Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Madcap's Game Reviews - "Red Faction: Armageddon"

Xbox 360 Box Art

Is there life on Mars?  David Bowie posed the question thirty years ago (I’m sure others did before him, but forget them, they aren’t David Bowie), and it has been on our minds ever since.  Well, I’m happy to tell you that there is indeed life on Mars, thanks to Red Faction:  Armageddon, a game kept in a box on the back of which the message “There is life on Mars”.  I’m not a fan of the Red Faction series (as I understand there were three games before this one), so I believed picking this up that this would give me a shot at a completely fair review of the game itself, rather than its relation to the previous games.  After all, every game should be able to stand up on its own merit, regardless of what came before or after it in its series.  So this is Red Faction:  Armageddon, a destructive, fun romp on and beneath the surface of Mars.
To cap the story, you play Darius Mason, the latest in the Mason family, apparently viewed as some sort of line of total badasses.  When the game begins, Darius McBadass is a member of Red Faction, apparently the Martian army, and they are attempting to keep an insane cult lead by a man whose one part Voldemort and one part the Prophet of Truth (with the personality of neither) from destroying the Terraformer, a device that allows the surface of Mars to be habitable.  But, of course, due to the good guys not being Genre Savvy in least, the pooch is screwed and the Terraformer goes kaboom, forcing everyone on the surface to have to go underground.  From there, the plot goes quickly Halo meets Dead Space when a distraught Darius takes on a mission to investigate some tunnels, thereupon releasing an ancient evil that’s been slumbering beneath the surface of the planet.

It’s funny that I mention Halo and Dead Space, because Armageddon takes a lot of cues from both of them.  The third person, fixed-camera view over Darius’s meaty shoulder as he lays down the almighty Mason wrath with whatever weapon he has his hands on are reminiscent of Dead Space, with Issac Clarke’s metallic shoulder as he puts blades from his Ripper through anything stupid enough to cross his path.  From Halo, we get a (not!) parasitic life form that was apparently hidden away by some previous culture for their safety and the safety of the universe as a whole, and the regenerating health gimmick where Darius needs simply get behind cover and his health recharges.  And from both we get the insane cult that wants to release or recreate said terror for God only knows what reason that will never be explained in any way that’s remotely sane.  But don’t worry, Armageddon doesn’t borrow everything from these two games…Darius does not wear a battle suit.  I’m serious.

The latest in the Mason line reminds me very much of Riddick, with the Earth, sorry, Mars-splattered tanktop and a shaved head (though all the male characters are bald, with no explanation even attempted for this) as he lugs around four of several weapons that he can use to annihilate anyone stupid enough to cross his path in a variety of way (another thing he borrows from one of his bastard fathers, Issac Clarke).  The weaponry in the game is actually pretty interesting and is one of the high points. Right off the bat, Darius is given an assault rifle and a maul.  And given the mighty hammer that I had just had thrust into my hands, the first logical course of action was to smash something, so I slammed it against a nearby building and was surprised when the wall I’d just hit came tumbling down. I was ecstatic as this continued, ignoring my support character trying to tell me to get on with the mission, and throughout the game enjoyed as my arsenal tore through enemies and the terrain alike.  

Besides Mjolnir, other wonderful weapons available are the shotgun (always a crowd pleaser), a gun that can flip off gravity to send an object careening into a nearby wall or another object, a gun that can dissolve all but the biggest enemies, and a gun that creates black holes. And now my critique of this game is going to become nearly impossible due to every criticism being countered with “But it’s got a gun that shoots black hole”.  There’s also the rocket launcher which, without wishing to spoil, you’ll need for the final boss fight. And you’re welcome, by the way.  Each of these weapons presents a unique and lovely way to crush your enemies and see them driven before you, though ironically the hammer is not the best tool for this job.  Unlike Dead Space, where every weapon had two attack modes, only the hammer is given two attacks, a horizontal swing and a vertical swing.  This would be really excellent if enemies were ever within your striking distance and they almost never are. Most enemies will jump around you like bullies teasing the class outcast in the schoolyard, requiring the use of heavy ordinance to set them right.

