Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down!

Without really planning it, I've ended up going on a bit of an Obsidian kick. After wrapping up Mask of the Betrayer, I finally started playing Fallout New Vegas, which has been sitting in my Steam library unplayed for a distressingly long time. (As always, mega thanks to my youngest brother for a seemingly endless bounty of amazing games that I have yet to play.) As with most games (and books for that matter), there's no good reason why it took me this long to get started, other than the sheer quantity of other things that I wanted to play.

It's pretty well established by now that Obsidian occupies a very interesting niche as a developer. They've become most famous for continuing franchises that were started by other developers: they made the sequels to Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, and later installments of Fallout and Dungeon Siege. In most cases, the mechanics of the games are very similar to their predecessors; however, there is still an identifiable style that unites their games, with an emphasis on surprising stories, memorably flawed characters, and varied game endings.

Fallout is a bit of an interesting example: it immediately appears to be another sequel job, but in fact, it's arguably more a case of the game returning to its roots. The original Fallout was developed by Black Isle/Interplay back in the 90s, and when Bethesda bought the rights to the series after Interplay folded, many gamers were outraged at the thought that their beloved turn-based isometric game was being rebooted as a real-time first-person shooter. However, many of the old Black Isle/Interplay developers ended up at Obsidian (the remainder largely settling at inXile), so New Vegas was actually a chance for many of the original Fallout creators to return to their universe.

And, I have to say, it's a pretty triumphant return. Yes, graphically, it at first glance appears identical to Fallout 3, with the game generally first-person camera, Pip-Boy menu system, radio stations, etc. It also keeps the best aspects that Bethesda added to the franchise, with its insanely detailed and vast open world, with total freedom to go anywhere at any point in the game. As you dive deeper into it, though, you begin to see the Obsidiany awesomeness hidden within. The single best improvement is probably a complete overhaul of the "morality" system, which was probably my least-favorite aspect of Fallout 3. Like the BioShock games, this used to just be based on a straight "Karma" tracker that went up when you did good things and down when you did bad; also like BioShock, there wasn't any reason to ever think about a specific choice, and the game mechanically encouraged you to just keep doubling down on rescuing kittens or punching babies as your morality dictated. New Vegas keeps the idea of Karma around, but the moral landscape is much more varied and interesting. There aren't just "the good guys" and "the bad guys," but a variety of factions and philosophies vying for superiority in the wasteland, and it's often quite challenging to decide what to do. Will you subvert the course of justice in order to allow a greater good to take place? Will you lose Karma by breaking into someone's home, knowing that the evidence inside will exonerate an innocent man? Will you kill prisoners of war in order to deny their captors the psychological leverage they crave?

One of the coolest things, which didn't become clear to me for a while, was that this is also the rare game that actually depicts that varied individuals that make up institutions. It's almost automatically assumed now that every member of a video game faction will share all of that faction's characteristics: a paladin in the Order of the Radiant Heart is always generous, kind, and law-abiding; a member of House Hlaalu is always crafty; businessmen in Rapture are always amoral and greedy. New Vegas, while still presenting some solid generalizations about the various factions, also presents outliers within those factions: and not necessarily traitors or reformers, either, just people who, due to their life history or objectives, have decided to join an institution, but have their own ideas about the actions they should take within it.

