play second. After searching the Internet, many people recommended that they be played in order, however as you’re about to start Dead Money it comes with a pretty hefty warning that the add-on was designed with higher level characters in mind. Being below the recommended level, I turned my sights to Honest Hearts first. However, the two are wholly independent so order between them is irrelevant whereas it is heavily hinted in both packs that the latter two DLC (Old World Blues and Lonesome Road) should really be played last.
But I digress.
My first issue with both DLC is their jarring insertion into the game. The moment they’re installed and you load up the game you are given a text prompt that these quests have been activated. Whereas with quests within the game you are required to at least learn about them through some in-game method, whether that be stumbling across clues or portions of the quest on your own or initiating them by an interested NPC who offers you the details and promises rewards. Personally, I would have liked to see both of them inserted in a more natural way. Both have associated radio broadcasts that could have triggered by proximity to their starting locations which would have been enough. Likewise, the end of each DLC features the same slideshow style narration that the main game ends with but it would have been better if they incorporated those slides with the final game’s show.
Of course, they weren’t, because their final design takes into account people who finished the game and just bought the content to play as extra instead of considering it as a part of a greater whole. Which is a shame, since both of them integrate into the greater New Vegas world.
Anyway, Dead Money has you discovering a mysterious broadcast that gives off tantalizing messages of a grand opening for an unheard of casino title The Sierra Madre. The sultry voice of Vera welcomes you to come and explore its exotic streets with an air of old world charm that has faded to all but a memory in the wake of the nuclear war that devastated the world. Seeking the source of the broadcast finds The Courier (the player) descending into an abandoned bunker and towards a radio left curious in a well furnished room. Approaching the device immediately proves to be a mistake as your vision blurs and the walls shake in your vision right before you collapse to the floor.
Queue the blackout.
You awake in a desolate town square looking up at a lavish fountain with the projected head of some old geezer. He quickly informs you of the situation you’re in. Namely, you are going to assist him in breaking into the beautiful building up on the overlooking bluff and your service is insured by the thick bomb strapped around your neck. Elijah then tells you that there are others in the villa with matching bomb collars and all of you are intricately connected to each other. Should one of your collars go off then so will the rest. He then pats you on the bum and sends you on your way to “gather your crew” as it were.
It’s immediately apparent that the game is pulling from the old fashion heist movies. Much of the design for the levels involves navigating twisting and confusing corridors and streets. You need to call upon the unique strengths of the others wrapped in this adventure with you in order to proceed. And along the way you begin to learn more about the other characters. Each has his own motives for being in the villa and they look hungrily towards the casino overhead. Greed and curiosity are thrown together as constant themes throughout the piece and more than once you’re questioned why you came yourself.
It’s all well done with my only complaints being a slight dissonance between the world and the gameplay. We’re informed that the Sierra Madre is a deathtrap, luring in its victims with the sweet promise of honey before clamping its jaws irrevocably around them. Unfortunately, the three characters you are assisting weren’t truly brought for those reasons. Elijah also spends much time complaining about the confounding greed that caused the previous failures with past victims. You have the overwhelming sense that this is a ploy that has been run again and again but with very little success. I would have really liked to see more evidence of that either through more footprints left by the ones before or even having some rival “thieves” still lurking in the dark corners of the villa.
Otherwise, the level design was really focused on their goal. Combat is less emphasized over survival and stealth. The world is designed to make you desperate. The collar around your neck is more than just a pretty souvenir. The transmitter is affected by radios which can set it off prematurely if you spend too much time in their presence. Furthermore, should one of your allies unfortunately fall whether from triggered traps or the swarming “ghost people” that stalk the empty streets then you are allowed only five seconds of frantic despair before your own head is popped like a spring cherry tomato.
