After the Bug Rush

by Arthur B

Now that the bugs have been ironed out, Fallout: New Vegas turns out to be an impressive beast.
~
Sometimes it pays to be patient. Obsidian, bless their hearts, almost never release a game which isn’t replete with bugs on day one, and consequently they often get savaged in reviews as a result. But still, the Internet age means that post-release patching is not only possible, but expected (though arguably this means that quality assurance processes at videogame designers are only going to get sloppier and sloppier...). Whilst on the XBox 360 at least you still see the occasional glitch, I’d say Fallout: New Vegas is more or less as stable as Fallout 3.

It’s also clear, now that the major bugs have been swept away, that it’s a substantially better game.

Fallout 3 took as its opening premise what was essentially a new spin on the premise of the first game; you are an inhabitant of one of the sprawling underground Vaults that survived a horrendous nuclear war between the US and China in the mid-21st Century, and some crisis has arisen which means you must leave the Vault and set off to explore the post-apocalyptic wasteland. On the balance, this was a more than reasonable decision; Fallout 2 had come out 10 years before, expectations of big-name top-flight CRPGs had grown immensely since those days, and there was a whole new audience out there who might not have played through the previous two games. Fallout 3 was in the difficult position of on the one hand trying to live up to the hopes and expectations of fans of the first two games, whilst at the same time winning over people who’d never played a Fallout game before. In retrospect, stepping back to the Vault-dweller premise of the first game whilst at the same time locating the action on the hitherto-unexplored East Coast of the post-nuclear US was more or less the right call.

Where it fell down, as Dan and Cyrus have observed, is in the writing and the presentation of the world. Having decided to set the game after the events of Fallout 2 - absolutely needlessly, since the vast radioactive wasteland between the West and East Coast would mean that it’s highly unlikely that things unfolding in California during the first two games would have any effect on the Washington D.C. area explored in 3 and vice versa - the designers nonetheless sometimes forgot that the nuclear war was supposed to have happened centuries ago, and sometimes seemed to suggest that it only happened a few decades back. (One of the most oft-cited examples of this was the NPC who is compiling a guide to wasteland survival and needs the PC to go out and do some extremely basic research for her... when surely all that stuff would be ground into kids from birth if people have really been dealing with the relevant dangers for a century or more.) The often morally simplistic Karma system was also cited as a downside of the game, and the plot was disappointingly linear - the core story essentially comes down to “be a total bastard” or “be a more or less OK person”.

In more or less all these respects, Fallout: New Vegas offers a substantial improvement. You’re not a Vault-dwelling nobody, you’re a Courier who got caught up in some sticky business and left for dead in a shallow grave. The core quest begins with you chasing the people who left you like that, over the course of which you become embroiled with the political struggle for control of New Vegas and the Hoover Dam - the latter of which is currently under control of the New California Republic, a political body established over the course of Fallout 1 and Fallout 2, which has managed to use it to generate electricity again. At around this point, the main plot branches in an impressively well-designed manner, giving you essentially four paths to follow - you can work for one of the three major factions vying for control over the region, or (with the help of Yes Man, one of the most hilarious robot NPCs I’ve ever encountered in a game) you can strike it out on your own and see if you can’t take over the place for yourself. You don’t necessarily have to commit to one path or the other until impressively late in the middle act, giving you plenty of opportunity to decide for yourself who you want to support.

The genius of this premise is that it allows the player to decide just how much amnesia they want their character to have when they wake up. Since the game takes place close to the areas explored in the first two games, if you like you can decide that your character knows full well who the NCR are and what the Vaults were and the recent history of the region, and they’ve just lost some short-to-medium-term recollection of who they were working for and what exactly went down with the whole platinum chip deal. Alternately, if you never played the first two games and haven’t a clue about the factions, you can play your character as a complete blank slate; the NPCs are usually more than capable of filling you in if you ask. This allows Obsidian to engage with the material established in the first two games to a sufficient extent to interest those who played them, whilst at the same time keeping the game approachable for new players.

Likewise, the design of the factions is impressive. Caesar’s Legion, a cabal who deliberately base themselves on the classical Roman Empire, are clearly pitched as the villains, most notably through their incredible acts of cruelty and their widespread use of slaves. (Slavemongery being the traditional way to indicate that someone is a wrong ‘un in the Fallout games.) Thus, if you want to be an out-and-out fascist or moustache-twirlingly eeevil, you can opt for them. Mr. House, the cryogenically preserved controller of New Vegas, is clearly a cold-eyed psychopath but at the same time you can see why a particularly mercenary character might choose to help him. The New California Republic is clearly the least abhorrent of the factions, but at the same time clearly aren’t innocents themselves, so are a good pick for those inclined to take the lesser of three evils, or who genuinely decide that the NCR do more good than bad. And the inclusion of the independent option means that you have the option of rejecting all three of the other factions, for whatever reason - whether it’s megalomania or deciding that they’re all as bad as each other.