It's getting hard to keep writing about this without getting into spoilers, so let me take a step back first and cover some purely technical aspects of the game. First, the good:
  • I like the way the reputation system is handled and tuned. Like the earlier Fallout games, you have a different reputation among all the various factions and cities, so you might be Idolized on the Strip, Accepted by Novac, Shunned by the Brotherhood, and Hated by the NCR. This affects the ambient dialogue you hear, and also affects the prices you receive from merchants. Reputation is scaled quite nicely based on the size and importance of each location. You don't need to do very much to impress the small community of Novac, but it will take a very long time and a lot of effort to become famous within the NCR.
  • The economy is great! It's so refreshing to see a game built on the Elder Scrolls platform that makes good use of money. Early in the game, ammo is scarce, and it's worthwhile to scavenge pieces of junk that you can sell or recycle for bullets. As you grow richer, it stops being worth your time to poke through trash, and you'll only focus on more valuable items. You can find plenty of good equipment by exploring, but there are very valuable Implants you can buy that are pricey and worth saving up for, ranging from 4,000 caps all the way up to 12,000 caps. Throughout almost the whole game, earning money is exciting, because you're getting closer to another upgrade. And, once you've bought everything, you can still spend caps to Repair unique weapons and armor, or to buy vanity upgrades for your housing.
  • Along the same lines, I'm really happy with how the Fallout games in general approach looting. Over the years, my tolerance for loot systems in RPGs has drastically declined: I used to think nothing of sifting through my backpack for ten minutes, trying to pick the perfect combination of weight and bulk that I could carry back to town to optimize my payout. These days, I practically weep for joy at inventory systems like that in Dragon Age 2, which drastically streamlines inventory management and looting. Fallout is, in every way, a callback to old-school looting, with vast quantities of odds and ends that serve no purpose but to be sold for a few coins. And yet, I love it, because it's so perfectly attuned to the setting and feel of the game. This is, after all, a post-apocalyptic game, where a fraught present is lived amidst the detritus of a failed past. This is an entire world that's basically lost the capability to build new things, and everyone who has managed to survive, has done so by picking over the remnants of long-gone civilization. When you dig through the charred remnants of a library, you're not just looking for money: you're participating in the life of a "prospector", feeling and acting out the activities of everyone else on this planet. It's another example of gameplay, environment, and story aligning in a nicely compelling way (though more subtle than something like, say, the Spirit Eater). 
  • The ambient music for the game is really good. It's atmospheric and subtle, and does a great job at establishing a sense of place and an appropriate level of tension. (Nested criticism: while I like the idea of the old-timey radio stations, I could never stand to listen to any of them for longer than a song or two. I love hearing the news reports, but always found the ambient music much better than the retro radio stations.) My favorite was probably the music for Hoover Dam, which is really exhilarating and gives a great sense of urgency to the game.

Then, the bad:
  • VATS seems less useful than in Fallout 3. It's admittedly been  many years since I played that, but I'm pretty sure that your actions whilst in VATS were pretty much instantaneous, so you could line up multiple shots in succession, and also not need to worry much about getting hit. In NV, time runs in slow-motion, but you're in slow-motion too, so you don't really gain much. And, since other people are moving, your target might move behind cover, or an ally might run into your line of fire, causing you to waste AP. That's all annoying, but I felt especially bummed to have "wasted" several valuable perks specifically on VATS-related features, which ended up being much less useful than I had hoped.
  • Dialogue is generally much better than that in Bethesda's other titles, and there isn't anything as mind-shatteringly annoying as the "Arrow in the knee" comment in Skyrim. But, there's still the fundamental problem of far more characters present in the world than recorded dialogue, which leads to recycling. It was particularly perplexing that they decided to record the exact same lines for so many voices, though... for example, walking through a particular stronghold, you might hear a generic white woman say "I hear that Mr. House runs the strip". Then, ten seconds later, you'll pass a generic white man say "I hear that Mr. House runs the strip". Then shortly after that you'll pass a generic black man who says "I hear that Mr. House runs the strip". As long as they were going to the bother of recording three different actors providing ambient dialogue, why not at least give them different dialogue to say?
  •  While the non-ambient dialogue is generally well-written, this game is lightyears behind BioWare's engine in depicting conversations. Other characters in the frame will freeze awkwardly in whatever pose they happened to be in, and the speaker's body stands stock-still while their eyes and mouths move around. It's not quite as uncanny-valley as some other games out there, but still seems pretty dated.
  • Voice acting is generally better than most Bethesda games, but still has the problems with consistency in tone and volume that I've come to expect. In one particularly bad case, it seems like there was no agreement in the recording studio on how to pronounce the name of one major character, "Caesar". Many major characters pronounce it in the Latin style, as "Kai-sar", while most minor characters pronounce it as we do today, "See-zer". They attempted to retcon this by adding a character in the first town who says something like, "Boy, nobody knows how to say his name!" but it's still pretty funny and embarrassing.
  • This game probably has the most psychotically wide variety of keystrokes used to cancel a screen. Depending on which screen you're looking at, sometimes you need to press "X", sometimes "E", sometimes "Tab", sometimes "Esc", and sometimes need to click the right mouse button. It's especially perplexing because the interface is so obviously tuned for consoles, which don't have nearly as many buttons available as PCs, so I don't know why they decided to go so absurdly wild on mixing up the control for "I don't want to do this please."
  • And, this is a perennial complaint for any RPG with both PC and console ports, but the menus are far simpler than they need to be. In particular, trying to find stuff to sell a merchant is very time-consuming. The barter interface does give an option to only show certain categories of items (Weapons, Armor, etc.), which is helpful, but it would be extremely handy to be able to sort items by value and by value/weight ratio.
For character build: I was pretty happy with the character generator, which, in addition to the now-requisite choice between male or female, also gives you templates for several different races, including Hispanic and Asian characters. I ended up creating a female Asian named Hessie, and gave her bright red hair, vaguely thinking of going for a Run Lola Run look. I had a tough time deciding how to allocate my stats: I had played a very stealthy character in F3, which would require a lot of Agility and some Perception; I liked the idea of creating a Charismatic leader; and I really wanted to play an Intelligent character who could hack things. I eventually modified my initial character concept, from a stealthy sniper type to more of a science geek: Intelligence would help me hack terminals, a very common and useful activity, but also helps use Energy weapons, which aren't quite as useful for sniping but very powerful.

