Game Pile: Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout 3 was a game that had to do more work to make me like it than an unshaven trucker with erectile dysfunction. I was a fan of the original games, one of those annoying fans who sniffs disdainfully at all the problems that the game had because they ‘served the flavour’ of the game. That’s not to say the game didn’t deserve some defending – the two games had a strong sense of continuity, robust combat and character creation systems and a dizzyingly large world. A vast, bleak place, full of ways to reinforce the setting’s flavour, it also had an uncompromising difficulty curve that was nonetheless reinforced by the way the game played fair. It wasn’t hard for meanspirited or silly reasons, it was hard because you were a squishy pink human being in the middle of a world that did not care a single dry breath whether you lived or died. I have some magnificent memories of sweltering summer afternoons, spent sitting on the hood of my Highwayman, cleaning my sniper rifle between incoming waves of raiders being given extra earholes.

Surely this is just another lengthy, rambling preamble about how the dark ages of videogaming were clearly superior to these last trembling steps of crumbling multimedia empires, as the final, dusted utterances of a dehydrated, decaying corpse, yes? Nonetheless, noble reader, hold your fizzy glass of haterade and your piece of French loathe because believe it or not, I like Fallout 3, a statement that seems to make my tongue recoil in my mouth. I know there’s a lot of rich PC Master Race whining to be done about it: it was claimed as an Xbox exclusive despite selling on the PC, the game was turned into an FPS, there’s no small number of issues with the verisimilitude of the setting, etcetera. Fact is, hating Fallout 3 would be a good shot of bile right in the jacksie that I could use to extend my life for another six months without requiring another ritual murder. Yet, as honesty demands, I must confess: Fallout 3 is really good, and I had to admit it after popping my head over the edge of the capitol dome and realising that somehow, the whole month of December had vanished.

What then, about its little brother, Fallout: New Vegas? Well…

At the moment on steam I have 100+ hours invested in this game and I think that’s a fine point to admit that the game has to be at the very least engaging. There are games I stop playing because I have finally crossed some arbitary threshold that means my friends won’t be laughing at me for throwing it into a bin and then covering it in spit, and there are games I stop playing because I realise that if I don’t, I’ll never get any other thing in my life done. For perspective, as of this moment, a hundred and thirty hours in, I can think of four major questlines in FNV that I haven’t yet done, and probably won’t get done any time soon when I get back to it. More than any other game I’ve played – and I include Guild Wars 2 in this – it’s a fantastic wander-in-a-straight-line simulator, where you may have some objective or another to finish up, but if you decide to try and break from your linear chain of story events, you’ll still have a great big sandbox to explore full of various things that are trying their level best to chew your nipples off. Wandering into areas, just looking at things on the ground or hearing conversations, things will be thrown into your questlog like bricks with notes written on them, and whether or not you bother to solve everyone’s problems is up to you.

Fallout 3 had a strong core game attached to an aesthetic it couldn’t quite support and was excellent in spite of that. I may love my post-apocalyptic wastelands grittier than Fallout 3 provided, but it was nonetheless an amazing experience with almost nothing feeling like it was just a copy of anything else. I have respect for whatever content developers were assigned the task of filling in that waste with things that made it feel varied without diminishing its sense of emptiness and isolation. Its magnificence as a timewasting exercise was unmatched, but when examining this wonderful cereal dish of cocoa bombs, it’s only a matter of time before you bite into the two rabbit turds in the bowl.

First, the Karma system was completely ridiculous and cut every single event into a good/bad paradigm that approached the shimmering, uncertain spread of the wasteland’s morally ambiguous societal decay, and gracelessly stomped all over it. What made these sawtoothed footprints even more glaring was that the developers, anxious that people wouldn’t like this system, thoughtfully included numerous ways to opt out of it, with a few handy people who let you turn resources into karma – good or bad – and diminished all the requirements of the karma system-related stuff. The overall feeling is an anemic, lame moral choice system that only really stands up and gets your attention when you do something that the game considers naughty, which rarely matches up with what a sane human being would consider such.

