Spare a though for Fallout: New Vegas. Released in a sorry state in October last year, the talented veterans at Obsidian Entertainment shouldered a good deal of the blame for something that was probably foisted upon them from above. The studio’s fine writing, strong characterisation, and compelling tweaks to Fallout 3’s gameplay systems got lost in a sea of complaints and frustration. Now Bethesda has announced Skyrim, adding the comparatively archaic Gamebryo engine to the game’s many black marks.
The remaining three New Vegas DLC episodes are a dubious prospect, and understandably so. The first instalment, Dead Money, focused on linearity, traps, sneaking around, and other areas that Fallout isn’t particularly good at, but Honest Hearts sees Obsidian in a more generous mood. This is more Point Lookout than Operation Anchorage, and that sense of having a new landscape to prod, poke and explore gives Honest Hearts an inherent appeal.
The landscape in question is the winding canyons of Zion National Park in Utah, probably the most conventionally beautiful environment in Fallout’s history. There are trees and plants, flowing streams of fresh, clean water, and tribal paintings decorating the boulders and rock-faces.
The sanctity of this unspoiled paradise is the basis of the story. Zion’s indigenous tribes are at war: the barbaric White Legs clan are terrorising Zion’s other tribes, the Dead Horses and the Sorrows. Whether the valley’s more peaceful residents stand and fight or abandon their home will be dictated by your actions. On the one hand you will defy the wishes of Daniel, a missionary keen on avoiding bloodshed; on the other, you will raise the ire of the Burned Man, the mysterious figure whose very name left Caesar’s men dumbstruck with fear in New Vegas.
So, the premise is strong, the landscape is beautiful, but Honest Hearts falls short of the complete experience offered by Point Lookout. In part, it’s simply a matter of size: Point Lookout had more missions, its map was larger, its locations more substantial and gratifying to explore. It felt like an expansion pack, rather than a few more hours of gameplay.
Regardless of how splendid it looks, Zion National Park feels empty. There are precious few characters to interact with outside of those listed above, and I often spent several minutes finding a route through the undulating terrain to reach a new location, only to discover that it was another lookout point or abandoned campsite. This is exacerbated by a lack of variety in the enemies: beyond the White Legs, there is only one new threat to your safety – an admittedly cool mutant plant – though Obsidian does draft in Fallout 3’s fearsome, bear-like Yao Guai to make up the numbers.
The mission design is also underwhelming. I’m not the sort of gamer to take note of the number of fetch quests being thrown my way, but at one point it felt like I was being given nothing but. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a fetch quest if it’s elaborately disguised, but Honest Hearts rarely makes the effort. If you’re a longstanding RPG player, the moment when a character looks you squarely in the eye and asks you to find three lunchboxes can be surprisingly hard to take. Honest Hearts will test your resolve.
If you’re going to take a vertical slice of Fallout it had better be nice and thick, but Honest Hearts only offers the illusion of scale. The thrill of delving into unknown territory is still there, and Obsidian is shrewd enough to know that a pretty face can carry the experience further still, but the fact is that Honest Hearts doesn’t reward your effort until its final moments. Like all Fallout releases, there are choices to be made, and in this case you get a choice that calls back to the events of New Vegas in a gratifying way. It is worth seven pounds of your money, but only just.
The question from this moment on is that, as we see more of Skyrim and the new engine that will power Bethesda’s games for the next few years, how will that affect our tolerance of the chunky graphics, dead-eyed NPCs and weightless movement of the now? A bright new future is only months away, and if Bethesda expect people to pay for the past it needs to do better than Honest Hearts.