Fallout New Vegas had a few bugs, though with the benefit of hindsight it’s difficult to see why that took the gaming world by surprise. Bethesda didn’t become one of the world’s foremost developers on the technical stability of its products, and Obsidian Entertainment is as widely known for releasing unfinished games as its storytelling prowess. Whether you owned an Xbox 360, a PlayStation 3 or a PC, the unification of these two companies promised a perfect storm of creative thinking on the one hand, and a curious inability to polish a product on the other.
Fallout New Vegas: Dead Money, the first of what one can reasonably assume will be a series of downloadable expansions, was an opportunity to tend to the wounds of the faithful. The people who cheerfully entered the Mojave Wasteland only to be greeted with system crashes, outrageous load times, a plummeting frame-rate, invisible partner characters, enemies half-buried in floors and walls, and, in one of the greatest game bugs in history, an old man with a rotating head.
After countless forum rants and two comprehensive patches, almost all of New Vegas’s day-one problems have been addressed, and Dead Money could have given us a pristine taste of the Fallout experience. However, as a piece of downloadable content, Dead Money has more in common with the linear, action-heavy Operation Anchorage than the atmospheric and open Point Lookout, and largely serves to expose more fundamental weaknesses in the series’ formula.
As with all Fallout DLC, Dead Money begins with your character detecting a mysterious radio signal out in the Wasteland. The source of the signal is an abandoned Brotherhood Of Steel bunker, where you are knocked unconscious and taken to the fabled Sierra Madre casino, a building whose grand opening was rudely interrupted by the outbreak of nuclear war.
There is, of course, a mystery to solve, but several obstacles stand in the way: first, there’s the red toxic cloud that blankets huge swathes of the casino and depletes your health; then there’s the Ghost People, neon-eyed psychopaths driven to insanity by the poisonous air; lastly, there’s the collar fitted to your neck, which is programmed to explode a few seconds after coming into range of radio transmitters scattered throughout the world.
These ideas lead to swathes of gameplay that would seem admirably new and creative if Fallout New Vegas were a more robust gameplay experience, but avoiding the cloud, finding transmitters, dealing with the Ghost People, and navigating the casino’s security holograms and bear-traps demands a lightness of touch that the Fallout engine simply can't support.
Of course, that doesn’t notice when you’re exploring the sun-bleached wastes, but in striking out for new territory Dead Money forgets what makes the whole experience work in the first place. The dialogue, story and characters maintain Obsidian’s usual high standards, but the frustrating gameplay makes it difficult to recommend Dead Money with a full heart.
However, the main benefit of Dead Money exists outside of what it does right or wrong. Spend your six pounds and change on this and the level cap is raised to 35, so if you’re on your first playthrough or contemplating a second it will allow you to shape and mould your character further even if you never play it.
For some, that will sound like a ridiculous amount to pay for a few more rounds of perks and stat-fiddling. But for those who have felt the sweet embrace of Fallout addiction – and I can proudly count myself among them – the militaristic drum roll that signals the arrival of each new level is like a Pavlovian trigger. It’s why we play in the first place, and five more of those will do very nicely, thank you very much.
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