Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fall In: New and Improved Vegas

So! Do you remember, months and months ago, when I was playing Fallout: New Vegas, and I really liked it? As soon as I finished the game, I wrote up a post, then immediately created a new character and dove right back in. I was kind of stunned to think of how much stuff I HADN’T done in my first game: even given how long I’d spent in there, there were huge swaths of the map that I had never set foot inside. I didn’t necessarily intend my second game to be a completionist playthrough, more of a chance to explore the “missing” aspects of my first game.

I played a lot… and then got sidetracked with the new Antumbra game, and put FNV (and everything else) aside for months. I recently came back and wrapped up the major DLC that I had interrupted. I figured that it would probably be a good idea to wrap up my thoughts on this now while they’re still only months-old and not years-old; I don’t THINK I have anything else major on the horizon between now and Inquisition, but there is a LOT of game left, and I’m no longer confident that I’ll wrap it all up in a timely fashion.

All right! As is often the case when re-playing RPGs, I start from the moment of character creation to try and create something different. My first character was a female Asian energy-weapons expert; this time around I had a grizzled Hispanic male firearms user. There’s still some decent overlap between the two, skills-wise: given how FNV is structured, it’s really important to have strong Science and Lockpicking from early on, and with my own playstyle I greatly value Speech as well.

Still, the difference between Energy Weapons and Guns was by itself enough to make the flow of gameplay feel quite different. With Energy Weapons, you feel a bit helpless at first due to the extreme shortage of weapons and ammo. However, once you are able to start accumulating ammo, you reach a point where it becomes self-sustaining, and so for most of the game I never had to worry about restocking my supply. In contrast, Guns has an INSANE variety in weapons, and much less commonality in ammunition. Energy Weapons pretty much just have Energy Cells and Microfusion Cells. Guns have .308, 5MM, 9MM, 22LR, .44, .357, and lots more. It isn’t evenly distributed, either. Sniper rifles (which are themselves quite rare) require .308 ammunition, which is only rarely available.

This has had several repercussions for how I play my game. With Energy Weapons, I would always have a single “best” weapon that I would hold on to. Granted, there’s the standard tradeoff between DAM and DPS, but I would usually be satisfied picking one all-around useful weapon. With Guns, though, there’s too great a risk of running out of ammunition, so I ended up carting around a bit of an arsenal; given that you’re holding multiple guns, it makes sense to specialize with them a bit more and switch between them based on the scenario you’re in. As of this writing, that includes a Sniper Rifle (using .308 ammmunition, modified with a suppressor and carbon stock, which is fantastic at taking down enemies at extreme distances in outdoor environments); a silenced SMG (22LR ammunition, useful when fighting at close quarters in indoor environments, handy in stealth); a Hunting Rifle (best at medium range; this used to be my go-to weapon, now it’s a handy fallback when I’m running out of ammo); and my latest acquisition, the K9000 (chews through .357 ammo like candy, good against powerful targets  or when facing groups).

I’m also striving to roleplay this character a bit differently. Again, one of the awesome things about FNV is the large number of big choices it gives your character. My first play-through was fairly aligned to law-and-order; my new character is still “good”, but I see him as more of a wild card, willing to mix it up and break the rules if he thinks a better outcome is possible.

One other thing I do when replaying an RPG is look for mods to install. FNV, like all games based on a Bethesda engine, has a staggering amount of mods available. It can be tricky to research the best ones to use: you can often find articles with titles like “The Ten Best Mods for Fallout: New Vegas,” but such articles are typically written very shortly after mods start appearing, and don’t include the newer ones that end up being superior to those rushed out early on. You can get slightly better results by going to a big aggregator like Nexus Mods and using their sorting options to find the most popular or most endorsed mods. I also find it very useful to check for recent activity on message boards, where you can get a better impression of exactly what the top mods offer: some are very ambitious and impressive but buggy, others might serve very narrow roles that some players need and others won’t care about. Of course, just reading up on mods will almost always give away details about the game, which is part of why I wait until after I beat a game to begin hunting.

