Better Living Through Lobotomy
Much of Fallout‘s peculiar style comes from its tongue-in-cheek treatment of SCIENCE! – yes, the allcaps-exclamation is an important distinction – as imagined through the lens of nuclear age wonder and Cold War paranoia. Old World Blues, the latest Fallout New Vegas DLC, doesn’t so much as run with this concept as drags it into a rocket pointed at Mars. Although dialogue is somewhat bloated, Blues‘ rampant craziness is a welcome change of pace from the gravely serious Dead Money and Honest Hearts. And if that’s not enough for you, then know that this is still a fun, well-balanced adventure with more ground to cover than any Fallout DLC to date.
Blues offers considerable additions, but the base New Vegas gameplay is unchanged and story contributions are largely supplemental. Thus, this will not be scored independent of New Vegas.
As DLC so often does, Blues starts with a radio signal drawing you to a new location, in this case a drive-in theater containing a crashed satellite. Fiddling with the satellite gives you a warning prompt, and answering ‘yes’ whisks you away to the Big Empty: a crumbling but functional prewar research complex. The surviving scientists have somehow continued to perform their bizarre experiments, unhindered by the robotic constructs that now house their brains. In case the surgical gown you woke up wearing isn’t enough of a clue, you’re the latest victim of this Think Tank’s experiments. Mere minutes into an explanation, Dr. Mobius, a rival scientist also hooked up to a machine, appears on screen to taunt the Think Tank and threaten them with death by robotic scorpions. The cherry on top of this lunatic sundae is that several fairly important body parts were removed from you, replaced with tech that has its benefits but forces you into compliance. By accident Mobius wound up with one particularly important part, and getting it back means scavenging Old World tech to break into his Forbidden Zone and deal with him.
|Truly, the vanguard of the scientific community stands before me. Well, floats, anyway.|
While amusing, the zany premise isn’t the content’s real selling point. Blues‘ strength lies in its massive additions, starting with a wide selection of new weapons. From throwing axes that explode to a heavy machine gun that houses a canine brain, there’s something for pretty much every combat build. A neat sonic pistol even deals different special effects based on the sound sample it’s loaded with. The level cap is again boosted by five, giving maxed-out characters a couple more cracks at scoring new perks. Quest perks and implants are useful in unique ways, ranging from poison immunity to auto-filtering of radiated drinks to a faster sneaking speed. Crafting recipes have been expanded, one of which finally gives a use for all those ruined books lying around. Blues even adds more optional traits, along with a one-time chance to respec them. Skilled is a personal favorite, boosting all skills by five at a small experience penalty.
There’s no shortage of stuff to test the new hardware on. As mentioned, Mobius has an army of robo-scorpions that periodically hound you, deploying in progressively larger sizes and striking with tail-mounted lasers. Humanoid threats consist of the Think Tank’s failed experiments, mindless Lobotomites who attack whatever they see with whatever they find. Less common but more dangerous are autonomous trauma harnesses, which can be described literally as the walking dead with energy weapons. You’ll periodically run into more familiar faces, from nightstalkers to securitrons to the ever-popular cazadors. Unique variants of each critter serve as boss encounters, all dangerous and most optional; a massive bloatfly, of all creatures, can basically one-shot you if you aren’t built like a tank or extremely careful. The content recommends a minimum level of 15 before going in, and although your gear isn’t stripped it’s wise to take the warning seriously. When something hits, it hits hard.
Balancing things back in your favor is The Sink, an upgradeable home base of sorts within the main facility. The Sink’s equipment and appliances are all AI-controlled, requiring that you find and activate their subroutines one-by-one; a main quest helpfully tracks everything you’ll need. Oddly enough the units have their own quirky personalities, and you’ll get time to grill each one. “Watch out for the toaster,” croaks the archetypical bluesman voicing the jukebox, “that boy’s got issues.” Each unit has practical purposes, too. A biological research station sets up a hassle-free garden for harvestable crops, an auto-doc provides medical services, the light switches grant temporary stat boosts, and so on. There’s even a tiny securitron who has been hard-wired to hoard and break down coffee cups and dinner plates, dispensing the component materials to you. In tragi-comedic fashion, poor Muggy is forced to enjoy this despite being aware of how insane it sounds on paper.
|Man’s best friend, now in gun form.|
The Think Tank warns you early on to focus on your tasks and avoid exploring. Disregard this instruction, there’s plenty to see and do out there. Searching ruined facilities is rewarding in several ways, and early on there’s a nice sense of progression tied to your sonic pistol. Many locations have internal shields blocking certain paths, and the pistol can only disrupt them after it’s been upgraded. Two of the three places you’re required to visit have training courses, and these have optional components. A plot-critical (and talkative) stealth suit can gain cumulative improvements if you clear higher difficulties on a related sneaking test. Tangible rewards aside, there’s a lot of information that ties Blues to the rest of the Fallout universe, such as an explanation for how the Sierra Madre from Dead Money ended up in its present state.