In addition to tagging skills, you can also pick some unique character options that are only available at creation. I picked up one called Four-Eyes, which lowers your Perception unless you're wearing glasses; with glasses, you gain a bonus. I had initially thought that this would be all upside: there are plenty of glasses lying around, and no penalty to wearing them. But, it turns out, the way this is implemented is that it actually permanently lowers Perception by 1 point, then gives you a +2 bonus when you have glasses on. That doesn't seem like that big of a deal, except it meant that I wasn't able to get the Perks that required a higher Perception, since Perks only pay attention to your un-modified stats. I ended up needing to "waste" a perk on the Perception upgrade in order to get some of the combat-related perks that I was planning to take. The "Small Frame" trait, though, was pretty straightforward, giving me a free Agility point at the cost of some Carry Weight. I really liked the idea of playing a small nerd with bad eyesight trying to survive in post-apocalyptic America.

Here are some general gameplay tips that may be of use:
  • As in Fallout 3, Lockpicking and Science are very important for opening locked doors and terminals, respectively. Early on you might want to focus more on Science, since in many cases a locked door can alternately be opened via a terminal. But, you'll probably want to level up both fairly early on, since the best stuff is usually kept behind locks.
  • One big thing that I'm pretty sure is new in New Vegas is skill magazines. These are single-use consumable items that give +10 to a given skill for about a minute. They can be found lying around or bought from some merchants. For things like Lockpicking and Science, it can be very handy to just bring your skills up to within 10 points of a threshold, and then use a Magazine to hit it. So, instead of targeting 25, 50, 75, and 100 points in each, try to get each up to 15, 40, 65, or 90. If you have clothing that gives bonuses, that can be taken into account as well: with a coat that gives +5 Science, you could shoot for 10, 35, 60, or 85. Anyways, the point is, this will free up valuable Skill Points to use in skills that are used more frequently (like Guns), while still being able to open the things you need.
  • Science and Lockpicking are, as noted above, generally only tested at multiples of 25, so values in between generally aren't useful. So, for example, it would be much more useful to level up as (0, 0, 0, 10, 15) or (10, 15, 0, 0, 0) than as (5, 5, 5, 5, 5). In other words, when you're ready to raise a skill, dump all you can in to get it to the next level, instead of gradually raising it.
  • In contrast, most other skills are tested at finer levels. In particular, there are a lot more conversation checks than in F3. Speech is still probably the most frequent, but tons of conversations will now have options that can be unlocked with things like Barter, Healing, Medicine, or (once again) Science. These can be tested anywhere in 5-point increments, so gradual improvements are useful. Stats (like Intelligence or Charisma) are also sometimes useful, as are particular perks.
  • While magazines and clothing are useful for raising skills for tests, note that Perk prerequisites are always determined by the base, unmodified skill level. So, if there are particular Perks you want to get, plan in advance so you can hit them by the right time. (If you want to get them immediately, that is. There's nothing wrong with waiting for a few levels later to pick something up.)
  • The Endurance stat determines how many Implants you'll be able to install. Most Implants will raise another stat (like Perception or Intelligence) by a single point. So, it can be a really good idea to get a lot of Endurance when building your character, since you'll eventually be effectively doubling each point you put into it.


