Game Review: Fallout: New Vegas

Better, but more of the same.

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Available on: Steam

I recently had the urge to return to the Fallout games. I’ve had a weird relationship with Fallout 3. I remember calling it “the atomic meh”, since it was so perfectly middle of the road. That is not to say it was a terrible game, just that it suffers from what many open-world RPGs suffer from: Bad, unengaging gameplay, a boring main quest, inconsequential side-quests that border too much on MMO gathering and fetch quests and a general lack of challenge. And I realize that going into Fallout: New Vegas with radically different expectations was foolish since for all intents and purposes, this is simply a different campaign in the same game, since all the mechanics and assets have been reused in the same software framework. But I’ve heard a lot of positive things about New Vegas, about how the writing improves on Fallout 3 and actually makes it worthwhile. And if there was one thing about Fallout 3 that made me play it all through to the end was that for all its faults, the general atmosphere did feel quite absorbing, so I was hoping to find some more of that here.

Since there have been so few changes between these games I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say to critique it, since my thoughts haven’t changed that much and it really is basically just more of the same, albeit set in a different part of the United States. The gunplay is still a far cry from what a good FPS should be, since it’s all done via RPG logic, but the shooting is somewhat improved since you can now actually aim and hit something outside of the V.A.T.S aiming system. Which is actually a good thing since most weapons managed to use up all my action points with 2 or 3 shots and I was stuck using manual aim for the bigger part of the firefights. At least in the beginning.

See, shooting enemies only really matters until you get to Primm and reactivate ED-E and get him as a companion. After that, gameplay has officially ended, since I rather saved the ammo for hairier moments when his armaments weren’t enough and just let him get rid of all the nearby enemies while I looted their corpses and explored all the nooks and crannies of the world. It gets even worse when you get your first human companion – Boone in my case, although I ditched his boring ass when I found Veronica – since they initiate combat with hostile NPC even if you set them to be passive.

And I know what you’re probably saying. “Have you played the game in hardcore mode?” No, because the idea of having to maintain a video game metabolism didn’t appeal to me. I don’t know if it works like this in New Vegas, but every other game I know that has a survival mechanic where you need to eat and drink to stay alive has a main character that needs to be fed 12 times a day. Those are also the type of games where batteries for a flashlight or a camera usually hold a charge for a staggering 5 minutes at a time and I wanted to spare myself that shit. Besides, having a survival mode and then not having the main character also have the need to go to the toilet is just a cop-out.

But I think I might have finally realized what bugs me so much about the combat mechanics in these newer Fallout games. The old games were turn-based, which meant that enemies had to abide by the same combat rules as you do. You get a shot, they get one and it’s all calculated through RPG dice mechanics. And that was perfectly acceptable for those games. But beginning with Fallout 3, they introduced a sort of hybrid that allowed you to play either in real-time – with hidden dice-roll – or to use the turn-based system. Problem is that enemies are now no longer bound by the same rules you are, since they always work with the real-time mechanics and those don’t appear to be bound by RPG logic for them. Otherwise, why would every single enemy have the ability to aim and hit me from half a mile away when I manage to not hit a target 10 feet in front of me, even with a decent amount of points poured into guns and energy weapons? Why do they take away a third of my health with the same weapon I’m wielding, but while mine is in mint condition and I’m wearing power armor, theirs is barely functioning and they’re wearing leather? And the fact that the enemies are still rarely a real challenge despite this very obvious advantage tells me that there must be something terribly wrong with the combat design in these games. Enemies only ever become threatening in groups when they initiate combat and all go for your sorry ass. That is, until you’ve hidden behind a rock or something and let your companions draw aggro. Then you can just wait until events resolve themselves.

Never mind that nothing outside of that ever really got challenging this time around. I learned from the past and put a lot of points into science, speech and lock-picking, and that meant that I could bypass almost every speech check and unlock a ton of rooms and safes that were just littered with money, ammo and med-kits. By the end I had ten thousands of caps, hundreds of rounds of ammunition for guns I haven’t actually fired a single time since I always used the hunting rifle at the start and the plasma rifle at the end which served me quite well. And I had tons of medical supplies that went unused, which is not too dissimilar to my experience with Fallout 3. Making money in these games is almost too easy. Just take off the clothes and weapons of all your slain human enemies, use them to repair one item to the absolute maximum of quality you can get it and sell it at a ludicrous price. Rinse and repeat. I sold so much armor and weaponry in mint condition since you literally stumble across it. And I wasn’t gonna play a melee character so I kept a few weapons in case I needed them – and I did equip Veronica with a few of them – and sold all those machetes and other stuff. And I played as a good character, so I didn’t steal a single thing in the entire game, which ought to tell you something about the amount of loot you’re gonna find here.

Not to mention that I seemed to have a lucky hand at the caravan game which also dramatically increased my funds. Although it seemed to have issues, at least on my PC, since whenever I or the AI used a card that removed another card or stack from the board, it bugged out and kept putting the cards back on the table, repeating the sliding animation dozens of times until it finally registered. But what would a game created in the Bethesda software framework be without bugs?

So is the much touted story and writing better here than in Fallout 3? I’d have to say it is. That doesn’t mean it’s stellar or anything, at least for the first half, just that the world seems more interconnected and a lot of the characters have more interesting backstories. What did impress me however were the later quests when I finally got into Vegas. A lot of them wove out of and into each other in a very organic way and they frequently put you into a tight spot in terms of choosing what to do next.

