With the release of The Outer Worlds last year, I felt a keen desire to replay Obsidian’s earlier opus – Fallout: New Vegas. I had played through the game once, shortly after it came out, and remembered it being significantly better than the earlier Fallout 3. I remembered not playing through the DLC, and wanting to. I remembered wanting to explore the world more than I did the first time around.
Now, some four months and nearly 100 hours of gameplay later, I thought I might take some time to record my findings, as a travelogue of sorts, now that I approach the conclusion of my second play-through and have confirmed it is as good as I remembered.
Preface: A Travelogue of the Mojave
I should preface this by saying that I am a long time Bethesda fan, but have never had much investment in the Fallout series. I’ve played through Morrowind half-a-dozen times at this point (no small feat for a game that large), and it holds an entrenched spot on my short list of favorite games. I enjoyed Oblivion (with many caveats) and Skyrim (with fewer caveats). But Fallout 3 has never grabbed me, and I find the earlier installments impenetrable. Fallout 4 didn’t interest me enough to buy it, even now that the price has come down. And we don’t talk about Fallout 76, apparently.
But New Vegas is different, especially by Bethesda standards. It utterly abandons the free-roaming sandbox worlds of The Elder Scrolls and other Fallout games in favor of a surprisingly linear first act. It ditches the moral choice system of Fallout 3 in favor of a more nuanced faction-based system that makes your decisions carry more immediate weight. It is peppered with rich characters and environments throughout the game, and draws players to one of the most meaningful choices I’ve ever seen in a video game, full stop.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First I’d like to plan out my travelogue a bit, though my ambition may exceed my abilities here. New Vegas logically breaks down into three acts: the road to New Vegas, the politicking in New Vegas proper, then the player interactions with the different game factions. It makes sense, then, to structure my travelogue likewise. First I’d like to discuss the genre, storytelling, and mechanics of the game. Second, the setting and environments. Third, the different factions and the ideological positions they represent as the player chooses an ending. Then, if time permits, I might spend some time on the DLC.
But enough preface. New Vegas awaits.
Ain’t That a Kick in the Head
Bethesda games typically start slowly. In The Elder Scrolls, you begin as a prisoner. In Fallout you begin as a vault-dweller.
In New Vegas you start out dead.
With one shot, Benny and his Great Khan goons leave you for dead and steal the platinum chip that operates as supreme MacGuffin in the Mojave wastes. We don’t initially know anything about these people or this thing – we have to be reminded by the good doctor and the mysterious securitron-John Wayne surrogate with his strangely upbeat cowboy persona. We run through the requisite tutorial, but it doesn’t take long for us to be presented with the world and a single-minded mission: follow the man who shot us.
This has to be one of the finest starting quests in Bethesda history. Role-playing as the Courier, tracking down Benny leaves a lot of room for the player to decide exactly why we are doing this. Maybe you want revenge. Maybe you want the chip for yourself. Maybe you nobly want to fulfill your mission to return the chip to Mr. House. Maybe you’re just curious why this person you’ve never met wanted to kill you. Or maybe you just want to go to New Vegas: the Lucky 38 looms on the skyline from nearly every location in the game, a promise of riches and civilization in an otherwise desolate wasteland.
And the game leans on this quest, hard. You’ll spend a good ten hours or more trekking to New Vegas if you follow the quest line, helping citizens along the way. The whole first act depends on this one hook.
But that isn’t what I want to discuss today. This quest is too slow-burning to appreciate from the outset. Instead, the quest just operates as an excuse to play as a wandering outlaw, rolling into town to save the day before continuing on our inscrutable way.
This is a western, after all.
Outlaw, Lawman, Courier
Waking up in Goodsprings immediately brings you face-to-face with a classic Western setup. The townsfolk of Goodsprings are being harassed by bandits. Apparently a bunch of convicts were using dynamite to clear roads when they staged an uprising against their guards (why did we trust them with explosives again…?), and declared themselves the Powder Gangers, entrenching themselves in the same prison where they were once trapped. Now they are harassing local towns with their explosive know-how.
But one of their thugs has deserted, and is hiding out in town. They’ve caught wind, and are coming to set things right. So you are already faced with a very complicated dilemma.
You could sell out the deserter, saving the town the trouble of fighting the thugs, though this seems only a temporary solution.
You could defend the deserter, in which case you’ll probably want to rally the townsfolk to your cause, and stage a desperate battle against the dynamite-wielding thugs.
