December 7, 2010
Contrarian Corner takes a critical look at recent games, with the intention of encouraging a broader discussion of titles which have been the recipient of either an abundance of single-minded praise, or an undue amount of criticism. If you're interested in joining that discussion, keep reading.
And make sure to read Kristine Steimer's Fallout: New Vegas review for IGN's official thoughts on the game. Be forewarned -- if you haven't finished the game, spoilers will be discussed below.
The war reporter and author David Rieff has said he doesn't believe in history as a "progress narrative." If Rieff is wrong, America is where his hunch has been most disproven over the last 200 years. An emancipation proclamation, an industrial revolution, an urban expansion, labor rights, extended life expectancy and the commoditization of scientific breakthroughs have brought us to a place where the idea of life improving generation after generation is obvious. We've mapped the human genome, have antiretroviral treatments, vaccinate the majority of the world, connect to the internet on cell phones, have minimum wage laws and a 40 hour work-week. Take that 19th Century.
Fallout: New Vegas is an argument against the idea of historical progress. It takes all those prized inventions, community standards, and philanthropies and creates a world where they are unessential. With these technical improvements removed by disaster, it seems the people using them have progressed far less than is sometimes thought. So then, there are two ways of looking at Fallout games: they are either deeply cynical thought experiments about the futility of human civilization or they are affirmations of the value of human life, with or without iPhones.
Fallout games are brilliant because they present those existentially opposite possibilities as equal truths. They offer players bleak settings that nonetheless become so alluring that many spend a hundred or more hours wandering inside them. I had never spent significant time with a Fallout game before New Vegas. I had been reluctant to start it precisely because of this paradox. I didn't want to be compulsively locked in a world of waste with no clear exit. I had played a few hours of Fallout 3 and knew that I didn't want to continue.
It felt like a game of staggering detail, language, performance, and statistical possibility. But it also felt flat and sarcastic. The quest to find Daddy and confront a moral black box over how to use a utopian device that actually won't be so utopian felt cruel, baiting hope for the sake of a dark but irresistibly sarcastic punchline. I realize this is a fantastic short-sale of the game, but after four hours I didn't have the heart to invest myself in something so pithily hopeless.
Two years later the idea of staring into that existential black box didn't seem much more attractive. New Vegas is set in a slightly cheerier wasteland, a blue-skied Nevada and not the ashen gray and bile green of Fallout 3. The Mojave is a wasteland not because of a nuclear detonation but because it is so naturally. The bomb has left patches of radiation and clusters of mutant creatures in the darker nooks, but the scarcity of water, burnt crags, and sandy flatlands wouldn't have been any cheerier without Deathclaws and Rad Scorpions.
The story is one pitched towards selfish activism rather than communal redemption (or the illusion of it). You wake after some grease-haired anachronism in a checkered coat has tried to kill you, stealing a mysterious parcel you'd been paid to deliver. The first half of the game has you rebuilding your supplies and strength while following a long loop around the wasteland that eventually leads to the New Vegas strip, the remnant gash of electricity and hedonism left by the old world. It's an angry and aggressive story, not a hopeful one. The result feels slighter than its predecessor in its opening hours but it's also a more natural fit for the game style. It's hard to start someone off with an urgent, world-threatening quest and then leave them free to ignore the imminent doom while chasing molerats and moving spare parts from A to B.
The main story in New Vegas is really only six quests long. You visit a few towns asking the appointed character where the greasy varmint went, then you get to New Vegas and find him, realize the parcel you had was a key to upgrading the robotic security forces of Vegas at which point you can choose how to use that power. Then there's a big fight on the Hoover Dam and the credits roll. The story poses many of the same moral dilemmas as Fallout 3, but the context is less dire, more character drama than world-shaping mythology.
"Can be reduced to the inane struggle to keep an enemy in the center of the screen while you both take turns whiffing at one another."
The gameplay system is a disjunctive network of overlapping lists, stats, statuses, items, quest information, character notes, curiosities, and upgrades. It's nearly inscrutable in the beginning but after 10-20 hours the most obscure corners of the system will be at least functional, if not entirely clear. It took me over 50 hours to reach my ending and I managed to not upgrade a single weapon. It took me five hours to realize that active quests could be toggled on and off in the voluminous quest log, automatically changing the markers on the game's map. I'm still not sure what sorts of ammo my Plasma Rifle was using, but I know that I could create more by finding an ammo station and transforming one strange thing into another. In the early hours I got a leftover journal from a character and searched in vain through my Items menu hoping to read it. It was nowhere to be found in the sub-categories of Apparel, Weapons, Aid, or Miscellaneous. Only 20 hours later did I realize that these non-essential character flourishes were stored in the Data section under the Notes sub-category.
Combat is no more slippery, though its consequences are more immediate. Enemies all have a health bar the same size, though the rate it will be depleted by your various weapons depends on myriad factors, most of which are folded into sub-menus. Combat is a two step-process that involves first discovering a threatening creature, then deciding whether or not to fight it. All fights play out nearly identically, though the numbers being crunched in the processor are different every time. When an enemy is aware that you're near it bull-rushes, with different enemy types have different speeds of bull-rush. The only real response is to run frantically backwards while shooting, hoping there aren't any fences or big rocks waiting behind you. If prefer to use melee weapons to projectiles, you can move forward tentatively, hoping to time your attack animation so as to catch the enemy as she passes through your view. This can be reduced to the inane struggle to keep an enemy in the center of the screen while you both take turns whiffing at one another.