You might be wondering about how combat works by this point and if you’re not, start doing so.  As said before, you control Darius from a fixed-camera, over the shoulder third person perspective, so you can really never see anything to the left or to the right as you’re moving along.  This adds to the challenge when enemies attack from angles.  For varieties of enemies, first you have the small ones that can take maybe a shot before they collapse into piles of quivering bloody flesh bits. The second tier that are hardier and in two varieties that can send fireballs and lightning up your ass, respectively.  A third tier of the Alien Black Ops who can disappear and reappear almost at will and have a sound not dissimilar to the Predator click whilst invisible, as if they’re mocking you for not being able to see them.  And finally a fourth tier of gargantuan baddies that need twice as many bullets as you have to take them out whilst they’re charging you and knocking you down as they spray acid that will surely melt you if you can’t roll away.

Now you’re asking “Madcap, so how do you hand these enemies? What unique strategies can we glean from your divinely inspired wisdom to destroy these alien menaces?” My response is as follows, hold down attack until everything in the room is much deader than you are.  This is a shooter, after all, there is no strategy beyond “keep shooting”, which is one of the things that the game does very well (as I mentioned) with its coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs arsenal. You move Darius from point to point throughout the levels, a few of which look oddly familiar compared to things I’ve seen on Earth during, say…the Covenant Invasion or even on the Ishimura if it had been grounded on some rocky, red dust planet.

I’ll stop bringing up the bizarre parentage of Armageddon now, but let me explain it this way.  If the gameplay mechanics were the result of Daddy Issac, then the levels were coming from Mama Master Chief’s side of the family (You will never get that mental image out of you head now, you’re welcome!).  I’m aware that other forms of media have done the “spaceship overtaken by a terrible alien menace” plenty of times, but those two stick out most glaringly in my mind as influences.  Well, it’s more outright copies from Halo 3 as far as the level aesthetics go, specifically the level in the heart of the alien hive, which looks oddly similar to the Flood-overtaken High Charity level.  Another cue it takes from Halo is the vehicles, but then in that series, vehicles were used often enough that you had needed to remember how to operate them.  In Armageddon, you’re given three vehicles, an exoskeleton suit, a tank-sized exoskeleton suit, and a flying exoskeleton suit.  The first is used for two seconds and the other two are used only once, and granted each are for lengthy sections, but why don’t we get to use them more?  The aerial one in particular was really fun to fly in and I would have loved to see some aerial combat.  But alas, it was all for not, and I spent the whole time in the flyer reenacting the run into the core of the Death Star from Return of the Jedi whilst trying not to blow myself up.  This, just so you know, I didn’t find enjoyable…largely because I’m not Billy Dee Williams.

Darius making use of the Nano-Forge
 The atmosphere is kind of touch and go, Armageddon seems to be having a hard time deciding whether it wants to be a shooter or a survival horror game.  One of the first levels before the first creature is glimpsed, we’re given a shadow on the wall that is only there for a brief second, giving me a sense of “Hey, what was that?” Of course, this was wrecked immediately when what I thought was building up tension for the appearance of the monster ended when I turned a corner and was greeted by it.  It was startling but then I remembered that I had an assault rifle and it wasn’t bulletproof, and then it was a case of “and so much for that”.  Then, later on at points, the game attempts to give the survival horror feel by forcing Darius down dark corridors with only a flashlight that apparently is a mini strapped to whatever gun he happens to be holding. This, to a degree, lets the enemies sneak around you and jump out at you in scary ways. Then you remember you gun that can dissolve their flesh and so, once again, “so much for that”.

Getting back to enemies, as I said before the best strategy is keep shooting because you aren’t given too much choice.  Enemies will swarm you mercilessly, even on normal difficulty.  Personally, I died more times than I could count and that was trying every sort of thing strategy that I could come up with. So, finally, the brute force method won out and I redecorated all the linear levels of Mars with new wallpaper that just looked cheerful in a Hannibal Lector sort of way.  The game does help with this, as a button press will allow Darius to auto-aim at the nearest target, though how one enemy is “next” in comparison to another is left completely up to your imagination, it seems.  Some enemy support are monoliths, which glow green and make all the enemies in the area around it glow green, which makes them harder to kill, and large tentacles that enforce the need for Rule 34 for the fan art community and throw the debris and objects around.

