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Review: Fallout: New Vegas

Game: Fallout: New Vegas
Recommended price: Full Price ($20)
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: 70+ hours
Buy If You Like: Fallout 3, Oblivion

The ever-important first vista shot.

The ever-important first vista shot.

When I played Fallout 3, it completely revolutionized the series to me. A storied veteran of the original Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics, the idea of a first-person non-grid-based combat game filled me with dread. Would it feel like Fallout? Why turn this series into a FPS?

By the end of the first hour, my fears (and free time) melted away in the vast furnace of Fallout 3’s immersive, brilliant post-apocalyptic world. I had already played games like Oblivion, but it was not until Fallout 3 that I truly appreciated the depths in Bethesda games; the ability to just strike out and roam. While it lacked the brilliant storytelling of the prior games, I felt it made up for it in all the unspoken narratives of the world around you. Suffice it to say, Fallout 3 remains in my top 5 games of all time.

This is not, of course, a Fallout 3 review.

Fallout: New Vegas is a noble attempt at having it both ways: the exploration and the narrative. You start not as a fresh-faced Vault Dweller, but as a middling Courier, shot in the head in media res ala Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. And in typical narrative-driven fashion, your quest for revenge starts at Point A and leads inexorably to Point B.

This is roaming on rails, at least for the first few dozen hours, with the slightest deviation leading to certain death. Strike North from the starting city and you will face level 20 Giant Radscorpions. Stray too far West outside the plot-directed Southerly route and Super Ghouls will eat your face off. Cut through the mountains to the East and you will inexplicably face the Blind Deathclaw guarding the path, conveniently immune to the effects of even your Stealth Boy invisibility cloak.

Decisions, decisions.

Decisions, decisions.

Between the visible fences of high-level monsters and being able to see New Vegas’s Lucky 38 tower from any vantage point in the game, F:NV starts off by feeling microscopic in comparison to Fallout 3. But a curious thing happens as you finally reach the Southern reaches of I-15 and turn East. “Tutorial Mode” over, the game suddenly opens up, blooming with hidden depth and density like some desert flower. There is still the highlighted yellow-brick plot road to follow, but you can actually strike out on your own at this point with less risk of instant death. I decided to plow my way to New Vegas proper at this point, stopping only at the various locations within sight along the way.

It ended up taking me over 40 hours just to reach the gates.

Combat in F:NV is more or less identical to Fallout 3: you can still treat the entire game as a normal FPS or you can pause the action in VATS mode to specifically target enemy extremities. Weapons skew a lot more towards traditional Spaghetti Western fare as befits the motif, but classic laser/plasma guns are not too far behind.

F:NV does feature some interesting innovations compared with its predecessor, including the use of Factions with mostly independent reputations. Don’t like the New California Republic? Join Caesar’s Legion. Or vice versa. Or screw them both and embrace Mr. House’s vision of the future. Or screw him too and embrace your own brand of justice. While the burgeoning complexities of the midgame collapses into an endgame constant, fundamentally the ending is one you can choose. Classic Fallout.

Well… mostly. While all of the set pieces are in place, including many of the same (recycled) posters last seen around the D.C. area, I could not help but feel that F:NV was… missing something. Something ephemeral, something intangible. F:NV is set in the same Fallout universe with the same people and the same post-apocalyptic problems. And perhaps that is what felt off. If this were the 1990s, F:NV would have been an expansion pack to Fallout 3, not a spiritual sequel.

I do kinda miss the Fallout 1 & 2-style depth to responses.

I do kinda miss the Fallout 1 & 2-style depth to responses.

Don’t get me wrong, there is more than enough to do in F:NV to justify its own existence. But it felt more like Fallout 3.5 than its own game. And yet, at the same time, F:NV feels like it didn’t have to be a Fallout game at all. Sure, there are Vaults and Nuka-Cola and Super Mutants aplenty. But the overarching narrative of revenge never felt personally compelling, and the coming clash between NCR and Caesar’s Legion seemed a digression. This game was Fallout when I was just wandering around, eager to scavenge what I can out of crumbling ruins I see just on the horizon. When I was the Courier just trying to make a final delivery for no particular reason? Not so much. The Platinum Chip is not too different from the Water Chip when it comes to plot McGuffins, but it felt different just the same. I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.

Ultimately, Fallout: New Vegas is not Fallout 3. For some people, that will be a relief; for others, a deficiency. But it is important to keep in mind the scale of this particular comparison. I am pulling out the microscope and judging the relative merits of Mt. Everest versus the Grand Canyon. I am quantifying and comparing the love felt for a firstborn son with that for a granddaughter. Fallout: New Vegas cannot be fairly judged by a jury of its peers because it has no peers other than Fallout 3… and possibly Skyrim/Oblivion. So while I still feel that Fallout 3 is better than Fallout: New Vegas, the latter is better than damn near every other videogame I have played. I am being so critical not because Fallout: New Vegas is a bad game, but precisely because it is so good.


