Monday, April 25, 2011

Fallout: New Vegas review

I got this game back in October when it came out. It's been a long time - long enough that I think I can do a proper review of it now. I wrote this for Actionbutton.net, but it seems that they aren't interested in taking it. Therefore, I'm publishing it here, on my blog. Caveat emptor, this isn't a normal video game review where I talk about the controls or the graphics or what have you. If you've ever read my blog, you understand that I have higher level concerns with the pieces of art that I deal with. So here it is, my long-awaited review of my most-anticipated game, Fallout: New Vegas.

It wasn’t until I had been playing for a couple months, off and on, that I had a moment of carefree pure fun with Fallout: New Vegas. My (now ex)girlfriend gave me the game as an early birthday present, and I played it non-stop for a couple weeks, until the bugs and glitches and crashes got to me. It got to the point that when I zoomed in with a scope, the screen went rainbow coloured and I couldn’t see what I was trying to kill. I gave up and waited for a patch. When it came, I immediately jumped back on, but this time, I was just looking for challenges. This aforementioned moment of joy came when I found myself in a rock quarry, perched atop a conveyor belt, surrounded by a family of Deathclaws, including the patriarch, a giant motherfucker called Legendary Deathclaw. I was running out of ammo, my sniper rifle, the only weapon with enough range to keep me from being mauled to death, was breaking down. It took me, in real time, about an hour to pick off all of the adult Deathclaws and then another fifteen minutes to scour the rocks and kill the babies. That was the best moment of playing that game, after I gone through the weak story, beat the game, and went back to a previous save point to try and do the crazy shit that is associated with the Fallout name.

I was – am – a huge Fallout 3 fan. It remains my favourite video game of all time, despite (and sometimes because of) its numerous flaws. The engine is weak, the facial expressions stiff and robotic, the ending disappointing, and the plot somewhat laughable. But I could not get enough of crawling through the endless sewers, the open terrain, the broken streets, and the creepy vaults. I could not get enough of accumulating crap that I didn’t need, like cutlery or cups or lawn mower blades. I could not get enough of waltzing right into a gang and taking them all out with my unique shotgun I found. When the “Game of the Year” edition came out, I played that as much as the original, but this time, played with a different style character, and I played for different objectives, like being the most badass motherfucker in the entire Wasteland. I succeeded. I started playing the game in late 2008 and I still haven’t achieved 100% completion. Part of me doesn’t want to for the heartbreak of finally beating the entire game.

So why was I so disappointed with Fallout: New Vegas? Why did it take so long for me to just enjoy the game? I’m sure a good portion of the dissatisfaction was due to high expectations. If Fallout 3 is my favourite game of all time, any follow-up is sure to miss the benchmark of entertainment, even though I hoped against hope that it would surpass my beloved post-apocalyptic RPG. However, a good amount of blame is to be placed at the feet of the game and its developers. The glitches and bugs, while annoying, aren’t the most egregious of crimes. It’s not even the re-use of a tired game engine that’s the worst offense.

It’s the story. I don’t think there are enough words to convey my feelings that story is the most important thing in the world. Just call me Neil Gaiman, but without the accent and without the entire wardrobe of black. Story is the most important element because that’s how humans communicate with each other. Yes, you could argue that stories are built of words, so it’s actually words that allow us to express concepts, but whatever. Stories are humanity’s bread and butter. So it’s all the most awful when a story is poorly told, or even worse, if it’s just a bad story. Unfortunately, Fallout: New Vegas has a bad story, and it’s poorly told to boot.

You’re a courier boy who has this weird giant poker chip to deliver, and you get shot for it by some Rat Pack wannabe. When you wake up, the chip is gone, but you have some clues (and some ticks on your radar) to guide the way to getting back the package. On the way, you need to either align yourself with the New California Republic or Caesar’s Legion. Or, you could fly solo and take over Vegas yourself, should you choose, but that outcome seems the same as siding with the NCR. No matter what, the idea is that you’re going to take over all of Vegas using the giant poker chip.

This means that the story has a nice branching structure. Or at least, superficially it does, because ultimately, it doesn’t matter what side you choose, or even what your karma is, but in this game, it’s called reputation rather than karma. It doesn’t matter because the story flows into the same corners despite your best efforts to throw it a curve ball, like killing somebody important to the story.

These things don’t seem to affect the story, as it just trudges along at the same wooden pace. Go here, install this, come back, kill that guy, win this gang’s loyalty, etc etc etc. While it may seem bizarre to complain of this Fallout’s main mission, as it’s roughly the same as Fallout 3’s main story (in terms of mechanics) but that’s exactly it. I already played this game, and the story wasn’t even better or worse.

The player will never care about either side of the war, either the NCR or the Legion. The player will never care because it never affects the player directly. It’s just one army or the other, and the developers based the entire game around this dynamic that’s categorically boring.

Of course, the best part of the game is the freedom, and not just the freedom of the open world, but the freedom from the story’s stranglehold on the game. When you ignore the main quest, and focus on the little things, here and there, like a cave that just randomly houses a nest of coyote/rattlesnake hybrids. Or the airplane lying at the bottom of a lake. Or the batshit insane butterflies that scared the crap out of the me the first time they killed in three hits. It’s the open world that makes this game even remotely entertaining. When the game wants you to go pick up scrap metal to fix a solar power array, or when it wants you to fetch a pressure cooker, then you’re going to get bored. The freedom from the linear story, from the wooden characters, from the obvious choices in dialogue, that’s what makes the game good.

There’s just not enough of that. The Nevada/California wasteland is big, but it’s not as big as the Capital Wasteland. You could easily get lost in Washington in Fallout 3. There are a million subway lines and a million sewers. One day, when I was taking a subway line I didn’t recognize, I found myself in Georgetown, which is a real area in Washington. I had no idea that it was in the game, and I had owned the game for a year at this point. There’s no moment like that in Fallout: New Vegas. What you see is what you get. All the ticks on the map are either empty shacks or caves with animals in them. There are no mazes, and every building you can enter is way smaller than you think it is.

I suppose that this discovery is a microcosm of the game experience itself. It’s just not nearly as big as you’d think. The story is asinine and small in scope, and the stakes never get any higher than “will I still be in control of the hydroelectric dam when this is done?” If that’s your primary concern, then maybe this game is for you. As for me, I’m not interested in gaining property or controlling casinos. No, I’m a big game hunter, and there are more “Legendary” status creatures out there for me to kill. It’s not about the XP, it’s about the experience.

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