Back in October last year (my how time flies!) I wrote a post about Fallout: New Vegas, in which I described my disappointment with the game. My final paragraph contained the phrase "If I give it a few more hours, I might like it too", which turned out to be a decent prediction, if not 100% accurate. I've played a lot of FNV since then and although I've forgiven the game a lot of its faults, it's still not going to make my top 10 list.
First, having played the game for longer, I've experienced the full range of its bugs. Well... there are probably more bugs, to be fair. I can't find them, though, because certain actions crash the game before I can reach other, probably game-crashing, bugs. This was such an issue on the game's release that Bethesda had to put out a press release urging people not to return the game but await a patch that would actually make the game playable. To be fair, a patch duly arrived, but it's like shoring up one wall of a house to make sure it doesn't fall down, only to discover that it's the only wall still present: the game seems to be irretrievably buggy.
Second, one of the major fun things in the game gets taken away from you as soon as you start to enjoy it: the casinos. Win enough chips at any of the casinos in New Vegas and they ban you; and it's pretty easy to get banned from all of them, meaning you can no longer play the three games on offer (blackjack, roulette and slot machines). Apart from the money-making aspect, playing in the casinos is a nice way to relax after shooting up a Fiend encampment, and for the game to take it away is pointlessly cruel. True, with a luck of 10 you're basically making your own money, but then the same is true no matter what you do late in the game, when you can haul huge amounts of loot back to vendors and sell it.
Third, I really dislike the plot endings. I'm not going to spoil it here with exact details, but no matter what you choose to do you end up in a bloodbath. There may be ways of avoiding this but if so, I haven't found them so far. Yes, you can avoid rivers of blood, but you always get at least a small stream.
On the other hand, the game offered enough that it's kept me busy, even if a decent fraction of the time I've spent on it involved reloading saves after a crash. Then reloading earlier saves because my latest save was already glitched in some way.
And so we come to the main subject of this post: the first piece of DLC: Dead Money.
It is absolutely bloody awful.
I have never wanted to do harm to a fellow programmer before playing this (well... apart from one or two I was working with) but this DLC almost makes me want to track down the developers and do serious, major damage to them.
I'm going to try to avoid huge spoilers, but if you haven't played it (you lucky, lucky bastards) and think you might want to do so (save your money!) then look away now.
I've always been told that one should give positive feedback first so the recipient is buoyed up when the criticism arrives, so I'll do it that way.
Dead Money has a very, very good story and several of the best characters to appear in any Bethesda title - indeed any recent video game title. To boil it down into a non-spoiled soup for easy digestion, the Sierra Madre Casino was completed just before the outbreak of war. It was to be the biggest, most luxurious entertainment complex ever imagined, and all was ready to roll when the bombs started to fall. Miraculously, the casino remained largely intact and several people were attracted to the riches presumably contained inside. You are the latest to become enmeshed in the plot. You end up as an involuntary worker for Elijah, who "enlists" your help, along with that of three other unfortunates, to open the casino and plunder it. Elijah is interesting in himself, but the other three - Dog/God (don't ask), Dean, and Christine are even better characters, with a wealth of back story to be discovered.
On your quest to find the first of these three, you discover that the area around the casino is filled with horrifying "ghost people", who return to life unless killed in specific ways. You also discover that the collar being used to ensure your obedience is sensitive to loudspeakers: radios and PA systems can trigger it and blow your head off. To make matters worse, the area is filled with a toxic cloud that is harmful to human life. As you find your fellow prisoners, the story develops... but I can't really say any more without spoiling things.
So what's my problem? Brilliant writing and interesting characters? Cool new enemies and challenges?
Well to begin with, this is yet another Fallout DLC that takes your equipment away at the start. Several of the FO3 addons did this, and it's basically a dick move to make your life harder. There were various levels of logic involved in the FO3 addons, ranging from "It's all a Virtual Reality" to "We feel like doing it" but here we have somebody who apparently wants you to help him taking your gear away even though he's not going to be there when you wake up. This is massively annoying. It gets worse if your character hadn't bothered to put much time into improving his or her melee/unarmed/explosives skills because you're going to need 'em. The Ghost People I mentioned earlier don't just need killing, they need eviscerating if they're going to stay dead, and the only realistic way to do that is with the new hand-to-hand weapons you find. You can use guns, but since ammo is harder to find than a eunuch's testicles you're going to run out pretty soon.
Some people are going to claim that having your equipment disappear is necessary to balance the mod. Rubbish. I've paid my cash and it's up to me how I want to play it. If I want to drop all my stuff outside (there's a chest where you can leave it) then I can do that. If I want to go in fully stoked, I should be able to do that too. Denying me the choice is nothing but annoying.
Next: you can't go back. Once you've started the mod, your committed. That's it. You have to finish the whole damn thing before you can return. While this might make sense in terms of the story, locking a game player in like this is never a good idea because they're just going to get mad at you. In my case, the first time I played it I reloaded an earlier save after about an hour because of technical problems and because I wasn't enjoying it. If I want to waste an hour of my life on something unenjoyable, I'll watch an episode of Outcasts. I should be able to leave and come back again later.
The ghost people themselves. At first, the challenge is good. The first time you get attacked by more than one you realise you have a choice: eviscerate the first one you kill to stop it getting up again, or leave it and try to beat down the second before the first recovers. The 15th time this choice appears, with variations including three or - shock - four enemies... it's boring. To be fair, the game repeatedly suggests that you avoid the ghost people rather than fight them, but it then makes a point of creating situations where you can't do that. After you've killed your first dozen of these things, they're annoying rather than scary.
