Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Post-Apocalyptic Series (Part Two): Fallout New Vegas Review

Ugh, Fallout New Vegas. Ugh. Akin to the man perpetually reliving the day after eating a vindaloo, I just did not want to go through this shit again. Reviewing New Vegas after Fallout 3 was always going to be an inevitability: the two go together like poorly thought out marriages and Las Vegas. But there's nothing much to say about NV that I hadn't already discussed in the previous review. Ok, so it's set in a desert now instead of a barren wasteland. And instead of the citizens of DC spending 200 years dossing about, the people of the Mojave Desert have gotten off their arses and created a vibrant society. But toss me a bone here, because like sex with Ched Evans this is going to be an unpleasant struggle. I know, I'm checking my fucking privilege at this very moment. The show must go on, however, so Fallout New Vegas it is.

In case you missed the first instalment in my latest 'Iron comes up with a theme before abandoning it two reviews later' series, I decided to review some of my favourite post-apocalyptic media. With all the doom-mongering in the media lately I felt it apropos to delve into fiction where society has had a few too many and woken up on a pube-ridden bathroom floor. Also, this affords me the opportunity to poke holes into things that I enjoy. I'm like a piquerist in that respect. So, grab your machete, strap on some metal plates, and let us crack the skulls of raiders like it's the year 20XX.

You have to feel sorry for Obsidian Entertainment. As a dedicated developer of Role Playing Games so old-school that they come bundled with a peasant beating stick and staffed mostly by Black Isle Studio veterans, you'd imagine that they would be one of the top-tier developers. But no, Obsidian have mostly handled the thankless task of producing less-popular sequels to popular video games. Sequels that, I might add, are often deeper, more engaging, and superior to their precursors. After the massive popularity of the Bethesda Softworks developed Fallout 3, Obsidian took on the unenviable task of creating an interquel. While Three is the most popular of the two most recent entries in the series, it's rather shallow, lazily written, and a little padded in places.

Comparatively, New Vegas is more open ended than your mum after a visit for the local rugby team. Obsidian traded the claustrophobic, tightly-wound atmosphere of a destroyed city for a living world where anything seems possible. If Bethesda and Obsidian were girls, Bethesda would the cheerleader type; a popular bombshell with a body that resembles the outcome of trying to get two basketballs down from the roof with a rake. Whereas Obsidian would be the mousey girl who gets her clothes from the corpses of homeless people, but has a big heart and everything in common with you.

I suppose that the prior paragraph gave away my opinion on New Vegas. But considering that I liked Three despite having more than a few bugbears and that NV fixes many of these, this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. It's almost as though Obsidian took the groundwork laid out by its predecessor and asked how they could raise the ante; bringing in the fucking Imperial Roman army seemed to be the answer. On paper, New Vegas' story is suspiciously interchangeable to that of Three. You, the player, take the role of a Courier on a personal quest for vengeance. And somehow manage to become embroiled in an epic civil war between the region's factions, each seeking to determine the fate of the land.

Yes, "epic".

Fortunately, NV's story is far more nuanced. For example, if you played as an evil character in Fallout 3 then the story would demand that you work with the game's heroes, The Brotherhood of Steel, until the end. In those final moments, in the Jefferson Memorial, you can choose to pull an Isildur - effectively changing your mind about saving the land and taking the evil option instead. Bioware's action RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic comes to mind; you are presented the opportunity to play as a Sith Lord but are still forced to fight other Sith. Those mooks must belong to a fucking good union, I'll tell you that. In New Vegas, the plot centres around a three-way struggle for control of the titular resort. An apocalyptic battle between stand-ins for the US Government (NCR) and an ISIS-like horde of violence-worshipping insurgents (Caesar's Legion) unfolds in the background, and you're forced to pick a side.

Or, alternatively, you can throw in with the local mogul and undercut both warring factions to take control of the Wasteland. Moreover, you can simply screw over everyone else and make your own way to the top - a sort of "I'm taking my ball home" approach. Obsidian's thoughtful design allows the player to approach the story in a manner more befitting their character. There was a part in Fallout 3's official expansion, Broken Steel, where the Brotherhood of Steel sends you to fight the entire Enclave's army and take control of their orbital nuclear weapons platform. Once in charge of the device you're supposed to use it to destroy the Enclave's base but it can instead be used to wipe out the Brotherhood's HQ, or any of the major civilian settlements. So if I want to be evil, I have to decimate the enemy's entire force to carry out the very thing they had planned? What lunacy is this? Sure, I could pretend I was an undercover Enclave agent all this time. But there's being deep undercover, and there's being akin to Richard Gere's pet Gerbil.

