January 8, 2011

Why I hate "Fallout: New Vegas"

SPOILER WARNING: This article is entirely full of spoilers. If you're going to play Fallout: New Vegas (and gord have pity on your soul if you do) you may not want to read this.

I wanted to love Fallout: New Vegas. I loved the original Fallout, and Fallout 3. I didn't much like Fallout 2, which, in what may or may not be a coincidence, happens have the same designer as New Vegas, and share a lot of the same problems.

New Vegas tries to be way too big, so you end up in a world that's physically huge but emotionally totally empty. Each town you encounter after the first doesn't feel like it has any heart; it's too easy to see the characters as cardboard standees with word balloons over their heads. There's no there there.

Let's start with the setups for the games:

In Fallout (original) you've grown up in a vault that's just lost its ability to make clean water; everyone you've ever cared about is in a tiny world that's going to die in 100 days if you don't venture into the great unknown and somehow save them. That's a hook. That's a HELL of a good hook.

In Fallout 3 you watch as you are born, and your dad, voiced by Liam Neeson, raises you. When he disappears from your vault you go after him and discover he's on a mission that might just save the world. Again, hell of a hook, and with Liam Neeson as your dad you're emotionally invested from the first moment.

In New Vegas you start the game as a delivery boy, and you watch as some dandy-cowboy dude shoots you in the head. Then you wake up and a friendly doctor (incredibly well-voiced by the XO from Battlestar, and one of only three characters I actually liked) patches you up. And, then, uh... you... kind of... wander around.

Sure, there's a note in your quest log that says, "Go kill the guy who shot you in the head." Frankly, I didn't much want to. I mean, he's already shot me in the head once. This just isn't a great hook. Think of it as a movie pitch. "He's a delivery boy, and he's about to deliver something to the man who shot him: Revenge." Meh. Wouldn't rent it.

So I wander around town, which is full of relatively well-meaning people. The first thing I'm struck by is that I don't give a shit about any of the characters in the town, and they all have really filthy homes. This is kind of odd, because Vegas was supposedly mostly shielded from bombs during the war, so all the structures are intact. But the beds are all filthy and torn up, the floors are covered in tattered carpets, and people have left frames on their walls where the painting have been ripped out. I'm like, Jebus, guys, it's been 200 years since the war, could you have picked up the place a bit? Who leaves ripped-up art on their walls? Don't you have a town dump? Even cavemen cleaned up after themselves.

But it's good I didn't get too attached to this town, because once I did the handful of quests there, there wasn't any reason to ever go back except to slurp down their pure, pure water. In fact none of the towns really connect with each other; New Vegas is like playing a series of Fallout mini-games in this way. There's no missions linking towns together, or shared characters except the followers you find on the way. ("Collect 'em all! Because having an abundance of followers makes up for most of them being one-trick ponies!")

A bad "powder-ganger" dude comes into the bar of the first town and threatens the nice townsfolk, so I step outside and put a bullet in his skull. No! Bad dog! The townfolk instantly vilify me for my heinous crime of defending them! I reload the game and talk some more to the bartender, she tells me to go talk to some other dude the powder-ganger wants dead, and he says, hey, can you help me, and I'm all yes, sure, in fact I've already tried but got in trouble, and he's all, ok, you'll need help to stand up to the mean powder-ganger and his crew, see if you can convince everyone else in town to make a big stand with you, and I'm all, you know what, if you assholes would have let me put a bullet in his head when he was alone this wouldn't be a problem, but fine.

So I do it the game's way, and we have a big messy fight and the townsfolk get shot up, but I win. This is a running theme in New Vegas: they've gone to so much trouble to make it so you can play as either good or bad that they haven't made either experience complete. You do quests by the numbers, and gord-help-you if you try to wander off the beaten path.

For instance, later in the game there's an idle mention of bomber on the floor of a giant lake. I'm all, "Wow, cool!" I swim around the lake for like an hour looking for stuff, there's a sunken tubboat, but you can do absolutely nothing with it, and there's a giant underground cave, but you suffocate if you try to explore too far into it.

Finally I find the sunken bomber. Wow! This'll be fun! Except there's nothing you can do with it. Why did the game drop the hint? I hadn't learned the lesson yet: hints in this game mean nothing. Follow the quests or the notes, or nothing interesting will happen.

