Every Fallout game is about war. The series’ post-apocalyptic setting reminds the player constantly of the devastating effects of war. The lore you uncover – forgotten e-mails and long-abandoned vaults – point to a world that up and vanished in an instant of nuclear fire. The series’ constant tagline: “War: War Never Changes,” reminds us again of this focal point.
But on the one hand, war does change – we see the evidence. The sheer destructive power we have wielded since the 20th century far outweighs any weapon or force concocted in the thousands of years of human history. On the other hand, though, war hasn’t changed. Destroying the planet: rendering every water source a potential fount of radiation and changing the landscape into a barren waste just means fewer resources to fight over (all the more reason to fight so desperately). Maybe the wars are between factions and tribes rather than nations or superpowers, but that doesn’t make those wars any less terrible for the people fighting in them, or caught in the middle, trying to survive.
The Mojave of Fallout: New Vegas is a contested land. Though we won’t see the details of the conflict until later in the story, even as early as our long road trip from Goodsprings to New Vegas reveals the main combatants and what they represent to the locals. From the west come the NCR (New California Republic) – they fly a two-headed bear flag deliberately resembling the state flag of California, wear desert military fatigues, and seem roughly organized, though more rag-tag than their uniforms and military bearing would suggest.
From the east come Caesar’s Legion (pronounced like the salad by outsiders; legionnaires and sympathizers pronounce it kai-sar). There’s something truly outlandish about running into troops throwing spears and wearing full legate armor – scale mail and red-feather trip, helmets and all – especially when most of the citizens of the Mojave wear Mad-Max standard leather.
I want to spend time later breaking down each faction and discussing their characteristics, so I won’t dive deeply into the mechanics of the two combatants here. But I do want to talk about our first interactions with each.
The NCR we meet first – they are standing outside Primm, situated across the blasted highway from the city proper, fortified with sandbags in a small encampment. The game funnels you down this highway, so it’s hard to miss the standoff. If you talk to any of the troops, they’ll explain the hostage situation: the citizens of Primm are being held in the Bison Steve casino hotel by rogue Powder Gangers – the same jerks who have been harassing us (and the locals) since we woke up in Goodsprings. The NCR will also ask you to take care of the situation – since they are too short-handed to storm the hotel. Your main quest (tracking down the person who shot you) dovetails with this request; the citizens of Primm offer to give you information if you help take out the Powder Gangers and release the hostages – so it’s most likely that you’ll fulfill both quests as you pass through town.
Why are the NCR outmanned and outgunned? Because they have threats on all sides. On the one hand, the Powder Gangers themselves were once prisoners, doing demolitions work for the NCR (again, because the NCR is short-handed and understaffed) – but used their bombs to take over the prison, and are now being (barely) contained by NCR patrols. But the real threat to NCR is the Legion, which has been pushing westward for a long time, only now held at bay by the Colorado River. But while the main body of NCR forces are posted at the Hoover Dam (strategic lynchpin of the whole area), reports increase of Legion incursions over the river, attacking NCR patrols, caravans, and locals.
These rumors are verified firsthand as soon as we arrive in Nipton. Among the most horrifying scenes in the game, the sky in front of us turns dark as we approach a mountainous rise. A hysterical citizen runs by, shouting that he’s “won the lottery” – but we can’t get any more information out of him. As we come into the city, we see crucified, burned citizens on both sides of the street. We are greeted by a high-ranking legionnaire, who declares that the saving forces of “Kaisar” have arrived in the Mojave. He directs us to tell the NCR they have come, and departs with his substantial forces. The “lottery,” it seems, was to determine who would survive the destruction of the town. The second-place winner, Boxcars, sits in one of the buildings, his legs both broken by the Legion.
A little exploration (careful exploration – the buildings are littered with traps and mines by the Legion) will reveal that the town had been prostituting its citizens to local NCR troops for the town’s profit (especially the corrupt mayor). When Caesar’s Legion gets wind of this, they set a trap for NCR and citizens alike. It would seem they frame their action as a moral purge and tactical strike, part inquisition, part assassination. While our first interaction with the NCR suggests a disorganized, understaffed group claiming dubious authority, our first interaction with the Legion starts as a horrible, nightmarish, and terrifying, then metamorphoses into a sense of cruel, but effective, justice.