"I'm not going to sit and take that, and not just because it tickles."

Despite an open-ended approach to storytelling, the story of New Vegas is decisively worse than that of Three. I know, that's akin to being voted a more despicable human being than Dapper Laughs. Three can be classified as a coming of age drama so determined to force you through its 'intelligent' plot that it was willing to dispense with logic. Like The Mill on the Floss with less death but heightened importance on water ironically. New Vegas, meanwhile, is a rip-roaring revenge thriller intercut with scenes of an elderly man discussing a far-off war. You start by seeking justice, but that quickly falls by the wayside once you learn about the ongoing war.

The developers are seemingly content with sending you from place to place chasing the plot, like Dick Dastardly hunting that pesky Pigeon. All the coolest events have either already happened, or are happening off-screen. Caesar's Legion, for example, are supposedly the biggest threat to the Mojave - yet in the game's overworld they are vastly outnumbered by the NCR. The Legion are easily dispatched too, once you learn to use V.A.T.S (the attack queuing system) efficiently; making you responsible for more lost limbs than a certain English theme park.

Part of the problem is the setting. New Vegas, under the control of the New Californian Republic's well-equipped army and genius entrepreneur Mr House, feels like the pinnacle of post-civilisation achievement. Safe, secure, functional, and a beacon of hope to the region, the place serves as a large stable centre for a rebuilding effort. Even the immediate areas surrounding the city feel more vibrant than any settlement in the crumbling graveyard that was Fallout 3's setting. The Mojave is home to the best gunsmiths in the country, a town run by an Elvis-inspired gang; several secure military bases, a community of harmless Supermutants. There's even a tribe dedicated to fixing and maintaining an airbase filled with bomber jets. On top of that the people enjoy the benefits that come with possessing the Hoover Dam and HELIOS One a massive solar energy plant.

Now, it certainly is the abundance of resources and micro-societies that make the Mojave such an attractive target for Raiders and the Legion. I couldn't help but feel, however, that New Vegas lacked the sensation of impending hopelessness and struggle for survival that made Fallout 3 so atmospheric. If you choose to take the side of Caesar's Legion, then you will become sworn enemy of the NCR and will be attacked on sight by their troops. At every one of the many army camps, on the Strip, in most settlements, on patrol routes, etc. Only once you have explored that particular story path will you be able to appreciate just how secure the Mojave is and how forced the Legion threat feels. Swimming pools probably offer a more existential threat to the NCR.

"Oh buoy..."

The emphasis on the rebirth of society in New Vegas does play effectively with the game's revamped morality system. If you read my review of Fallout 3, you'll remember that I received its use of 'karma' in much the same way that Vlad the Impaler received the invading Turks. Fallout being a series of Western RPG, a genre that places player freedom above coherent narrative and driven design, just has to have a binary morality system. This is rather problematic. Problematic because Western RPGs have the propensity to favour a Rousseau-esque model. That is to say, the stories only really work with neutral or overly good characters; after all why would we trust the man who uses babies as handkerchiefs to save the world? A good post-apocalyptic game should resemble Thomas Hobbes' doctrine on the social contract - Leviathan. Hobbes posits that without a strong ruling sovereign, or governing body, mankind would essentially devolve into "the war of all against all," and the life of man, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." The prior description could also be used to describe my bouts of masturbation.

Fallout 3's approach meant being anything less than the Yorkshire Ripper felt overly idealistic. In a post-apocalyptic setting being a do-gooder is just going to get you forcibly bummed so hard it's going to feel like you've accidentally bent over to tie your shoelace at the international Elvis impersonators' hip-thrusting contest. New Vegas rectifies this by focusing less on the morality of the individual and instead emphasising the importance of reputation within a community. You still receive either positive and negative karma for your actions. But the manner in which you treat the communities is where your actions will reap mature quantifiable consequences. I find this delightfully Hobbesian: balkanised societies in a survival of the fittest world, each hoping to come out of it dominant, and they care less about your proclivities than they do about whether you're advantageous to them or not.

Such as whether you are terrible at strip poker.

