Sun Nov 7 09:26:12 EST 2010

Review: Fallout 3, Part 2: New Vegas

So, Fallout: New Vegas.

22 months ago, when I wrote my Fallout 3 review, I subtitled it Part 1, strongly implying a Part 2.

This was initially due to laziness. After I finished Three, I pounded out an enormous pile of angry words. As the days ticked away, I was faced with the increasingly ugly prospect of "reviewing" a game that had been out for multiple months. So I took the angry words that had the best prospect to be hammered into a vaguely coherent narrative, and left the rest to be expanded and posted as a Part 2.

(Even so, I posted it 43 days after launch. I am many things, but "a fast writer" is not one of them.)

But soon after launch it became clear that Bethesda was planning a major expansion pack, that, hilariously, retconned the horrendous ending that I spent pretty much my entire review excoriating. Obviously, I couldn't release Part 2 without first playing it.

But I wasn't exactly eager to give Bethesda more of my money. And when it did come out the reviews weren't exactly stellar. (It focused on combat, in a game that doesn't do combat terribly well.) So Part 2 languished in the inprg folder, while Bethesda released expansion pack after expansion pack.

So I waited until New Vegas. I'm 50 hours into it, and I can confidently say this: New Vegas is better than Three, in almost every way.

The feature list reads like something lifted directly from my head. Ironsights! Ammo that has weight, weapon modification, hunger, thirst, and sleep management! Multiple currencies, many, many more guns, more craftable weapons, and ammo reloading!

But it's buggy. Goddamn is it buggy, crashing on average, every other hour, and typically more often than that. Ugly crashes, too, of the like I haven't seen since the days of Windows 98, requiring finagling to even get the task manager to display, so I could end the process, and on several memorable occasions, spontaneous reboots resulting in the loss of saved games!

This resulted in the worse case of savegame paranoia I've had in years. Save before talking to a NPC. Save after talking to a NPC. Save when leaving towns, save when entering dungeons, save, save, save. New Vegas helpfully includes a savegame counter, (as well as a limit on the number of times you can save your game. It is the year 2010 and this game limits how many times you can save. What the fuck?) which at the time of writing stood at 135. That's one every 22 minutes, for those keeping track at home.

The bugs are everywhere. The Thorn, an underground settlement just west of New Vegas, is based around a giant fighting arena. Behold its rusty, dingy, glory:

There are no shopkeeper NPCs, and only one named NPC, who you can get exactly one quest from. Pretty much the point of the Thorn is the arena. You can bet on fights in the arena.

These fights never take place. The animal NPCs walk out, but the scripting never flags them hostile. So they just stand there, until the end of time. (And there's only animal enemies. You can't fight human enemies, or watch humans fight.)

This puts the one named NPC into an error state. She won't talk to you until the fight's over, and the fight will never begin. Hope you didn't start the only quest, because you'll never be able to turn in the quest items.

Incidentally, according to the wiki, the quest reward is the world's tamest "sex" scene. The NPC changes into sexy sleepwear, says something along the lines of "let's have sex now," and fade to black. Fade back in, you're both fully dressed. Was it good for you too?

The cause of this, as well as the lack of bloodsports in the arena, and the mysterious absence of prostitutes in a city where the NPCs constantly chatter about whores, is not hard to see.


Wal-Mart is the biggest physical retailer of video games in the United States, and Wal-Mart does not carry games rated Adult Only. This, more or less, means that any sex, at all, or any nudity not artistic in nature, will lock your game out of a huge market.

Yet you can dismember enemies with chainsaws, and sell women into slavery, which Wal-Mart is apparently totally cool with. They also sell Glenn Beck's latest, but that's more of a literary crime against humanity.

New Vegas' second biggest problem, right after the bugs, is the Xbox 360.

Fallout: New Vegas, like Fallout 3 before, and Oblivion before that, and Morrowind before that, is a multiplatform title, here being released on the PC, Xbox 360, and the Playstation 3. This has been a greater or lesser problem in the past, but here in 2010, the consoles are based on five year old hardware, and it is a problem.