As we keep exploring the Mojave, we will find more history behind this war. Apparently there was a local force – the Rangers – that used to protect the area surrounding New Vegas. When the NCR moved in from the West, they lacked the Rangers’ discipline and skill, but made up for it with sheer numbers. Despite some friction, a treaty was signed and the Rangers were integrated into the NCR proper. This just in time for the Legion to start attacking from the East. The dual incentives for these dueling nations? New Vegas (a rich, powerful, well-defended city in its own right), and Hoover Dam, providing plentiful power to the area. Whoever controls these two tactical strongholds can control the Mojave and empower their own forces.
Apparently the Legion tried to seize the Dam, but was defeated in a devastating attack in Boulder City – the NCR lured them into the city, then destroyed the whole place in a single blast. Now, we find the NCR and Legion stationed on opposite sides of the Dam, a stalemate, though the Legion’s appearance over the river in Nipton suggests that the NCR line is not nearly as tight as they may think.
But while most video games about war place the player on one or the other side of the conflict, your role in New Vegas is undecided. Wearing the armor of one or the other faction will earn you the ire of the opposing army (if you wear NCR armor on your first visit to Nipton, the Legion will attack you on sight), and you have a separate “reputation” with each faction, that affects your standing with the members of each. You start neutral, and can watch Legionnaires attack NCR patrols without taking sides or being attacked by either group (patrols move procedurally around the map, so these sorts of skirmishes are pretty common). Nor must you take a side to progress through the game. You can antagonize both factions, endear yourself to either one (or both, at least until the endgame), or ignore them entirely.
What’s more, neither are presented as unilaterally-good. As sympathetic as the disorganized NCR tends to be (they, at least, don’t go around crucifying people), many of the citizens complain that nobody asked them to show up and start enforcing laws around the Mojave, and that their mismanagement has led to destructive forces like the Powder Gangers or escalating tensions with the drug-addicted Fiends. Likewise, though most are terrified of the Legion, especially if their lifestyles aren’t up to Legion standards (Caesar/Kaisar doesn’t tolerate any kind of sexuality outside heterosexual marriage, for a start, and would likely destroy the casinos of New Vegas and slaughter the families running them), others acknowledge that the Legion rewards its allies generously, and Legion territory is far safer and better-protected than NCR holdings. Caravaneers, especially, prefer working with the Legion and their zero-tolerance policies toward raiders, than running the risk of trading with the sparsely-patrolled NCR territories.
Instead, we see the war from all perspectives. We fulfill quests for beleaguered farmers and citizens trying to eke a living from the blasted landscape while fearing for their lives and livelihoods. We talk to mayors irritated by NCR’s uninvited occupation of the Mojave, taxes and all. We talk to casino owners, keen to use the war to accomplish their personal ends, protected from real consequences by money and power. We talk to NCR politicians desperately calling home for more men and materiel. We talk to soldiers who never wanted to leave California, but now find themselves far from home, frightened and unprotected. We talk to Legionnaires, indoctrinated into fervent faith in the leadership of Kaisar. We talk to bureaucrats mired in tragicomically-conflicting orders from competing NCR leaders. We talk to ideologues like Kaisar himself, whose vision for the Mojave is rooted in the same kind of absolute morality that described Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini. And we talk to NCR bigwigs motivated by personal pride, profit, or patriotic fervor.
In short, War Never Changes. For all the history books may try to boil down conflicts into clear motivations, sides, and ideologies – as much as we may understand wars past in terms of simple heroes and villains – war was, is, and undoubtedly will remain a mess of conflicting perspectives and agendas. Battles will be won or lost as much by dumb luck, mitigating factors, or soft power as they will be by outstanding generalship, technological advantage, or sheer strength and skill of arms. If anything, I suspect that video games like New Vegas, with their open world, deep characterization, and great freedom for the player, better explore the real issues of warfare than your average linear medium like books or TV. Though the consequences of our actions must not be allowed to derail the overall story or major game states, New Vegas goes out of its way to explore the business of war at every level and from every side, choosing never to settle for easy oversimplifications.
And though our decisions may unrealistically affect the outcome of the conflict, fulfilling the power-fantasy offered by such a game, no matter whose side wins this war, the message remains the same: War Never Changes. Our agency may change history’s names and numbers, the winners and losers, the rosters of the dead and the livelihoods of the survivors – but it will not change the omnipresence of violence in this world, or of war itself. Generations to come will not be spared from their own wars, their own struggles, their own efforts to survive the imperialism of invading armies. War Never Changes.