After your first couple of fights, you'll need healing. Unfortunately, all your stimpaks were confiscated along with your weapons (see earlier comment re "dick moves") and you can't sleep outside because of the toxic environment. Luckily, there are new vending machines scattered around the place that will sell you food as long as you have enough Sierra Madre chips to buy it. Yes, you guessed it, yet another damn thing you have to collect. In this case, the chips are scattered around the exterior, and fairly easy to find, but it raises the question: Why bother doing this instead of just leaving the items to find? You have to discover codes that unlock things like stimpaks on the machines, so there's yet another bloody thing you have to find.
Next, this thing about radios and speakers setting off your collar. When you first encounter this, it's an interesting challenge and easy enough to solve without being onerous. It turns out you can switch off radios and shoot loudspeakers to disable them. You'll never guess what happens later? Oh... you did? Speakers you can't destroy and radios embedded in accessible areas? Let's say it again: dick move. For me, this is the second most annoying part of the game. There are places where there is - essentially - no possible way you can complete it first time through. You have got to go through and get killed, possibly several times, until you learn the locations of the speakers you can destroy, and the spaces in the coverage of the others where you can catch your breath. That's utterly rubbish in an A/RPG like Fallout where you should be able to get through on your first attempt unless you've made an unwise choice such as diving into a cave and taking on its inhabitants without the necessary skills.
Finally... the bugs! There are so many! On my first playthrough, the first three (I think) missions went fine but then the fourth glitched out and I couldn't finish it. That one I solved by quitting and reloading a save before I even entered the DLC. A similar thing happened on mission five, which I could solve with a reload, and then when I hit the final mission, I couldn't get it to work at all. Nothing on the Internet suggests a solution and various console commands ended up crashing the damn game yet again. So I decided to write a long blog post and drink some Scotch.
You know what adds to it all? What acts as a final knee in the crotch of good gameplay? The bloody casino ban limit is in place at the Sierra Madre too! You'd have thought that after the sheer bloody misery of working your way through this awful mod they could at least leave the casino open! Except, if I read the reviews right, once you've finished the DLC the whole area becomes inaccessible. One last dick move from a thoroughly rotten DLC.
Good riddance to the whole noxious, bug-ridden piece of poo.
If you'd told me a week ago that I'd be writing a blog post with this title, I'd have told you that I found it unlikely in the extreme. Fallout 3 was one of the most addictive and brilliant games I've ever played, to the extent that I had to take two days off work to get it out of my system. When I heard a followup was due I was overjoyed, and got more excited as the Bethesda publicity machine ground into action and released little tid-bits of information on what the game would include.
I eagerly did the pre-install thing on Steam (for those who don't know, this downloads the game ahead of time but leaves it encrypted on your computer so you can't play it until the official release date), and even left my PC on overnight on the day before release so it would be ready to play when I awoke. Immediately after the morning cup of tea I dived into the game - the advantages of contract work are many and varied.
Ninety minutes later I quit it again.
And didn't go back for a couple of days. It's been five days now and Steam reveals I've played it for a total of two hours. This is not what I was expecting. So what's the problem?
I always watch intro movies on first play-through and this one was decent enough without setting the screen alight. The character-generation sequence, though, was rubbish compared to Fallout 3. The earlier game started at the moment of your birth and took you through important early stages of your life, to the point you finally left the vault. It left you feeling involved with your character and genuinely caring about it. In this one you basically fill in some forms.
Stepping outside you get the usual lovely graphics, but a slight sense of disappointment too. When I first played Oblivion, my reaction to leaving the sewer at the start and seeing the gorgeous landscape in front of me was simply "wow!" In Fallout 3, I had the same reaction largely because the vista was so different: instead of blue skies, lush foliage and shimmering water, you had a fractured, blistered landscape that evoked the post-armageddon feeling perfectly. In F:NV, my reaction was "Oh." because it didn't do anything new. Sure it's pretty, but I was expecting another step up, not more of the same.
It's probably my imagination but the NPC interactions were a little better than before, and the voice acting has taken another leap forward too. Oblivion's biggest failing was the painful process of talking to NPCs, and the two Fallout games have made it much more bearable. Hopefully in TESV the NPC might move around a bit instead of standing like a statue when you talk to them. Even Morrowind-style head-turning and neck-scratching would be a start!
F:NV has added a few new things to the original's limited "making stuff" option. In addition to oddball new weapons, you can now craft ammunition and medicine. Weapons can get upgrades too, to make them more powerful in various ways. Some people are going to like this. I don't. FO3 was a tad unrealistic in the way it had ammunition practically oozing from very ground, and so having to break down some ammo in order to make more is better, but then you're already in a post-apocalyptic world with one foot in the 1950's and the other in the 2280's, so realism has already jumped out the window anyway. I can't help but feel that these new features are so much tinsel on an old Christmas tree - it adds a superficial prettiness to something that really needed a structural overhaul to work properly.
Most reviews you'll see will tell you that the graphics look dated. They do, largely because they're exactly the same as the original game. Sure some new models have been added, but I hardly noticed them. Combat's the same. Gameplay's the same. In other words, it's the same game as Fallout 3... but while I couldn't put the first one down, I can hardly motivate myself to pick this one up. What has changed?
The only thing I can think of is that while I cared about by FO3 character, I honestly couldn't care less about the F:NV one. "Yahtzee" Croshaw always goes on about "immersion" and this is the first game where I've found a lack of it really makes a difference. I suppose I should want to find the people who shot me in the head, but I don't. I suppose I should want to find out what the message I was delivering was about, but I don't. The intro to the first game gave me a huge desire to find my dad and restore the world to rights: in this one I just thought "I suppose I'd better go outside now" when the doctor was done with me.
Another common line in reviews is "If you liked Fallout 3, you'll like Fallout: New Vegas". You might. If I give it a few more hours, I might like it too... but it's not the done deal you might expect.