Which reminds me to segue seamlessly into another gameplay mechanic I callously forgot to mention earlier, and that’s the Nano-Forge.  Remember a few paragraphs back when I mentioned the destructible environments?  Well let’s say you “accidentally” take out a staircase in a battle that you need to run up and pull the switch that will open up the next area.  The Nano-Forge uses nanobots to repair that staircase like new, and anything else that you can destroy (with Science!).  This becomes an abundantly useful mechanic, considering half the missions that require Darius to destroy something are matched by the other half that consist of putting things back together.  And along with the Nano-Forge comes SAM, Darius’s onboard Cortana clone.  I know I wouldn’t bring up the similiarities between this and Halo/Dead Space again, but this can’t be avoided.  SAM is an AI who serves a combat awareness program for Darius.  Throughout the game, she provides Darius with information about upcoming waves of enemies, points out alternate routes he will inevitably have to take when the developers thought that players would realize that the game was linear, and wins an Oscar for “Most Bland Support Character Ever”.

I liken SAM to Cortana, because they effectively serve the same function.  The only differences being that Cortana actually had something resembling a personality and occasionally knew when to shut up.  SAM on the other hand has a bland personality that Darius tries to say is “snarky” and will not ever shut up about your quest objectives. Especially later in the game when Darius is heroically fighting through wave after wave of bloodthirsty terrors, and SAM is chiding him to complete his mission objectives like a disinterested mother telling her child to go brush his teeth and when Darius told her at one point to stow it, I gained all the adoration that I hadn't had before for the character. Then again, this could be applied to most of the supporting cast.  “Kara”, Darius’ love interest, is the generic badass action girl.  But unlike Darius she’s somewhat greedy, impulsive, and not really caring to keep up with commitments which considering the personality that Darius seems to have, makes me wonder why the two of them are anything resembling a couple.

Other than SAM and the brunette cleavage, all we’re given for support characters is Dillion from Predator, and he’s more tolerable in that he’s there for the purpose of filling in ranks of the Red Faction marines and at least seems to be having a little bit of fun with what he’s doing.  And even that is more than I can say for Darius.  He is sarcastic about everything, even when the situation doesn’t call for it (yes, I’m the pot calling the kettle black, shut up!), and almost nothing about him strikes me as this mighty, heroic figure.  Even when doing things that are heroic, like deciding to forgo SAM’s advice to warn a nearby group about the oncoming creatures or taking on missions single-handedly despite being told that its suicide, it doesn’t strike me that he’s really all there, even when his own life is on the line. It’s almost as if he couldn’t care less.

Getting away from the nonsense, there is an upgrade system within the game that works thusly:  Darius collects Salvage (the currency of Mars) by breaking through terrain to find hidden areas holding it as well key structures, and indeed just lying about.  Regardless of tier, each upgrade only requires 1,000 Salvage, though some require upgrades from the previous tier in order to be bought.  However, Salvage is plentiful enough and you can actually get by with very few upgrades.  I got all the health upgrades and increased the damage of my guns and that was it, really, and that got me through the game easily…picking things out of my carcass as I retried again and again. But the thing is, if I can get through the levels without all the upgrades, then why do I need to go through the trouble of getting them?  In the end, all I would have is all the upgrades and a steaming pile of Salvage that would just keep building up and building up with nothing to do with it, and affluence when you can do nothing with it is pointless to no end.

In the end, the story is mixing the first three Halo games and Dead Space, but you didn’t come here for the story, right? Nobody cares about shooters with a story! No, you’re all about the multiplayer, aren’t you? Now as my stomach convulsed at the thought of trying multiplayer, I managed to contain the problem with several lovely dry heaves and tried to load it up, whereupon I was rewarded by not having an Xbox Live Gold account.  Thanking Odin for my miserly ways, I scrolled over to “Ruin Mode”, which apparently needs to be paid for to be unlocked.  Luckily, however, I got a code to get it for free since I bought the game just post-launch.  And when I unlocked it, a wonderland opened to me.  Granted weapons of mass destruction, it seemed that I had only one objective: “Burn everything, burn it to the ground!” Well, in this case, it was more of a dissolve, smash, pulverize, and eviscerate it to the ground.  Given an entire map of buildings to just tear apart for points, I went crazy! Then a minute later I had to stop because time had run out and I was scored accordingly.  Not that I mind this (this is sort of the point), but I’d barely had enough time to destroy anything.  If you’re going to give me an environment to wreck, don’t give me a time limit and don’t score me.  I’d be perfectly happy with it then, because honestly the best part of this game is breaking things, thanks to the Geomod engine, which is an absolute joy.