So, here's basically how my game went down:

I left Goodsprings a little prematurely: I did most of the quests, but didn't have high enough Explosives for the last pre-requisite to prepare for the shootout with the prison gang. I'm guessing that it would have turned out OK with all the rest of the preparation I'd done, but I'm enough of a completist that I didn't want to risk it. I kept planning to come back, but somehow never found an Explosives magazine in the whole game, so as far as I know that merchant is still hiding out in the gas station.

I'd read online that it's a good idea to get to the New Vegas Medical Clinic soon, so you can get the Intelligence implant and the extra Skill Points it provides. I was warned off from the northern highway, which was overrun by Deathclaws, so I ended up swinging far to the south and then looping up through the east side. Along the way I stopped at the 188 Trading Post, where I met Veronica, chatted with her for a while, and then decided to adventure with her. I liked her a lot as a character: she was a really good complement for my PC (I was kind of like a ranged DPS with my plasma rifles, she was kind of a tank with her power glove and eventual Brotherhood power armor). I also really liked her voice, and was trying to figure out whether I knew her from something else: was she an NPC in Dawnguard or something? After that play session was over, I went online and looked her up in the wiki. Oh, duh: Felicia Day! Like, one of my favorite people associated with video games! I felt a bit dumb to have not immediately recognized her voice, but really happy at the thought of traveling with her for longer than, say, Tallis.

Along the way, I started making friends with the NCR. I popped into Fort McCarran and began running missions for the snipers there. (This was also the site of a really awful mission, which takes one of the worst things that can happen to a woman and turns it into a side-quest, which has the least-sensitive dialogue I've encountered in any modern game.) By the time I finally entered the Strip, I was starting to see how the game was leading up to a showdown between the NCR and the Legion, and felt pretty comfortable aligning myself with the former.


Of course, it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. Mr. House has been preparing his own scheme, playing the NCR and the Legion off against one another, with the goal of maintaining Vegas's independence. And, while taking care of Benny, I stumbled across Yes Man, who seems to be a mechanism for charting a truly independent course, possibly with you setting yourself up as the King of the Wasteland.

What had initially seemed like a clear-cut choice had just grown much murkier. I tend to really enjoy playing good-hearted opportunistic rogues, and for a while tried to follow up on the Yes Man options, thinking that I could raise an army of my own and then join forces with the NCR. It turns out that this isn't allowed, though, as the NCR won't look too kindly on paramilitary activities within their territory.

Similarly, I'd held out hope for a while that I might be able to convince Mr. House to join with the NCR. There were a few other cases where the NCR had sent me to destroy a faction, like the Great Khans, and I eventually was able to work out a diplomatic solution. That also wasn't possible, though. Mr. House sees the NCR as corrupt upstarts, completely undeserving of his vast intelligence and preparations.

I held off for a while, but eventually my progression through the main NCR plot line forced me to make a choice, and I decided to stick with my original plan and take out Mr. House. I was pretty surprised by how guilty I ended up feeling! Based on the information you learn after returning the Platinum Chip, and in your Pip-Boy messages after the death, it seems like Mr. House was one of the best, and possibly the only, chance for humanity to repair itself after the devastation of the Great War. Mr. House had begun preparations even before the first bombs fell, and had the resources and ambitions to secure a reliable source of power for humanity, with the ultimate goal of restarting the space program and settling on an un-despoiled planet.

But, again, this is an interesting game with compelling and varied characters, and there's no clear-cut answer to the question of who is "good" or "bad." Mr. House had noble aims, and, based on what I saw, very little personal ego: he wasn't doing this for self-aggrandizement, but to fulfill a lifelong mission. And yet, he sits at the heart of a dictatorship, and that dictatorship would only spread after his plans were fulfilled. In contrast, the NCR is a messy republic, with the corruption, bureaucracy, and expansionist urges that implies. And yet, the NCR is a democracy, the only large-scale one of its kind: a flawed system, but a system where every citizen can enjoy its benefits and help shape its future. In essence, the question was whether to try and save the social structures of pre-War society, or to save its technological superiority. The NCR offers the first, and only Mr. House can provide the latter.