Much later I met a colony of people who love flying, they ask me to help the raise the bomber. Which is a cool idea... but why couldn't the bomber itself have had a link to this mission? There's absolutely no reward for exploring in this game, because if you stumble across something that'll be used in a later mission, they never give you a forward-link to the mission. And the underwater cave? The fliers give me a rebreather so I can explore it – turns out it contains absolutely nothing. "Hah! Wasted your time!" says the game.

The doc at the beginning of the game acts all sad, and if you ask him what he's lost, he won't tell you. I figured this is a mystery, and I'm supposed to get clues throughout the game to try to make him happy and repay him for everything he does for me. That'd be a great thing to include in a game, and would really draw me into my character! Unfortunately, it wasn't in New Vegas. So, your punishment for talking to the Doc about his problems is that you think there's a quest but there isn't. You quickly learn to ignore characters when they talk. There's no quests for you, the designers just like to yak and yak and yak and yak. Just click through the text and then check your quest log for where to go. There's no thinking for you to do.

Another example: I wander around an office building I find, which has basically three stories of nothing going on. I mean, there's some robots to kill, but other than that, no purpose. Sure, I can read e-mails from workers to each other about who ate the cake that was for Betty's birthday and what company was buying which 200 years ago, and I can rifle through every damn cabinet picking up five or six "caps" (dollars) at a time and scrounging for crap to sell, but that's it.

Finally I get to the top floor. I'm expecting something cool, and I find it – my first contact with the Brotherhood of Steel! Two fallen soldiers' corpses are on the floor. So powerful! Their armor is so shiny! Except, well, I can't wear their armor yet (no training), the tape that's on their body means nothing to me, and there's (sing it with me) no forward pointer to the mission where you actually need to find these guys. Again, you're punished for exploring on your own.

Much later in the game I come across the Brotherhood of Steel through the almighty quest tree, and they ask me to find their soldiers. I quit the conversation, then start it again, and they're like, "Oh, you found them! Great!" I'm like, yah, I'm just that quick. It's sloppy and it pops me out of the game. How hard would it have been to have the soldiers's corpses lead you to the Brotherhood, so you feel like you're exploring? How hard would it have been for the conversations to detect when you've already fulfilled missions they just gave you, so I could say things like, "Oh, I already stumbled across those guys, here's their tape."

Another problem is the whole game can be played on auto-pilot. The tape you get from the Brotherhood contains a password, which, when you first read it, you think you'll have to use cleverly at the right time. But, as it happens, I found the Brotherhood's hidden lair on my own before the quest-tree told me to, and there was no way for me to use the password I'd discovered. Later, when the quest-tree said to go there, suddenly I had a new option to use the password – but I didn't have to actually read the note I found on the soldier, it was just entered automatically.

This kind of design pervades the game, and the end-result is you quickly get trained to not actually read the notes and clues you get, because you know if you just stumble around and click on everything, the game will fill in all the info you're supposed to know. This is exacerbated by the games extreme talkiness – everyone wants to tell you their boring-ass life stories, and every building you enter has a zillion e-mails detailing the incredibly boring and irrelevant lives of the people who lived there. This isn't archeology, guys. It's supposed to be a game. The problem is there's no real reward for reading all this crap, but you still have to page through it to make sure your quest and notes logs get loaded up so you can actually progress in the game.

Now, look, I'm no game designer, but here's how I think a game should work: present a problem. Allow me to try to solve problem. Watch as I fail, present clues to solving the problem. If I apply the clues, I succeed!

Here's how New Vegas works: give you a quest. Put a marker on your map exactly where the quest can be solved. When you go there, your character will automatically present whatever is there with whatever information you needed to present to them. Quest solved. When you solve all the quests, wander to the next area. A bunch of whiners give you more quests. Repeat.

New Vegas populates the game with two types of NPC's – those with something to say and those with nothing to say. There's no good way to distinguish them at a distance, and, worse, the mini-map doesn't label the NPCs with names or anything crazy like that, so if you want to go back to a particular guy who gave you a quest you end up doing a lot of wandering around (each area tends to be HUGE and the uninteresting people outnumber the interesting ones about eight to one). Trying to remember that guy who had weapons for sale? Good luck, unless he happens to be the very next guy you need to speak to on a quest you have. Because then (and only then) you get a map marker.

The map markers are especially annoying – again, they train helplessness into you. There's no point in exploring, because the map marker is telling you where you need to go (exactly), and if you get there and can't complete the quest, the marker will update itself to where you need to go to remedy the problem. And if you DO explore, well, you're just going to waste your time, because there's no provision for just finding stuff and then figuring out what to do with it. Unless you like reading old office e-mails or scrounging for coffee cups. There's lots of those. That's fun, right? Right?

