New Vegas: if I never hear that song again…

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After writing about Honest Hearts a little while ago I felt I should say a little about the three DLC packs which followed it up: Dead Money, Old World Blues, and Lonesome Road. This isn’t so much a review or an essay or anything more cohesive than some thoughts I wanted to share and/or explore a little. Think of it as me indulging in enthusiasm, that most prevalent of currency in the mercantile exchange of games journalism. It is part of my portfolio for an application to write for GameSpot. Or, you know, whatever. I like Fallout. Maybe you’ll find this interesting too.

Dead Money I may have the least to say about. It’s a fun piece of DLC that strips you of all equipment and throws you into an extremely hostile environment with a lot of mysteries set up around it. It’s at its best when exploring the Villa, evading or killing gasmask-toting self-resurrecting freaks and trying not to stray into patches of corrosive fog that can kill you in seconds. The sense of mystery and the unknown is at its strongest here, and the few other living characters you meet are staggered out, allowing you to fully absorb their personal stories – should you choose to.

Once you break into the casino itself they are pulled away from you, and each of their stories is only returned to in order to lay on a suitable peak for each thematic arc. The story of the casino itself, and that of the architect of your involvement with it, turns out to be a fairly traditional Fallout story of forgotten old-world tech being sought after by morally repugnant collectors of old-world tech. The palpable atmosphere of the Villa vanishes once inside the casino itself, with its security holograms lacking the menace of the Ghosts – somehow, knowing that something cannot be killed converts it from an intimidating foe into a pattern you just have to learn to avoid.

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Dead Money does leave you with assorted mysteries, however, and these are ably answered in Old World Blues, a legitimately brilliant take on the Fallout mythos and easily the funniest and most referential entry in the series yet. Its comedy is subtler than Fallout 2 and packed with more amusing lines and characters to boot (no, I’m not saying it’s better than FO2, but it’s got its strengths…). At its best when darkly comic, Old World Blues also manages to pack in subtle moments of genuine horror, iconic imagery, black satire of the American dream and mountains of delicious lore. It delivers surprises throughout, including overturning lazy videogame quest assumptions in a way that’s perfectly true to the cynical yet tongue-in-cheek world of Fallout. And I never once expected to see lines like “It looks like it’s been tag-teamed by giant fuckbots” in a Fallout game and, even better, for it to not seem at all out of place.

Did I mention the voice acting? It’s superb. They brought in a number of voice actors from The Venture Brothers, which is a damn fine decision in my view.

Old World Blues is packed with dozens of micro-stories to explore and unpick, each typically buried within an abandoned old-world science facility. It’s as though the DLC is a microcosm packed with the distilled version of the Fallout experience that a certain type of player – the backstory geek – loves. And oh boy, I loved it.

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Best of all, though, Old World Blues stretches tendrils into its predecessor as well as its follow-up, answering questions from Dead Money whilst raising more for Lonesome Road.

Lonesome Road is, sadly, a far less memorable experience than Old World Blues. Its setting is perhaps the most scorched nuclear wasteland since Washington, but its palette is restricted to browns and oranges compared to the 1950s neon superscience setting of OWB. Its enemies are less varied, with the DLC mostly throwing tough variations on New Vegas humans and critters at you (with one notable exception).

It’s difficult at times, with enemies more than capable of taking you down quickly if you get too cocky, and at higher levels this difficulty makes rather a mockery of the stealth mechanic. In fairness this is a problem for New Vegas in general – after level 30, it’s almost impossible to stay hidden from high-level enemies, even at night, with maxed-out sneak and a bevy of stealth-enhancing perks. So say goodbye to those sneak criticals!

Fortunately, Lonesome Road is interesting for its thematic ideas – which is the best thing for a late-game piece of DLC to do in my view; far more interesting for dedicated players than a significant mechanical shift. Though there is some of that too: Lonesome Road deliberately strips out interaction with other characters to narrow the player’s focus on the one character who speaks to them – Ulysses, another wasteland courier. He communicates with the player via a variation on ED-E; a mute companion. Ulysses likes to lecture the player, and his lessons concern consequences. The DLC is a fairly linear experience, in contrast to what’s come before; a necessity to deliver the narrative experience that it was obviously designed to do.

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Lonesome Road is one of the more successful examples of metatextual criticism within a videogame narrative I’ve seen post-BioShock. Ulysses’ arguments are framed in terms of the harm that the Courier – the player character – has caused by his actions. This is admittedly dramatically ramped up by retconned backstory stating that the Courier caused the destruction of an entire community and the deaths of hundreds even before the original game began, but the way it is articulated makes it clear that it concerns a character who does things purely to see what happens. A character driven not, at heart, by morality, but by curiosity, and a desire for personal gain that hinges upon the acquisition of experience. The Courier imposes that curiosity upon the world, that lust for experience and sensation, thereby imposing their decisions upon the world, and in so doing causes harm – whether through ignorance or malice does not matter, as this is only a byproduct of the root cause.

It’s a cleverly woven critique of the way games like Fallout are played: ostensibly a heroic figure, the actions of the player in fact impose change upon the world that will, if followed through, involve consequences that cannot be foreseen and usually end poorly for characters other than the supposed hero – the wanderer with no home, no fixed point of origin, no community to belong to and be beholden to. The Courier, like the player of a videogame, is rootless, responsible to nothing but their own urges and desire to seek feedback to stimulus.

As the old saying goes, a hero is nothing but a guy who gets other people killed. Videogames only tend to consider that in terms of the people at the other end of the gun barrel.

The story of Lonesome Road itself must ultimately end somewhat flatly in the face of this critique, and that it does to some extent – spicing up the final moment with a difficult choice of tangential personal sacrifice versus genocide – the sort of choice that videogames can so glibly present as equal options – but as a vehicle for a powerful analysis of how player agency is seated within a fictional world it’s extremely successful.

Also, dudes’ heads still explode in slow motion when you get a critical. Fallout’s a fun game. And it’s nice to have stuff to think about while you’re exploring the wasteland.

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