So, in a nutshell, that’s Red Faction:  Armageddon.  A game that has a lot of things that I like, but is muddled up with a few minor issues. But as I said earlier, I’m inclined to be nice to it because it has a gun that generates black holes, and as I stated earlier in this review, it is nearly impossible to give proper criticism for something that puts a gun that generates black holes into my hands and invites me to go nuts on anything and everything that comes into my line of sight.  But the thing is, the things it tries to do combat and atmosphere wise have already been done better by Halo and Dead Space.  It’s not bad, it’s just…bland.  It does very little unique things and went it does, they’re boring and needless.  But in the end, it’s fun and beating the main story allows you to unlock the mode where you keep your weapons and upgrades from the previous game and so…I have some more buildings to destroy. See you all next week!

Red Faction: Armageddon is available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Microsoft Windows now wherever games are sold.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Madcap's Game Reviews - Fallout New Vegas DLC: "Dead Money" and "Honest Hearts"

This is my second month as an amateur game reviewer, so naturally I’m getting a lot of firsts in this time.  Next on my list is my first review of DLC from the Xbox Live Marketplace (if you couldn’t get the message from the cleverly set up title…yes, I knew you couldn’t), and so I’ve chosen a franchise close to my heart, largely because it gives me heavy ordinance and an entire wasteland to pummel into dust.  That series is, of course, Fallout (yes, still knew you had no idea).  Let me tell you a story.  A long time ago in a decade far, far away, there was a company called Interplay Entertainment.  Back in the long lost time of the late nineteen nineties, they created a turn-based RPG called Fallout, set in a strange and fantastic retro-futuristic world where humans survived atomic war by surviving in deep, underground Vaults.  The game was kind of buggy in places but overall was a well received and praised for innovations to game play and pastiches of the blinding optimism that characterized the 1950s of America.

Then, there came the sequel, Fallout 2, where Interplay began an on-off relationship with Black Isle Studios, most known for Icewind Dale, and leaving the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance series on an inexcusable cliffhanger for which they are going to Hell.  But getting back to the topic at hand, the sequel too was quirky and unique, still filled with parodies of Eisenhower-era optimism and radiation-born abominations that would make H.P. Lovecraft void his bowels in fear.  Of course, the joys of blowing up a Citadel, and then blowing up an oil rig in the sequel were followed by Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel, the first in a series of spin-off games that would split the fandom to this very day.  It focused more on the Brotherhood of Steel, a joinable faction in the first Fallout and at least a bit of a presence in 2.  Some fans considered it to be new and inventive while others hate it with a fiery passion.  Having played it myself, I can say that it’s alright. Not a horrible game, just not really good (though, to its credit, an option is given to take over Chicago, but why one would want to do this is beyond me).

Now right about here is where I would mention Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (which is completely unrelated to Tactics…no, really), but as I don’t want to be lynched by the fanbase, I’ll avoid it.  Needless to say, the game was considered an abomination at worst and a very terrible game at best. That is, at least by the fans. I’ve never played it myself, but from what I hear (what with the total lack of retro-futuristic 50s feeling, and the use of bands like Slipknot and Killswitch Engage on the soundtrack when the previous games used songs by the Ink Spots and other bands from the 1950s and earlier), it’s not something I care to attempt. So, leaving that, Interplay finally decided to stop mucking around with spin-offs and finally get their knuckle down and get Fallout 3 off to a start. And, indeed, by the time that Brotherhood of Steel was out on shelves to be burned in piles by the fanbase and given severe beatings by critics, they had already begun work on the next “official” Fallout game, which was at the time code named “Van Buren”.  Then, Interplay fell through and laid off its entire PC development team to stay afloat, which deep sixed the game and it seemed as though the series would be dead in the water from that point.

