Playing Fallout: New Vegas, Part I: A Long-Winded Introduction

This post really got away from me. I ended up writing it on and off over the course of a week, and it turned into a gargantuan ramble far bigger than anything I’ve ever put up on this blog. To that end I’m going to be dividing it into three chunks and release each part over the next few days. Today’s installment, naturally, is a giant introduction to the Fallout franchise as a whole and to the premise of New Vegas.

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It’s something of a minor miracle that Fallout: New Vegas even exists. The original Fallout (1997) and its sequel (1998) were landmark titles in the world of computer role-playing games, but even they weren’t enough to save their publisher, Interplay Entertainment, from its own internal problems, and the company finally fell apart in the mid-2000s. The Fallout license wound its way into the hands of Bethesda, who quickly set to work on their own reinterpretation of the franchise. The end result was Fallout 3 in late 2008, a great critical and commercial success that sparked the resurrection of the Fallout franchise in the public consciousness. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, Bethesda began looking for ways to give the world more Fallout, and in mid-2009 they struck up a deal with Obsidian Entertainment, an CRPG developer who had never really worked on a AAA title before, to deliver a spinoff title for Fallout 3 on a tight 18-month timeline. Such a project would be daunting for even a large seasoned developer, but Obsidian had two aces in the hole. Not only was Obsidian staffed by a bunch of devs who had actually made Fallout and Fallout 2 back in the ’90s, they had access to all the old design documents and concepts for “Van Buren”, the original sequel to Fallout 2 that had been shelved in 2003 as Interplay collapsed. Taking those rough Van Buren concepts as a base from which to build, Obsidian managed to get the game, originally named Fallout: Sin City before shifting to the more familiar New Vegas, together and out the door for October 19, 2010.

While critical reaction was generally favorable, a lot of fans who had jumped onto the franchise with Fallout 3 found it difficult to acclimatize themselves to Obsidian’s take on the franchise, while fans of the game had their experience marred by the swarms of bugs that even now a decade’s worth of fan patches have been unable to wholly quash. However, as the years have passed, Fallout 3 seems to have aged the worse of the two, while New Vegas has come to be heralded as a classic on par with the original games, if not exceeding them.

I have been fascinated by New Vegas for years, but it was only this past November that I decided to take the plunge.  That first playthrough ended up taking the better part a month and became one of the greatest experiences I have ever had in gaming. Despite this, I feel like New Vegas will ultimately be the only Fallout game I will play. While in terms of gameplay New Vegas is a wildly successful merger of the first-person CRPG model Bethesda adopted for their Fallout games with the story-and-choice-focused approach of the older games, the premise and story speak to a fundamental change in the setting. New Vegas is a game that is moving the world of Fallout in a new direction, a direction that even New Vegas‘ own developers seem uncertain in following.

***

Before I begin, a few words are needed about the setting of Fallout. To summarize briefly, Fallout is set in an alternate history where the world of the 1950s simply kept going, and society, culture, and technology evolved in the way people of that time would have expected. In America there was no Vietnam, no counterculture, no digital revolution; even competition with the Soviet Union seems to have faded away before the turn of the century. It is a world of 9-to-5 fathers in suits and ties, stay-at-home moms in ankle-length dresses, 2.3 kids and a dog in the suburbs. People had cars that looked like battleships and were powered by miniature fusion reactors, personal robots were a common sight in both the home and at work, and conventional arms were complemented with laser pistols and plasma guns. While this idyllic world was able to coast through the last half of the 20th century without hardship, serious problems began to emerge with the new millennium. The culture of conspicuous consumption grew increasingly untenable as the planet’s resources were mined and drained away, and the developed nations of the world began to fight viciously over what was left. By the middle of the 21st century, the United States was wracked with shortages, epidemics, and increasing internal unrest. While Europe tore itself apart over wars in the Middle East, America’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China steadily broke down, with the two powers finally falling into open warfare in 2062. While the Sino-American War started in Alaska over control of the underexploited oil fields, it soon spread across the northern Pacific in a series of conventional campaigns that dragged on for years, with neither side able to deliver a knock-out blow. Finally, on October 23, 2077, the balloon went up. America and China engaged in a mutual exchange of ICBMs, targeting each other’s military, industrial, and population centers. The cities burned, civilization broke down, and the lights went out across planet Earth.

