Fallout New Vegas: Dead Money – Staff Review

Last year’s Fallout New Vegas lived up to the series’ pedigree in many important ways, not all of them to its credit. But no one can accuse Obsidian of not knowing how to plot, and even in a crowded field Vegas easily gave other story-heavy RPGs a run for their money. Dead Money is their first step into DLC territory, essentially playing as its own separate game that just happens to use your character. Minor, but frequent nuisances are determined to hobble the experience, yet beyond that are real moments of ingenuity that even Vegas didn’t pull off.

While Dead Money is technically a sidequest in the base game, it makes additions to existing mechanics and is effectively its own separate story complete with an intro and epilogues. Thus, it will be scored independent of New Vegas.

Loading Dead Money spawns a radio signal leading you to an otherwise locked Brotherhood of Steel bunker, at the end of which is a trap that you’ve no choice but to spring. Upon waking up you’re introduced to the Sierra Madre, an exclusive casino hotel whose grand opening was put on hold thanks to nuclear war. Now it stands a monolith of old world tech and riches, surrounded by a crumbling villa and a poisonous miasma that hides it from the outside world. A flickering hologram of an old man abruptly informs you that he needs your help to break in, your gear has been taken, and he’s fitted you with a bomb collar to secure your cooperation. Others have been trapped in this centuries-old heist, and you’ll all have to work together. If anybody dies, the collars make sure that everybody dies.

We're gonna need a crack team... or whatever weirdos the traps pick up.  We're not too picky.
We’re gonna need a crack team… or whatever weirdos the traps pick up. We’re not too picky.

Dead Money is a self-contained world, and apart from a starting rifle you’ll have to search for what you need in the ruins or buy it from ubiquitous vending machines. The Madre is also a deathtrap, starting with the toxic vapors that blanket the city. Dense concentrations of the cloud will quickly kill you, and in Hardcore mode even just standing around outside will slowly harm you. Active radios and speakers generate interference that set off your collar in seconds, requiring that they be avoided, shut down, or destroyed. On top of this, conventional traps have been liberally scattered throughout the villa, and anyone blindly rushing into a new area won’t get far with all their limbs. Especially early on, exploration is dangerous and survival requires real effort. You’ll find yourself making use out of the junk you may have passed up in New Vegas, just because you need those stims and bullets to last.

While you’re busy ducking the cloud and avoiding radios, more mobile hazards will get in your way. Mysterious “ghost people” roam the villa, clad in ancient hazmat suits and wielding spears or other improvised weapons. Simply hitting them until they drop isn’t enough, you’ll need to dismember or destroy the bodies to ensure they don’t get back up. Security holograms show up here and there, invulnerable to all attacks and armed with powerful lasers. They can be evaded, but your only real defenses are to hack certain computers, or to find and shut down their emitters. Even your would-be teammates are less than cooperative to start with, and you might have to do some legwork, fast-talking, or Pipboy trickery with audio recordings to get them working with you. Suffice it to say this shouldn’t be your first stop after waking up in Goodsprings.

Speaking of characters, your dealings with the Madre’s few speaking inhabitants are one of Dead Money‘s highlights. Apart from your captor Elijah, you’ll mostly be interacting with the pool of followers needed for the job: a mute girl, a schizophrenic mutant, and a curiously well prepared ghoul. As in Fallout 3 and to a greater extent in New Vegas, your attributes and abilities give you extra options in conversation, and the small cast gives the writers a lot of leeway to expand the depth of these options. Christine, the mute, is fantastically written, with relevant speech checks to determine if you can make sense of her gestures and body language. As for the speaking actors, they do an excellent job portraying their characters’ quirks, such as the eerily convincing conflict between the mutant’s creepy personalities. Even Dean Domino, the closest to normal of the bunch, comes off as a shrewd fellow who always has one more card up his sleeve.

Courier has alerted the horde!
Courier has alerted the horde!

As for the Madre itself, players seeking a visual spectacle may be let down. The outlying villa is a cramped maze of identical streets and buildings. A sickly purple haze covers everything – there’s a Jimi Hendrix joke in that somewhere – and the few building interiors are less interesting than their occupants. Not even the casino proper stands out as particularly extravagant, which is odd given how the backstory goes on about the Madre’s exclusivity. Still, the villa is legitimately dangerous, and visual cues sometimes cleverly work against the player’s expectations.  Making a run for that ammo box might just trigger a rigged shotgun aiming at that well-hidden gas canister. A handful of areas invoke real tension, and rare encounters with neutral holograms are often weirdly poignant. Watching one silently tend the counter of a derelict store is disquieting, moreso when you realize it still trades US dollars instead of bottle caps.

