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TNO fellates Fallout: New Vegas
Review - posted by DarkUnderlord on Sun 5 December 2010, 02:03:14Tags: Fallout: New Vegas; Obsidian Entertainment
Fallout: New Vegas is one of the best RPGs of all time. A masterpiece, although not an unblemished one - the Obsidian trademarks of beta-as-release candidate, consolized interface and badly optimized graphics are there. But so is a cracking story, clever, intricate quest/C&C design, and the wasteland brought back to life in the same blackly jaunty way Fallout did. If you've been after a proper successor to Fallout, or simply something to redeem the genre after several years in the doldrums, look no further. Welcome back, MCA: all is forgiven.
I'll Never Make the Same Mistake Again
One of the first signs of a return to form are the traits: minor in terms of gameplay, but a nice way to round out your character. Some of the 'streamlining' stays, but it is either inoffensive (making skills rely on a single attribute rather than a mix), or (like the collapse of First Aid and Doctor) is to be welcomed.
Better still is the writing. For New Vegas to be any good, it'd have to distinguish itself from Fallout 3, with all it's kitsch banalities, dumbing down, and writing which could only be charitably compared to metastatic disease. Happily, New Vegas rises to the occasion. Compare the intro monologues:
Fallout: New Vegas
As the Republic grew, so did its needs. Scouts spread east, seeking territory and wealth, in the dry and merciless expanse of the Mojave Desert. They returned with tales of a city untouched by the warheads that had scorched the rest of the world and a great wall spanning the Colorado River. The NCR mobilized its army and set it east to occupy the Hoover Dam and restore it to working condition. But across the Colorado, another society had arisen under a different flag. A vast army of slaves, forged in the conquest of 86 tribes: Caesar's Legion.
Four years have passed since the Republic held the Dam, just barely, against the Legion's onslaught. The Legion did not retreat. Across the River, they gathered strength. Campfires burned, training drums beat.
Through it all, the New Vegas Strip has stayed open for business under the control of its mysterious overseer, Mr. House and his army of rehabilitated Tribals and police robots.
You are a courier, hired by the Mojave Express, to deliver a package to the New Vegas Strip. What seemed like a simple delivery job has taken a turn for the worst.
Why does the second one work better? It forgoes the verbal histrionics, and a knack for telling understatement. At least half Fallout 3's intro is pounding the message 'this is grimdark, humanity sucks!' New Vegas gets the 'abyss of atomic fire and radiation' out of the way in the first sentence, and spends the rest of the time setting up the story. It's leaner, better balanced, and just shows better writerly intuitions.
Similar skill arises elsewhere: "From where you're kneeling this must look like an 18 carat run of bad luck. Truth is, the game was rigged from the start" is iconic, and there are lots of nice touches of wit and flair - even to the wild west esque wording of the quests on your pip boy. The same story applies to dialogue. No more NPC: Herp derp. You: [perception/intelligence/whatever] So, you mean "herp derp"? NPC: Why yes my good sir! How astute of you! NPCs (and you) generally speak sensibly and at an appropriate 'pitch', Cass's occasional over-the-top toilet talk perhaps excepted.
I don't want to set the world on fire
A repeat of the world of fallout 1 would probably be enough to earn the adulation of the fan base, but New Vegas doesn't rest on the world-building laurels of its predecessor. Rather it adds more flavours to the mix, from Roman empire, to wild west, to gangland. These elements are not only done incredibly well, but they are neatly dovetailed into the previous universe to hit the golden mean between a dislocation of the wasteland we know and love, or the sense that Obsidian are just going through the motions and doing the computer gaming equivalent of fan-fiction. The old elements are developed, the new elements are introduced, and they are set together to give a picture of the factional and unstable world of the wasteland.
There are several gentle hints to veterans of the series that what came before is not forgotten: the vertibird pilot who 'crashed over Klamath', Cassidy's daughter, the return of the NCR, Followers of the Apocalypse, and the Khans in manners that isn't completely bowdlerized and better fleshed out, and so on. Even some of the music is retained, and deployed well: when you hear 'the Glow' theme in one of the casinos in New Vegas, you know something is up (computer gaming equivalent of intertextuality? Maybe…)
There are many new kids on the block, and attention has been lavished upon them. New Vegas is what New Reno would have been if someone bothered to write in a backstory, and Caesar's Legion avoid being villains of the month and emerge as an engaging, if objectionable, presence in the wasteland. There are dozens of neatly thought out elements to choose from: a gang of Elvis impersonators, a tribe of artillery toting isolationists who want to have a B-29 all of their own (they came from a vault with no lock on the armoury), the etymology of some of the new locations ('No Vacancy' --> NOVAC). All show the care and attention lavished on the world by the design team.