I picked out a couple for this playthrough. Some were closer to patches than mods; one lets FNV use up to 4GB of RAM instead of the (I think) 2GB it is hard-coded to use. That should translate to shorter load times when moving repeatedly between the same scenes (as is often the case on the Strip). It didn’t make an enormous difference that I could see, but I think it probably sped it up a little.

I also tried to use an atmosphere mod that’s supposed to add a lot more environmental effects: different sorts of storms, clouds, meteorological events, etc. It sounded cool, but ended up crashing my game, so it had to go.

The most significant mod I added this time around was Willow, which adds a new NPC companion. This turned out to be a FANTASTIC mod, and one of the most professional-looking creations I’ve seen. Willow is very well designed, has a variety of outfits, terrific voice acting, and several personal quest lines that contribute to an overall relationship arc. Most impressively of all, she’s very well integrated into the existing game - in fact, I could almost argue that she’s integrated better than the official NPCs are! In core FNV, you can never have more than two humanoid followers at a time, and never really get to see them interact with one another (one of the critical ways in which this otherwise-amazing game falls short of the BioWare standard). Willow doesn’t count against that limit, though, and she will actually strike up conversations with people as she meets them. Even more amazing, though, is that the original NPCs speak back - they’ve somehow been able to find appropriate reactions from the original audio files, making a surprisingly seamless dialogue between official and fan-made creations. It’s pretty remarkable!

I had a lot of fun with the Willow plot, and let that drive a lot of my initial wanderings. My main goal was to focus on new stuff and ignore the old, and there was a ton of new stuff available to explore. Besides Willow, I also met up with Rose of Sharon Cassidy, bumping up the number of awesome female sidekicks in this game to a rockin’ three. Cass is very different from Veronica, and I don’t know if I could pick a favorite between the two… they’re unique in voice, outlook, background, attitude, combat style, and more. Each has a really engaging personal mission that leads to some very difficult decisions with lasting story-related and mechanical repercussions. In addition, I also did more with Arcade Gannon this time around: I’d recruited him previously, but never unlocked his personal quest, and I was looking forward to seeing his story. With that gang in place, I started wandering through West Side and all the other places I’d neglected during my first game.

And, frankly, that alone was already a pretty stunning part of the experience: realizing just how little of the game I'd even seen. I'd never once set foot in Westside or New Vegas Square, and huge sections of the Wasteland map were completely unexplored. I had a ton of fun checking those places out, and still haven't gotten to everything yet.

I got a better feeling for FNV's quest structure this time around, and I found myself appreciating it more and more. I'm used to a more "hub"-style structure for quests, which is most common in games like Skyrim. Those games tend to have you travel to a major friendly area, like a city; you'll wander around the city and talk to a bunch of people, perhaps picking up a dozen quests, which each require you to travel to another spot out in the countryside. You'll travel there, do what needs doing (rescue someone, find an artifact, slay a beastie), then travel back to the hub for your reward. This tends to lead to massive quest bloat, and often a fair amount of boredom: you feel like you're either picking over the same ground over and over again, or else skidding along the surface and never completing anything. Worse, I feel like I'm actually discouraged from exploring in games like Skyrim: if I stumble across a place too "early", I might break a quest or spoil something that's intended to happen later, or just need to revisit that place again after I get the proper quest.

In contrast, in Fallout New Vegas, it's almost always fun and worthwhile to explore stuff even when no particular quest is leading you there. Sometimes a location is just kind of cool for its own sake. Other times, it will spin up its own mini-quest when you enter, which will give you something to do but not prompt you to go traipsing all over creation. It harkens back in a really nice way to my all-time favorite games in the Ultima series, which created this fantastic sense that you were living in a really deep and complete world: the world doesn't revolve around you, but whenever you go digging in a particular spot, you'll find something there.