Meanwhile, you really can't find people any other way, because there are hundreds of people in this game, and no provision for finding them. Shopkeepers, quest-givers, people who said interesting things. They all blur together, because there's so many of them, but they're all disposable. If they didn't give you a quest, there's no reason to think of them again. If they did, it'll light up on your map.

See, in a game I'd like to play, maybe someone would say, "Hey, I sure used to enjoy games." And then in some vault or enemy camp I'd find a chess set, and I'd think, gee, someone told me he enjoys games, I'll pick this up and give it to them. They'd be all happy and something neat would happen. Maybe if this were a main plot quest, there'd be hints, where people would say, "Hey, if you make Bob happy, I bet he can hep you find the air-cleaners you need!"

This never happens in New Vegas. If you didn't get a quest, you're not going to be rewarded for trying things out. And if you DID get a quest, well, you've got a pointer on the map telling you exactly where to find the item you want, the dude to kill, the person to talk to, etc, so you don't have to actually SOLVE any problems. Just aim the mouse.

Since you don't have to pay any attention to what the people say, you end up not caring about anyone in the game. You see them as bits and bytes, just setting a flag on your character that allows you to progress. At one point a military officer in a needlessly, insanely huge airport-cum-base says she thinks the supply officer is on the take. This is your cue to search around the INSANELY HUGE base and talk to him, at which point you're allowed to do some quests for him to get better prices on weapons, if you want. It's clear he's a drug-dealing, corrupt sleazeball – but there's no way to actually DO anything about it. You can't go back to the original officer and take him down. Because, you know, nothing the people say actually matters.

He tells you to go do a mission where you meet the guys who still build guns. Now, there may be more missions here if you're playing an evil character, but for me this was an exercise in frustration. "Hey, we've got this amazing factory and we still make amazing things. But we're not particularly fond of you and we have no missions for you of any sort. So, run along."

Some of the items I stumbled over, I found the quest later, and was just pissed the game couldn't have at least given me a quest to figure out what they're for, instead of just ignoring me. But some I never did figure out. There's a child in the game who has an interesting-looking toy gun, and he'll sell it for $1000. What's it for? I don't know. Never found the quest. Found the gun, bought it, but not the quest.

Meanwhile, your character asks questions of people that you would never think to. I walk into a shop, and suddenly my character is all, "Hey, shopkeeper, can you find me an instruction manual for a sex-bot?" I'm all, abitchsayswhat? Where the hell did THAT come from? Turns out I'll need it later as part of my "pimp" quest (I'm not making this up). Yes, in the last game, I was trying to help my father achieve his dream of creating fresh water – in this game I'm trying to kill the guy who shot me and helping people fuck robots.

And then there's quests that are clearly just the game designers yanking you around. Collect an unknown number of sarsaparilla "star" bottlecaps to get some unspecified prize? Could be fun, maybe, except that I played the game for days and did almost every quest and side-quest, and STILL didn't have enough of the special caps to get the prize. Here's a hint, guys: it's not a very exciting prize if I only get it after I've completed the game. I don't care any more. I can't take it into my real life.

It's also not fun doing quests for people of dubious morality. Sure, this may be more like real life, but it isn't "fun." I did several missions for a fascist government agent before she revealed herself by asking me to do something horrible. I'm like, uh, no thanks, and THANK YOU game designers for making me spend all that time on a person who sucked. Worse, I actually liked the faction she represented, I just didn't like her – but there was no working around her, she was in charge, so I had to abandon a group I'd spent most of the game trying to help. Whoopsie! There goes my emotional connection to the game! If this were an exception it'd be interesting, but it's the rule in New Vegas.

The "karma" part of the game is particularly troublesome. Ok, you lose karma whenever you do something bad. Sure, that's a fun mechanic in some games. But you have to be very careful how you implement it.

The second area I visited was a prison that had been overrun by the inmates. I wandered in and shot them all dead. Yay for my team! Then I see there's a collectible sarsaparilla bottlecap on the counter. I'll take that! "YOU LOSE KARMA." Come on. Seriously?

You can't open any of the chests of your enemies, or touch any of their food or ammo – YOU LOSE KARMA. I was wandering along the road and a powder-ganger jumped me – I shot him dead and looted his body. Great! Nearby was his camp. I tried looting it for stuff. I LOSE KARMA.