As usual, I can't help but think about what D&D alignments to assign each faction. Caesar's Legion is pretty obviously Lawful Evil. Caesar united the wasteland tribes, and as he describes their philosophy, it's one that completely based on subordinating the will of the individual to the military and the government as a whole, which extends to such matters as forbidding women to enter the military and maintaining a system of slavery seemingly for its own sake. Mr. House is Neutral Good. He has positive goals, but doesn't particularly care what methods he takes to achieve them. The NCR is... I actually have some trouble with this one. My immediate thought would be Lawful Good, due to their focus on government and bureaucracy and their role in opposing the Legion. But, when you hear stories about ranchers being forced off of their land, or incidents like the Bitter Springs massacre, it becomes harder to place them. I think they aspire to Lawful Good, but probably end up Lawful Neutral. Their overriding goal is stability and expansion, which accomplishes a lot of good along the way and certainly makes life safer for those within its borders, but often ends up causing collateral damage along the way. (I didn't get far enough along with Yes Man to categorize that. It definitely seems Chaotic, and I suppose its exact nature might depend on who you bring in to your alliance. Allying with the Omertas and Boomers might be Chaotic Evil, while the Brotherhood might allow you to be Neutral or Good.)

Anyways! After committing myself to the NCR's cause, I had a very brief period of detante with Caesar. At the time I was still hoping to seize control of House's Securitrons and give them to the NCR, so I entered the Legion camp in the plans of upgrading his robots. This turned into a more complex situation, and I ended up playing along with Caesar's quests for a short while. It was pretty fascinating to talk with him: based on everything I'd heard about him up until that point (granted, primarily from the NCR), I had him pegged for a straight-up villain. And, certainly, you get plenty of direct evidence of that when you enter camp: you see people crucified up on crosses, and slaves, and all sorts of awful stuff. But, Caesar himself is surprisingly erudite. It turns out that he actually was born in the NCR, and was a member of the Followers of the Apocalypse (a pacifist order devoted to improving peoples' lives through rediscovered technology) for most of his early life. Along the way he read Hegel, and began to examine the NCR dialectically. He became convinced of the inevitability of the NCR's fall, and decided to take the part of its conqueror. He united the tribes using brutal but cunning means, and has amassed a world-changing amount of power. What's interesting to me is how detached Caesar seems from what he's created. He sees history as a set of immutable principles, and doesn't feel he deserves much personal praise or blame for the part he plays in it.

I'm glad I took the time to chat with him and figure out what made him tick, but it also reassured me that I was making the right choice in backing the NCR. (I'm pretty picky about morality in games: I hate it when it's too black-and-white, but also get annoyed when everything is treated as equivalent, when it really isn't.) I upgraded the robots, killed Mr. House, felt bad for a bit, uploaded Yes Man, then realized that I wouldn't be able to do anything more with him.

From here I hurtled forward into the endgame. Unlike the smaller factions, which usually center around one or two questgivers in a single location, the NCR progresses through a wide range of ranks and areas, from the McCarran airfield to the McCarran terminal to the Strip to Hoover Dam itself. I really liked the various people I came into contact with along the way, and particularly liked Colonel Cassandra Moore. She fits nicely into the role of "badass female military officer" that I've been missing since Commander Shepard departed. (And, while I'm certain that the name is a coincidence, it also augers nicely for another military Cassandra who should be gracing our hard drives this fall.)

While Col. Moore was a great character, her quests were also the most trying for me, as she has little patience for diplomacy and pushes hard for results that change the facts on the ground. She'd gotten irritated earlier at my solution to the Great Khans problem; while the Khans and NCR are mortal enemies, I'd been trying to maintain good relations between them ever since peacefully resolving a hostage crisis, while she would have preferred to see them simply eliminated. Similarly, she sent me out to eliminate the Brotherhood. This was an especially tough row to hoe: I'd grown acquainted with them while completing Veronica's personal quest, and based on what I'd seen, they didn't seem like any sort of threat to the NCR, and I imagined they'd continue hunkering down below the earth until they all died out. But, they had also been incredibly cruel to Veronica, so my sympathy was somewhat limited.

I'm really glad that I saved my game before starting this quest, because it was one of the few times that I was unhappy with how the story was progressing and decided to rewind. I had a hunch that it would be possible to find a peaceful solution, and I hated the idea of murdering all the people I'd been chatting with just a few days earlier. I talked with Elder McNamara, and warned him about the NCR's plans; he gently dismissed my concerns. I next thought that Paladin Hardin might be more receptive; he seemed more aggressive and less open to diplomacy than McNamara, but I figured that if I set him on the throne, he might be willing to listen to me. So I did his side-quest, and ended up with him in charge, but still no peaceful option available. I gave in and looked online, and found that I would need to gain a positive reputation with the Brotherhood while keeping McNamara in charge; so I reloaded and did so. (Pro tip: you only get one chance to use your dialogue option warning McNamara about the NCR, so be sure not to use it until you are at least Accepted by them.)