Games and stories set in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a nuclear Third World War are nothing new, but Fallout is unique in being a post-nuclear holocaust setting that was created just as the possibility of mutually-assured destruction was becoming a thing of the past. The initial planning on the first Fallout began sometime in early 1994, years after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and of the Soviet Union itself, so the concept for the game’s setting was pushed in a more fantastical self-critical direction. Whenever a new player sets out into the American wasteland for the first time, what scraps and ruins of the pre-war world exist make it seem like a ridiculous place, full of consumer goods and malfunctioning robots. Digging deeper, the player cannot avoid the conclusion that beneath the gloss and the billboard smiles pre-War America was a deeply sick place. In her hunger for resources she annexed both Mexico and Canada; the intro movie for the very first Fallout contains jovial newsreel footage of two GIs in power armor waving to the camera as they gun down Canadian insurgents. Many of the creatures you encounter in the wasteland, from the giant ants and scorpions to the armies of Super Mutants were the result of pre-War bioengineering projects. A callousness was growing in the hearts of America’s leaders towards their fellow citizens; people were routinely jailed for seditious tendencies and made the subjects of grotesque scientific experiments. The famed Vaults, originally intended as a network of bunkers and shelters to protect American citizens from the worst of a nuclear war, were quietly reworked into a set of surreal and sadistic sociological experiments that tormented and tortured their captives for decades after the war to gather data for long-dead scientists. The remnants of the pre-War federal government even make their appearance in Fallout 2 as the villainous “Enclave”, a cadre of isolated fanatics of whom little is worth redeeming. Sadly, a quick thumb-through the various CIA and DoD documents released to the public over the years on matters of medical experimentation, biological warfare testing, and suppression of the effects of fallout from nuclear testing shows that the grotesqueries of Fallout‘s America differ from those of the historical America only in scale rather than in kind.

The attitude of the Fallout franchise towards pre-war America has shifted over the years, particularly since Bethesda gained control of the license. While the first two games published by Interplay (Tactics and Brotherhood of Steel are weird pseudo-spinoffs whose canonicity is disputed, so I won’t be discussing them at all) tended to take the position that pre-War America was an awful place that is better off dead and buried, the newer games are more willing to play the nostalgia for the pre-War world straight and sand away the more disagreeable elements. Fallout 4 (2015) even has you play as someone from pre-War America who saw the bombs fall, then was cryogenically frozen in a Vault and decanted centuries later for fun adventures in the ruins of Boston. Part of what makes New Vegas remarkable is that rather trying to downplay the contradictions, Obsidian is willing to acknowledge them. While New Vegas still takes a fairly dim view of the legacy of pre-War America, but the game looks beyond that, to the question of what should be taken from history and what be left behind, posits various potential answers, and lets them play out across the wasteland.

***

Fallout: New Vegas begins in 2281, just over two centuries after the Great Atomic War, and concerns itself with the fate of the Mojave Wasteland, a parcel of desert that in better days was known as the southern tip of Nevada (with a tiny scrap of California thrown in for good measure). By a rare stroke of fortune the Mojave was less damaged by the war than the rest of the continental United States, so civilized live “merely” reverted to a smaller scale after the bombs rather than lapsing fully into barbarism. While the region is dominated by the city of New Vegas – which is just the old Las Vegas, albeit crumblier – the Mojave is mostly a place of small towns and self-sustaining communities, not unlike the Old West before the railroads.

Sadly, the relative peace of the wasteland has been shattered in recent years, as new foreign powers have come calling, looking to claim the twin prizes of New Vegas and Hoover Dam, whose unimaginable bulk still spans the Colorado River. From the west comes the New California Republic, a old mainstay of the Fallout franchise. Fans of Interplay’s Fallout titles will already be familiar with the NCR, having seen it evolve over the course of decades from the postwar town of Shady Sands in the first Fallout to a coalition of settlements in Fallout 2. By the time of Fallout: New Vegas the NCR has become a fully-fledged nation-state, complete with a massive standing army, precocious bureaucratization of all essential functions, and a leadership of vested power interests who spend much of their time operating at cross-purposes. To the east, from the depths of Arizona comes Caesar’s Legion. Commanded by a purportedly semi-divine warlord known only as Caesar, the Legion has become the terror of the old Southwest, having forcibly incorporated 87 wasteland tribes into its ranks over the past few decades and exterminated countless others. More a roving army with settlements attached than a proper nation, the Legion looks to ancient Rome as its model. Legionnaires eschew the high technology of the pre-War world, prefer to fight at short range with blades, speak a mix of English and classical Latin, and indulge in the most appalling cruelties against those who oppose them. The NCR and Legion met in battle in 2277 at Hoover Dam, and while superior NCR weapons and tactics were able to halt the Legion’s advance, they were not enough to force the Legion into a full retreat. The Mojave has settled into an uncomfortable stalemate over the past four years, as both sides glare at each other across the Colorado. The NCR has been drawn into an costly, uneasy occupation of the Mojave, a project further complicated by the figure of “Mr. House”. While no one in the Mojave has ever seen Mr. House in the flesh, he is a minor power in his own right, commanding the loyalty of the tribes who operate the casinos of the New Vegas Strip along an army of well-armed robotic Securitrons answerable only to him. While House has been willing to work with the NCR and negotiated several treaties with them, it is patently clear that he has an agenda of his own. Meanwhile, on the east bank of the Colorado the Legion tests the NCR with raids into the Mojave while gathering their own forces. Everyone knows a showdown over the dam is coming; the only question is when.

