31: Fallout: New Vegas

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Let’s go back to 2008 for a second, shall we? I promise I’ll return you safe and sound. A slightly younger Jim is playing Fallout 3, and it is amazing to see that whole world brought to life. Jim remembers Fallout 2 as one of the foundation stones of his teenage descent into games, and to see power armour, vault doors, deathclaws and ghouls right up close is something mesmerising. Wide-eyed, he wanders through the detritus of the Eastern seaboard. He finds a gun, scrabbles around in the ruins for ammunition and other useful salvage. He wants to explore, he wants to see everything the wasteland has to offer, alternately talking to and shooting it.

Skip forward a few weeks, around twenty five hours of game-playing later. Look at Jim now, his eyes have lost their youthful spark, his smile has twisted into a grimace, he’s pelting along corridor after corridor in a bid to get the game finished. Fallout 3 promised so much but couldn’t back it up, not for long enough. The world was empty, but more importantly it was…unconvincing. Everything was sufficiently off-kilter that exploring left a bitter taste in poor Jim’s mouth. Gimmicky cities in ridiculous locations, gimmicky vaults, gimmicky monuments, gimmicky giant robots and mutants…this wasn’t a wasteland, this was a themepark. Jim was another tourist, longing to break out and see reality but unable to push through the mountains of debris and labrynthine subway systems that were designed to get in your way. Resolve broken, Jim cleansed the wasteland of its vacuous inhabitants, leaping into the fatal radiation chamber at the end without a second thought, resolving not to play another open-world game again.

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Okay we’re back to the present. I mean it, open-world games have always been a source of suspicion for me. “Go anywhere, do anything” has always seemed like a recipe for disaster, as how could I possibly trust myself to find all the good stuff? I didn’t want to just be panning for nuggets of interestingness in a river of blandness when the game could just be telling me what to do and lining up the good stuff, one mission after another. Most importantly, I think, I needed a grand narrative, and when you’re just bumbling about doing random quests for random factions, well, what’s the point of that? I didn’t say these were coherent suspicions but based on having played Morrowind and Grand Theft Auto and Fallout 3, I thought they were more or less justified. I’ve finished one of those and then only grudgingly. There was no structure! There was no direction! This isn’t a game, it’s torture!

Still, I’d heard good things, positive things, about New Vegas, and decided to take the plunge. It was made by Obsidian, who are probably the only design team I can think of who haven’t disappointed me yet. They seem to have a knack of building a world that is just a little bit more interesting than the norm, and crafting a plot which is a little bit more engaging. They’re also famous for releasing incredibly broken games from time to time but, well, New Vegas escapes that to be honest. I’m not going to beat around the bush any longer: New Vegas is the best new game I’ve played this year, hands down, and it’s not because of any one reason or mechanic but the interplay, the way everything fits together as it should.

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The default mode of NV is exploration. Most of my time was spent picking through the remnants of time-weathered husks rather than on fetch-and-carry errands, and I think it deserves the most analysis as so much of your time can be spent doing it.

The motivation to explore is threefold, for me. Firstly it’s about seeing the world and how it all fits together. Now that may sound like a fairly weak thing to be after but Obsidian have put some genuine effort into making the locations fit together. Places across the map are of various factions and leanings but they all serve a purpose. This canyon is where all the chems come from, this farm network supplies New Vegas, this trading post is built on an important crossroads. Yes, there’s exceptions, odd locations that seem neither here nor there (though generally if you look around enough you’ll find a reason), but the overall impression I get is one of great care for the world that’s been built. Towns are in sensible locations, forts are in defensible terrain. There’s some unusual town landmarks but they all fit into the mythos of the game. There’s not the feeling that there’s a guy randomly mashing together key phrases and throwing darts at the game map.

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The second motivation is about ascending the pecking order. If you head north immediately, you run into signs plastered with skulls and warnings. So you keep heading north to have a bit of a snoop, see what’s up there, and JESUS CHRIST a giant radscorpion is trundling towards you as if propelled by all the fires of hell. Three seconds later, you crumple to the ground, chock-full of poison. You can go anywhere, but if you want to do so then you’d better find the necessary equipment, acquire the necessary skills. I love that exploring opens up all these options for you gradually, that you’re sometimes forced to turn back with a determination to visit there again, once you’ve found a radiation suit or some breathing apparatus or more explosives. The exploration fuels your advancement and then that advancement opens up more exploration, it’s a beautiful cycle of improvement. Even at the end of the game there were places I dared not go, caves of deathclaws and cazadors that, I knew, would still slaughter me unless I made some serious preparations.