There are four main pieces of DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, although at this point they will all likely be bundled with any Game of the Year copy you will buy. Briefly though, I will describe them for posterity.

Honest Hearts: Technically speaking, this was my least favorite of the DLCs. Heading into the outskirts of New Caanan, the Courier gets to interact with Burning Man, the hitherto presumed-dead former leader of Caesar’s armies. While there is a main plot concerning the story of revenge/redemption, it simply does not flow too well, in my opinion. I never really cared about the plights of the tribes or the lands they occupied.

Conversely, the sort of understated plot line of “The Father in the Cave” revealed via in-game computer archives was one of the more poignant mini-narratives I have seen in Fallout, if not in games period. If you’ve chosen to never play F:NV (and are still reading this review for some reason), go read the transcript here; it is presented in the Wiki exactly as you see it in-game, aside from actually exploring some of the locations (and seeing the traps) mentioned in the text.

Outside of that, the Hearts DLC does feature a lot more plant materials for use in homemade stimpacks, and an abundance of clean drinking water for those doing a Hardcore run.

Old World Blues: Modeled on 1950s-era space dramas, I found this DLC to be exceptionally fun and funny both. The premises push the boundaries of believability even in the Fallout universe (your brain is scooped out right at the start), but after a while it ceases to be particularly relevant as you blast giant mechanical radscorpions and other ridiculous enemies. As a sort of bonus, by the end of the DLC you essentially receive a remote mountain base with all sorts of crafting stations and other amenities that you can teleport to at any time.

Dead Money: While this DLC opens up with my least favorite gaming trope – the sort of Metroid-esque “remove all your gear” mechanic – it does sort of ratchet up the tension and make the rest of the storyline work. Collared with explosives, you are forced to try and open up a vault underneath one of the few surviving casinos outside of the New Vegas area. The limited weapon selection and deadly dust clouds skews the DLC more towards survival-horror than Fallout sidequest, but I was pleased with the plot, imagery, and ultimate payoff.

Lonesome Road: Out of the four, this DLC most fits the narrative of the game proper. I felt it a smidge too linear for my liking (although not as linear as Dead Money) and a bit too ridiculous in other places (trigger nuclear bombs to move wooden debris out of your way, what?), but out of the four this most fit the tone of Fallout games.

Skyrim: Day 0

The ideal scenario, I believe, is to start playing popular (or notorious) games right when they come out. Not only is the potential for spoilers minimized, but there is also something to be said in exploring a brand new game as a virtual group, together. And the pageviews. Can’t forget about the pageviews.

Riding in on the backwash of the tidal wave of Skyrim blog posts does grant me the sort of perspective that First Day/Month players don’t start out with. Sometimes it’s good (“Don’t Sneak into a wall for two hours.”), sometimes it’s bad (“Infinite mana via Enchanting, yo.”), and sometimes… well, you start noticing things right away:

Wait a minute... did that arrow really hit him in the...

That aside, I wanted to kind of lay out the way I was approaching Skyrim before I get too far (12 hours and counting) into it to remember – indeed, I only stopped to write this because I had a C++ crash-to-desktop interrupting me.

  • I strongly disliked Oblivion overall; in many ways, I considered it the anti-RPG. Here was a RPG that punished you for specializing in three skills that you actually use. Here was a RPG filled with quests that had no rewards, i.e. XP. Here was a RPG that discouraged exploration insofar that dungeons get stocked with crap treasure the earlier you reach it. Here was a RPG I broke in half after an hour of tinkering at the weapon enchanting workbench and 1000g (“Hey… -100 HP for 1 second costs practically nothing. And it can reduce them to zero? And it stacks if you cast it real fast?!”).
  • If I’m honest, Oblivion’s true crime could simply have been that I played it after having spent 150+ hours in Fallout 3. Not only do I enjoy post-apocalypse settings better than fantasy, but it did everything else Oblivion seemed to be trying to do, but way better. Scaling enemies felt a lot more natural in Fallout 3, for example, while still allowing you the freedom to go practically anywhere starting at level 2 (something lost in Fallout: New Vegas, but that’s another post).
  • I did finish Oblivion, albeit after starting a fresh character with 3 non-used specialized skills, a sword/bow that instantly killed everything below 100 HP, and a general disinterest in side-quests. There were some genuinely novel things going on, and I do remember a few of the quests. Like when you had to fish a ring out of a well, but the ring was enchanted to weight 200 lbs. It sounded (and felt) exactly like something out of my college buddy’s D&D campaign.
  • The Shivering Isles expansion was loads of fun, and easily better than the entire normal game.

If the above sounds concerning in any way, allow me to alley those fears: I walked into Skyrim with a fundamentally different attitude. In the years since Oblivion, games like Minecraft (and, if I’m honest, other gaming blogs) taught me to enjoy more free-form, emergent gameplay.

I still prefer narrative-driven games, of course, but having an audience for Show & Tell purposes actually gives those random occurrences a narrative feeling – nobody cares about the crazy dream you had last night, but hey, look at this:

Horrific arrow wounds + delicious apple pie.