Further emphasizing the survivalist aspect is the thick “Cloud” that hangs over the area. This blood red mist is a constant drain upon your health, forcing you to find whatever healing you can. You become a veritable pin-cushion after the number of needles that are required to keep you alive as you explore and perform the tasks needed to break into the Sierra Madre. There are even concentrated areas of the Cloud that will hurt you even faster creating a tough decision of whether the unknown materials lying inside are worth the trade-off of health required to get them.
The ideas and designs are all great. The problem is that the game is running on the Gamebryo engine. Unfortunately, this means that all this stealth/survival gameplay is wasted on a system that can’t really model stealth gameplay all that well. Too often are most situations best resolved by brute force. Once I had a large enough stockpile of munitions, I just fought my way through the ghost people filling the streets. Even more unforgivable, the game had an obnoxious tendency of just respawning more ghost people after completing objectives as if they realized that the stealth aspect was for naught but that these awfully limiting combat situations would be better. The problem is, the game wasn’t designed for such a strict restricting of weapons so my character – who was built around explosives – had to slough through the combats with weapons that were far inferior in his hands because of the way I’d been specializing him. Eventually, I got a weapon that let me two shot the enemies and I just charged them head on after that since I couldn’t be bothered trying to sneak (which I also wasn’t good at even when I was trying to use the items that would help shore up that weakness).
Furthermore, the game was built so that you could only have one companion with you at a time. This is incredibly cumbersome for a heist story, especially given the large focus on the other members involved. The method for breaking in was rather contrived (and remarkably easy when all was said and done which makes me wonder why it took so long for people to perform it). But once you broke into the Sierra Madre casino itself, you and your gang were immediately split up because the game just couldn’t run with all of you together.
The casino section was also aggravating since instead of the mysterious ghost people to deal with you had holographic security officers and a lot more radios. This forced a very “trial by error” approach to navigating the space that seemed to deflate the sense of a grandly schemed heist into a “run into the room, die in order to locate all the guards and radios then reload and repeat until the one exact path is mapped out.”
Which is unfortunate because the story surrounding the casino and its characterful inhabitants was really engaging. It was bogged down by its own game systems which, at times, made it a chore to play and drained the life out of it much like the omnipresent cloud drained your character’s.
Honest Hearts, however, was almost the opposite.
Honest Hearts has you answering the call for guards from a desperate caravan company called Happy Trails. They’re hoping to lead an envoy to the remains of Salt Lake City to re-establish the routes with the settlement of New Canaan that had inexplicably ended. To get there, the caravan master informs you that they are going to travel through the Grand Canyon.
As with Dead Money, your companions are told to go away and you’re informed that you are only allowed a limited amount of your own gear to carry since you’re expected to shoulder some of the caravan’s supplies yourself. It was a cute explanation for the loss of your gear but Honest Hearts didn’t benefit thematically from the restriction. All it did, once again, was make obstacles artificially more challenging because my character was not designed around the equipment they provided in that area.
Anyway, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that once within the canyon your caravan is attacked and everyone is slaughtered by a bunch of rather effective savages called the White Legs. After battling your way from the ambush, you meet a young man by the name of Follows-Chalk who claims affiliation with the Dead Horses (assuming, of course, you don’t gun him down because you first spot him at a distance and he looks really similar to the jerks that blew off your friends’ faces when you first arrive). Follows-Chalk mentions that his warband’s leader, Joshua, would like to speak with you and he becomes your temporary guide through Zion National Park.
Unlike Dead Money, there isn’t as great of an urgency for following the path and you’re given some freedom to wander around and explore the area. The Grand Canyon makes for a rather nice location even if it is swarming with danger in the form of wildly mutated Preying Mantises, Bears and some devil spawned insect called Cazadores. When you finally do meet up with Joshua, you discover that he isn’t some primitive tribal dressed in skins but a heavily bandaged man wearing a bullet proof vest and displaying remarkable skill with pistols.
He also believes in God.