Not so, said Bethesda Softworks (I’ve praised them enough, you know who they are) who scooped up the ashes of the series for a pretty penny from Interplay and then took them and turned them into the vibrant phoenix that was Fallout 3.  And, oh, did the fanbase weep! Their fancy, beloved games just ruined forever by the terrible, terrible people at Bethesda.  Well, in all honesty, Interplay fan boys, the series was a tired, aging relic (ironic considering its setting) and Bethesda breathed some new life into it, so shut up. And I’m sorry for falling to good casting here, but I will take all the fixed-eye conversations in the world if it means that Liam Neeson voices my father.  The game uses the Gamebryo engine and with it ragdoll physics that make the splattering of human/animal/mutant internal organs an absolute joy to behold.

And this, at last, brings me to (after five paragraphs of explanation) the topic at hand, Fallout: New Vegas.  Being that I’m reviewing the DLCs for the game and not the game itself, and that you’ll likely only get them if you buy the full game, I’m going to skimp on explaining the gameplay mechanics and jump straight into a brief summary of events.  New Vegas begins with your character, a man or woman of questionable ethnicity, being shot in the head for carrying a package (since Mojave society apparently considers being a Courier as a faux pas).  Only, instead of being taken up to the gigantic Vault in the Sky, your player wakes up in a clinic in the small town of Goodsprings. And, of course, being a silent protagonist, you have no say whatsoever when you get sent on a quest to find out who shot you and why.  Through the course of the game, this ends up with the player being caught in a power struggle between three warring factions over the Mojave, leading up to an event that will forever change the face of the Wasteland…

Dead Money DLC Box Art (Xbox 360)
Ironically, the DLCs for New Vegas have little to nothing to do with this, besides a few mentions of the events leading up to them and a few cameos by people involved in them at that point. The two DLCs I wish to cover – Dead Money and Honest Hearts – came out in December (for Xbox, February for PS3 and PC) and May (for Xbox and PC, came out in June for PS3), respectively, and are the first two in a series of four (at least), the next ones coming out in July and August.  Well, being the fan I was of the Fallout series and indeed of New Vegas in general, I decided to check them out. And dear me was I pleased with them.  Of course, both have their gripes and problems (I’m happy to say that I’ve encountered no bugs even in the vanilla New Vegas areas since I downloaded the first DLC, Dead Money), but both are actually very solid, self contained, vastly different stories that I like.

The first one I want to cover is Dead Money, being that it was the first one I played (though I chose it by flipping a coin right before I wrote this sentence, not by any particular order).  Upon loading up New Vegas and resuming my role in the Mojave Wasteland as Reese, a wise-cracking, hardened Courier with a heart of gold (yes, I give personality to my characters, it’s a ROLE PLAYING Game, after all).  Reese was travelling from the Mojave Outpost on the most southwest corner of the map when his Pip-Boy suddenly picked up a peculiar radio transmission.  And, of course, being the easily intrigued type that he is, Reese decides to follow it to an abandoned Brotherhood bunker where he proceeds down a dark and scary hallway and gets knocked out with some form or nerve gas.  After waking up, Reese found himself in the courtyard of what looked like some sort of residential area with some Mexican overtones in the design scheme when the hologram of a man known as Elijah telling him to gather three others who had been brought there in order to perform the greatest heist in history, and apparently attached a bomb collar to give him the extra incentive (it is around this point that I imagined Reese being a real person, bringing his hunting shotgun up to my face).
Dead Money takes place in and around the area of the once-beautiful “Sierra Madre” - the name subtle references to the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – a resort that was destined to open on October 23, 2077.  Unfortunately, the Great War happened on that very day and the opening never happened.  And so, the player (in this case, my Han Solo knockoff known as Reese) is forced to get the ceremony to get the hotel and casino open under way.  If this sounds easy, ladies and gentlemen, then please put your hearing aids in and listen up.  Dead Money is set up with a Level 20+ character in mind.  While this doesn’t seem like a problem, you’re left upon being dropped off in the place with nothing but your skivvies and a hologram rifle. No, that’s right a hologram rifle, which will be nicely effective once you meet the majority of the Sierra Madre’s population – men that are forever trapped in radiation suits who are going out of their way to murder you.  An explanation is given for them at one point that, apparently, the radiation from the Great War created a toxic “Cloud” over the place (which only affects certain areas). Those that were caught in it became…changed.  And thus feral, safety suited men who want nothing more than to turn you into a kebab. They are also frighteningly tough, they literally have to be decapitated in order to kill them, anything other than off with the head or at least some form of dismemberment will get them up and running again within a few seconds, much to the horror of Reese as he found himself running like made down the paved streets of the villa, fighting madly against the creatures.