It’s only fair to mention that Blues, while consistent in visual style, isn’t always that interesting to look at. The Empty’s mini-wasteland has a few regional distinctions but is mostly lifeless grey dotted with fancy industrial junk. Some facilities are just copy-pasted holdovers from Fallout 3, less notable for what they are than the goodies they contain. A few locales do make the effort to stand out, such as a former settlement for the Think Tank that’s eerily reminiscent of Tranquility Lane. Each of their houses has clever little touches, like a picture of RobCo’s Robert House that’s been stabbed a few times. There’s good internal consistency too, as records speak of a Chinese internment camp, an artillery test zone, and other locations you can actually find in the Empty. Still, sightseeing isn’t quite the draw it was back in the Mojave.
Audio makes a much stronger showing, with each actor serving up a slice or two of SCIENCE!-themed ham. Members of the Think Tank all have distinct personalities: Dr. Klein is a bombastic imbecile, Dr. Borous’ latent cruelty stems from being bulled as a kid, Dr. 8 speaks in code but can be understood with high science or perception, and Dr. Dala has a downright voyeuristic interest in basic human functions. No, not those, even more basic. Dr. 0 gets an unexpected boost from actor James Urbaniak, perhaps best known as Rusty Venture from the Venture Brothers, and he plays pretty much the same character here with hilarious results. Audio logs contain recordings from Ulysses, the mysterious courier originally slated to deliver the platinum chip. His words are brief, but intriguing and well delivered. The radio signal bringing you to the Empty is a few catchy jazz songs on a loop, well suited for exploration purposes, and the signal stays even after you clear the content.
|WHO ELSE WANTS SOME?!|
The plot works fine when it stays locked on the core conflict between the Think Tank and Mobius. Dialogue is ridiculous, absurd, and often laugh-out-loud funny, and catching up to Mobius leads to one of the most surreal and memorable conversations in Fallout history. Digging into the respective histories of the Think Tank is fascinating, and at times you can see glimmers of humanity past the monitors and biogel. There’s an attempt at a larger message about focusing too much on the old world, hence the title, but it feels underdeveloped and out-of-place alongside battling a laser-shooting scorpion tank with a gun that barks. The Think Tank rambles a bit at the start, spending too much precious time being shocked that one of their experiments can talk. Epilogues are similarly wordy and it’s hard to argue that separate slides for the testing facilities were at all necessary. Technically issues were few, but noteworthy: apart from periodic crashes, I saw enemies literally spawn in front of me and ran into an annoying endless dialogue loop shortly after dealing with Mobius. The latter was avoidable, but also repeatable.
That said, focusing on these minor issues doesn’t give Blues enough credit. Even if you stick to what’s on your quest log you can still lose a lot of time in the Empty, and clearing the whole thing can run the clock past the ten hour mark. Enemies provide real challenges at all levels and the diversity of new goodies ensures you’ll find something fun to play with. Clearing the content lets you swap your old body parts back in, and there are associated perks for doing this or for keeping the tech on the inside. You also gain a handy teleporter device that can bring you back from any outdoor location in the Mojave, provided you’re not in combat. Some of this stuff might be considered game breaking, but considering Dead Money lets you singlehandedly dominate the economy and Honest Hearts just hands you powerful and unique items on the way out, there’s no harm in letting Blues take its turn. Speaking personally, I’d argue that’s part of the fun.
As Point Lookout was for Fallout 3, so is Old World Blues for New Vegas, in fact Blues is stuffed even further with things to do. Spend time at a gene splicing station to combine various critters into unholy scientific abominations. Hunt down recipes to craft your own (limited supply of) skill books. Convince Dr. 0 of the mathematical power of his namesake. As someone who cut his role-playing teeth on Wasteland, the subtle references to Fallout‘s spiritual predecessor made me giggle with positively girlish glee. Unless you object to DLC on principle you’re bound to find something to like here, be it the nonsensical plot or the Big Empty itself. It’s up in the air whether Lonesome Road can deliver on the long build-up between the Courier and Ulysses, but until then just get in there and smack some stuff around. Do it with SCIENCE! Do it for SCIENCE!