The one curious thing about the Fallout world that I had never given much thought to was its lack of religion. It’s all too typical for science fiction and fantasy stories to shy away from real world faith. Its absence didn’t strike me as anything other than developers not wish to cause offence. Apparently, that wasn’t entirely the case with Fallout where its explained that in the years following the dropping of the bombs, recognizable religion as we know it had almost completely disappeared. The New Canaanites are the only faction to still lay faith in the old believes. This isn’t to say that everyone is an atheist (though many are) but most claims to supernatural or spiritual worship is typically reserved for tribal communities that are seen as far more primitive than the major factions vying for control (though there is a sort of religious reverence towards old technology in the Brotherhood of Steel, it is pretty understated).
As it turns out, Joshua is the Joshua Graham who is mentioned quite frequently in the main game. He was the Legate for Caesar’s Legion during the first assault on Hoover Dam. After their embarrassing defeat, Caesar had Joshua covered in pitch and thrown burning into the Grand Canyon as a warning to others of the cost of failure. And while little else is mentioned of Graham after, it becomes clear that though Caesar doesn’t speak of him again, he hasn’t forgotten him. The White Legs are a tribe of raiders hoping to join Caesar’s Legion and to prove their worth, they’ve been given the task of hunting Graham down.
But the interesting thematic elements are tied to the relationship between Joshua and Daniel. Daniel is a New Canaanite missionary, much like Joshua was before he joined with Caesar. Their conflict is based on the atrocities that Joshua committed while working with Caesar and how that experienced shaped each man’s viewpoint in the canyon. Joshua wishes to crush the White Legs and protect the home of the tribals who currently live in Zion Park. Daniel seeks to maintain their childhood innocence and evacuate them to a place the White Legs will never find them.
And this gets into my complaint of Honest Hearts. Ultimately, the story revolves around the tribals that live in the caves of Zion. The Sorrows Tribe are a rather naive people, even when compared to their contemporaries in the Dead Horses. They have little knowledge of warfare or how to defend themselves and even their survival skills are severely lacking (as Daniel was required to show them simple medicines and procedures to save some of them during childbirth). The interesting thing is that the origin of the Sorrows is explained not by their stories but through the hidden journals of a long dead protector referred to only as the Survivalist. It was an interesting method to convey their history and I found it more rewarding to search the trapped caves for his hidden entries than I was doing many of the other quests in Zion.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that the writers weren’t as clear on their themes and Honest Hearts really lacks focus. It should have been all about the Sorrows tribe and made it clear that the fight was over their proverbial soul. I would have liked to see more debate between Joshua and Daniel, especially over religious matters. Here are two men of the same faith with vastly different views and opinions and I would have liked to see them justify their believes both to the player and each other. There also should have been a greater focus on the effects of your actions and decisions on the Sorrows tribe. Instead, we’re introduced to them halfway through the DLC storyline and you don’t get a lot of attachment to them in the little time left.
I would have liked to see them introduced much earlier. Possibly even have the Sorrows the first tribe you meet in the canyon. They should have presented the player with more quests and these quests outcomes should have affected the beliefs and decisions of the members. At the end of the day, I felt that the proper course for the Sorrows was to not baby them, as Daniel wanted, but to let them grow and decide what they should do for themselves. But that option wasn’t truly available in game. I couldn’t confront Daniel about his need to defend these people’s innocence as a way to justify his faith’s beliefs in a world so hostile to a peaceful religion. I also couldn’t confront the hypocrisy of Joshua’s bloodlust with the rest of his religion when really the personal conflict of the two missionaries should have been the undercurrents of all the interplays between the tribes.
At the end of the day, even with the length that they were, I felt both Dead Money and Honest Hearts had a lot of interesting elements at play. Both of them could have been expanded, possibly into their own full fledged stories themselves. So much of their writing was devoted to universal themes such as salvation, redemption, greed and trust that they had the potential for so much more. Even in their current state, they’re still damn good side quests. I can only hope that the next two DLC are just more of the same.