The biggest problem is memory. Consoles don't have a lot of it. The 360 has 512 megabytes total, shared between the CPU and GPU, while the PS3 only has 256 megabytes of system ram. Less ram means fewer NPCs that can be onscreen at any one time. Fewer NPCs mean that New Vegas, which takes a while to get to, and which the game relentlessly talks up, is deserted.

Utterly empty.

Behold, New Vegas, glittering jewel of the wastes! Well, behold the signs, mostly. They're very pretty, very cheap to render.

And try to ignore that loading gate next to it, which splits the Strip into three sections. Each section has two casinos in it, and still isn't very impressive, even that heavily optimized.

My nineteen month old computer has six gigabytes of ram. And that's just main system ram! My video card alone has as much memory as the entire Playstation 3! And all of it goes unused, of course, since there was presumably a clause in the contract Obsidian signed with ZeniMax that specified all three versions of the game must be identical. No sneaking in code that detects how much ram you have and removes pointless loading gates and triples the number of NPCs that can be on-screen.

Sigh. What a waste.

The Mojave Wasteland is not the same place as the DC Wasteland. For one, not being a national capital, and having a improvised ballistic missile defense system in place, means that the Mojave got hit a lot less heavily than DC. The only radioactive hellholes are Black Mountain and a couple of the Vaults that had leaky reactors. And unlike Three, these place are usually the targets of quests, rather than no-go zones, so you have to spend a lot of time poking through them and soaking up rads, which make the radioactivity drugs actually useful, while avoiding the omnipresent radioactivity of Three.

The end result is that the Mojave is a much greener place than DC. It's still mostly a desert, of course, but there are plants, and you can even carve some of them up and eat them, or cook them in combination with meat from animal enemies on campfires.

This solves the mysterious food economy of DC, where everyone apparently lived on two hundred year old snack food and sewer rat meat. In the Mojave, there are actual farms, though they fall prey to the same general lack of scale of New Vegas, and are tiny in proportion to the population they ostensibly feed.

But this is a minor quibble over numbers, as opposed to the howling nonsense of Three.

New Vegas also solves the question of where all the guns come from. In Three, every gun was an antique, since every gun was manufactured pre-war. Yet guns were everywhere, which was even more mysterious when you considered the only way you could repair guns was by breaking up another gun for parts.

In New Vegas, the NCR import weapons from back West, but there is an authentic weapons manufacturing facility in the Mojave, run by the Gun Runners. (Who you might remember.) They build guns from scratch, and sell them at eyewateringly high prices. The models still use the same textures as the antiques, but what more do you want?

Unfortunately, the Gun Runners fall prey to the classic game design mistake of giving your NPCs cool abilities that the player can't get.

One quest with the Crimson Caravan has you breaking into the Gun Runners' factory, which is a standard dilapidated pre-war building, even though the Gun Runners are one of the richest factions in the wasteland, to steal their blueprints. When you sneak into their building, you discover that the "factory" is just three workbenches and three reloading stations. You can steal the blueprints, but they're a quest item, and you can't actually build new weapons. When you return to the questgiver, she gives you some caps, and says you'll get a discount on the weapons they will build with them.

God damn it, I don't want a discount, I want guns!

At least make an effort at justifying it by saying that they have equipment you don't. There's even in-game models for milling machines and lathes. Use them!

I also would have liked a more involved repair system. It's patently absurd that you could somehow enhance the condition of a near flawless gun by scavenging parts from an almost useless one.

A system where you swap out actual components, with each component having individual condition scores, would be more realistic. It'd also fit into New Vegas' larger themes more coherently. The NCR is overextended in its war against the Legion, beset by numerous supply problems. The Wasteland is littered with broken technology, made useless without an industrial base that can manufacture replacement parts. There are numerous quests based around finding parts for pre-war machines. Hell, Fallout 1 was about finding the water chip for Vault 13!

Against this backdrop, you find expensive, finicky, pre-war machines in the hands of damn near everyone in the Wasteland. They're always in lousy shape when you pick them up, but they never seem to malfunction when the AI uses them.

If guns were assemblies of parts, then guns in poor condition (unless they happened to contain a pristine part or two.) would be authentically useless. It might also bring some sanity to the Unique weapon system. Uniques are named variants of regular weapons, (Ratslayer is the unique version of the varmint rifle) which will have different skins, and will usually do more damage. Except, of course, that you can repair unique weapons with their non-unique versions. Repair a unique weapon enough, and it would be very plausible that it wouldn't contain any original parts at all, which rather begs the question of why it still does more damage.

