Sunday, 5 June 2011

Viva New Vegas

Last year's gaming highlight (bearing in mind that I'm always a year or two out of date) was Bethesda Softworks' reboot of the Fallout franchise, the Washington DC-set Fallout 3.

As I opined at the time, this retro-futuristic, post-apocalyptic romp is easily one of the best games I've played in ... well ... ever. It created a vast, richly-detailed environment chock full of interesting NPCs and their varied stories, and tied the whole package together with an enjoyable central quest that mixed equal parts exploration and combat. The exploration part of Fallout 3, in particular, appealed to me, to the extent that I largely abandoned the central task for the first 100 hours or so while I wandered the Capital Wasteland.

Fallout 3 was initially followed up by a series of expansion packs, that also largely went down well with me, but has now been followed by a full-scale title, Fallout: New Vegas. Developed by members of the team who produced the original Fallout titles (and who were previously honing an aborted Fallout sequel, Van Buren), this title takes the series back west, in fact to one of my favourite places, the Mojave Desert. So, how does this second visit to the future stand up?

In an almost perfect inversion of the start of Fallout 3, which began with the player character's birth, Fallout: New Vegas kicks off with the death of the player character. Almost. Shot in the head by Benny, a New Vegas gangster, and left for dead in a shallow grave, it's only down to the quick actions of Victor, a friendly robot, that the life of the player character, the Courier, is spared. After surgery and a period of recovery in the nearby Mojave town of Goodsprings, the Courier is back on his (or her; the player can again choose) feet, but what next?

FalloutNV 2011-05-26 11-03-44-66 An obvious course of action is to hightail it to New Vegas and track down Benny for revenge. But the Courier owes his life to the good folks of Goodsprings, and this little town's got some big problems that could do with a helping hand to resolve. And then there's the bigger picture. The Mojave Wasteland is at the centre of an impending battle between the New California Republic (the NCR), a land-grabbing force from the west, and Caesar's Legion, an effective, if brutal, empire of former Raider tribes from the east, set on enslaving the Mojave. Both sides have already massed their forces on opposite sides of the Hoover Dam while they await the starting gun to begin war to the finish. Further complicating the mix is the shadowy presence of Mr. House, the unseen owner of the gambler's paradise of New Vegas, who's keen to keep things the way he likes them.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 07-59-18-92 Away from these main factions and their grand aspirations, the Mojave Wasteland is also home to a number of other, smaller groups. The lawless, drug-addled Fiends occupy the periphery of New Vegas, where they constantly harass NCR efforts to tame the Mojave. The Powder Gangers, escaped convicts from a NCR prison near Goodsprings, are new on the scene but keen to expand their territory. Up in the mountains, two separate encampments of Supermutants have formed, one under the "leadership" of the insane Tabitha, the other led by the humane Marcus, who seeks peaceful coexistence with his human neighbours. And while they were a humanitarian force for good in Fallout 3, the Brotherhood of Steel now bide their time in a secret military facility after an earlier defeat by the NCR, leaving the Followers of the Apocalypse, a scientific spin-off, to help the residents of the Wasteland alone. Meanwhile, in the slums of New Vegas, law and order are enforced by a gang moulded in the image of a legendary, pre-War leader of men, The King.

FalloutNV 2011-05-26 10-22-35-31 Against the backdrop of all of these competing, and occasionally cooperating, factions, the Courier's actions don't appear to stack up to more than a hill of beans. But by applying brute strength or smart thinking at the right time, in the right place, and with the right companions, then the Courier can help shape the fate of the entire Mojave Wasteland. Annexation by the NCR? Slave-grounds for the Legion? An oligarch's paradise? Or an independent, sovereign territory? All of these are options. Assuming, that is, the Courier survives the many and varied natural hazards that this often hostile environment also throws in his way.

FalloutNV 2011-05-26 17-22-37-74 So, the obvious question is: can Fallout: New Vegas fill the shoes of the fairly inestimable Fallout 3? In a word, well, two words: Not quite. Much as I said last year when I was shamelessly gushing about Fallout 3, pity the game that tries to follow up that particular behemoth. That was such a finely polished marriage of content, character and combat, that any game would struggle to hold a candle to it. Fallout: New Vegas tries to do this, and does actually improve on Fallout 3 in a number of areas, but it doesn't quite manage to succeed as comprehensively as its older sibling. Which, of course, isn't to say that it's anything less than a great game, just that it can't but fail to be compared somewhat unfavourably to its illustrious forebear.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 08-13-48-48 First though, the good points. As I've already noted above, the setting really appealed to me. Ever since I first visited it back in 1993, I've been a big fan of the Mojave, so in offering me the chance to (virtually) roam among the Joshua trees, F:NV is automatically onto a winner (not least because, living several thousand kilometres away from it, regular visits are not an option). The game does a great job of bringing this region to life, with the Wasteland full of dessicated valleys, lonely mountain-tops, eroded mesas and desert flora. And it's great to visit virtual versions of places like Lake Mead, Red Rock Canyon and Hoover Dam.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 07-41-51-31 Another plus point is that companions are both more useful and easier to interact with in F:NV than in F3. In the earlier game I quickly tired of my companions constantly getting me into trouble, and being awkward to deal with. Here, the introduction of the "companion wheel" makes it quick and easy to speak with and control the various companions I picked up. In fact, I wound up working alongside all of them for various stretches of the game, and even helped them knock off all of their quests to boot (= their "personal development plans"). While she was practically certifiable, I think Lily was my favourite companion, although it gave me a nice warm feeling inside helping Raul rebuild his confidence and discover his inner gunfighter.

