Returning to the Mojave — A Fallout: New Vegas Retrospective

Introduction

Ah…Fallout: New Vegas. 

It’s really hard to put my thoughts for this game into words. Given that the game was developed in just 18 months, using Fallout 3’s dated engine and assets, it’s nothing short of incredible that the game was as expansive, detailed, and revolutionary as it was. Going back and replaying it has inspired me to compile my full thoughts on it, and I’ve adored every second of time I’ve spent with it, just as I did eight years ago.

In order to break down this gargantuan title, I’m going to split this into chapters: Gameplay, Narrative, Performance and Graphics, Soundtrack, and Conclusion. Let’s get started.

Warning: spoilers for New Vegas and slight ones for Fallout 4 lie ahead. 


Gameplay — Ahead of its Time

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If I could use one word to describe New Vegas’ gameplay, it would be freedom. 

Freedom is a crucial element of open world role-paying game (RPG) design, yet consequently it’s also an element that many open world RPG titles, old and new, lack. This is part of what made New Vegas incredible…and also not for everyone.

Faced with both a massive amount of landmass to explore, as well as perks and playstyles to choose from, a lot of players were overwhelmed by the not only the sheer depth of the Mojave — every single location has an interesting story to tell — but the freedom it gives you to explore it. I, however, believe this is the game’s biggest strength. Unlike most open world titles, New Vegas doesn’t start you out with much direction at all. Aside from a small hint that nudges you in the direction of the people who shot your character in the prologue, you are completely free to go wherever and do whatever you want. No NPC is “essential” or invincible, no playstyle is more or less viable than the rest (which is a flaw that Fallout 4 had, where role-playing was essentially forgone in favor of a focus on being a first-person shooter) and there’s no physical boundaries that prevent you from reaching an area until later on.

You can literally talk yourself out of the final boss fight.

This freedom, though, is not the only element that makes the gameplay of New Vegas so compelling. The way that the game reacts to what you do with your freedom is arguably the most unique thing about it.

Yes, you can murder everyone in Goodsprings, but any survivors who you accidentally don’t kill will forever try to avenge their neighbors if they catch sight of you again. You can kill Mr. House, but in doing so you also eliminate what he brought to the people of New Vegas, and they will dislike you as a result. You can opt for complete and total pacifism, but raiders who lie in wait don’t care for your moral, ethical views. They care about your valuables, so you better have bodyguards of some sort.

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In the Mojave, every action or choice has a direct impact on the game world, and it intelligently responds to what you do to it. This cycle of actions and consequences is what makes New Vegas’ world feel so alive. As you can imagine, designing a setting to be this dynamic means the developers have to account for every possibility. And in New Vegas, where each and every location in-game contains things that influence the big picture, that was a massive amount of work. And yet, in less than two years, Obsidian pulled it off with flying colors. It’s nothing short of excellence, and it was fully intentional. John Gonzalez, the Creative Design Lead and one of the Lead Writers for New Vegas, sums up the philosophy of the development team nicely:

“The environment is genuinely reacting to what you do as the player. You have a pretty extraordinary control over the outcome of the game.”
— John Gonzalez, The Making of Fallout: New Vegas – 1/8

This, to me, is gameplay design that more than makes up for some of the game’s clunky shooting mechanics. And for this type of open-ended, unrestrictive gameplay system to work, it needs to be given room to breathe by the story and the writing that ties everything together. Which leads us to…


Narrative — A Clash of Civilizations

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In continuing with the idea that the player should be free, Obsidian cleverly designed the story of New Vegas to be slow and non-linear. You can and are encouraged to interact with the game’s numerous factions, both major and minor, in any order you please — or not at all. This stands in stark contrast to Bethesda’s style of storytelling in Fallout 4in that game, your son goes missing before you even step foot into the wasteland. And while that game is massive and offers a plethora of content to explore, you always feel like you’re wasting time doing so. Your kid is missing! Why are you helping Preston Garvey with settlements?

