You don’t need Google maps to know that Gameria is one of the most populated planets in the nerdosphere. Orbiting Gameria is a self-hating moon called RPG-1. For over 3 years, the citizens of RPG-1 have been embroiled in a turgid flamewar over the extremely important philosophical issue of whether the classic PC Fallout games of the late 90’s are better than the recent Fallout games done by Bethesda and Obsidian. On my last visit to RPG-1 (and it will be my last), I made precisely zero new friends because I said I like all of them. There’s something bemusing about an obsessive gamer attempting to demean you because of the games you like. It’s like a guy with one leg making fun of someone with a lisp. It recalls to mind Jesus’ riff on motes and beams.
All this is a way of saying Fallout: New Vegas is one of my favourite games of last year. I’d already finished it once with a sniper build and was making my way through again in Hardcore Mode with my unarmed/melee specialist, Punchy McGee, when Dead Money dropped. It lifts the level cap to 35 and on that basis alone I give it 3 points.
Dead Money is a closed box — you can’t take any of your stuff or companions to Sierra Madre with you and you can’t leave until it’s all done. It’s a separate area with its own story. The new area is the Sierra Madre casino, a desert resort with the slogan “Begin Again” with a fabled vault of goodies. The story revolves around infiltrating the vault. Before you get to the casino, you have to get your heist crew together, which is your cue to explore the precincts of the villa to find the new companions.
The virtue of a closed box is that the developers can introduce new rules without breaking the main game. The new rules here are a toxic cloud that slowly drains your health while you are outdoors, explosive collars a la Battle Royale and scarcity of healing items, weapons and ammo. These tweaks make you tread more carefully as you poke around.
The slave collars are a big part of this newfound care-treading. You get fitted with a slave collar that explodes your head if you stay close to radios for too long. An imminent headsplosion is heralded by a series of quickening beeps. When you hear the beeps, you have a few seconds either to get out of the radio’s radius, or find it and destroy it. The villa also is littered with leg-chomping bear traps, which will punish you if you try to simply sprint past radios. The tension between wanting to push forward and needing to be cautious made me pay more attention to my surroundings and made exploration more fun as a result — simply getting from A to B without major harm was an achievement in itself. Oh, and there’s no fast travel in the Sierra Madre.
If you believe that New Vegas’ Hardcore Mode doesn’t provide an authentic sense of the danger and survivalist urgency that scavenging through a post-apocalyptic Wasteland would involve, you would enjoy the extra harshitude of Dead Money. It would be interesting to try the toxic cloud and item scarcity in the main game, perhaps as Hardcore Mode features that could be toggled on or off.
Once you get out of that cloud and into the casino, Dead Money introduces some basic stealth with the introduction of indestructible hologram guards who follow fixed patrol paths and must be avoided to pass through areas. It ain’t Metal Gear Solid, but it knows its limitations and the environments that require stealth are well-designed for it. This stealthy cameo is another example of how robust and flexible the Fallout mechanics are.
The self-contained plot is as flimsy as videogame plots usually are, but overall the story is well-buttressed by the interesting new characters and the setting itself. There was a Great Gatsby feel to the backstory of the Sierra Madre and the new companions have a similar poignancy to them. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that you will get to meet Brother Elijah, whom you will recognise if you’ve played the main game to any extent.
All up, Dead Money gave me about 10 more hours of Fallout, experimented with some switch-ups to the playing style and contained some features that I would like to see incorporated into the main game. That’s how you do DLC, folks.