Fallout:New Vegas has been my first experience with content-expanding DLC. I’ve had the option of applying it to my copies of Deus Ex:Human Revolution and Borderlands, but in both cases it feels like adding work, putting more sawdust in an already bland sausage. On the contrary with the New Vegas DLC; after the main storyline and exploration gave me the feel for it, I found myself champing at the bit to learn more about the people hinted at in the edges of the world – the courier who refused my contract, the strange Father Elijah, and the horrible tale of what had happened to the first Legate of the Legion.
These story seeds bloomed into full growth in the DLC for FNV, each one producing almost a whole day’s worth of extra content and serving to deliver on the promises the earlier content sowed. With four episodic content additions and a pile of miscellaneous guff, it gives us an easy structure to run through. So what of this extra content? Which is the good, which is the bad, and which is the ugly?
Gunrunner’s Arsenal, Courier’s Stash
I’d figure the Gunrunner’s Arsenal pretty essential if you want to get a lot of replay through this game. As with almost all games in this genre, with a lot of varied weapon types and varieties of preferred playstyle, there are going to be weapons that aren’t adequately represented. Rather than go to third party modding, the Gunrunner’s Arsenal adds a host of weapons and perks to the game to try and address the imbalance. The Courier’s Stash is slightly weaker, just because it dumps a bunch of extra gear on you at the start of the game rather artlessly.
I feel as if there could be a more elegant integration of the Stash DLC; there’s a mailbox in Goodsprings – it could have been tailored so that after character creation, the courier headed down to the mailbox to pick up a stash that s/he had been circulating, Ipcriss-style around the wastelands ‘in case.’
Something I feel a good game can do is make me interested in things that it’s not showing me. If a game can hint at an event or a person with just an overtone, or an anecdote – delivered, usually, while I’m doing something else, to maximise its effectiveness – that inspires curiosity in me, it’s doing something right. This is true of Honest Hearts (and also Lonesome Road, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Focusing on the story of the previous Legate, and filling in some backstory for the Legion for those of us who don’t want to snuggle up to Caesar personally, this DLC pack does some good things and some great things, with only one wrinkle in it.
Ignoring its wonderful game culture jokes (two bears high-fiving, DO DRUGS KILL BEARS, finding Argyle), the arc of Honest Hearts is a simple one; the tribals of southern Utah have a problem due to the influence of outsiders, and are either going to be eaten or destroyed by the Legion, and it’s up to you to tip the balance of how things are. I quite liked the character of Joshua Graham, even though he is something of an archetype, and perhaps because of the unreligious spirtualism he has, and the incongruity of his message of peace and understanding and his ability to kill. There’s other stuff – the wonderful log of the old man in the cave, the Yao Guai worshipping folk of the Sorrows, and the easy way one could just pluck food and healing items out of the air if you were interested enough to pick them up – but mostly the DLC did a good job of serving the background story, while not being so long an affair as to become obtrusive. Also, the unique equipment you get at the end is valuable for when you can get it and if you focus on keeping it in good repair, will probably last you the rest of the game.
The central themes of Zion’s story are that of the inevitability of change. A broad theme, perhaps, but you spend your time picking through old-world relics, a national park that hosts camping sites and fragments of that bygone history. You watch as a clan of peaceful tribals are introduced to outside elements, elements that transform who they are and destroy what we think of as their innocence. You can even see a missionary, upset at his undue influence on the people, resist that change, and how it brings him unhappiness.
And that wrinkle? Well, the game at large tells you that it’s happy to let you side with the Legion, and the Powder Gangers and generally be buddies with assholes if you want. Not so this DLC pack. No, here, you’re at best a morally dubious dude, and everyone treats you as such. You’re going to side with the innocent tribals one way or another, or you’re never getting out of Zion, and the whole arc has a lot of talk about virtue and redemption that seems at odds with both its level range and its supposed availability for bad boys and girls. IF you’re gunning to make a Legion following courier, you either have to do some fancy-dancing in your own mind or just walk away – which is a little bit of a shame, since there’s the shadow of an interesting plot about exploiting Joshua Graham’s position and then taking him out as a gift to the Caesar…
… a feat that I’m sure is laughable to any of you who have hung around with Josh for any length of time. Dear god, the man’s a truck.
Old World Blues
In this DLC you get to hear The Tick argue with Dr Venture about science! What more do you need, jesus christ. Just like the other DLC packs, this one tries to fixate around a theme and an aesthetic and play around with them while still toying with gentle parody of problems in the setting extant. Almost every single piece of ‘that shouldn’t work’ science you encounter in Fallout New Vegas is explained in Big Mt, and almost all of it boils down to ‘just because, now shut up.’
There’s some exploration of the ideas of obssession, of recursion, and playing with the static world of the DLC, along with the way that the existing Fallout games have developed an almost obssessive love of recounting every single thing you encounter along the way.