In short, the game wants you to explore things outside of the main quest, yet has a main quest so urgent and narratively weighted towards immediate action that doing anything other than the story missions feels off.

This is something that was, as you’d expect, problematic. Todd Howard said as much in this interview with Gixel, which unfortunately was taken down for unknown reasons:

Interviewer:Fallout 4 has a much more urgent main quest — you’re a parent searching for a missing child — than Skyrim’s Civil War amid the mysterious return of dragons.”
Todd Howard: “We’ve tried it both ways. Fallout 4 was obviously intentional. We wanted to put pressure on you to do this and make it really engaging. But if you don’t, it ends up falling flat. Because the time pressure is kind of fake. In Skyrim, it is intentionally, ‘Well, this is important, but when you want to look into it.’ It’s not personal in that way.”

This is where New Vegas struck gold with its “ludonarrative consonance”, if you will. The gameplay and the story went hand in hand, unlike in Fallout 4, where the two were at odds. Getting involved with the world is, in a way, the story. Learning about the factions and what they stand for, how they’ve interacted with each other and the Mojave, and everything else is ultimately a large, entertaining, and thought-provoking textbook for you to read. And when you decide to stop turning the pages, you’re left with quite an interesting decision to make: who to support?

Each of your four major choices in this game pose incredibly interesting moral questions. The New California Republic, which has built itself in the image of Pre-War America, pushes the idea that democracy and freedom will fix the broken world, rebuilding the society that was lost. Meanwhile, Caesar, leader of the Legion, counters this logic with a proposal of his own; serve him and his authoritarian dictatorship unconditionally, and in exchange, be given a purpose in life and obtain an opportunity to prove oneself, forcing adaption as opposed to desperately searching for meaning in the day-to-day hardships of wasteland survival.

You then have Mr. House, who offers arguably the strongest long-term security to New Vegas with his advanced Securitron units, but only has monetary profit in mind. He may protect his land, sure, but he cares not for the wasteland outside of it. Rather than help humanity as a whole, he’d rather pump all of his resources into his own slice of Pre-War paradise. He uses people as tools, throwing them away when they’re no longer useful. You can see this clearly in the way that he drugs the population with gambling, tricking them into giving him their wealth on with a false promise of riches.

Lastly, there’s Yes Man, or more accurately, yourself. Yes Man exists as a stepping stone for you to look at New Vegas’ current standing and say, “You know what? They’re all flawed. I think I’d like to be in power instead.” But whether or not you think you will truly be the best choice for the Mojave, are you comfortable with the idea of giving all the power to one person, even if that person is you?

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There’s no true “right” answer here (though I would argue there are some better ones than others) because at the end of the day, each of these sides has been infiltrated by the temptation of greed. Greed represents what makes each faction flawed. The NCR is full of greedy, corrupt politicians; Caesar is obsessed with unifying the world under his vision; Mr. House is passionate only for his own gain and the gain of his territory; and you taking power for yourself poses the risk of the Courier, in the imaginary post-game scenario, becoming power hungry. And what better way to emphasize this focus on greed than with a rebuilt Las Vegas as the setting?

From John Gonzalez:

“Thematically, if you’re going to do a game about Vegas, you need to deal with the theme of greed. And so, that’s kind of something that suffuses the game.”
— John Gonzalez, The Making of Fallout: New Vegas – 1/8

Everything just…clicks. New Vegas isn’t just an RPG, it’s a deep and well-written commentary on the human condition and just how far some are willing to go in order to obtain power, regardless of what they may or may not plan to do with it. And when this excellence is paired with the themes the other minor factions put forth (such as the Boomers, who perfectly represent the pros and cons of a society that walls itself off from the rest of the world) you can see just how many staggering, thought-provoking ideas are put forth in New Vegas. 


