The Good: Manages to bring a new vibe to the somewhat tired Fallout gameplay model.
The Bad: That itself gets pretty repetitive after awhile.
The Ugly: With a whole lotta dying and reloading.
I’m really conflicted about the first DLC for Fallout New Vegas – Dead Money. On the one hand there is the ancient and honorable custom known as milking it. The same thing that gave us seven Police Academy sequels and the however many books were written in the Dune series after Frank Herbert’s death has apparently resulted in not only four DLC packs for Fallout 3, but Fallout New Vegas (which isn’t all that different from Fallout 3). And now (Wikipedia informs me) there are to be eight, count ‘em, eight DLC packs for New Vegas. Oy. Seriously? On the other hand, given the somewhat limited possibilities of the Fallout gameplay engine as a whole, Dead Money, while not actually breaking out of that mold, manages to bring some fresh tension. It forced me out of the comfortable pattern – meet a creature, activate the VATS, blow its head off, wash, rinse, repeat – that served me pretty well up until now. Then it takes that innovative gameplay mix and smashes it flat with an enormous repetitive sledgehammer.
Dead Money starts with you getting a message through your Pip Boy, luring you out to an abandoned bunker, bashing you on the head, and stealing all your stuff. I know, trite, right? Just like The Pitt, really; a thinly veiled mechanism for keeping you from beginning the game with an overwhelming arsenal. But realistically it is the only mechanism available to a game that lets you carry 600 stimpacks and 12,000 shotgun shells. The game takes it one step further, locking an explosive collar on your neck, threatening to pop your head off like a bottle cap if you disobey orders. Whose orders? Why, Father Elijah. Who’s he? Who cares? He’s got a mission for you, and he’s not willing to take no for an answer. He wants you to enter the Sierra Madre Casino and recover its riches. Easy, right? Not so fast. The casino is maybe haunted, and surrounded by traps, and has a killer high-tech security system, and if all of that were not enough, a red toxic mist (creatively called The Cloud) which drains your health just standing in it has settled over the whole area.
Under this very specific set of contrived circumstances, Fallout changes from a mechanical gun-heavy adventure into a sort of high-tension ghost story. You have to move fast enough to stay alive in The Cloud, but slowly enough to keep an eye out for traps – mines, bear traps, casino defensive systems. You’re attacked by the poor souls who have become trapped in the mist and driven mad, and with ammunition in short supply you have to stealth your way along a little bit, picking your fights carefully and avoiding those that you can.
There will of course be people who will find the fifth time you get your leg blown off by a landmine, or the tenth time you get too close to one of the various devices that all too often seem to interfere with your radio collar and it explodes, tiresome. After a couple of hours of running around the mazelike area surrounding the casino I was one of them. If this kind of gameplay doesn’t sound like your kettle of mutants, then you’re likely to find Dead Money not to your liking, because it is LOTS of that. The mission finale, a veritable gauntlet of all these gameplay elements with plenty of dying and reloading, is part game and part exercise in frustration.
The mission requires you to build a team with three other characters who have pretty interesting stories and good voice work of their own. You’re all fitted with explosive collars, so even if you don’t end up best of friends you do all have something in common. The story of the Sierra Madre casino, though honestly kind of confusing in the sum total, was nonetheless engrossing enough to keep me going. Graphically Dead Money is the same old Fallout. The post-apocalyptic world is muddy and dull. People’s mouths still don’t line up all that well with their dialog. And when the hell are they going to fix all of the graphics glitches that seem to run just as commonly as they did in 2007 when Fallout 3 came out?
So ultimately I think I was happier with the idea of what the designers of Dead Money were trying to accomplish than what they actually created. They put a far above average plot and built a framework of gameplay that somehow managed to break away from the Fallout formula. In the end, however, it’s just too much. Too much sneaking around, too many traps, too many reloads. And there are seven more of these things yet to come? God help us all.