This flexibility is possible because whichever faction you choose doesn’t really change the strategic facts on the ground - at the end of the day, control of the Hoover Dam is the overriding objective, so whoever you side with you’re going to have to fight a battle for control of the Dam sooner or later. This is a good example of how video game designers can provide for player choice without necessarily embracing complete nonlinearity and the headaches that can pose - ultimately, all four branches lead to the same confrontation, but that confrontation is going to play out very differently depending on who you’re fighting for when you go into it. It also amps up the replay value of the game appreciably; on my first playthrough, I was inclined to support the NCR but ended up working for myself when I decided that I just plain deserved to be the despot on the Mojave; on subsequent playthroughs I might try being a diehard NCR loyalist, or even a psychotic supporter of Caesar.

Obsidian have also done an excellent job of extrapolating where the West Coast setting went after the events of Fallout 2. By this point in time, actual nation-states have emerged and the serious job of rebuilding after the war is beginning to be accomplished, to the point where they’re beginning to restore electricity in some areas. Whereas in Fallout 3 if I found a tumbledown shack in the middle of the wilderness I’d find myself wondering how the shack survived a nuclear war and two centuries of chaos afterwards, here I’d tend to assume that the shack had been built post-war and then fell into disuse - not just because more than enough time has passed for that to happen, but because it’s quite clear that people are reclaiming the world in New Vegas, whilst in Fallout 3 society is still in a state of complete disintegration. Hell, in New Vegas you actually come across people tilling the soil and mining - not to a great extent, but then again you’re right on the frontier, and you can at least infer there’s more substantial agriculture and industry off in California. This frontier feel really helps to establish the whole “radioactive Western” atmosphere that Dan was talking about in his Fallout 3 review.

So, in short I’d urge anyone who passed up New Vegas for fear of bugs to give it another go, because the patches sort most-to-all of them out, and I’d equally urge people who enjoyed the gameplay of Fallout 3 but thought that the writing and worldbuilding were a bit lacking to give it a go. Ultimately, making people’s heads burst like overripe watermelons is fun whichever coast you’re playing on, but in New Vegas the choice of which head you shoot bullets at seems far more meaningful.
~

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

~
Comments (go to latest)
Craverguy at 17:15 on 2013-09-18
Mr. House, the cryogenically preserved controller of New Vegas, is clearly a cold-eyed psychopath but at the same time you can see why a particularly mercenary character might choose to help him. The New California Republic is clearly the least abhorrent of the factions, but at the same time clearly aren’t innocents themselves, so are a good pick for those inclined to take the lesser of three evils, or who genuinely decide that the NCR do more good than bad.

I think there's a good argument to be made that Mr. House is the best (or, at least, the "least worst") of the three major factions. Sure, he's an autocrat, but he's an autocrat who provides his citizens with an excellent standard of living and keeps them safe, which is lot more than you can say for the other factions, who are either actively malevolent or too incompetent to keep the peace. Really, the only area where you could argue that the NCR is superior to him is that they're a democracy...except that no one in the Mojave voted to put themselves under NCR jurisdiction, so it's kind of irrelevant.

In fact, it seems to me that it would be quite easy to interpret the NCR in this game as a commentary on the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war: lots of lofty claims of bringing freedom and democracy to a region blighted by dictatorship, but in the end they only real care about securing the region's resources (in this case, the Hoover Dam, the Helios One power plant, and Lake Mead) for themselves, and they're riddled with incompetence and graft to boot.
Arthur B at 17:33 on 2013-09-18
Interesting interpretation, though arguably there's more honour in giving a wide range of citizens a basic standard of living than a few hand-picked cronies an excellent standard of living. Also whilst active consent in the NCR doesn't seem to have been sought, governments in these pre-apocalyptic days don't require you to sign a consent form to go under their jurisdiction anyway so I don't consider that to be a major flaw (also "be part of us, and you'll get a say in who and what we actually are" is a sweeter deal than most of the reconstruction processes in the Fallout universe seem to offer).
Craverguy at 19:35 on 2013-09-18
Interesting interpretation, though arguably there's more honour in giving a wide range of citizens a basic standard of living than a few hand-picked cronies an excellent standard of living.

True, but House only provides his protection to a limited area because of technical limitations: he doesn't have enough Securitrons to police the entire Mojave, and the ones he does have aren't equipped for full-scale military action. But if the Courier decides to help him, neither of those things will be true by the end of the game.

Also whilst active consent in the NCR doesn't seem to have been sought, governments in these pre-apocalyptic days don't require you to sign a consent form to go under their jurisdiction anyway so I don't consider that to be a major flaw

Neither do I. I was simply saying that the NCR can hardly claim the moral high ground because of their democratic principles when they're just as heedless of whether the people of the Mojave want to be under their jurisdiction as House is.
Craverguy at 03:30 on 2014-01-21
I've been replaying the game for the past few days. My current goal (which I'm well on my way to accomplishing) is to reach Level 20 before setting foot in Freeside, without using DLC or playing any missions that House or Yes Man give you.

If I have one criticism of the game -- aside from the bugs, which, while no longer crippling, are still extremely irritating -- it would be the lack of attention given to Legion affiliated missions. There are only a tiny handful of such missions (especially compared to NCR missions), and you really have to go looking for them. It feels kind of like they just tacked it on to be able to say they gave you the option of signing up with Caesar, but without the depth they devoted to the other three options.
Craverguy at 09:45 on 2014-01-25
I finally beat Dead Money!

I'm so proud of myself. I don't know if that's the toughest gaming experience I've ever had, but it's definitely right up there.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in August 2011