Dead Money frustrated me because by rights I wanted to enjoy it. Its central storytelling premise was that of a disparate group forced to work together in a dangerous location, with a lack of trust and tension to drive the story forwards towards an arbitary insane goal that the antagonist wants. This sort of simplistic structure means that characterisation gets to drive the narrative, right? The characters are even really interesting, with a pre-war ghoul, a physically powerful mental health patient, an abused mute and you.
It’s even set up as a classic tragic western story, where every single character is obviously going to betray you or die. Life’s not fair, says Dead Money, and greed is a terrible thing that will ruin everything. It’s grim and it’s gritty and you’re stripped bare, collared with a bomb and anything you do to violate arbitary rules that aren’t explained to you will get your head blown off! It’s set in a cruel and heartless mexican-themed hotel resort full of poisonous gas and unkillable cheap art assets, and you don’t know who to trust!
Except you do know who to trust, the second you meet them, because everyone here is a moron or a bastard or a mute, and The Girl being The Bad Guy is about as hard as it gets. What’s really interesting is that while the other DLCs introduce new enemies and mechanics, Dead Money was one of the first, and its new stuff is all suspiciously low-budget to my eyes. The new enemies are transluscent, unkillable, unlootable reskins of normal enemies, or unkillable mutes in radiation suits. The levels are claustrophobic and relatively linear with a simple aesthetic that’s hard to examine because of that hanging cloud of red mist that will kill you, no matter how tough you are. Then to make balancing this new content even less of a concern, before you start, you’re stripped naked of everything, and have to leave your companions behind.
The plot is predictable, the writing unremarkable and the bright shining conceptual light amongst it, Dog/God, isn’t enough to redeem it, particularly for someone who wants to walk the Wasteland alone. You can’t go roaming and exploring in Sierra Madre – the great freedom of the setting is cut off in this arc. You might like it, but since this is my blog and there’s nobody here immediately telling me I’m wrong, any part of a game whose core game aesthetic is exploratory and expressive that demands you not explore and not express is bad. Play this way, with companions, with this weapon, in this tight, ugly environment, because fuck you.
If you’re in love with the story type and can handle forming emotional attachments to idiots, backstabbers or the crippled that you know will have to end tragically, give Dead Money a shot. Otherwise, give it a miss and leave the crazies to stare at a blank vault door forever.
The theme Dead Money begins is finalised here, with the miserable centerpiece of narrative that there’s nothing anyone can do with good intentions that doesn’t completely ruin everything around them. In a world full of individuals who huddle in quiet and safe places, gathered around light, water, and warmth while the world tries to kill them, you, the Courier, are one of a dignified few who change the world around them in the wake of your turbulence. It’s a novel storytelling device, with the notion that the world is divided, Rand-like, into those who shape it, and those who are shaped, and can almost be seen as a deconstruction of the sandbox genre. The whole world waits, holding its breath, for the eventual superman who will come along and deign to repair their lives. With that power comes responsibility – or does it? Does the player character owe the world some appropriate action?
The central story of the Lonesome Road is a long, semilinear corridor of things trying to kill you to death, surrounded by enemies that start at ‘Deathclaw’ and move upwards, but also show the colossal lack of restraint as to turn up in packs. Like a genuine junkpile, the Divide is full of amazing things, but there’s a lot of crap you have work through, a lot of identical, duplicate things – and the Divide’s story is best experienced in one long sitting, blasting through it, running and escaping. I ran fast and far through the divide; I was on a mission, I wanted to hunt down Ulysses, I wanted to know.
The experience is a fantastic three-arc story. Act 1 happened before New Vegas ever began. Act 2 is the Divide itself – and that whole story plays into the game’s greater Act 3. I complained about the story of New Vegas being unsatisfying towards the end – but Lonesome Road makes the game’s own story stronger, in my opinion. I won’t talk too much about the arc you experience – merely to say there’s not a lot to criticise. Oh, sure there are problems the game has in the first place, but Lonesome Road doesn’t add to them, and gives you a big, expansive dungeon with a novel mechanic in it to explore and eventually escape, as well as a genuinely enjoyable central plotline.
The DLC in general
The DLC is of such a high quality that the game is richer for the addition of it, but there’s this nagging problem I can’t avoid any more. Any time I start a character in New Vegas, she or he comes loaded out with about 96 pounds worth of gear, worth something like a thousand caps, and four sets of armour. The tutorial area is already the weakest part of the game; the gear from the DLCs encourages you to empty the vendor’s pockets, then bolt for the town limits ASAP rather than spend any more time hanging around.
For ten bucks more than the base game itself, this means each of the good DLC packs is less than three fifty, and you get a few cents extra for taking Dead Money off their hands, which seems a fair deal to me.