Dead Money effectively mixes the casino’s backstory with your overall goal, revealing more of both as various employees and contractors speak posthumously through recorded notes. The treasure was a draw even before the bombs fell, and owner Frederick Sinclair sought to ensure the Madre could withstand the coming nuclear war. A prewar effort to crack the vault echoes into Elijah’s own scheme, and there’s a prevailing theme of starting anew and letting go in the plot. Elijah’s plan, once fully unveiled, makes a sinister kind of sense, and each character’s part of the story is fascinating. However, for as much as their stories theoretically intersect, the characters don’t talk much with each other. Dialogue sometimes doesn’t pace itself well, either by dumping too much information at once or by hamstringing your responses. One character’s big reveal is a glaring example; my opinion of them changed drastically, yet the only option was “All right, I’ll see what I can do.”

Frankly, the whole game has a problem with pacing. Elijah literally tells you about every single danger you’ll face from the start, and you see it all too early for the game to maintain a real horror atmosphere. Dead Money is too fond of pop-up messages for every little thing, like you can’t see that you’ve wandered into or out of a cloud. The sameness of the villa locations makes the section feel even longer than it is, and the hunt for radios quickly stops being novel and starts being a chore. Dead Money‘s challenge is also not immune to New Vegas‘ more game-breaking character builds, and Light Step with Bloody Mess can breeze you through the early game. Further, it bears repeating that the Fallout 3 and New Vegas‘ engines are not exactly precision FPS instruments, such that getting to that security console during the forced stealth sequence in overlapping head-exploding radio fields is still more cumbersome than it should be.

You see, male holograms walk like this, and female holograms walk like OH GOD MY FACE THIS JOKE WAS ILL-ADVISED
You see, male holograms walk like this, and female holograms walk like OH GOD MY FACE THIS JOKE WAS ILL-ADVISED

And that, sadly, is the contrast at work here. The plot is intelligently crafted, characters are well written, and plot threads to coming adventures are indeed tantalizing. But Dead Money is in such a rush to tell you things that it sometimes forgets to show. At one point you hear what are obviously ghost people banging on a door as they try to follow you, but when they do get in Elijah spends precious seconds telling you that’s what the noise was. A holographic audio recording relates a woman’s wordy realization of her impending death, and since the actual hologram is hostile you’ll hear it over and over and over as you try to get around her. The ghosts, the holograms, the cloud: these are all neat ideas, but you’ll know them front and back in the first hour and there are still six hours to go. These are singular examples, but they keep popping up for every thing the DLC does right.

Still, Dead Money is nonetheless an engaging ride from the start. As mentioned, you’ll get a lot of mileage from skills that you may have ignored in the base game, and the initial scarcity of ammo and weapons brings back fond memories of old-school survival horror.  Think the early days of Resident Evil, when finding that first shotgun really meant something and you couldn’t suplex your way through a crowd. Granted you’ll eventually find enough ammo to kill anything that moves, but it’s fun while it lasts. New weapons and items are useful without being too flashy, from simple knives and revolvers to gas bombs and an upgradeable automatic rifle. Dedicated crafters can find lots to make, including several recipes from cloud residue: night vision chems, stat-boosting drinks, even poisons. Perks have been added, and the boost of the level cap gives you more opportunities to get them. And rest assured that there is real treasure at the heart of the Madre, the kind that basically eliminates your monetary woes back in the Mojave.

At $9.99, you do get a good-sized bang for your buck. The quest runs about seven hours, and you have traditional ending slides depicting what happened to your colleagues after you clear the Madre. New toys are fun to play with, and although the challenges might wear thin, they are still a bold and welcome departure from business as usual. Dead Money‘s merits aren’t as easy to stick in bullet points, but Obsidian did a great job with the characters and the plot threading them into the Fallout world. Arguably the Madre itself is a character, if only as a relic of a bygone era that still defines conflicts decades after the bombs fell. If some tedium isn’t a deal-breaker for you, then grab your loot sack and gear up for the big score.

This content was played to completion with a digital download copy purchased through Steam.

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