Willow’s story was pretty sweet (both in the sense of “awww” and “cool”). She’s definitely a much sunnier character than any of your other companions, without the sort of hard edges one acquires from a brutal life lived in the Wasteland. I kind of liked it, though… it’s nice to see a ray of sunshine after a period of gloom. She still comes across as capable, though… she teams up with you because you can help each other, not because she’s in need of rescuing.

Several of Willow’s quests seem a bit fetch-quest-y, but they’re written and delivered engagingly enough that I really didn’t mind. One quest asks you to collect 100 pencils. Pencils are typically just another type of trash that you come across, but once that was on my radar, it became really interesting to think about. I started to get more excited when my missions would take me into bombed-out office buildings rather than bombed-out factories, just because I knew I was likely to acquire more pencils. There’s no one single mother lode that can provide all the pencils you need, so it ends up being something that you continually pay attention to over the source of several missions. Along the way, Willow gives you feedback and encouragement, and then there’s a nice perk at the end once you finish the quest.

That’s probably the most extreme example; other quests have more to do with Willow’s past and such. Still, it is kind of fun to, say, have a “Let’s go shopping!” quest dropped in amongst all the angst and gloom. Over time, you’ll raise approval with Willow as a result of your various interactions (completing side-quests, making certain dialogue choices, etc.). Once you reach a certain point, you'll open up the opportunity to continue either a friendship or a romance arc with her. I went for the latter. Vanilla FNV doesn't really do romances. This seems to be partly due to the philosophical values of Chris Avellone and other Obsidian writers, but I think the limitations of the Elder Scrolls engine also plays into it. Granted, people do make fun of the romance scenes in Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but I think they're still on top of the industry when it comes to believable contact between two friendly humanoid bodies. In contrast, bodies in Elder Scrolls and modern Fallout are extremely stiff; and with the default first-person camera, there's usually no opportunity for physical interaction with the protagonist.

Given those big limitations, I was again impressed by how well the Willow mod was able to perform, thanks to an artful use of perspective, strategic fadeouts, and great sound design. (Warning: there is some nudity very late in the romance arc.) And, as with BioWare romances, the arc doesn't feel like a conquest or an easter egg: it's a decision you make that ends up altering the nature of your relationship. I'm a fan! Even after completing what seems to be the main content for Willow, I've happily continued to keep her in my party.

At least, up until I started the DLC. The expanded content is set up to not allow you to bring additional companions from the Wasteland; but, once again, Willow doesn't count, and she will happily tag along. I did a little of the first with her before figuring out that it was making the combat way too easy and reluctantly removed her. I suppose that's a good sign for attachment, if you miss someone after leaving them behind.

So! Thus far I've finished one DLC, "Old World Blues". One of my minor complaints with the DLC is that it's difficult to correlate the title of the DLC with the mission title in your Quest log with the name used within the game for its content. This certainly wasn't a problem for people who were buying each DLC as it came out, but for someone like me who boots up a new game and instantly is spammed with four ambiguously named new quests, it was a bit hard to navigate. And, since each has its own suggested minimum level requirement, I ended up relying on the wiki more than I would like just to kick this one off. In any case: for the record, "Old World Blues" starts with the quest named "Midnight Science Fiction Feature!" and takes place in The Big Empty, aka Big MT.

I was surprised (agreeably so!) by just how big and well-polished this content was. It apparently cost $10 upon release; given my expectations with DLC from similar games, I would think that this would cover a new series of missions and maybe a new companion and/or set of skills. It gives all that stuff, but a ton more beside. There's a really impressive set of opening and closing scenes, a bit like the slides you get after beating the main game, along with some fantastic narration that describes exactly what happened in Big MT and how it relates to events in the broader world. The narration and voice acting in general is really top-notch, including incredibly talent: I did a double take when I heard James Urbaniak, of The Venture Brothers and The Thrilling Adventure Hour. Initially I thought it was someone doing a really good Rusty Venture impression, but, nope, it was the man himself!