The new reputation system allows players to approach quests in different ways. Rather than choosing between overly simplistic depictions of good or evil, choices are made based on how the player wants to respond to the factions. One early example of this is seen in the starting location Goodsprings. A side quest embroils the player character in a dispute between the townspeople and a gang of escaped convicts known as the Powder Gangers (presumably named after their love of powdering each others' noses). Regardless of who you choose to support the game rewards the player with fame and infamy points for said factions. As a player, I felt as though my actions were having an understandable impact on the game's world. Fallout 3, conversely, seems like an over zealous parent either scolding or praising you for your actions: "Now Iron, what did we tell you about murdering people before you've finished your sprouts?"

Reputations aren't the only significant alteration New Vegas makes to gameplay. Remember how I felt that Fallout 3 lacked any actual depth, like a fraudulent magic eye poster? Well, New Vegas expands on the formula and attempts to bring it more in-line with the core of the original two games. For example, to be efficient in the use of a particular weapon your character needs to meet the recommended S.P.E.C.I.A.L stat requirements. S.P.E.C.I.A.L refers to the primary statistics (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck, respectively), and the system works functionally identically to the one from Three. Strength governs your melee damage or carrying capacity, Agility your Action Points (VATS usage) and drawing/reloading speed, and so forth.

Unlike Fallout 3, however, there are also minor gameplay flourishes that come with how you use S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Perhaps the greatest instance is giving a character an Intelligence of 3 or lower, resulting in unique dialogue options. In turn opening up the possibility of role-playing a Father Dougal McGuire type bumbling your way through the post-apocalypse, making claims such as "I IS SCIENTISTIC!". Instead of merely providing alternate ways of doing things, New Vegas' approach to the skill system adds a bit of spice which can be missed if the right conditions are not met. That alone gives me far more incentive to go back and play through as a completely different character. Oh, and Skill Checks are no longer percentage based; you either meet the requirement, or you're not getting into this club pal.
And who could forget the famous "telling the final boss to go home" moment.

Also new is the addition of modifiable weapons, a feature apparently inspired by the hundreds of fan-made weapons mods for Fallout 3's PC version. I suppose we should be thankful that Obsidian didn't take inspiration from the countless 'replace NPCs with nude anime girls' mods; PC master race indeed. How it works is that you can add up to three mods (silencers, extended magazines, etc.) to a weapon but can't remove them. A feature that caused me no end of frustration. I would load up my best early-game guns with expensive mods only to find that they quickly became outclassed, leaving me with a useless elephant in the room which I couldn't afford to replace but still had to feed. Howbeit, at least being able to tinker with your armaments offers some form of progression.

Hardcore mode is a natural evolution of the series' core gameplay. Purporting to provide a more thoughtful and realistic approach (for a game that features giant blue mutants addicted to becoming invisible), Hardcore mode accentuates the survival aspects of the game. Stimpaks gradually restore health instead of being instantaneous; broken limbs can now only be restored by a doctor, bullets contribute to the carrying limit. And the player has health, hydration and sleep meters that must be attended to on a regular basis. It's like The Sims with beating up crack-addled bandits for food. I do feel that this mode would have made a better fit for Fallout 3; the crumbling major city setting provides more opportunities for depicting a desperate struggle to survive.

My primary issue with Hardcore mode is that New Vegas is a Fallout game, and Fallout games are typically marked by combat that is as forgiving as a flu-infected border patrol guard. When your supplies are dwindling, and you're low on health you last thing you'd certainly want is to be running away from Deathclaws. This is particularly vexatious at the beginning of the game where taking any route other than the one to the primary objective results in certain death. In an open world game no less. I did try to get past the quarry filled to the brim with Deathclaws (enormous demon-like humanoids), on a broken leg - because the nearest bleeding doctor was a few locations and many Radscorpions away. So I opted for the usual Elder Scrolls/Fallout approach: glitching my way across the rocky terrain leading an entire conga line of death personified who, like Rick Astley, are never gonna give me up.

Therein lies the difference in the two games' philosophy. New Vegas is a legacy game, created by those who were around for the early days. In fact, many aspects of the original Fallout 3 (known as Van Buren) were incorporated into the game. Caesar's Legion being, perhaps, the most prominent example. We also see elements of One and Two return, such as traits and the super mutant Marcus, so for many fans of the series NV is the true successor. The compromise between the new and old school is what makes NV a joy to play. Combat is more refined with the inclusion of Damage Threshold calculation and iron sights, as well as melee weapon perks. But at the same time, NV is more willing to tap into the series' trademark surreality. There's the 'Wild Wasteland' trait that adds things like Holy Hand Grenades, and a fridge containing Indiana Jones' corpse. The 'Meat of Champions' perk - despite sounding like a vaguely homoerotic hazing ritual that would take place somewhere like Eton - rewards the player for killing and eating the four most significant NPCs in the Mojave. Why can't more games do that! 