And where do you fit into all this? You are Courier Six, contracted by the Mojave Express to deliver an unusual package – an oversized metallic poker chip dubbed “the Platinum Chip” – from the NCR to the Lucky 38, a casino on the New Vegas Strip that has not opened its doors since before the Great War. While your travels through the NCR were without incident, you came to grief in the Mojave, when you were ambushed by a gang of thugs led by Benny (Matthew Perry), a smooth-talker in a checkered suit, just outside the town of Goodsprings. In short order you were relieved of the Platinum Chip, shot twice in the head, and buried in a shallow grave. Fortunately, a passing Securitron named Victor (William Sadler) dug you out and carted your off to Doc Mitchell (Michael Hogan), the local sawbones. You come to on October 19, 2281, and after a brief checkup that serves as the game’s character creation phase, you are given an old Vault suit, a second-hand Pip-Boy wrist computer, a weapon and some stimpacks for healing, and are sent out into the world.

***

While the Fallout games published by Bethesda have tended to focus more on the loop of exploring new locations in the world, gathering resources, and upgrading your weapons and armor to repeat the process, both the original Fallouts and New Vegas are built around the idea of telling a story and affecting it with the character you create. The game world of the Mojave is built to reinforce this. At the beginning of the game, your primary goal is to find Chandler Bing, show him that he shot the wroooooong fuckin’ mailman, recover the Platinum Chip, and deliver it to the Lucky 38. The player is given Vegas as the ultimate destination, which from Goodsprings is just a short hop north along the old I-15. However, that short path is blocked by a quarry full of reptilian murderbeasts called “deathclaws”, while the various side roads have their own varieties of nasty animal and human enemies. Therefore, a new player will usually end up following Benny’s trail in a great counter-clockwise circle across the southern Mojave, picking up clues in each new settlement you visit. In these opening hours New Vegas feels the most like a Western as you roll into town and become embroiled in a little stock cowboy movie plot as you search for information. In Goodsprings you can learn of a fugitive the town is sheltering from a gang of desperadoes in an abandoned gas station, and you can choose to enlist the townspeople’s help in repelling them, do it alone, or lead the desperadoes right to their quarry. Further south in Primm, you get involved in the selection of a new sheriff for the town, while in Novac you can choose to help a group of pilgrims set out on a voyage to a new home. The pilgrims may be radiation-damaged “ghouls” and their covered wagons may be rocket ships, but the story remains the same. The overall purpose of this great sojourn is to slowly immerse the player into New Vegas, to get them to understand how to play the game and the different ways quests can be performed and completed. Additionally, the journey serves to introduce the major factions and conflicts of the game, showing the effects of the conflicts on the Mojave before giving the player to the leaders and major decision-makers. By the time you arrive at the gates of Vegas, you will have seen and done enough that you will know how you want play New Vegas and shape the story.

(All this said, it is actually entirely possible to skip this entire act of the story and get yourself onto the New Vegas Strip at level 1. It’s a difficult process that involves a lot of sneaking, some good fortune in finding crucial stealth equipment, a pinch of stolen valor, and a mountain of quicksaves, but it is entirely doable.)

No matter your choices, you will end up on the New Vegas Strip, dispose of Benny, recover the Platinum Chip, and deliver it to the Lucky 38 casino. With this, the real story of Fallout: New Vegas begins: the preparations for the Second Battle of Hoover Dam. You become a free agent, courted by the three great powers in the region: the NCR, Caesar’s Legion, and Mr. House. You can work for anyone or no one, make and break alliances, help the minor groups of the Mojave or drive them to extinction. The world is opened up for you to explore and shape as you see fit.

Next time: the major players of Fallout: New Vegas and their effect on the wasteland.

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