FalloutNV 2011-05-28 07-34-06-43 And, combat fan that I am, there's a nicely expanded range of weapons in F:NV. Almost all of those from F3 return, but they're joined by some neat Wild West firearms such as the varmint rifle, the cowboy repeater and the caravan shotgun. And there are plenty of new, not-exactly-Wild-West ones to accompany these including the grenade machine gun, the thermic lance and the plasma caster. Dealing death is still a heap lot of fun in F:NV. Much as with F3, it still lags noticeably behind mainstream shooters, though as its strengths lie mainly in RPG territory, this is easily forgiveable. On this particular point, where the Fallout titles really score higher than regular FPSs for me is in their use of stealth in combat. Some of my favourite sections in F:NV were those where gradual infiltration rather than stand-up fighting was most successful. Not least because sneaking up on an enemy NPC opened up violent possibilities not available when running and gunning, for instance, the old grenade-in-trouser-pocket trick.

FalloutNV 2011-05-28 07-42-50-22 But not all of the decisions of F:NV's developers have been wise ones. One of the most glaringly bad ideas is that only about half of the map that appears on the Courier's Pip-Boy 3000 is accessible. When I started the game, and slowly made progress through the territory immediately around Goodsprings, I figured that there would be a vast number of places for me to wander to. But no; large sections of the map are completely unreachable, and are revealed as empty once the Explorer perk is acquired. Bad move. And one made worse by the way that the developers often keep the player out of forbidden zones. In many places, steep mountains block the Courier's path - fine, can't go that way - but in lots of others the land looks accessible but invisible walls are used to exclude the player. Which, if you've just hiked across a valley floor for 20 minutes aiming for an apparent mountain pass, is extremely frustrating.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 07-56-23-93 Another misfire lies with the conflict between the NCR and the Legion that lies at the heart of F:NV. Throughout the game, it's presented by NPCs as "imminent", something bound to happen in the immediate future. But the game's mechanics allow you to postpone the final showdown as long as you like. Being a fan of exploration, I just completely sidelined the central quest until I'd visited every nook and cranny in the whole of the Mojave. More than two game-years later, I finally washed up at the Hoover Dam for my date with destiny - just as well that the NCR and Legion were happy to wait for me to arrive is all I can say. This mismatch between being told war is "imminent", and then having the amassed forces just kick their heels until the player can be bothered to turn up, just dilutes the player's suspension of disbelief. In F3 the storyline was constructed much more cleverly, such that the timing of events, however delayed, still made sense (e.g. Dear Old Dad held plausibly incommunicado). Not so here.

FalloutNV 2011-05-28 07-50-26-78 An odd flaw in F:NV, one that should have been very easy to identify through play-testing (and even easier to fix), lies with the assortment of enemies found across the Mojave Wasteland. First of all, foes are considerably more sparse than in the Capital Wasteland. I spent the first few hours constantly expecting to be attacked, but was assaulted far less often than I felt I had rights to be. Admittedly, biologist hat on, the game is set in a desert, so one might expect inhabitants to be fewer and further apart. But then, when I did find someone (or something) displeased to encounter me, the balance of difficulty was extremely poorly configured. Some enemies, geckos, mantises and humans, were a bit of a pushover; while others, cazadores and deathclaws, took me almost the whole of the Experience Level scale to get on top of. It wouldn't have been difficult for the developers to create a more graduated scale of enemies, but for some reason they stuck with a rather "lumpy" distribution. Unlike, it must be said, F3, which seemed to have a much more incremental, and much more satisfying, range of enemies.

FalloutNV 2011-05-26 10-25-29-93 Among the lesser peeves that I had with F:NV was the absence of several weapons that I had great fun with in F3. Two of my favourites there were home-made weapons, the dart gun and the fabulous railway rifle. All of the ingredients to make them were present here, but I was never given the opportunity. Also, from an atmosphere point of view, a number of locations in the game that are meant to be well-populated, and which usually had ambient crowd noise to this effect, were disconcertingly lonely places. I guess this was because of the computational burden of having extra NPCs wandering about, but it doesn't help one's suspension of disbelief when the centre of a game's universe, somewhere that's supposed to draw people from miles and miles around, has a population of about 10.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 07-30-05-83 A more general criticism that I'd make, largely because it seemed such an important part of F3, lies with the game's tone. In the earlier title, there was an almost palpable sense of melancholy and loss as one wandered the ruins of the Capital Wasteland. Through the situations and characters encountered, it truly felt like a post-apocalyptic game in which humanity had committed the worst sort of self-destructive foolishness, one that the survivors were now paying the price for. That did make F3 a little humourless at times, but it certainly made the game stand apart from, and tower above, generic post-apocalypse titles in which the setting seems largely chosen to allow the game designers to just lazily cut-and-paste ruins. While F:NV does recapture some of this atmosphere, it somehow dissipates quite a lot of it. Partly, I think, because it does have quite a bit more humour in it which, while welcome, does tend to make the game more difficult to take seriously (erm, well, I suppose it is a game ...). To be fair, it does replace some of F3's atmosphere with an infusion of themes from cinematic westerns, and perhaps it's just me that doesn't appreciate that enough.

FalloutNV 2011-05-14 08-09-53-46 Anyway, notwithstanding the above criticisms, it's been great to have a whole new Fallout world to yomp over, and a novel set of virtual adventures to take part in. And it's not over yet - much as happened with F3, there are four published or planned add-ons for me to get around to, and I don't doubt for a minute that I will too. However, until they're all out and I can go at them in a big Fallout-blowout, I'll switch to other presents from birthday/Christmas. Of which, first up is a rather novel, first-person jumper title, Mirror's Edge. Of which, more anon ...

More images from my time in the Mojave Wasteland can be found over here.

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