But, and this is a but so big Sir-Mix-A-Lot has written a song declaring his love for it, I do have issues with New Vegas. Issues that prevent it from outright supplanting Three as the better game. You know me, I'm an acerbic fussbudget. But I do think that New Vegas' setting is rather bland. After forty-something misspent hours with the game's desert sandbox, you'll likely be left feeling akin to a paraplegic stuck watching a Breaking Bad boxset on a perpetual loop, remote just out of reach. The Capital Wasteland felt like a decaying colossus, a figurative prison of crumbling concrete and twisted rebar. It was a ghost of a place, still haunted by the lingering memories of its former glories. Beholding the ravaged and ruined versions of iconic real-world monuments, had something of a profound effect on me. The Mojave Desert, by comparison, has nowhere which particularly wows the player, or causes them to pause for thought. Las Vegas is already home to tawdry, decadent tat; an apocalyptic event can only serve to improve the place.

Much better!

New Vegas misses the point of Three's cultural introspective. In Three we are shown the uncontrolled insanity and egotism of Big Business in the form of propaganda posters and advertisements, and then we witness its effects in the form of the abominations that roam the land. Advertisements use the phrase Nancy Boys as a catch-all term for anyone who dislikes their products, personal safety is disregarded as some communist ploy, and society is very rigid and uniform. By showing this toxic society in a deliberately over-the-top manner, Bethesda is able to send up the foolish desires of 'The World of Tomorrow', and also shine a light on our society. That's powerful world-building.

Obsidian are similar in their approach but are too literal in their interpretation of the Las Vegas myth. They have a lot with which to work. Howard Hughes' megalomania, the rise of the Mafia families, capitalism at its most savage. All these elements are certainly present. Mr. House is Hughes in his recluse years: a deranged visionary who has lost touch with his creation. Facsimiles of the mob run the casinos. But these elements seek to merely aggrandise the history of Las Vegas, not parody it. They feel like the lead into a punchline that never comes.

The other thing that Three has over New Vegas is that the former feels significantly more like a survival game. Ironic when you consider the great pains that New Vegas goes to ensure the player does survival correctly - including a bug that can permanently cripple your character's limbs. In Three I enjoyed role-playing as Iain Ducan Smith and killing by proxy - that is to say I stole from the needy and then berated them as work-shy for being unable to find more food. Get a friggin' job. I didn't get the same willy hardening satisfaction from stealing from my fellow man in New Vegas; the world felt fairly stable and evidently wealthy enough to even pose a challenge to Autolycus.

I...I may be misremembering my Classical Studies.

When it comes right down to it, Three remains on its pedestal purely because it transports me back to a better time. In 2008, I was utterly blown away by the experience. I am unable to describe my reaction fully; it was this ineffable process. So much so that in a dark recess of my hippocampus, nostalgia has permanently marked out a spot for it. Consider this - when I started the review I was unwavering in my bold claim that New Vegas was objectively the better game. And although I stand by my opinion, I have ended this review by listing ways in which Three is the better game. Nostalgia is your judgement at its worst, more so than when you ill-advisedly decide to have that second pint.

Returning to the subject matter, New Vegas is a fantastic game - one that successfully builds upon the already steady foundations of its forebear. A game that despite being refined in every way possible, finds a way to cram in new and welcome features. The introduction of 'Legendary' variants of the game's strongest enemies - Deathclaws, the insanely deadly Cazador flies, and wolfish Night Stalkers - adds a welcome level of challenge for veterans. Weapon modification and Hardcore mode are a bit hit and miss but are enjoyable features regardless, and help to encourage a more thoughtful approach to the game. The story is...well I've seen better narratives scrawled on the cubical walls of a public toilet. This particular bugbear extends to the many DLC extensions, all of which make the cardinal mistake of attempting to shoehorn in more history for the player character and build up a rather flimsy big bad. But that shouldn't put you off playing the game, or the DLC - Old World Blues, with its wonderful 'wacky science' theme, in particular. No, what should give you pause for thought is Obsidian's approach to quality control. In short: it's woeful. Like Lady Godiva riding a flea-ridden horse, the game has got untold bugs up the arse.

Olympic dressage has gotten weird...

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