For the record, I went for the independent ending. There were a lot of reasons for that choice. I didn’t trust Mr. House, since he’s just an old-money control freak with no proper plan for the future of the region. I didn’t want to help the NCR more than I already had, because it became clear that for them the territorial expansion isn’t about helping the people of the Mojave, it’s about securing the Hoover Damn power source under the false pretense of being there to help. And I sure as fuck didn’t want to help the Legion. I mean, the ideals presented are really interesting, but the execution just leaves a few things to be desired. Not the least of which was the fact that I (as usual in a game that lets me choose the gender for my character) played as a woman. So I ended up defeating everybody and making Vegas great again. Not that it mattered too much, because as usual in these games, you don’t really get to experience the real aftermath of your actions, since the game just ends on voice-over narration and a couple of slides that reflect what you did and give you a brief glimpse into the world you’ve created. Which is always a shame. I would love to see how this place looks if I would’ve gotten to trek through it 10 years later or something. Not to mention that the dialogue of Yes Man at the very end sounded kinda threatening.

But here’s the thing with these RPGs and their supposed good writing: I’m still travelling a miniaturized version of a real-world location, where it takes me 5-10 minutes from Boulder City to Vegas on foot, instead of the real-world equivalent of over 8 hours. And I reiterate my statement from my opinion on Fallout 3: I wouldn’t want to trek through the empty wasteland for hours just to get from one place to the next. But having a world this small takes me out of the experience. When someone tells me that some place is too far away and I can get there in 5 minutes, I feel bullshited. If a group of 5-6 people tell me taking out a Legion camp with 10 enemies is a too tall order for them to accomplish while I stroll in there with my two companions and take them out without breaking a sweat, I feel bullshited. If someone tells me that a battalion of 20 people constitutes an army, I feel bullshited. And if I can stumble across a new settlement or vault or factory every 5-10 minutes while casually walking from one end of the map to the other in a straight line, I feel like I’m living in the Truman Show. A game map doesn’t have to be big to feel big, but Fallout 3 and New Vegas just feel small.

Never mind that it also just feels so static. I can stumble into a town and it has a general store that tells me that it can survive based on the traffic. What traffic? There are maybe 200 non-hostile NPCs in this entire game and I’ve never seen anybody besides wandering sales people and maybe Victor the Securitron go anywhere in this game. Why do we have merchants in this world carrying less than a thousand caps but for some reason they’re able to sell me goods worth ten times as much and somehow earn a living? And why are they willing to buy shit off of me for no reason and spend money on stuff they’re not gonna sell again? Who’s gonna buy Legion or other faction based armor from them? Why are there no children around to be seen? Why are there tons of weapons and currency in buildings when they have been untouched in 200 years? Why was I able to stroll into Vault 11 and hit the fucking jackpot when it came to ammo? Never mind that apparently there were more medical and earnings clipboards made than the entire human race could ever get through. Why is this entire world filled with only maybe 30 or so different items of random nonsense? And why the fuck is my character (a courier) asking people where she is? Isn’t her job to know these places and how to navigate the world in order to get to them? Why then is the map on my PipBoy empty? All of these are questions that constantly cross my mind while I’m playing these games, because at some level I simply cannot suspend my disbelief enough to accept that this is a holistic world that functions in the way it’s presented to us. Never mind that my character apparently doesn’t know where she is, but in conversations with certain people, she’ll pull information about people out of her ass. The Van Graffs were never mentions when I got to Freeside, but for some reason my character had some questions about them.

I also seemed to level really fast this time around but for some reason a lot of the perks you could get were stuff I deemed entirely unnecessary for my playstyle so on certain levels I had trouble picking the “best” of them, since I never saw any benefit in a lot of them. The same applies for skills. I never put any points into explosives, melee weapons, sneak, survival or unarmed, because that’s not why I was there for. So I basically maxed out energy weapons, guns, science and speech and also had 90 points poured into barter and lockpicking and with the use of magazines I could temporarily boost those where needed and nothing stood in my way.

On a final note – and this isn’t really a criticism, just something worth pointing out – I would really like to see a Fallout game set outside of the United States. How cool would it be to get to explore a post-nuclear South America or Asia? Maybe set it in central Europe, where the topography is different. Or you know, you could set it in Australia and just go Mad Max on it. Speaking of which: With the abundance of vehicles found in these games, how come we never got to drive any of them? I mean I know why, it’s because Bethesda suck at changing the core formula they reiterate in every game they release and actually programming new mechanics to work well in their dated software framework is hard. But that’s no excuse.

So in the end, what I guess I’m trying to say with this is that I have certain problems that many RPGs keep repeating that probably only I feel that strongly about. Because otherwise, I couldn’t explain why people thought Fallout 3 and New Vegas were prime examples of the RPG genre. If this is truly as good as it gets, I’m lucky I’m not playing the stuff stuck at the bottom of the barrel. And I want to reiterate that I don’t consider my time spent with these games as wasted or that they’re overall bad games. They must have done something right in order to make me sink over 40 hours into each. Because I like post-apocalyptic settings. But these games carry so many problems with them, that it’s amazing that they get so much praise from every direction and I’m sitting here, still waiting for a truly great modern RPG to ever come out. Maybe my standards are just unreasonable for this genre, but I truly think, people should expect better than this. Good writing and an interesting world don’t make up the very definite lack on the gameplay front.

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