The game should be commended for its moral pitch - it's happy to show Caesar's Legion doing some very bad things, and also have some genuine humanitarians (Followers of the Apocalypse). There really is a fractious ethos in New Vegas (should you really help the Khans, or the Boomers, or the Legion? Are the NCR really much better? Is New Vegas worth keeping?) without everything being smeared together into some pseudo-grimdark trope about everyone being bastards wanking over their stash of child porn. It also retains the slightly over-the-top but not completely ridiculous style of the first two games: solar powered super weapons and 1950s rockets blasting off are there, but such elements are reined in appropriately for verisimilitude.
Another plank to New Vegas's charm is the quest design. You have a sandbox game that isn't contrived, that really does offer emergent solutions to problems. Organizing and arming a militia (depending on your skills) to protect a trader from a group of gangers, to cracking a robotics facility, to talking your way into performing an operation on a major antagonist to deliberately botch it yet talk your way out of trouble… the list goes on. New Vegas is vast, and most of it is well worth seeing, occasional fast travel fetch quest excepted. Never did I think 'why isn't the game letting me solve it this way', and often New Vegas took the lead in taking me down solutions which were just plain cool.
Someone's rocking my dreamboat
It isn't all perfect, though. Fallout: New Vegas inherits several flaws - not from Fallout 3, but from Obsidian.
However much I disliked the art direction in Fallout 3 (much better in NV, thanks especially to clever in-universe posters), Bethseda at least made it run fairly smoothly, even on my sub-par rig. Yet New Vegas suffers from appalling framerate drops that strike out of nowhere. The glitches aren't just graphical: there are bugs that transfix you on top of objects unable to escape, random sound drops making all the guns silent, and - least forgivable - random aggro and item bugs that make certain quest solutions impossible. Mods are already on the way to sort this stuff out, but that gives no excuse for Obsidian to be sloppy on the QA. At least they finished the game this time.
One of the vaults neatly demonstrates the Janus appearance of New Vegas - how the story and set up can be undermined by gratuitous bugs and poorly-balanced combat. Vault 34 is heavily irradiated, its occupants feral ghouls. Its depth, the endless tick of the rad counter (which can't be eliminated by 2 Rad-X) and the dark slowly tells you the story of how it came to be this way, as well as a sense gradually increasing desperation to find the loot and leave before the rads get the better of you. But it doesn't quite work - there's bizarre pathfinding and mapping bugs, piss annoying mobs that spring out of nowhere with vast hp, and crashes too. A pity.
New Vegas, like the previous Fallouts, still doesn't quite manage to give the sense of a survival challenge, but it tries hard. Weapon degradation and (hardcore mode only) thirst, hunger and sleep are nice wrinkles - keeping your stocks of water up while traipsing around the Mojave is a nice dash of verisimilitude. But they rapidly fade from being real concerns once you start swimming in bottlecaps and loot. The deeper diagnosis is of a bit too much unbalanced monty haul - one of the first towns has a bucket of ammo, several guns and two energy weapons ripe for the taking. The cash sinks in this game aren't food and water, but special implants and uber gear.It makes you wonder why some other randomer didn't pick up all the bling and take over the wasteland.
This points to a deeper issue with the otherwise excellent plot. There isn't a clear motive for why your randomer in particular sets off to put the wasteland to rights instead of kicking back in Goodsprings. The set up is that you wake up patched up after someone shot you and left you for dead, and the game tells you to go find out why. Yet the motive for tracking down the dangerous men who shot you to tell them they didn't finish the job is obscure at best. Of course you are the Player Character, ordained by the mighty Game Designer to be the one to Level Up in return for advancing the Plot, but this meta knowledge is pretty much the only thing driving you onwards at the start to carve out a reputation for yourself, whilst before you were happy to slum it as a courier. A stronger investment -hell, any investment (maybe some permanent damage from the injuries? Maybe a few drips more information at the start? Per F1 and F2, a community you care about under threat?) would have made the start of the story a bit less listless, and given me some urgency in finding my man instead of doing yet another few side-quests. This is hardly an uncommon problem, but it is thrown into relief by the strength of the story and it's usually faultless internal logic.
Then maybe you'll ask me to come back again
Obsidian have made a game that isn't just true to the promises of the fallout universe but one which expands and develops its kaleidoscopic charm. This is the sequel Fallout 3 should have been. Hell, this is the sequel Fallout 2 should have been: the same flair, but without the loss of focus and a bit less bloat. It will become a lasting classic: it shares with PS:T and Arcanum the sheer brilliance in which the world, the story and the quests are put together. Let's add more semi-hysterical praise: this is the best RPG in 3D.