So, anyway, Skyrim is happening. Given the blogging saturation surrounding the game, I will attempt to keep “Christ, look at that mountain!” posts to a minimum. There is actually some topical problems I have with the game’s design, which I’ll get into a bit later. Interestingly, none of the problems are the interface.

Designer Responsibility

How responsible are game designers in the balancing of their (single-player) game?

Syncaine swerves to the right:

One theme I’m seeing is the debate about what is OP [in Skyrim], and how easy it is to min/max the game. I find this… odd. As Nil’s himself pointed out, you can turn godmode on if you want, and be as ‘maxed out’ as you can possibly get. Hearing that people are ‘exploiting’ the game by running into a wall for hours while hidden to max out stealth makes no sense to me. Why waste all that time, just go into the character file and put stealth to 100. […]

“Am I to blame?”


Luckily the solution is easy; remove one or more of the enchanted pieces, or up the difficulty, or RP a reason why you no longer require mana to cast spells.

I’d rather you do that then Bethesda spend time hardcoding a solution over adding yet-another-quest, or whatever other content they could do in that time. Or have the hardcoded solution prevent me from play “how I want”.

If this was an MMO, 100% valid point. If it was a multiplayer game like Dungeon Defenders, still 100% valid. An sRPG that is far more about the journey than the end-goal? Naw, non-issue IMO.

Nils has a more center-oriented approach:

I agree that it is partly in the player’s responsibility to not optimize the fun out of his game. An example would be sneaking against a wall until you have maxed out stealth in Skyrim.

On the other hand, I just uploaded a video to youtube that shows how I enchanted four items and now can cast destruction and restoration spells witout any mana cost. This is a game changer, as the mana constraint was important in the game – until then. Many of my perks in the talent trees are suddenly useless. The game becomes worse. Playing it is less fun if I can just spam a single spell without looking at mana.
I optimized the fun out of Skyrim. Am I to blame?

The problem is that I ended up enchanting my equipment this way not by sneaking against a wall. I simply skilled enchanting and then used reasonable enchantments on my equipment.

My point is this: A game cannot use the cartot, that character power progression (CPP) is, to increase the player’s engagement with the game, and at the same time allow him to optimize the fun out by hunting the carrot in a reasonable way.

My own left-leaning approach is the same as I outlined in the Culpability of Questionable Design, the very first post I made under the In An Age banner. Essentially, it is (almost) always the designer’s fault.

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

As I commented on Syncaine’s post, I find it bizarrely apologetic to state that it is a player’s responsibility to not ruin the game for themselves. The specific situation in Skyrim Nils had brought up was the ability to eliminate all mana/stamina costs of spells and abilities via Enchanting. Nils had gotten his Enchanting skill up “legitimately,” as opposed to, say, getting 100 Sneak by auto-sneaking into a corner for a several hours. For the record, I see zero difference between those two activities – both are simply examples of incredibly poor design ridiculous failures of imagination.

In Oblivion there existed a Magic College where you could invent your own spells and magic items, within certain constraints. Making a Fireball spell that dealt 100 damage was expensive, whereas a 50 damage Fireball cost less. Similarly, a buff/debuff that lasted an hour was more expensive than one that lasted for only 1 second. After about an hour of playing with the various sliders, I left the College with a ranged spell that decreased the HP of the creature it touched by 100 for 1 second. The practical effect was that it instantly killed everything in the game, at least until I gained many more levels – even then, if I fired it quickly, the second hit would kill anything with less than 200 HP since it stacked with itself. I called this spell Finger of Death, and later added it to a sword along with the Soul-draining property so that as the sword instantly killed who it touched, it refueled itself.

I did not set out to break Oblivion, nor did Nils set out to break Skyrim; the both of us were simply using the tools the designers gave us and taking them to their logical conclusions. It is the responsibility of the designers to ensure that incredibly obvious things (at least in retrospect) like “-25% mana usage” does not stack with itself, that temporary decreases in HP scale the same as damage abilities when their effects are indistinguishable, and so on, are balanced. Arguing to the contrary is to admit that WoW leveling is not too quick since the player can manually shut off XP, that facerolling mobs and instances is a player failure as said player could play with just one hand, play with a gamepad, play with Resurrection Sickness, or any number of entirely arbitrary self-imposed restrictions. It is to abdicate, wholly and completely, any responsibility of the designers to present a balanced, well-paced experience.

Syncaine is right about these games being about the journey, not necessarily getting to the end as quickly as possible. And yet I derive deep satisfaction in the execution of strategies, figuring out how rules/objects work, and finding more efficient ways of doing tasks; those things constitute the journey to me. Turning on god-mode in the console may have the same end result, but it skips all the fun, thinking bits inbetween, just like skipping to the last chapter of a book. In other words: optimization is fun.

And so I believe it is – and has to be – the designer’s responsibility to ensure that if a game can be optimized, that it still continues to be fun and challenging when it inevitably is. Anything less is laziness, incompetence, or both.