Performance and Graphics — The Biggest Flaw

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As much as I hate saying negative things about my favorite video games, it would be irresponsible of me to not give New Vegas’ flaws the same attention that I give to its genius.

I’ll keep it blunt: New Vegas was (and still is) a broken game.

Considering that it was designed in a devastatingly short time of just 18 months (I’m sure Obsidian appreciated Bethesda’s deadline…) it would have been truly remarkable if New Vegas released in a good state. I think everyone who followed the development of the title knew it was coming, and boy, it did. While it’s certainly playable, getting it to run well consistently, especially on modern hardware, is difficult. This is frustrating because it makes it hard to access the otherwise fantastic experience that lies past the bugs.

Thankfully, though, the fan community has been hard at work ever since 2010 on releasing homemade fixes in the form of mods, and the open source nature modern Fallout is known for was New Vegas’ saving grace.

The game wasn’t exactly visually impressive, either, but wouldn’t you know it…you can get several different mods for this, too! Many screenshots you see in this article were taken by me using these mods, and you can get New Vegas to look quite good.

In short: I don’t fault Obsidian for the state of the game, but it’s impossible to deny that visual quality and performance is where New Vegas fell flat. Thankfully, that issue has been rectified by time and passion.


Soundtrack — The Wasteland and The Strip

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Ultimately, there are two places that New Vegas mainly focuses on. The Mojave Wasteland, and The Strip of New Vegas.

Both of these locations juxtapose each other incredibly nicely. One is the result of a devastating war, a land reduced to sand and radiation by hundreds of nuclear warheads. The other is a bastion, a sole survivor amidst the chaos that retains the lavish, luxurious lifestyles of Pre-War Nevada. It’s a dichotomy of post-apocalyptic ruin and pre-apocalyptic development.

Creating a soundscape that captures both of these locations excellently was, I’m sure, a hefty challenge, but Inon Zur, the the primary composer and music designer behind New Vegas, was definitely the right man for the job.

The way the soundtrack captures the brutality and the vastness of the Mojave with ominous Western-themed ambience and dreary, demoralizing tones with tracks like this is perfection:

And yet, the brilliance doesn’t stop here. When moving into the city of New Vegas, this atmosphere changes completely. We go from a hopeless, endless, and seemingly eternal hell to a mythical, unbelievable paradise. And in order to capture that Pre-War feel that The Strip was meant to emulate, the music team chose not to compose new music, but instead carefully return to the past and select music that represents the upbeat, positive, and happy-go-lucky atmosphere of Las Vegas.

All in all, Inon Zur and his team knew exactly how to push the quality of New Vegas’ world-building and atmosphere from fantastic to utter masterclass. The score is the delicious icing on an already scrumptious cake.


Conclusion

Despite the issues that plagued its stability, I hope I’ve made a good argument here that explains why I think New Vegas has earned itself a place in the running for best video games ever made. The responsiveness and dynamic design of this game’s world is timeless, and even today, almost a decade later, many open world RPGs fail to achieve what this one did.

What’s incredibly impressive is that I’m still discovering new things in the Mojave, even after at least eight or nine playthroughs. For example, in my most recent one that I started, I chose to play as a woman for the first time. Benny, the character who shoots you in the game’s prologue, is a womanizer — and if you play your cards right, you can seduce him, get him into bed with you and sleep with him, and then you have the option to kill him in his sleep. I was shocked. I had never seen this before, and each time I revisit New Vegas I find things like this that make me grin.

The narrative is fantastic, the gameplay loop is diverse, addicting and compelling, the music is sublime, and the fun factor overall is off the charts. This, in my mind, is one of the best open world RPGs ever created, rivaled only by the likes of Breath of the Wild and Borderlands 2. I hope that games in the future look back on New Vegas and see it for what it is: a flawed, but revolutionary masterpiece that stands as a timeless work of art.

The Mojave is a phenomenal world that everyone should experience for themselves…but damn. Patrolling it almost makes you wish for a nuclear winter.

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