To be fair, that was the least of Reese’s worries, as he soon found himself faced with speakers that would project a certain frequency that would make his bomb collar go all twitchy and, sooner than later, explode-y.  This presents a puzzle challenge through the entire story, because while certain speakers can be destroyed with a gunshot or a laser blast, there are several more that cannot be and require some serious thought or just dumb luck to get around.  And as an added bonus, Reese learned that the other three individuals he had to collect to assist him were also fitted with bomb collars and that killing one of them would kill all the others.  So after a series of hijacks that take Reese all around and through many deaths, he managed to collect a Super Mutant with a combative multiple personality disorder, a mute woman who apparently had some ties to the Brotherhood of Steel and is now hunting Elijah, and a ghoul that is apparently Fallout’s Dean Martin but with none of the class and just a little more rotten (in more ways than one).

The central moral of Dead Money seems to be greed is not good and that one just needs to let go of it.  Each of the NPCs has their own story and has several different conclusions to their tale, depending on how they interact with the player.  For anyone who is curious, Reese managed to keep only the mute woman alive.  The other two (or, if you count the Super Mutant’s other personality, three) decided to take a long vacation for being utter dicks, which Reese was happy to help them along with…with liberal use of a handgun.  But after getting your odd Beatles tribute band together, the disembodied head in the fountain sends you to recreate the opening ceremony as it would have gone off on the day of the opening, seeing as the doors to the casino proper are sealed until this happens. This means fighting your way through an area for each companion to bring them where they need to go, and then fighting through a fourth area on your own to finish the job.  Padding, much, Bethesda?

But getting into the Sierra Madre brings along the true test of a player’s ability to not cause their own premature baldness by way of frustration, and that would be the holograms.  Holograms were apparently a technology perfected by the original owner of the Sierra Madre, and are to balanced combat what a gunshot is to my skull.  Holograms can be dodged and snuck around, but neither God nor Satan, nor the almighty Capybara can help you when they spot you and open fire.  It’s not a particularly damaging attack (especially at high level) until you realized that the pause between shots is alarmingly quick, taking no more than about a half a second.  And the best part of this is that it isn’t actually possible to kill holograms, though they can be deactivated by either destroying or disabling their emitters, which will not be too far from the holograms themselves and glow blue so they should be relatively easy to find.  Top tip:  Make sure you have a good sneak skill when trying to sneak around holograms to find their emitters and turn them off.  Reese had a sneak skill of around 70 and he was continually laser barbequed until he became so frustrated that he started running for it.  Destroying it does seem the better option, however, as you need a high Repair skill to tamper with the device.  Mind you, if the hologram has you in its sights, you’ll find it hard to try and find the blasted thing while you’re being holographically curbstomped (yes, holograms aren’t supposed to be able to harm people, don’t ask me how it works!).

Regardless of the terrors you find within the hotel, you quest takes you to either reconcile or annihilate your three travelling buddies (which Reese happily did with his police revolver, “Yoko”) before heading down into the basement to navigate a maze of speaker-filled tunnels (most of which have to be worked around) in order to find and access the Sierra Madre’s vault.  Within one can discover a stash of Pre-War goodies, including several bars of solid gold.  However, reinforcing the ever-so delicately woven theme of how greed is bad, the gold bars all weight around forty pounds each.  And the player is given little time before Elijah arrives for a final showdown.  Without wishing to spoil, Reese got out alive, and as he journeyed out from the complex (never to return, as Dead Money will not let you return after leaving the place), he held in his right hand his new handgun and in the other a single bar of gold that he managed to get a little over ten thousand caps for upon his return to the Mojave Wasteland.

So in the end, the greed only worked out for Reese.  A bunch of bodies lay behind him and a promising future as the Mojave Wasteland’s lazy good for nothing lying before him.  Now, I liked Dead Money all in all.  The few characters it gave development to were deep and intricate where they needed to be.  Some fail to understand is that not every character needs to be well rounded and enriched.  Flat characters with a single personality trait, or a single motivation behind their entire being can be just as interesting in the right place.  And Dead Money, definitely is the right place for that.  The atmosphere was what Fallout is best known for, an air of optimism smothered by cruel, harsh reality.  The Sierra Madre is said to be place of new beginnings of a new future where happiness can be found, but in the end, the paint chips off and the place is seen for what it really is, a trap for the greedy, for those who can never let go of their greed. 