While the karma system turned up at random moments throughout the story to smear mustard on your t-shirt, it was at least an inconsequential flaw. The greater flaw was the central plot, which had a wonderfully strong, evocative beginning, and spent the rest of the game flirting with you, coquettishely dancing backwards every time you got close. It built in this way to a crecendo, gasping, lips parting, pressing its chest to yours, before moaning hotly, putting its lips to your ear and huskily grunting out, “Mooo.” The central plot, redolent with possibility, did what most every central plot in the triple-A industry does, which is to take a good idea and squeeze it through a crank to strip out anything that might accidentally resemble quality.

What about FNV, then? Same engine, same monsters, same guns, almost all the same mechanics and even most of the same art textures. It even has the same interface, with a ridiculous, shoehorned reason. It might as well be the Fallout 3 crew taking a mulligan on the whole arrangement, so they could charge on ahead, rebalance a lot of mechanical problems and try to redeliver that same magnificent get-lost-and-like-it hollowness that makes me feel like a real human. The game’s story kicks off with a truly magnificent sequence where you’re introduced to the whole setting in one long pan shot, then a smarmy git shoots you in the face twice while proclaiming his cleverness, steeling my resolve harder than any non-Curly Brace-related experience has this century. I was going to hunt this fucker down and, no matter what the game told me about ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ or ‘now’ or ‘later,’ I was going to find a way to twist that man’s head around until his spine resembled a corkscrew on a bender.

While the character-creation section of the game was, to put it mildly, belief-straining, I found I didn’t much care because my order of priorities had become finding a gun, a destination, a pair of pliers, a blowtorch, and Benny’s wisdom teeth, in that order. That burning need, that want to get my own back was such a wonderfully brutal kick-off point for the story, and the game was even nice enough to not tell me that I had amnesia. Barring for the starting area NPCs being expository to the point of embarassment, nobody in the setting ever acts like you’re an ignorant feeb, and once you’ve committed your first spree killing, you’re off to the races making your own path through the wasteland, with that gigantic golden story chunk hung before you. What’s really fascinating about this is that as a character moment, being beaten, captured, tied up, shot in the face and left in a shallow grave would be massively deprotaganising and I’d probably hate it, but because it came at the start of the game (but not at the start of the story) means that you don’t yet have that feeling of power. The story doesn’t take power and agency away from you because you don’t have any yet.

I normally break out some talk about a terrible display of gender and sexuality depictions in games like this, and here FNV surprises. There are gay characters, straight characters, and even a gay companion – a companion who doesn’t want to romance you, because you’re just not their type. There are tough women and sensitive women, there are evil women and good women, and while there’s a brothel, there are people in that brothel that range from sadly disempowered women to the manipulative and intentional. It’s a world, and spread across that world there are a variety of men and women in a variety of different roles. That really is all I ask from a big world game – show me variety, take advantage of the breadth you have.

The companions presented similarly run the gamut. They all fit the tone of the setting, being examples of people who would pick up stumps and fight their way through the challenges you have to face. They’re also surprisingly progressive characters – there’s a senior citizen, a fistfighting technologist, and even a man who can be pushed too far and break from you for ethical reasons. This large cast doesn’t overwhelm my desire to be alone in the Wasteland, though, so I mostly picked them up, did their individual quests, then dropped them off again. The game is polite enough to make them relatively unmanaged; their gear doesn’t degrade, their health recovers quickly, and they’re all designed to handle combat well. It’s not like Baldur’s Gate 2, where one of the first companions you can pick up is built out of straw soaked in vodka, and whose spellcasting doesn’t catch up to the most basic of characters until your game save is old enough to vote.

The karma system is still there, but it’s been quietly suppressed. It’s more of a stat that measures how generally nice you are. If you steal a lot, every place you go will have stolen stuff, and so shopkeepers who see you coming will be careful. If you’re nice to everyone, you’ll have a generally good reaction from new people. For the most part, the karma meter doesn’t do anything else – there are some perks in the highest of levels that want your karma to be really high, or give you the opportunity to zero your karma, but more important than your general ‘karma’ is the specific ‘reputation.’ Get in the good books of one group and they’ll let you wander through their territory unmolested; get in their bad books and they’ll send death squads to get rid of you. There are tons of these groups, too. It’s not a meaningful change, but it changes the tension in the game from good/evil to us/them, a system that works much better for a collapsed, ruined world. Bonus, if you still want a group to cheer against, the Legion are mustache-twirlingly evil and can only be justified by people who already have pretty fucked moral compasses. There’s no single good guy faction, but there is, quite clearly, a gang of utter fuckwits who you can always feel good about shooting. It’s like the Nazis, nobody should feel bad about popping the heads off Legion troopers.

