New Vegas III – War Never Changes

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.

New Vegas – II: The Great Post-Apocalyptic Road Trip

To continue our discussion of genre in Fallout: New Vegas, it’s time to consider the second great inspiration for the games opening sequences: the great American road trip.

Americans have always been a restless bunch; given our big, sprawling country with its endless frontiers, we’ve always been keen, as a culture, to explore, conquer, and roam. Our culture is speckled with these stories: from the travelogues of Lewis and Clark to the sea-tales of Melville to the migrations of the beat generation in On the Road. Our movies repeatedly take these journies: from Hitchcock’s love of travel in North by Northwest and Janet Leigh’s flight in Psycho, to the doomed voyage of Thelma and Louise, to the comic National Lampoon’s Vacation.

And just as the Western has its origins in the American Southwest with its scrubby deserts and untamed wilderness, so does it seem that all great road trip stories circulate around the Southwest – especially the fabled “route 66”: once an artery of the 19th century westward migration, transformed through history into the thoroughfare for displaced farmers during the dust bowl, family vacations in the prosperous ’50s and ’60s, disaffected teenagers-cum-hippies in the ’70s, and pointless consumerist tourist traps in the ’80s and ’90s.

And Fallout: New Vegas revels in this iconography, doing its best to capture every dimension of the road trip experience. On our trip from Goodsprings to New Vegas, we run through a litany of road trip mainstays. We start in the idyllic town of Goodsprings, avoid escaped prisoners acting as looters and hitchhikers, get mixed up in the police actions at Primm and Freeside, and encounter a literal tourist trap at Novac with its tawdry giant dinosaur and overpriced souvenirs. We encounter the urban blight of the New Vegas ruins and west Freeside, largely controlled by the murderous, drug-addicted raiders. We stumble across caravans, and might even intercede if they are attacked by Legionnaires (or, depending on your bent, help the Legionnaires and raid their goods).

New Vegas recognizes the confluence of multiple traditions here, and pays court to each in turn. On the one hand, there is the western “mysterious outlaw” tradition – emphasized the freedom offered by the game as you encounter each new town. Will you rescue Primm and instate a new sheriff? Or will you help the raiders to finish them off and loot their remains? Will you help the ghouls hiding out in the Repconn test facility (also on their mad journey to the moon)? Or will you wipe them out and continue on your way?

But there are other nods here as well. The city of Primm has a definite character as a cheap imitation of New Vegas. It even advertises itself on the radio as “The other New Vegas,” complete with its own cheap casinos and attractions (like the second rate crook team “Vikki and Vance”. Novac’s dinosaur-themed tourist shop is trying to unload the frankly embarrassing number of souvenir dinosaurs and rocketships (themselves dangerously radioactive) at exorbitant prices. And yet, if you pass a simple barter check, the proprietor will reveal that he can’t unload any of the stupid things and opens a closet where you can take as many as you want for free. The name itself, “Novac” is the result of a broken “No Vacancy” sign attached to the run-down roadside motel at the center of town. Here we see that comical National-Lampoon-esque critique of road trip consumerism – tourist traps, fleabag motels, and overpriced, pointless tchotchkes sold by the unscrupulous to the unwise.

We also see a nod to the tradition of bandit road-trips: Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance, Thelma and Louise – in the crime duo Vikki and Vance. Their car, machine gun, and outfits are on display in the “Vikki and Vance Casino” in Primm. Except that they aren’t. The tour-guide robot in charge of the place tells you assuredly that they are there, but the displays are empty; only the car remains. Reprogramming the robot will reveal that they have been stolen – by yet another guy-and-gal team who robbed the place while passing through. (Tracking them down will net you the gun, but it turns out that crime isn’t for them after all, and they’re willing to retire if you leave them alone; a rare happy ending among these stories.)