Getting away from the blindingly expressed Aesop given in the story, Dead Money also added some new crafting options to the game, many of which involved using the strange “Cloud” that envelops the resort to create poisons.  Also, perhaps out of pity by the game designers, there are vending machines found throughout the resort that take a special kind of tokens (due to the player having no caps throughout the entire course of the DLC) that can be found just about everywhere, which vouchers through the Sierra Madre allowing the player to access new items (so exploration is encouraged, though likely only after you’ve finished the DLC), and a perk even allows for the counterfeiting of the tokens, allowing for the player to theoretically get infinite items (so long as the conditions are met for the counterfeit tokens, obviously).  Several new weapons are added, including a delicious variety of knives for melee combat, a spear that is literally a stick with several of these knives tied to it, and fire bombs for those of you who think you’re really good with explosives but aren’t (I’m not kidding, be careful with those things, and be about fifty more feet away from whatever you’re throwing them at than you think you are).

So that was Dead Money.  Was it good? Well, yes.  It was padded out beyond belief and I highly doubt that even a 30+ Level character (on a reasonable difficulty setting) could tackle it efficiently without any equipment on the first go.  No sane person would attempt it, at the very least.  The story was good, the characters and their motivations were good for their setting, and the atmosphere of being in a depressing, lifeless villa juxtaposed with all the sweet promises of glory and happiness in the same place truly helped drive the point home.  Gold star!

And now, fourteen paragraphs in, we come to the second part of the actual review, Honest Hearts.  To tell a brief recap of the story so far, Reese left the Sierra Madre behind and came back to the Wasteland a rich man, selling off his gold brick and taking a truckload of caps to the nearest cantina.  There, he lost most of it to a sneaky Caravan player who cheated Reese out of his money and was repeatedly shot in the face until Reese got his money back. Leaving the bar with haste after taking his money back (as the bartender did not take kindly to Reese repainting his place), Reese found yet another mysterious radio broadcast from the “Happy Trails Caravan Company”.  Remembering how well it went the last time he decided to follow a strange message on his Pip-Boy, Reese decided that the most logical step would be to go check it out. 
And so, he journeys to not so far in the north from New Vegas and finds himself in a cave with a ragtag group wearing t-shirts that say “Forgettable NPCs”.  Joining up with the Company, the leader of the expedition explains that they’re going to New Canaan, a settlement to the far north in Utah to try and establish trade with the locals.  Both Reese and I were surprised to find that a requirement for the trip was that he only be carrying 75 pounds.  With no offense to this, by the time Reese was taking this quest on, he was level 32 and carrying enough firepower to make Duke Nukem blush.  But complying because he could not make the skill check to allow him to carry whatever we damn well pleased.  Also, it’s worthy to note that the weight limit never comes up after it’s been met, even upon getting into the thick of Honest Hearts, which leads me to wonder why it was put in there at all.
Honest Hearts DLC Box Art (Xbox 360)

Regardless, the troop makes their way through the weeks toward New Canaan.  During this time, Reese and I were shown a cut scene about New Canaan and one of its most famous former residents – the Burned Man.  He is mentioned a few times in vanilla New Vegas as one of the toughest badasses of Caesar’s Legion, a group of wannabe Romans led by a rather polite and reasonable (if megalomaniacal) name by the name of Caesar.  Time was that Caesar had a second in command by the name of Joshua Graham, a New Canaanite.  Those from New Canaan are general regarded as badass warriors throughout the Wasteland, eating danger and shitting bullets.  If this is the case, then Joshua Graham apparently eats atom bombs and fills his toilet with pure Chuck Norris.  The man was apparently covered in pitch and set aflame, thrown into the Grand Canyon on Caesar’s orders.  And what did this man do? He got up, crawled his way out of the Grand Canyon and then crawled his way to northern UTAH. Let me give you a paragraph break to let that settle in.

