Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ranking the New Vegas DLCs

I first played Fallout: New Vegas shortly after it was released (back in the fall/winter of 2010), long before any of these DLC packs had been released. I'd spent so much time in my first playthrough that I had no desire to go back and do it all over again, just for the sake of some new content. I needed to let some time pass for everything to feel fresh again, so I'm only just now getting around to playing the DLCs. For the most part, they're all enjoyable and add a lot of variety to the game, each with their own unique charm and personality (though I still may have preferred a single extensive expansion than four separate, smaller DLCs). Either way, here are my thoughts on the four New Vegas DLC packs.

#4. Honest Hearts

In Honest Hearts, you take a job with a supply caravan which sends you into the neighboring region of Zion, a canyon wilderness inhabited by native tribes ignorant of the outside world. Once your caravan gets attacked, you find yourself in the middle of a conflict between warring tribes, with two Mormon leaders seeking your assistance and offering two different approaches to the situation. Honest Hearts doesn't tie-in with the other DLC as much; rather, it expands on the legend of the Burned Man, Caesar's former legate who was burned alive and cast into the Grand Canyon as punishment for his failure at the first battle of the Hoover Dam. 

This was the first DLC I played and I really enjoyed the new location. The rocky cliffs offer a lot of vertical spaces to explore, and it was nice seeing lots of green vegetation and abundant flowing water -- things you just don't see much of in the Mojave desert. Despite the interesting new environment, however, I found the rest of the content fairly lackluster and uninteresting. Almost all of the quests, for example, are obviously shallow, simple fetch-quests without much elaboration, and the main quest line doesn't branch out until the last few minutes. It's almost entirely straightforward and doesn't give you a whole lot of options. 

I found it really hard to care about the central conflict because I never got a chance to get to know any of the tribes. You just get a little expository dialogue from a couple of NPCs and then you're off doing their busywork. The whole thing felt contrived and obligatory. I also wasn't sold on the new elaboration on Joshua Graham, the Burned Man. He was a lot cooler when he was just a legend; getting to meet him and finding out that he's now a reformed religious man trying to repent for his sins undermined all of my initial impressions of him and sort of detracted from the overall impact of his character. Sometimes the less you know about something, the more mystical it is. 

I was also really annoyed with how all the tribes talk; they speak with awkward emphasis and rhythm like you'd expect from a tribe with very little contact with the English-speaking world, and yet they use perfect grammar and syntax. It's like Obsidian wrote normal dialogue and then asked the voice actors to say it weird; it's not convincing and feels like a contradiction. Your main companion, Follows-Chalk, even says some really stupid and contradictory things, like this comment about casinos, after it's already been established that he doesn't understand the concept of money: "There can't really be a place where people go into big buildings and give away all their money just to watch someone flip paper squares on a table...."

#3. Lonesome Road

Lonesome Road is the fourth and final DLC meant to be played near the end of the main quest line of the base game. It's supposed to be a climactic, penultimate finale that all of the other DLC were building towards. In the other DLC you hear bits and pieces about Ulysses, another courier who's walked many of the same paths that you've walked. Lots of small details overlap, and Lonesome Road is supposed to be your fateful meeting with Ulysses in the Divide, a hellish region torn apart from the ground-up by underground nuclear warheads. 

The Divide is visually striking just in terms of seeing all of the chaotic destruction; it sets a really grave tone for what's about to happen. I found exploration a real pain, however, because every square inch is a cluttered mess of disarrayed, crumbling ruins that make it a chore to explore every nook and cranny in search of journal entries, warheads, or unique loot. It reminded me a lot of Fallout 3 in that regard, which is not a good thing in my opinion, but at least Lonesome Road offers a fairly linear path to guide exploration and provide some kind of structure to things. 

The thing that really turned me off of this DLC, though, was that it forces a backstory on your character. It comes out of nowhere, and I found myself really confused whenever Ulysses talked about something I'd supposedly done in the past. It's like they were trying to make this story more personal, but only managed to detach and alienate myself from my own character because I didn't actually know what had happened or what was going on. They're intentionally vague about your history, not quite giving you all the details, as if trying to balance the notion of backstory with open-ended interpretation, but the way they did it botches both angles. The story would've been more dramatic and emotionally-engaging if they focused on concrete things in the present than on a practically non-existent past.

The best and most important aspect of Lonesome Road, though, is that it has some direct consequences on the base game, which none of the other DLCs do. Depending on what you decide to do at the end of Lonesome Road, you can dramatically affect your reputation with the factions of the Mojave and unlock access to some new explorable areas. Parts of the story directly relate to the main story of the base game, making it feel far more integrated with the full game than the other DLCs, which mostly feel like isolated and self-contained campaigns that have nothing to do with the actual game. 