Remember, too, that the reason you wander the Mojave, passing through these cities to New Vegas, itself ties into the tradition of revenge-fueled road trips: at every stop along the way you ask about the man in the checkered suit who tried to kill you and seems to be passing inexorably toward New Vegas (because isn’t that where everyone is trying to go?). But is that really the reason you want to go to New Vegas? Your protagonist character is silent, except for the words you put in his/her mouth. Are you going for the revenge, or for the promise of untold riches, or out of curiosity?

Nowadays, I think the “Vegas vacation” has become a trope in its own right. National Lampoon did its trip to Vegas in the nineties, but the Vegas trip has exploded in popularity since, in part because Las Vegas has aggressively advertised itself and offered major discounts on flights and hotel rooms to get suckers into the casino doors, and in part because its proximity to Hollywood has made it the logical weekend getaway for bachelor parties, business trips, and other debauchery. The original CSI cemented its position as a wild, raucous enigma; The Hangover advertised its promise as a breeding ground for stories and lived experience – itself an obsession of our time. And that, too, the game will realize, in time.

Everyone wants to go to Vegas, in short, and the game teases its promise everywhere you go. But the journey and the destination are equally important in this case. The game directs you to sidequests and distractions, runs you through tourist traps and highway robberies. For all the promise of the lights of New Vegas on the horizon, the game’s design urges you to take your time. You can skip ahead down the highway, ignoring the quest chain, but you’ll miss so much, (and likely get flattened by overpowered enemies – the direct route is right out, to the chagrin of many players). The game wants you to experience the ups and downs of the road trip; the promise of the destination but also the joyous diversions of the road itself. It wants you to explore its world, familiarize yourself with its characters and factions, even as it guides your hand down the main thoroughfares and safest routes.

But there’s also an intangible quality to this journey, which is honestly the reason I was drawn to replay New Vegas in the first place.

See, just before I started my game, I was playing a little indie title called “The Signal from Tolva” – a first-person shooter from the team that made “Sir, You Are Being Hunted” (which I enjoyed thoroughly). And while Tolva was less directed and less robust than Fallout: New Vegas, the one thing it absolutely nailed was a sort of relaxed exploration. The world of Tolva was strange, rich with secrets and dangers, but there was a powerful zen-like calm about it. I found myself wandering across its terrain with a sniper rifle, able to see enemy robots on the horizon long before I was spotted, and plan my attacks on their strongholds with deliberate, calculated care. I was outnumbered and outgunned in most cases, and so I had to live by my wits, my courage, and my determination.

It’s the very same sense of uncertain, adventurous calm that I wanted from New Vegas, and that I’ve felt every time I’ve taken a long road trip to unfamiliar places. As much as I am excited to see new things, new people, do things I’ve never done before, I also very much enjoy the business of driving through new, unfamiliar places, with no particular route or destination in mind, no schedule to abide by. I like to take in the world, wary of its hostility, but a calm, unknown hostility that could turn out to be friendliness or enmity. I like not knowing what lies over the horizon, and yet feeling confident that I can take it, whatever it turns out to be. And as much as I remember my adventures in Primm, in Novac, I also, as distinctly, remember looking out over the dried-up-lake near Boulder city, Varmint Rifle in hand, picking off fire ants when they get too close. I remember ambushing bands of Fiends hiding behind billboards, just as they were about to ambush a passing caravan. I remember skirmishes with spear-throwing Legionnaires to defend the town where I was staying. These weren’t necessarily scripted events; they are just the result of the game’s mechanics, the game’s world. The Mojave is hostile, yet often tranquil. It is dangerous, surprising, wild, and yet ripe for conquest and control. It is like a friendly adversary, eager to test my mettle, but not out to frustrate or discourage me. That’s always been a draw to sandbox-style open-world games like Fallout, Assassin’s Creed, or Zelda: the promise of power accompanied by possible challenges. The feeling of entering a world both beautiful and dangerous, but not insurmountably dangerous. The promise of calm interludes in and among the exciting exchanges. The promise of the unknown, ripe for discovery, exploration, and conquest.

But the enticements of the Mojave haven’t just attracted me. There is a war on, after all.

Fallout: New Vegas – I: A Most “Western” RPG

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.

-Ben Kozlowski