Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review: Fallout: New Vegas — Dead Money Is DOA

I had a hard time letting go of Fallout: New Vegas.

Even after I’d completed most everything in the game, I was still wandering the Mojave with my godlike Courier, just hoping to stumble across an unexplored building or band of raiders. Anything to keep playing.

Then I realized that the last unvisited mark on the map, the Abandoned BoS Bunker, was the starting point for Dead Money. I forgot I had even downloaded it. Hours of fresh content stretched out in front of me!

What a bummer that turned out to be. Dead Money is a slog.

It's old, but it's good.

Dead Money takes place in and around the Sierra Madre Casino, an opulent resort hidden away in the mountains. When the bombs fell, the Sierra Madre’s security system sealed it up tight. (The Vault provides a more detailed description of the fate of the casino.)

Father Elijah, former leader of the Brotherhood of Steel, kidnaps the Courier and forces him to break into the casino and steal its legendary treasure from the vault. In the way are toxic clouds, traps sent by previous adventures, mutant freaks, and holographic security guards.

Given that the casino is named after Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it should come as no surprise that things do not go smoothly.


The Good

Dead Money introduces a few new enemies and weapons, both of which always liven things up. But more impressive are the challenges presented by the poison gas, traps, and explosive collars. The latter needs a better in-game explanation, but it does provide an innovative new gameplay element. You cannot simply power through these obstacles or you will wind up dead.

Each of your companions provides limited immunity to one of the new challenges, which makes your choice of companion (you can still only have one at a time) more strategic.

The Bad

Companions. You enlist the help of some unique characters along the way: Dog/God (a schizophrenic nightkin), Dean Domino (a crooner turned ghoul), and Christine (a mute former Brotherhood Knight).

I appreciate the effort that went into making these characters interesting, but I did grow quickly tired of Dog/God’s incessant threats. I thought he might warm to me after I repeatedly saved his life, but no.

Shut up already!
I also found Christine’s muteness distracting. It presented interesting communication challenges, but in the end, the game literally spelled out what she meant, which left me wondering why we needed to go through all the trouble. Also, isn’t there a pad and pencil around somewhere?

There's a curious moment where having the Confirmed Bachelor perk enables you to understand something Christine is saying. That's not really a flaw, but it left me scratching my head. Not sure how being gay would help you understand sign language.

Explosive collar. I was irritated by the Running Man-style explosive collar around my neck for the entire episode, but only because the story didn’t explain it well. By the time I started Dead Money, my Repair and Science skills were both at 100. I should have been able to remove that thing in two seconds! Lazy writing...

Repetitive environment. The first third of the DLC seems interminable, as you slog through what seems like miles and miles of “The Villa” outside the casino, gathering your new companions and prepping to break into The Sierra Madre. I became lost almost instantly. Every building looked exactly the same, and I’ve never had to consult my map so frequently before!

The repetitive environment contributes to a bland sense of sameness in the DLC. Despite new challenges, you find yourself walking back and forth a lot as you complete the various fetch quests, and the openness of the world begins to feel less "sandbox" than "tedious." You can usually only go one place at a time, but you can walk down dozens of blind alleys on the way there. As a result, I often felt missions were less of a challenge and more of a chore.

Tone. The one may actually be a selling point for some gamers. Dead Money is relentlessly bleak, both in the way it looks and how the story plays out. Even the darkest elements of New Vegas maintain a winking sense of humor, but Dead Money feels more like survival horror than Fallout.

The Ugly

Not pictured: my equipment
Right at the start, Dead Money uses a low-rent game trick to ratchet up the difficulty: It strips you of all your equipment and doesn’t give it back until you finish the DLC. In the Fallout world, your equipment is part of what makes you formidable at high levels. That’s how the game is played. If it can’t provide an adequate challenge for a high-level character, it shouldn’t allow the character to reach those levels.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Fallout 3 DLC Broken Steel not only raised the level cap, but it added tougher enemies that could provide a challenge to a powerful character. You had to learn to apply the skills you had been building for 30 levels in new ways, but you didn’t have to toss them out the window and start again.

Dead Money in a Nutshell
  • Interesting new environmental challenges
  • Companions provide different strategic advantages
  • Repetitive environments
  • Repetitive gameplay
  • Persistently dark tone
  • Artificial difficulty

Recommendation: Don’t bother, unless you want the level cap increase.

This is a rocky start for the New Vegas DLC, but I don’t think that will stop me from buying the next one. Fallout 3 didn’t hit all of its DLC out of the park, either. And the core game is so solid that I’m still excited to see what they come up with next.

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Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.

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