With this is mind, I maneuvered Reese to go with the group, reaching Zion National Park, home of tribes that seem to constantly be warring with one another  and I was depressed the find my party massacred while I was tucked safely away behind some rocks poking Reese’s head out at my leisure.  I found out from a tribal that ran up to me soon after I’d finished picking off the ones who had just been trying to kill me that those were members of the “White Legs” tribe, a group from the Great Salt Lake who have a strong dislike of anyone who is different (thus I have invoked Godwin) and are apparently responsible for the destruction of New Canaan, the place I was trying to get to begin with.  And just when it seems that Reese can walk away from all this, he can’t go back the way he came in and the local tribes refuse to give him a map until the issue with the White Legs can be resolved.  And as Reese smacks himself for following strange messages on his Pip-Boy, he agrees to help out.

From here there’s a series of fetch quests that are supposed to aid in the preparation for the upcoming battle, dragging along with you an NPC for each leg of the journey who are supposed to help you realize the plight being suffered by the two tribes by their nemesis, the White Legs, and how Zion will be utterly destroyed if nothing is done.  Considering Reese’s motivations and the fact that these guys were dumb enough to strike at him, he was more than willing to strike back.  And for the record, I exhausted the NPC dialogue options (as I normally do) whenever possible and took several of the side quests and I wasn’t really getting the vibe of fear from the these people, though that may have been the voice acting.  Regardless, by the time all was prepared for the final battle, I was given the option of evacuating Zion and letting the peace loving hippie tribe run like scared little kittens, or bring them into the fight to crush the White Legs as well.  Being the awesome asskicking symbol of masculinity that shows Duke Nukem up like it’s a cold day in the locker room, Reese declared “Tonight, we dine in Hell!” and the battle raged with two armies warring against the White Legs, which brings me to my first problem.

Now, Honest Hearts is completely different from Dead Money, the setting is different, the tone is different, and several things change with that.  Where Dead Money was a dark, creepy trip through some twisty but otherwise linear pathways, Honest Hearts is brightly lit and open, giving the player a nice area to run around in.  However, with the design of the enemies comes a problem.  The enemy tribesmen, from far off and often up close in the heat of battle are almost indistinguishable from the ones I’m supposed to be helping, so when Reese starts firing his shotgun randomly into combat that is ongoing and I forget to look at my HUD for the red tabs indicating enemies, Reese could be shooting someone who was going to name their child after him once this was all said and done, who is to say?  Apart from that, the enemies are all wildlife found throughout the park, including the triumphant return of the Yao Guai and the reemergence of the Cazadores (which are the creations of someone who I will personally be dragging to Hell myself) as well as some Geckos here and there, rounding out the usual Wasteland gang that wants to ruin your fun. (and for anyone who thought Vault 22 was super fun in vanilla New Vegas, there’s a special surprise waiting for you…)

However, like Dead Money, Honest Hearts gives us some new weaponry to mess around with.  .45s appear to be the divine weapon of God, and come in two varieties, the classic handgun and a machine gun version.  And let’s be honest with ourselves, if God chose this weapon, then who am I to deny it? So I admit I did end up using the handgun version often and rather enjoyed it. The weapon itself was easy to repair with the Jury Rigging perk and I got ammo from all over the place, so executions were beautiful and plentiful, which was more than I could ask for.   Hatchets and even the mighty tomahawk join the player’s arsenal (the later weapon being a favorite of the tribals in the area).

And, of course, like vanilla New Vegas, the face of Zion is forever changed because of the actions of the Courier.  So, in a nutshell, did I like Honest Hearts? Kind of, I suppose.  None of the NPCs are particularly memorable besides Joshua Graham, heated combat against the tribesmen can get you into a world of trouble with friendly fire.  Oh, and, of course, a mention of a mysterious Courier who has apparently been stalking the…oh, did I not mention that?  Yes, both Dead Money and Honest Hearts reference through dialogue a Courier who has been just missing the player by coincidence, but apparently was the original courier to carry the Platinum Chip in the base game, but ditched at the first opportunity, leaving Reese to eat a 9mm sandwich, so he’s understandably irritated by this guy.  But it appears that Reese will finally learn just what’s up with this guy later on in the next two DLCs – Old World Blues and Lonesome Road.  Will I be getting them? Yes. Why? Because I’m a sucker for story and I want to know what happens next! Also, anything to fill in the time until Skyrim.

Fallout: New Vegas is available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC wherever games are sold.

Dead Money and Honest Hearts are available for download from Xbox Live, the PSN Store, and Steam, as well as available from most game retailers.