While the voice acting is amazing, my biggest complaint with the mod is probably how densely presented it is. I mean, I hate to suggest that they cut out any content; but from the time you start the DLC until you start doing any actual gameplay, you're probably in for sixty minutes of non-stop dialogue. (Technically skippable, but "unfortunately" it's too good to skip.) The actual content is great, again: it's really funny, conveys a lot of information, and introduces the relationships between a whopping FIVE new characters. Sadly, though, this is yet another case where the shortcomings of the engine limit what they can do. A BioWare scene would almost certainly feature some action to go along with the exposition; here, we have five virtually identical character models, doing the same repetitive animations over and over again, not really doing justice to the incredible words coming out of their mouths.

Once you get into the actual gameplay, the pace picks up quite nicely. The idea behind this content is that you've been abducted by a secret research facility that was started before the Great War and ran off the rails sometime later. The original scientists running the facility have all lost their bodies and transplanted their brains into portable containers, Futurama-style. During the course of your abduction, they removed many crucial parts of your body, including your brain, spine, and heart. So, you are doing a series of quests in order to get them back, and along the way learn more about what happened to Big MT.

A ton of stuff was added to the game as a part of this. Some of them, like an expanded set of perks, were added to the main game and so have been available for both of my playthroughs. But, there are also unique perks that you earn during the course of the game. Your "Spineless" perk, for example, indicates that your original spine has been replaced with an artificial one, which actually increases your Strength and Damage Threshold. After you recover your spine at the end of the game, you can either choose to restore it (getting a new perk) or remain being Spineless. In addition to perks, you'll also gain new weapons; due to the advanced scientific nature of the setting, the majority of these are energy weapons, but I was able to get a sort of portable Gatling Gun called the K9000. Lots of weapons have their own unique mods, most notably the Sonic Emitter which has a ridiculous number of swappable settings.

Big MT is huge, too! It really feels like a major section of the wasteland, and I found myself approaching it in much the same way. I would have a destination in mind, and start heading in that direction. I would then discover new locations along the way, prompting me to stick my head in and explore. This in turn would often lead to additional new quests, each with their own rewards. It was awesome! And then it was a bit overwhelming, particularly when I returned after my months-long break, realized that I had forgotten the motivation behind most of the quests, and that there were several big areas of Big MT that I hadn't even visited. So, I resolved to wrap up the existing quests and bring it to a conclusion. You can freely travel back after you've finished the mission, so I still might head back there some day and see what I've missed.

That conclusion is pretty good, by the way. This is definitely a mission that is very heavily bookended by massive exposition on both ends. I'd gotten a pretty good hunch about the situation as I'd played through the game and paid attention to the environment, and that ended up being pretty accurate, although there were still a couple of neat surprises near the end. As is the case with almost everything else in Fallout, you can make some pretty massive choices that will drastically alter the status quo in Big MT. You are then treated to a series of slides (wonderfully narrated of course) that detail the outcomes from your quest. It felt like there were just about as many from here as from the main game, which is pretty crazy. A bunch of them are very goofy - one of the side-quests in the game involves dealing with a menagerie of talking appliances straight out of Pee-Wee's Playhouse - but the goofy ones are endearing, and several more have more drama or pathos. All in all, it felt very substantial and well-earned. To be a bit flippant about it, this is the amount of content and polish I would expect in a $20 expansion, not a $10 DLC.


So, that's it for now! I've prepared the customary album of screenshots, primarily covering my time with Willow and in Big MT. Ware spoilers.

I'd planned to continue ahead with the remaining three DLCs, buuuuut Sunless Sea just dropped today in early access (huzzah!!) so I'll be doing that for at least the immediate future. Still, the high bar set by Old World Blues makes me very optimistic for the remaining content, and I'm fairly certain I'll dive back into it sooner or later.

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