#2. Dead Money

In Dead Money, you receive a radio broadcast advertising the Sierra Madre casino, the biggest and most extravagant casino in the West. When you follow the signal to its source, you fall into a trap and become a slave to Father Elijah, the former Elder of the Brotherhood of Steel before their defeat at Helios One. As it turns out, the bombs fell before the Sierra Madre opened, so all of its treasures remain sealed inside, a target of many fortune-seekers who met their fate trying to get inside. Throughout Dead Money, you work for Elijah to gain access to the casino and uncover the tragic story of the Sierra Madre.

Simply put, I was fascinated by the premise. There's a lot of history to the Sierra Madre and its resort village, lots of little details that led to its eventual demise. It was like assembling a puzzle from different pieces of evidence that you find as you explore, which was fun to solve and figure out how everything related to one another. The backstory itself is surprisingly engaging, considering the central characters are all long-dead and you never get a chance to interact with them, but I found myself caring about these deceased characters more than I cared about any living characters in any of the other DLC. And, of course, being part of the heist was just plain fun, too.

Dead Money also features the most interesting companion characters of any of the DLC. Each companion has their own unique personality (Christine being a mute and interpreting what she's trying to say through her charades, the super mutant having split personalities known as Dog and God, and Dean Domino being a singer-turned-ghoul who worked for the founder of the Sierra Madre) and you spend a good deal of time talking with them and simply getting to know them. They each play an important role in the story and have greater purposes than carrying your items around. Meanwhile, I appreciated the dark, brooding atmosphere and survival-horror elements, and really enjoyed the increased emphasis on skill-checks.

Dead Money does have its problems, though. Some people complain about it being brutally hard; I played in Hardcore Mode and Very Hard difficulty and actually didn't find it that difficult at all. I just parts of it tedious. Part of the survival-horror element is the fact that your bomb collar detonates whenever you get too close to a speaker or radio, instantly killing you. Well there are speakers and radios all over the place, and it gets to rely far too heavily on trial-and-error as you try to navigate complicated hallways and figuring out where they are so you can disable them. Exploring the resort village isn't as fun as it should've been on account of all the cramped corridors and similar-looking buildings everywhere. 

#1. Old World Blues

In Old World Blues, you find a crashed satellite which transports you to Big MT (pronounced "Big Mountain" by its inhabitants), a crater housing an elaborate scientific research center known as the Think Tank. When you come to, you learn that you've been lobotomized by the robo-brains who run the Think Tank as part of their scientific experiments, and so you set out on a quest to retrieve your lost brain, heart, and spine while solving a conflict between rogue scientists. It's a very novel premise that offers lots of unique charm and humor.

Like Honest Hearts, Old World Blues follows an open-world formula which lets you explore Big MT on a free leash, visiting places and completing quests in a non-linear order. Of all the new environments introduced in the four DLCs, I enjoyed Big MT the most because it feels far more distinct (compared to the environs of the base game) and has the most variety within its own boundaries. It was cool seeing all the fancy technology everywhere and failed experiments gone awry. It's visually impressive and offers a lot of fun, interesting places to explore. Also, I really, really like the color blue.

Old World Blues easily has the best dialogue of any of the DLCs (or even the base game itself). It starts with  20-30 minutes of expository dialogue, which would normally bore anybody to death, but I found myself enjoying every second of it. The writing is witty and intelligent with rich, interesting characters and lots of moments that either make you laugh at the humor or smile in appreciation of the situation. I mean, how can you not laugh at lines of dialogue like this, followed by this? Besides that, the story has a bit of a twist to it which prevents it from being completely straightforward and makes you really think about what you're doing. 

One of the more interesting aspects of Old World Blues is that it gives you a player home called "The Sink," which is fully furnished with useful appliances. And each appliance has its own unique personality. It's amazing how much dialogue you can have with ordinary appliances like toasters and lightswitches, and each one has more personality and more dialogue options than some of the most prominent characters in Skyrim. What's even better about the Sink, though, is that it gives you functional uses for a lot of the common junk items you find everywhere, so it's fun to use these ordinary items in new ways that are actually beneficial to your character. Upgrading the Sink is its own great reward.

The only bad thing I have to say about Old World Blues is the absurd difficulty scaling. I went into Big MT at level 38 or 39 and found combat satisfyingly challenging. The moment I hit level 40, the difficulty increased by 50%. Enemies went from using 44 magnums (36 damage) to hunting revolvers (58 damage), from hunting rifles (52 damage) to brush guns (72 damage). Some enemies were completely replaced with stronger versions. My skills and stats hadn't really changed going from level 39 to 40, and yet everything else became drastically harder, to the point that every single fight was a tedious waste of time pumping hundreds of rounds into enemies, barely able to survive. That was pretty annoying, but I thoroughly enjoyed this DLC anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Old World Blues is the first and only DLC I've played (even though I have the rest) and I loved every second of it. I started at lvl 15 and by the end I was in my mid 20s or so. As for the difficulty scaling, the only enemies I really had any trouble with were those damn Robo-Scorpions.