Moore was not happy about this - she didn't trust them, and complained about how the bureaucrats would swarm all over this - and it was one of the only times that my NCR reputation actually dipped. Totally worth it, though! Once again, I was happy to see the game present me with a challenge that didn't have a cut-and-dried solution. What I ended up doing was much more difficult than just carrying out the mission would have been, and didn't give as many in-game benefits, but felt all the more rewarding due to its difficulty.

Along the same lines, Obsidian did a pretty brilliant job with a very minor side quest that I stumbled across while going to visit Caesar. You run into an NCR checkpoint; due to my high Reputation with them, I was able to talk with the commanding officer about the situation. Some of his men had been captured by the Legion and put up on crosses; from prior encounters with the enemy, he knew that if he ordered his men into battle, the Legion would torture and kill their comrades as the attack commenced, which would destroy morale. Since I was still a bit of an outsider, he wanted me to help him do the difficult work of giving his men quick and merciful deaths, to clear the way for the attack.

Well. I'd been willing to do some challenging things during the game, not least among them killing Mr. House, but I wasn't about to add killing prisoners to my roster. So, even as addicted as I am to side-quests, I turned him down. There weren't any dialogue options for alternate solutions, and no quest entries or notes describing other ways to finish it. But I still felt personally compelled to do what I could to rescue these men. So, I had Arcade Gannon and Rex stay behind, and snuck forward into the town. I sniped a few patrolling guards when they got too close, then spotted the gallows where the NCR troops hung. I crept forward, boarded the platform, and quickly cut them down. The alarm was quickly raised, and Legionnaires poured into the square. I drew their fire, cutting down the sniper units and evading the melee fighters, buying my comrades the chance to escape.

I'd wondered if this was an unintended glitch or something; open world games like this often support unplanned solutions to problems. But, when I escaped and returned to the checkpoint, I found the commanding officers in high, chagrined spirits. He admitted that he hadn't thought what I was done was possible, and thanked me for saving his men.

Well! It's a bit hard to convey how radical this is, but when you have a game that's entirely built around sidequests, and every sidequest gets an entry in the DATA/QUESTS tab of your Pip-Boy, it's extremely easy to fall into the habit of thinking that there are no solutions available other than those which are explicitly mentioned. This was a case where the game gave absolutely no hints to believe that an alternate outcome was possible; I felt compelled to follow my own moral compass and ignore the instructions of the game; and then was delighted to discover that it had essentially been a test all along, and I had passed. I've rarely felt so good after finishing a side-quest in a game.

There are several big, impressive setpieces that wrap up the game, or at least the NCR plot path. There's a nice, complex sequence when President Kimball arrives at Hoover Dam for a public relations junket, decorating a soldier and delivering a speech that will express the NCR's positive intentions for the region. Of course, as all of the soldiers expect, the Legion takes advantage of the situation to plot his assassination. This was a really fun and pretty tense mission: you have to do some legwork to try and anticipate the nature of their plot, position yourself appropriately to monitor what's happening, then detect and quickly respond to multiple threats. The speech ends up being cut short and the President evacuates, but your star rises even higher.

After this, the game clearly warns that you are entering the "point of no return": the final mission that will end the game. That was a bit surprising! In all of the other Bethesda games I have played, there might be one or more big "final missions" that wrap up a major plotline, but it's still a big open world and you can keep playing it for as long as you want after "beating" the game. In contrast, New Vegas has a very clear climax, whose outcome will forever change the future of the Wasteland. I had initially thought I would approach this like I do most non-BioWare RPGs these days: do all of the major storylines and as many sidequests as I could stand, then, once I feel like my interest is waning, do the final mission and beat the game. Now that I was actually staring at the screen asking me whether to proceed, though, I came to a realization: I didn't want to do everything. I wanted to do this thing, to finish the path this character was walking along. Not because I was sick of the game: the opposite, actually. This game was so vast, and so varied, and so good, that I knew I would be replaying it in the future, and wanted to save some of the missions for future runs.