Having a unique weapon use a single, irreplaceable part would reintroduce a gameplay mechanic from Three I quite liked. The Alien Blaster was the most powerful weapon in the game, but there was a limited amount of ammo for it, which could only be found by searching certain areas for the tiny glowing alien energy cells after dark; making the ammo not only rare, but tedious and time consuming to find.

A unique part on a unique weapon would put a hard limit on how many rounds it could fire. Once that part breaks, and you replace it with the normal version, it becomes a vanilla weapon, with a fancy paintjob.

This repair system wouldn't be terribly hard to implement. Some UI work for the repair interface, a bit of tedious scripting to add parts to all the weapons. It wouldn't even need any modelling work: all weapon parts could use a generic container model, like the Gun Runners briefcase for the weapon mods. They would show up in ammo containers holding ammo of the same kind. Laser rifle parts in containers holding microfusion cells, varmint rifle parts in containers holding 5.56mm ammo.

To keep New Vegas from becoming a survival horror-esque (or Metro 2033) ammo conservation sim, you could give the player some sort of advanced rapid prototyper which could produce weapon parts when supplied with scrap metal or more obscure junk.

Enemy AI is still pathetic, being of the very simplest "path right at the player" variety. This was mostly acceptable in Three, with its shorter draw distances and generally much shorter range weapons; but in New Vegas you spend quite a lot of time taking potshots at human enemies from very far away. Thus it is somewhat mysterious why they don't attempt to take cover when under fire, or do anything other than walking slowly in straight lines.

Incidentally, the most difficult enemies in the game are Cadazors, giant wasps, who in their normal state skitter around and are quite impossible to snipe, when alerted, stand still for a couple seconds, giving you exactly one chance to hit them outside of melee range, then fly straight at you and kill you dead.

Deathclaws are also more badass than they were in Three, but their much smaller numbers, and convenient habit of standing still, make them much easier to kill, once you get your hands on a scoped rifle.

The karma system of Three is still here, but fixed. This is done mostly by eliminating it. You get good karma from killing obvious bad guys, and ghouls; and bad karma from stealing, but most of the human NPCs are karma neutral.

In Three, killing every human was a moral choice. Every person was either Good or Bad, and killing them had the expected effect on your karma. While this could be generously interpreted as an extended satire of 50s geopolitics, what it really was a tiresome abandonment of subtlety, and a refusal to consider any moral ambiguity at all. Every single person in the game was either all good or entirely evil, with nothing in between.

But in New Vegas, while there are some saints, and a few devils, most people just get by. The karma system is further nerfed by having it affect gameplay not at all. Everything is determined by faction standing.

This delightful ambiguity is extended to the main plot. While my Three review was an extended, hate filled rant concerning its ending, New Vegas actually has an ending that's worth not being spoiled, so


None of the three factions you can side with are entirely good, or all out evil. House is an out-and-out dictator, but the best hope for New Vegas' future, being the only faction that's even thinking about the future; the NCR is a corrupt, ineffective bureaucracy, but the biggest political power around, and stable as rocks; while Caesar's Legion is an expansionist empire with reactionary political views and a tiresome enthusiasm for invading other territories and enslaving its residents, but they actually enforce their laws, which is a step from from the anarchy of the Mojave.

None of them are good, but none of them are bad, and they're all an improvement on the status quo. You can even take over yourself, using House's robot army, where it's implied that you manage to secure New Vegas, while everything around it just goes to hell.

The ending's not good, not bad. It's complicated.



I said in my Fallout 3 review that it was worth the $50, and I meant it. But if you haven't bought Three yet, don't. Buy New Vegas, instead. It's the game that Three should have been, and really wanted to be, but fell short of achieving.

But wait for them to patch some of the bugs, first.

6:35 AM - bbot:
6:41 AM - kyonko: hahhaha fallout new vegas
6:41 AM - kyonko: ill pass
6:41 AM - bbot: you'll pass just like obsidian QA passed it
6:41 AM - bbot: without playing

Ba dum tish.

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