In general, you can't loot any enemy camp without being considered evil. However, you CAN shoot them all in the head. And loot their bodies. That's totally fine. Again, my suspension of disbelief gets suspended when I try to open a chest that is surrounded by the bloody bodies of its former owners and I get dinged for it.

The game also has a very unfortunate misfeature where it tracks your reputation with every group, including the ones you hate. Sure, I get it, you're trying to make it so I can decide for myself how to play the game, so you don't want to lump things into good/bad categories. But the end result is, every time you shoot someone the game says something like, "Your reputation with pygmy rapist killers has gone down! You are now villified!" Yah, no shit? You mean, this group here, where I'm breaking into their camp and methodically assassinating all of them? They don't like me so much? Huh! Go figure.

I mean, at least the game could at least say, for instance, "Your reputation with everyone else just went up, since decent folk hate these people, and in fact asked you to do this." But it doesn't. So you're constantly wondering what you're doing wrong.

And your actions in one town almost never affect what happens in another town. It creates an incredible sense of getting nowhere. In one long sequence I went into a power plant, fought my way through crazed robots, fixed the plant's power generator, and then defied authority and made sure the power was distributed evenly across all the towns that need it most. Yay for me! Now, let us never speak of this again. Because it has no effect on the rest of the game. (Oh, wait, I have a different title in the status screen. Wheee.)

But wait, the guy who asked me to distribute the power evenly was a member of an order that believes in helping everyone. I'm like, awesome, where can I find more of you? I track them down and do all their little fetch and escort quests, and I donate a ton of supplies to them. They're all: Great! We revere you! Thanks for all the help! you shouldn't have! I'm like, uh, can I join? Or have some plot quests? Anything? Any reward at all? Nope. Well, we'll give you a stimpack every once in a while. I mean, you're going to have a zillion of those anyhow and they're practically free. But, hey, thanks again for wasting a ton of time buttering us up, though. That was awesome, when you did that.

Then there are the places that do nothing, or almost-nothing. I wandered into a mining community, they were all sad because their mine had been overrun with giant scorpions. The town pet was a strange but cute mutated animal, and I discovered he had a broken leg. Oh! I can solve this issue, I think. I boost up my Physician skill and fix his leg, and he wuffles happily. Then I try to tell the foreman. He's all, yawn, so what. I can hear the game saying, "Hey! Did I GIVE you a quest to fix that creature's leg? No? Then why the hell did you try it? Now you just burned a buff."

Or I wander south of a town that's been overrun by the slavers, and there's an old beachfront vacation community where the homes are mostly underwater. Someone's gone to a lot of trouble to put all these houses here. And this scenery. And a handful of swamp creatures. But not, like, any point. There's no missions here. No clues. No treasure of any sort. No reason I should have explored it. Why is this town even here?

I finally got to the end-ish stage of the game, where a giant TV screen starts giving me orders on how to defend Nevada against the coming onslaught of the slavers, so the giant TV can take over the whole state. This is apparently just one path – I could also team up with the army of slaver / rapists, or I could team up with the guy who shot me in the head, or I could team up with a very fascist government that's at least trying to defend people, or I could kill the TV and decide I'm the new pope.

Giant TV says, "Ok, go kill everyone from the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Steel. Wipe them out. They're too powerful." I'm like, uh, I don't know if you noticed this, but my follower here is from that chapter. Her friends all live there. Also, they've been really nice to me. I'm wearing some armor they gave me! Also, they've agreed to fight on our side."

Giant TV is all, "No! One day they'll grow in power. Stop arguing and kill them all in cold blood." That's it. The quest is blocked there. I can't progress with the game.

But wait! I wander back to the slaver camp with my most trusty slaver-hating follower, and I shoot every motherloving one of them. I get to the inner camp, and kill the entire elite guard, and in an epic battle I destroy their leader, "Caesar," the most feared man in Nevada, the man I've been hearing about since the beginning of the game, the crazed lunatic who broke away from the order of good people and twisted everything they stood for.

And! And... and nothing. Yup. Nothing.

I go back to the giant TV. "Have you wiped out the Brotherhood of Steel yet?" I'm like, no, but DID YOU NOTICE that I JUST ELIMINATED THE ENTIRE EVIL ARMY AND ITS LEADER?

He actually says, "That changes nothing. They'll just deify him as a martyr. [Who will? They're all dead!] Go do that Brotherhood slaughter thing I told you to."

Screw this. I may be an errand-boy, but I'm not your bitch. I'm taking over. I fight my way upstairs and unplug giant TV for good.


I quit the game.