The very final mission is, of course, the Second Battle of Hoover Dam. It's a long and nicely challenging quest. There are a ton of Legionnaires invading the Dam, and my beloved Lightweight Leather Armor went from full repair to dangerously low condition before I had even left the dam building. Fortunately, the NCR rangers are fighting by your side, and the firefights ended up being much more complex and interesting than I was expecting. Often I would end up pinned in the middle, between NCR sharpshooters on the upper levels and Legion forces racing upward from the turbine intakes. ED-E helped take out enemies from far away, and Veronica managed to keep most of the bad guys off of my body while I focused on headshots with my Q-35 Matter Modulator.

My one complaint about this sequence was that the Dam is huge and difficult to navigate, and for once the direction indicators on your Local Map aren't very helpful. I wandered around for a long time, getting ambushed again and again, went outside, went back inside, and finally had to look online to find out where I was supposed to go to turn on the turbines. Once that was done, though, the endgame moved along at a really nice clip. There's a long way to travel along the dam, with lots of ambushes and counter-ambushes. (One very minor complaint: I was kind of expecting more support from my allies during this sequence, but it seemed to pretty much just be the NCR fighting on my side. I did see a plane drop a bomb on a bunker, though, so that was probably the Boomers? Still, I don't think that the actual gameplay would necessarily have improved with more boots on the ground, and the allies' fates were described well in the actual epilogue.)

The NCR fell behind once I entered the Legion camp, where resistance was surprisingly light. I ambushed three guards and moved forward, where I saw Legate Lanius kill two Rangers with his sword. He stepped forward to taunt me, and I gradually realized that - incredibly! - this game could be beaten without killing the final boss. It's the only case I can think of other than Planescape: Torment (which, again, many of the Obsidian team helped create) where a final confrontation can be resolved through either violence or words.

Mechanically, it's not that awesome - basically, you just need a Speech of 100 and to keep taking the Speech options in the dialogue. It would have been more interesting to have something closer to the dialogue mini-games of Mask of the Betrayer, where you need to read closely, grok out a character's opinions, and then carefully bend the conversation in that direction. But, the actual content is really interesting. Lanius expects you to argue that the Legion can't hope to beat the NCR, but you need to essentially argue the opposite. The Legion may beat the NCR, but after winning at the Dam, they will not face any opposition before the Pacific Ocean. They'll spread out over all that territory, growing incredibly thin: rather than a spearhead, they will become a cloak. Without the focus of an enemy to face, they will lose their reason for existence, their cohesion will fade, and they will lose their glory. It's the logical outcome of Caesar's beloved Hegelian dialectic. With enough loquaciousness, you can help Lanius see that a victory at the Dam would be even worse than a defeat, and he will accept that it would be better for the Legion to withdraw, keeping the NCR as an enemy without actually defeating them.

So, yeah... pretty awesome! After that's done, you leave camp, where you meet General Lee Oliver, who has led the troops marching in the opposite direction. There's some congratulations, and a very nice epilogue that covers a surprisingly large amount of afterstory, including the fates of various communities, companions, and factions. Not all of these were good for me, largely due to quests that I had never undertaken. On balance I was very happy with the ending, but I also have more incentive to go back and get a "perfect" outcome on another playthrough.


Like I mentioned above in spoilerland, I'm actually planning on diving back into New Vegas to replay as another character, aiming for one of the other endings. Not that I'm unhappy with the one I got, but there's so much left in the game that I haven't experienced, and I'm very curious to see what the other outcomes look like. That's become extremely rare for me: not counting Civilization, I think the most recent modern game that I've played more than once is the original Dragon Age: Origins, which came out about five years ago.

I did go ahead and make another photo album for this game. I've returned to my standard form for this one: I took absolutely no screenshots for the first half of the game, a scattered handful of shots after the halfway point, and way too many near the end of the game. Spoilers, etc.

Two big thumbs up from me for this game. It's probably come closer than any modern game to capturing my Platonic ideal of an open-world game with a meaningful and engaging story. It's rich and vast enough to support seemingly endless exploration, but the central conflicts are written so well that you feel compelled to pursue them. It's a bit sad to realize that we're so far out from another game of this sort. Rumors started floating around late last year that Fallout 4 has started development and will be set in Boston, but even if those rumors are true we are probably many, many years away from a solution. If they're true, I hope Bethesda will entrust Obsidian with the franchise again, or at least take a sheaf of pages from their storytelling playbook as they work on the next entry.

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