Fallout New Vegas: Honest Hearts – Staff Review

Between what’s in the Fallout bible and what made it to the games, it’s easy to forget how much of Fallout‘s established world remains unexplored. Enter Honest Hearts, a slice of post-war tribal politics aimed at filling in a few of New Vegas‘ blanks. The content doesn’t quite have a strong narrative thrust, and Zion National Park, though pretty, is lacking for environmental diversity. Still, it’s backed by some very interesting elements that tie smartly into the larger picture, and, more importantly, is more of what New Vegas did right: room to explore, people to deal with, and choices to make.

Honest Hearts adds a sizable stand-alone area and expands on people and places mentioned in New Vegas. However, it does not considerably alter the gameplay or continue the plot, and thus it will not be scored independent of the base game.

How do people even get up there to paint that, anyway?
How do people even get up there to paint that, anyway?

On startup, a radio beacon for the Happy Trails Caravan beckons the player to join them on an expedition to New Canaan, an important trading post up in Utah. This is no milk run. The settlement went dark recently, and the ‘why’ becomes clear when your party is caught in the crossfire of warring tribals, at the center of which is one Joshua Graham. Once a New Canaan missionary, Graham served as Caesar’s right hand until a disastrous battle at Hoover Dam landed him a fiery death sentence. Having survived his attempted execution, the “Burned Man” now ministers one of the tribes and seeks your aid in fending off their aggressive rivals. Your input in this is less to choose sides – one group is always hostile regardless of your intent – than to pick a direction for Graham and his people.

Zion is a scenic and sizable chunk of real estate, if short on recognizable landmarks.  With sheer cliff faces, winding switchbacks, and river-carved valleys marked with tribal paintings, the park is a clear step away from postwar civilization, such that even signs of prewar habitation feel spared from the nuclear holocaust. A lot of little things help bring the atmosphere together: rainstorms that occasionally pepper the area, friendly hunters in the field, even a simple quest about guiding a young Bighorn to safety. You’re in wild territory, and a big part of Hearts‘ appeal is getting to explore. However, despite the frequency with which New Canaan is mentioned – it’s even pictured in one of the intro slides – you won’t get to check it out. The in-game reason is valid enough, but it’s still a disappointment after so much talk about it.

Hearts adds plenty of new stuff befitting its environment. Your only human enemies are warriors from the White Leg tribe, who wield a good selection of melee weapons and small guns. Yao Guai make their return here, alongside giant versions of familiar fauna. New food and healing recipes prove useful, and Zion probably has more crafting materials than all of the Mojave. As for hardware, you have the expected selection of tribal melee and throwing weapons, though attention is quickly drawn to the .45 pistol, a hard-hitting unique service rifle, and the excellent Thompson SMG. In a very welcome twist, clearing the content drops a crate near the exit that contains character-specific equipment, so you don’t have to finish what Caesar started to get Graham’s absurdly powerful handgun. And, of course, the level cap goes up another five, bringing it to 40 with Dead Money. New perks range from useful to must-haves, with Grunt being a clear favorite as it boosts damage for several common guns.

Oh sure, everything HAS to revolve around you.  Whatever you say, Mr. Vanity.
Oh sure, everything HAS to revolve around you. Whatever you say, Mr. Vanity.

As for quests, you won’t be doing much you haven’t done before. Initially you’ll round up supplies for Graham, some of which will be damaged and require parts or skill checks. Later you’re introduced to Daniel, also a New Canaanite, who tends to another tribe and also needs your help. While the two men are trying to save both tribes, they have theoretically different ideas on how to do so. In practice, either way it leads to a running battle against White Legs and a boss fight you can talk your way out of. Daniel doubles as the doctor, while Graham sells weapons and is the only repair vendor around. You’ll also gain three temporary followers along the way, all with useful companion perks and two with optional quests. The only twist to the content is the starting weight limit – 75, up to 100 with some persuasion or the strong back perk – explained as your party having to pass through tight quarters on the way in. Once you’re at Zion, it’s business as usual.

The presentation isn’t quite all sunshine and broc flowers, and a few underexplored elements weaken the plot. Graham supports you without a word of objection if you side with Daniel in the end, despite Graham’s insistence upon taking the fight to the White Legs. He speaks of his time in the Legion, but his transformation and survival are glossed over in fairly general terms; surely there’s more to not burning to death than a handwave that boils down to willpower. Although friendly tribes and NPCs are well developed as characters, the core plot never seems as compelling as its individual components. The opening scripted scene at Zion can be confusing, to the point where I shot a key participant that was standing next to a distant target.

On top of this, the park runs out things to show you pretty quickly. The landscape certainly looks and feels like the rugged, untamed land it’s supposed to be. There are rewards for diligent explorers, not the least of which is a free suit of veteran NCR ranger armor. However, many locations are simply landmarks with little of value, and more than once you’ll have to circle around a massive cliff to tag a checkpoint that’s just out of reach. Prewar structures are tiny and few in number, and if you’ve seen one campground you’ve seen them all.  It’s not bad looking at all, and Zion can be downright picturesque at sunrise or sunset.  Still, one can only do so much to make a cave interesting, and being thorough will send you into many of them.

The difference between 'What is that?' and 'What was that?' is the tommy gun.
The difference between ‘What is that?’ and ‘What was that?’ is the tommy gun.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t good story threads in Zion. An unmarked quest to recover a survivalist’s supply caches leads you to journal entries dating back to the time of the war. These explain most of the gaps in Zion’s history, and run the emotional gamut from grim to touching to chilling. As for Graham and Daniel, the two men are both haunted by their pasts, and it shows in their decisions: Graham seeks peace through force, whereas Daniel fears for meddling in both tribes’ development. They’re complex characters, capably acted and written, and each with their own conversational nuances. One of the expedition guards has some tales of her own to tell, and Follows-Chalk, a tribal follower, shows a curiosity in the outside world in spite of his isolated upbringing. Hearts has epilogues for the plot and its main characters, and the decisions you make, though relatively few, are reflected logically in their eventual outcomes.

As far as difficulty is concerned, Hearts is fairly approachable and scales to a wide range of levels. The entry point is north of the Strip, so just getting there will give you a large chunk of the skills you’ll need. There’s enough experience to give you a hefty boost on the inside, such that my character went in at 14 and came out at 21. You’ll have friendly help most of the time, though White Legs and large critters can dish out the pain quickly and they’ll sometimes strike in numbers. More than once I fast traveled somewhere and wound up with a giant cazador, two scorpions, and a pack of geckos hot my heels, triggering an episode not unlike Bill Paxton’s final scene in Aliens. That said, a thorough search of the park, quests and all, will run about 4-6 hours. You’re able to return at will after you’re done, but NPCs will leave afterwards and any unfinished quests will be lost.

If Dead Money was something completely different, then Honest Hearts is clearly more of the same. That’s more of a compliment than it seems, and as big as New Vegas was, there’s plenty of room for more. Zion’s backstory is perhaps more interesting than the story itself, but there’s enough narrative meat to serve as an appetizer. Exploring Zion is the main course, whether you’re picking through a ranger station for medical supplies or hunting a mythical Yao Guai and turning its claw into a weapon. Again the player is teased with promises of future content, and one wonders if Old World Blues and Lonesome Road can satisfy questions left lingering since New Vegas. Until then, Hearts is an expedition worth joining and a fine addition to the DLC lineup.

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

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