Thirdly, honestly, I find the rhythm of explore, sort, move on to be extremely soothing. I’d happily spend an hour wandering through some old robotics company, picking through their documents, seeing what I could salvage and use, and then moving on to the next place on the map. This is because I do find New Vegas to be a very beautiful game, while most seem to think of it as a series of grey and brown boxes. I think it’s actually this understatedness that makes the remarkable locations stand out all the more, gives you an idea of what to do. Yes the distant mountains look a bit like a pile of old potatoes, yes you’ll see a lot of scrub and desert and mountain but that’s what the area is like, it makes sense. And then when you see the overgrowing vibrant flora outside Vault 22, or the murky radiation-heavy fog around Camp Searchlight, or the distinctive bottle-shaped tower outside the Sunset Sarsaparilla HQ, it stands out and you think “I’m going to look over there”. This is especially true of New Vegas itself. When you’re trekking the wastes at the dead of night early on, you’ll see a flash of colour just over a hill. Far in the distance are the illuminated towers and glittering casinos of New Vegas, completely artificial against the barren rocky backdrop. It’s something to strive for, something to set your compass around. Look, there it is.

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You know what this game is about? If you don’t, you weren’t listening to Mr Perlman closely enough. “Too many humans, not enough space or resources to go around.” The quest and faction side of this game is less of a triumph than the exploration but it does work when it links back into that central idea: get people to work together, secure something important, solve our problem, give us an edge on our opponents. These are the ideas that make sense in the Fallout universe, and they have actual impacts. I really liked the fact that despite my best efforts, I kept fucking up the lives of people who were just trying to make their way through a harsh environment. I broke a solar power plant in a good-hearted attempt to increase its power, I destroyed the secret behind lush vegetation in the wastes because of my concerns over its method of transmission, I got a town founder slaughtered trying to save them from maurauding gangs. I wasn’t perfect, not even close to it, but you had to keep trying. The characters that you find and bring along with you have their own problems , and were complex and interesting enough that you wanted to keep them around, though that side of the game did feel a bit stunted.

The main questline is solidly rooted in this struggle for resource control, the vast generating power of Hoover Dam and the three-way scuffle between the NCR government that now controls California to the west, the Legion, a bunch of slavers who have crushed the east, and New Vegas itself, trapped in the middle, under the complete control of Mr House and his army of robots. Smaller groups are finding themselves squeezed to the sidelines and just trying to survive themselves. There’s a choice to be made for humanity’s future, and the different people I have spoken to had very different reactions to the various factions. Yes, the Legion is a bit of a stereotypically evil bunch from the outside, but as always with Obsidian, there’s more beneath the surface. It’s also where the open world aspect comes into its own: There is nothing to stop you rocking up at the Legion Main camp and just destroying Caesar, early on. There is nothing to stop you unplugging Mr House, or taking down the tools of NCR governance. Make your choice, pay the price, simple as that.

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Tying into that, there also are multiple ways that you can build your character that will lead into different approaches to the same solution. You won’t max every skill, not even close, so you have to prioritise and there isn’t one particularly dead skill that serves no purpose. Even the normally useless Charisma has a huge effect, massively changing the effectiveness of your companions and unlocking different options in conversations. Obsidian have taken a careful scalpel to the bloated S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system that’s been in use in Fallout since forever, and they’ve only cut off the unnecessary fat. Being an explorer, I prioritised my non-combat skills and I suspect many others will too, but it was nice to see that if I increased some seemingly pointless skill like “Survival”, then plenty of options suddenly opened up. This also leaves open the window of trying again with a completely different set of priorities to see what’ll happen though I think I’ll need a big break before that.

So that’s a big ol’ chunk of praise, what about the bad points? There’s thousands of niggles if you want to pick at them, and I’ll mention a few that I found myself scratching against. Fallout 3 was notorious for its massive debris walls stopping your progress across the city, and New Vegas still has a few of these, as well as some invisible walls stopping you climbing over a couple of hills, which goes against its whole agenda. I would say speech is overpowered as a skill, allowing you to sidestep so much, so easily in a way that no other skill does. The faction rep system is rudimentary, I found myself being dragged into negatives against the Legions purely because they were continually shooting me on sight and I had no choice. I decided to play on hardcore, which added in some survival aspects (keep yourself hydrated, fooded, and uncrippled) but it didn’t really add much beyond an achievement at the end. Oh and the physics engine is absolutely ridiculous, and will occasionally send corpses flying fifty feet from a shot in the head, or have them get trapped in a door and manically revolve around trying to find peace. The main issue is that there does come a point where the convincing illusion of a consistent world begins to fray as you have been staring at it too intently. The main reason for this is that the engine of the game cannot handle that many people so in the thriving hub of New Vegas, you’re not going to see more than a few dozen people at once. In the NCR army camp, you’re not going to see more than a few dozen soldiers. This can carry over to the flora and fauna too, there’s just not enough life some of the time. I would recommend you finish off the game when you start to feel this sense of worry. For me, it took 60 hours, which is damn good going.

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Ultimately though, the game is so fulfilling, so wonderful, that I could forgive it ten times that number of problems. It was this brilliant mix of the humdrum and the bizarre, not relentlessly grim but dark enough that those little moments of light were dazzling, while the long periods of dark kept you grounded. I love the world, I love the mythos, I loved living it. And, providing you go in with the right mindset, so will you.

5 stars, 58 hours played.

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