Or you can sell out everyone involved and join up with the Powder Gangers, winning their admiration and access to their stronghold and supplies.
This kind of choice is typical of New Vegas – non-binary, organic, and rooted in the different characters’ interests. It also doesn’t lend itself to a clear good/evil dynamic, though there is a superficial “karma” meter that affects some statistics and perks as you level up. Instead, you can decide for yourself who your most valuable allies will be, and which interests are more in line with your own.
Heck, an enterprising player could rally the townsfolk to fight the powder gangers, then slip into the bar and rob the place blind during the confusion. Hard to say if anyone would even notice.
Which brings us to an interesting dichotomy between New Vegas and its predecessors.
Many have complained that New Vegas restricts the freedom typical of a Fallout or Elder Scrolls game. One of the hallmarks of Fallout 3 (and Oblivion before it) was the ability to wander in any direction you liked and make your own way through the world. The main quest was a loose guide – you were welcomed and encouraged to tell your own story instead.
But New Vegas sharply pens you in. Head north from Goodsprings and you’ll run into poisonous Cazadors, which will kill your low-level character easily. Head East, directly toward New Vegas, and you’ll hit a quarry full of Deathclaws, who will handily tear off your limbs. The only safe route, suited to your level, is South, then East, then North into New Vegas, following the highways. Ignore it at your peril.
Some would argue that this limits the player’s freedom, and it does. But it also showcases the freedom the game does offer, which gives the lie to the “freedom” of its predecessors. Fallout 3 will give you the run of the map from the word “go”, but most of its towns are linked to scripted quests with limited outcomes. There is only one or two “good” options that complete the quest (with the much-desired experience bonus), and the outcome of your choices tends to be limited to that one town. By contrast, the factions in New Vegas tend to be more widespread. The first few towns you encounter: Goodsprings, Primm, and Novac, all have their own isolated friendliness toward you – help them and they’ll help you by lowering prices or offering useful tools and caps. But each is also harassed by the Powder Gangers. If you choose to side with the Gangers, you’ll be welcome in their fortress; if you antagonize them, you’ll have to tread lightly around their patrols and outposts along the way to New Vegas.
Freedom in the other Bethesda games is about a lack of responsibility – your actions rarely have wide-ranging consequences. That makes the player feel powerful in the sense of being unlimited. But in New Vegas your actions do have consequences, and that makes the player feel powerful in the sense of shaping events and the world around her. In the end, I think New Vegas properly captures the freedom (and responsibility) of that power. New Vegas recognizes that these are two sides of the same coin. Without that accountability, you are just checking off quests and wandering across the wasteland.
Instead, these towns will live or die based on your decisions. Characters will help you or hate you. And you cannot make everyone happy. You will necessarily alienate some factions by aiding others. You will befriend the law or the outlaws, but you can’t do both.
Riding Off Into the Sunset
The isolation of the first few towns you encounter is a tutorial, a feint, and a fantasy. It teaches you the basic faction mechanics so you’ll be familiar with them when you hit the more important factions (the NCR and Caesar’s Legion especially, who you’ll meet in low-stakes engagements on the road to New Vegas; importantly, their faction reputation will be reset when you reach the Lucky 38). It allows you to explore your options and make mistakes without any serious consequences. Even if you regret supporting the Gangers in their takeover of Goodsprings, you’ll just know better when you ride into Freeside and meet the more complex difficulties there.
But it also plays to this western fantasy of the wandering courier, riding into town, solving its problems, driving off outlaws and miscreants, then riding off into the sunset. You’ll always be welcome if you return to Novac or Primm, but you’ll rarely have cause to revisit. To the people of these towns, you’ll always be the mysterious courier who saved the day before continuing on.
Fallout is a post-apocalypse game, sure. But New Vegas uses its setting with aplomb. You are a cowboy, a lone ranger. Maybe you’re the outlaw Josey Wales, or John Wayne, standing up for justice. Maybe you’re Clint Eastwood, hardened and cold and mercenary.
But the emphasis in any case is clear. The pig-iron you carry at your hip is not a tool to be used lightly. Killing has consequences. You choose who lives and dies. You choose what fights to avoid and which fights to finish. You decide how much your integrity is worth. Even in your limitations, you are terribly powerful, and your decisions will make waves throughout the game.
So choose wisely.