Fallout Shack: A Tale of Two Wastelands
Leading up to New Vegas’ late October bow the major concern – other than new developer Obsidian – was that it was simply a Fallout 3 expansion, albeit a really big one. While the game was returning to the stomping grounds of Black Isle Studios’ original classics, there was the prevalent concern that the game would be too similar to find its own identity, and for good reason. Built on the same GameBryo engine as Bethesda’s 2008 series revival, New Vegas looks nearly identical to its DC based predecessor. Sure, some game systems have seen minor facelifts and the yellow sheen of the Mojave is a bright contrast to the oppressive, dreary grays of the Capital Wasteland, but what truly separates New Vegas from its vaunted sibling is the manner in which it rewards its players; and much to my own chagrin, rewards a different type of Fallout player.
During my crusades through the DC Wasteland I logged well over 120 hours – including all five DLC scenarios. During that time it’s likely I spent less than half of those hours engaged in the main story, or even actively following one of the dozen or so marked side-quests. While I generally had a rough objective or destination in mind, the lions’ share of my time was spent wandering, moving from one unknown location to the next. The topography of the game was designed in a very meticulous fashion to encourage the player to steer off the prescribed path, to carve their own adventure and experience; it’s nearly impossible to stand in any one spot in Fallout 3 and not barely make out some sort of strange landmark or structure in the distance. Surveying the immediate vicinity in the Mojave on the other hand almost invariably yields several locations to explore. This is partially due to the smaller map, but it also figures into the overall design of New Vegas, or as I like to call it, ‘Fallout 3 A.D.D. Edition.’
In Fallout 3 you can easily wander 5 minutes in a set direction without finding anything, and that just isn’t the case with New Vegas. The player is constantly rewarded with new locations, characters and sub-quests without any of the self-guided exploration needed in 3. In fact from the very beginning of New Vegas’ story, player direction is heavily piloted in a predetermined route. While Fallout 3 had no qualms nurturing its player in the prolonged tutorial, New Vegas’ tutorial hides under the guise of immediate freedom once leaving Doc Mitchell’s home in Goodsprings. Although you can see the bright lights of The Strip in the distance, your journey – at least for the beginning – is fenced in by impassable mountains and a brick wall comprised of Deathclaws, creating an area my friend has affectionately dubbed the ‘n00b zone’.
Within this beginner, low level area, players are bombarded from the get go with a smorgasbord of non-essential things to do and people to meet. But the honest truth is not a single location or quest you find is as fully realized – or interesting – as Megaton, the town found a mere stone’s throw from Vault-101. While there are certainly several well designed places to visit and explore in New Vegas, the prevalent feeling remains that there is simply more stuff to see and do to mask the fact that almost none of it is as thoroughly thought out. Instead of rewarding players for negotiating large intricate interiors with a coveted skill book or bobble head, players can expect to be tasked with yet another side-quest to stack on their ever growing list of things to do.
The abundance of quest lines makes it difficult to go anywhere without either finding a new quest to accept or an NPC to engage to further an existing one. This structure permeates the entire game with an urgency not found in Fallout 3; with so many quests piling up it’s much harder to get lost in the Mojave game world, both figuratively and literally. In a way the plethora of side-quests enables New Vegas to hold players’ hands more firmly throughout, creating a more directed experience. In contrast, the comparatively sparse amount of side-quests found in Fallout 3 allowed the player the flexibility to forget about what they should be doing and follow the wasteland’s landmarks organically, finding their rewards in exploration and discovery alone.
The increased focus on companions in New Vegas also significantly alters the feeling between games. Although there were followers to be found and/or hired back in DC, they weren’t as readily available as the help found in the Mojave. While none of their services are imperative to your journey’s overall success, the player is essentially penalized for not taking them on by missing out on various quests, perks and an extra gun to rely on in battle. Having a companion enables the New Vegas player to be more reckless and potentially reward them experience and loot they’d have no business accruing yet on their own. The fundamental ideal of the lone wanderer is lost as the player assembles their team.
What it all keeps coming back to is the concept of reward. New Vegas is built to constantly engage the player in an active way, directing and rewarding them at every possible moment. What it sacrifices in this design philosophy is the sublime downtime found in the Capital Wasteland when you’re alone and left to your own devices, happy to investigate abandoned buildings and carefully scrounge through yet another desk or broken shelf, or read the internal emails of a comics publishing company. While New Vegas still possesses those sorts of moments it is one of the few aspects it possesses far less of than Fallout 3. And although it tries to cover up these differences with its glut of quests and NPCs, it’s perfectly clear that the game was simply designed for a different type of Fallout player.