In many ways, Dead Money is just like the core gameplay experience on offer in Fallout: New Vegas. It has moments of inspired, whimsical genius and moments of deep frustration. What it does manage, and this is important for a game which was noted as being so similar to its predecessor, is the creation of new ways to play.
As with the DLC packs available for Fallout 3, New Vegas’ first downloadable offering starts its journey with a mysterious radio signal. This one emanates from an abandoned bunker that was once inhabited by the Brotherhood of Steel. Naturally, you will want to investigate.
As is so often the case in Bethesda’s apocalyptic landscape, you should expect the unexpected as you’ll soon find yourself pitched into the Sierra Madre resort. This place is a desert legend by now, a luxury casino resort that never quite made it to its grand opening, due to the nuclear war, and now exists amid a choking red mist and an equally thick cloud of rumour and myth. Of course, you’re going inside.
You’re pushed into your missions by Father Elijah, a stern old chap who doesn’t seem keen on engaging in a free and equal discourse. You’ll do what you’re told and be quick about it.
In your way are the Ghost People, a breed who were caught in the toxic red mist and have slowly been driven mad by it, worshipping the projected entertainers and sharpening their arsenal of weaponry while they wait for a do-gooding young explorer to come calling. And call you will because the good Father has seen fit to put a slave collar around your neck. Right before he took all of your equipment. He doesn’t like to make things too easy, Father Elijah.
Before you begin your mission you have to assemble a team by finding three fellow prisoners and convincing them that helping you is better than having their heads caved in with an old piece of crumbling casino. Of course, this band of willing (or not) accomplices is a diverse bunch too.
You recruit a debonair Ghoul, a schizophrenic Super Mutant and a mute woman with a hint of mystery surrounding her. They have their own enslaving items of neck jewellery too and their collars are linked to your own. One blows and they’ll all go. So teamwork isn’t so much a friendly suggestion as an explosive necessity. You’re taken through the new missions in chunks, each one guided by a different member of your new team. In this way, you’ll feel like your team exists outside of the single-companion limits set by the game.
Your goal is to gain access to the Sierra Madre and recover its treasures. You’ll get to know your new friends along the way and there will be one or two interesting twists to keep you engaged throughout the five or six hours of new gameplay.
The new mechanics are interesting, your collar reacts to radio waves that can come from the little sets that litter the landscape but can also beam out of the casino’s own loudspeaker system. Get too close and your collar becomes unstable (it beeps incessantly for a while first) and blows your head to pieces. So the game becomes about avoiding these fields of danger (think of them as minefields to which your bring your own explosives) or disrupting them. Some speakers can be destroyed from distance but some are indestructible.
You will also have to contend with that asphyxiating red mist too. It is comparable to the radiation hot spots that can be found around the usual game world but there is a little more to it than that. It rapidly depletes your health when you’re in the midst of it but if you can manage to collect a sample you can craft it into some potent toxins to use as weapons or a handy cocktail to boost your stats for a while.
The self-contained economy of the Madre is also a little skewed in comparison to what we’re used to in the rest of New Vegas, giving more value to some previously throw-away items like cigarettes and springtime clothing. This subtle difference really helps to set this area apart from the world fans of New Vegas will be used to. Of course, it’s still practically the same world, its even very similar to the Fallout 3 world, but there are small differences. Attention to detail has always been one of Bethesda’s strong suits and Dead Money doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
Unfortunately, the new gameplay mechanics can become repetitive after a while and you might find yourself wishing that the map was a little simpler to navigate or the timings weren’t so tight on your slave collar. There are only so many times you can race to destroy a speaker, preventing your cranial explosion, before it becomes tedious. If avoiding an exploding head could ever be described as tedious.
As with almost every entry in this universe, the narrative is fantastic. There is so much depth to the back story that the die hard fans will adore it. In order to get the most out of the revelations and plot twists you really will need to explore and pay attention – adding a few more hours of play time to the content. Of course, you could rush through things and wrap it up quickly but if you’re considering spending your cash on this DLC then you’re probably well aware that playing Fallout that way is almost pointless. This is a game, and a DLC pack, that is intended to be savoured slowly and thoughtfully.
The new ways you’re forced to play through areas are smart and, for the most part, well managed. Your new friends are all interesting, in varying degrees, and have plenty of back story to learn about. The new landscape is like a complex character in itself too, the Sierra Madre has a lot of mystery surrounding it that will be a genuine pleasure to uncover.[boxout]While there are one or two minor irritations in this DLC, it’s difficult to imagine how they could have improved upon the core game play experience in any way which would have had a meaningful effect on the hardcore fans of the series. The timed stealth sections might infuriate and the repetitive nature of some aspects of the new mechanics (the collar and radio interplay) will probably cause some frustration but if you embrace it rather than resist the change to what you’re used to in the Fallout universe then you might just find a new angle from which to enjoy this complex and characterful universe.