There’s some other stuff that’s just generally fun, like

  • The gang composed entirely of Elvis impersonators.
  • The cowboy robot that travels around keeping an eye on you while offerin’ all sortsa grand advice, pardner.
  • The many, many ways you have the option to kill Benny.
  • A town protected by a thirty-foot tall dinosaur with a sniper rifle.
  • Conspiring to kill a grandma in a totally morally acceptable way.
  • An exploration that didn’t just ramp up random encounters until you were suddenly getting mobbed by packs of alpha deathclaws when you go back to Goodsprings.

So with that extensive list of fantastic traits, wonderful content and minor narrative bugbear, all that FNV has to do to dance over the line in a cloud of thrown roses and spotlights to get called damn-near-perfect is to turn the last great failure of Fallout 3 around and have a strong, satisfying conclusion that’s mechanically fun to play through, right?

Oh.

Is this something about Bethesda? Is every single good story point and character decision in the game the work of a cloud of interns with individual pet projects, while the guy who gets paid for the central plot is some sort of George Lucas style wood-pulping machine? Whatever the reason, while the choice of ending scenario is varied (four ways to resolve what looks like a two-side conflict) the progression through that game experience is basically an action sequence, full of rolling ambushes designed to keep you under pressure, burn through your stockpiled resources, and finally drop you in the lap of an end boss that’s monstrously hard to kill, and yet can be talked to death or reasoned with. You don’t even have to engage him directly – you can lay mines, put down traps, find a good hiding spot and have a little cry when your first snipe shot to the head doesn’t make his health dip, or you can dust off your knuckles, stomp up to him and start a ruck. That final combat, with its host of optional approaches that respect your abilities, is an example of how the game should have handled the rest of that experience.

(Incidentally, any game that comes after Deus Ex: Human Revolution that fails to learn from its astounding social combat boss battles should consider that a deep mark against it.)

Normally videogames end on a weak note, making it almost a cliche to complain about it at this point. FNV‘s finale is a nicely mixed, challenging experience where you have a lot of possible ways to try and get rid of the worst guy in the world, but just before it does that, it gives you a rather unpleasant experience that only serves one playstyle well. It’s like the classic ‘You can’t have your dessert until you’ve had your vegetables’ scenario. I’ve been told there are ways to complete that sequence without the frustrations I felt, provided I was willing to change the way I was playing – which I think is the problem right there. FNV‘s strength to me was that it gave me a very undisciplined, exploratory experience, where I could set my own pace and my own goals. To have that narrow down at the end and limit my options so was very irritating – it took a game of freedom and made it anything but.

These aren’t the only complaints about the game’s storyline, though. I was so eager to kill Benny that when I finally did it, I found the subsequent plot of the game, resolving the fate of Vegas as a town, wasn’t nearly so interesting. My Courier had become a bitter professional by that point – and there’s no plot option to hand over the delivery, claiming payment, and then leaving to go back to the work. That would probably be a game half the length of the game as it is, which obviously would be a mark against it if one had to make the comparison, but I don’t know. It was nice to have that purpose, and playing without the same urgent sense of violence was disappointing.

It’s not reasonable even at the best of times to claim a game that ate a hundred fucking hours of my life is bad, unless I also want to include as a corollary that I’m completely stupid and don’t know how to stop a thing that I’m not enjoying. I did enjoy the game, I enjoyed it a lot. If you’re a super hardcore gamer and independently wealthy, you probably already have the game and have finished it twice, and all this sentence does is pad out this final paragraph. On the other hand if you’re a typical working stiff who gets say, two to three hours of gaming done every day with a few extra hours on the weekend, FNV represents about six weeks, with fun spread out across a host of little discrete packets of reward.

The DLC is a great extender to the game’s lifespan, and I’ll tackle it more specifically later.

Take a trip to Vegas. It’s worth it.

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