War, sex, and speech checks on the Lonesome Road

I just finished another Fallout: New Vegas DLC, Lonesome Road.  Although not nearly as weird and cool as Old World Blues, it’s a good run, enlivened by some great voice acting.  (This comes down to one character, Ulysses; for the record the dude playing him is Roger Cross.)  Got some nice guns out of it, too (the Riot Shotgun has the highest DPS I’ve seen so far), plus an unbelievable amount of ammo.

It’s highly railroaded for Fallout; you mostly follow the single path, killing mutations and occasionally chatting with Ulysses or your robot pal ED-E.  The gorgeous devastation below is from one of the toughest bits: crossing an elevated highway that’s infested with Deathclaws.  As these can disembowel you in about two strokes, and they’re fast, it’s a challenge.

Next radiation-free exit: 148 miles

The story is compelling as you play but doesn’t make much sense in retrospect.  It gets into the history of the Courier (your character) from before the main game, but this strikes me as misguided.  The whole point of roleplaying games is that you make your own character, and your path is defined by your choices.  It’s fine to have a history (Jade Empire does this very well), but although the Courier is apparently indirectly responsible for this bit of nuclear horror, you, Obsidian, are just not going to make me feel responsible for my character’s actions when I wasn’t controlling her.

Beyond that, the theme seems to be War is bad mmmkay.  Which is not a bad message!  But I wonder if the designers realized that they communicated that message already, and far more effectively, in the level design.  The Lonesome Road area is the most pathetically mangled area we’ve seen, even worse than DC in Fallout 3.  Just walking through it makes you reflect on one of the underlying themes of the series: the fact that we had (and have) a technology that, given a few jingoistic blunders, could actually destroy our civilization and render large parts of the planet uninhabitable.  I don’t know that the actual story elements add anything to the visual impact, and they just raise questions.

Like… it turns out Ulysses has (spoilers in white) aimed a few nukes at the Mojave.  I managed to undo that, and we ended up pals, kind of.  This was welcome gamewise as he’s a hard boss monster, and the fight you get as pals (against more mutants) is much easier.  But thematically– I dunno, I usually play a kind of soft-spoken rogue who doesn’t go out of her way to make enemies, but I am not as willing to forgive atrocities as pop culture apparently thinks I should be.  I don’t trust Lando Calrissian either.

Got a nice duster out of it, though.  Made me finally give up on the leather armor I started the game with, as it’s DT 13 rather than 8, despite having no sleeves.

The right to bare arms

I dealt with Ulysses not with my mighty Riot Shotgun but with my mighty 95 speech skill.  FNV pro tip: max out Speech.  And Science.  The best outcomes of many a quest depend on these.

I have mixed feelings about this as a game mechanic.  On the one hand, choices between different approaches are great, and it should have consequences what your dump stat is.  It turns out I can’t use the fancy Rawr Claw I got because my Unarmed skill is a little short of the required figure (you need 75 and mine is 14), and I’m fine with that.

Plus, the Obsidian writers are occasionally quite clever in suggesting why just one line might persuade someone.  E.g. the Science and Repair checks have just enough techno-jargon to suggest that your character actually does have some expertise.

On the other hand, I think games have still not figured out how to make speech work as a gameplay element.  If you have a high Guns skill, you still have to aim and fire the damn gun.  If you have a high Speech skill, you just click on the dialog option that has [SPEECH] next to it.  I know voice acting is expensive, but this is not a satisfying mechanic.

Remember that persuasion minigame in Oblivion?  It was dumb and some people hated it, but at least it was an actual gameplay mechanic, one you could master or fail.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution tried something where you had to monitor someone’s alpha or beta status or something as they talked– that was a start.  Speech is not an easy problem, but we really need some better approaches.

Back in the wasteland, I went egg hunting for an arena operator named Red Lucy.  The DLCs are stupefyingly generous with XP, as I seem to be kind of overpowered.  I had some trouble with the Deathclaws but not nearly as much as back on that highway– my shiny new missile launcher made short work of them.   (As my companion Veronica likes melee, it made short work of her too, but she recovers and they don’t.)

Red Lucy gives you plenty of caps for the eggs of various monsters, but she also offers an interesting reward: herself.

Girl just likes eggs

I appreciate the fact that Obsidian isn’t as prudish about sex as Bethesda.  There are a few occasions where sex is actually a way of handling a quest– most notably, in dealing with Benny, the guy who shot you.  (On the other hand, fading to black for the sex scenes is awfully stupid in a game that offers a perk that increases gore.  At least a PG-rated cutscene as in Mass Effect 1 would be nice.)

That said, even FNV shies far short of considering how sex would work in a post-apocalyptic world.  They make a point of making the Legion sexist among its other sins, but even the nastiest raiders are co-ed, which is strange when Fallout America’s culture is so retro overall.

It seems unrealistic that there’s never any sense of sexual threat.  I can see why they avoid it– Arkham City was criticized because the criminals make nasty remarks about Catwoman.  Fallout and Borderlands both replace the very realistic threat of rape with the pretty absurd one of cannibalism.  FNV doesn’t just have raiders charging at you in combat threatening to eat you; it has a whole quest devoted to it.

Edgy post-apocalyptic stuff, huh?   A reversion to barbarity is convincing; cannibalism isn’t.  Actual gangsters, warlords, and barbarian hordes are not cannibals.  Historically, in fact, tribes of warriors only rarely were able to make a living by sociopathy.  The Central Asian nomads who terrorized both Europe and China, spent most of their time herding animals.  The Vikings, in between raids on the coast, were farmers.

The Fallout games are set two centuries after the war.  Right after the war, maybe there were large numbers of sociopaths– but they would quickly die out, either killing each other or starving.  Full-time raiders are predators, and predators can only survive as a small fraction of the population.

I’ve got another DLC to try, and then maybe I’ll do something about Hoover Dam.  The Whelk has the best defense I’ve yet read of FNV:

[T]hat’s something you rarely see, the rebuilding part,  where the most horrible thing ever has happened, and now it’s over and we’re trying to have a civilization and the beauty of New Vegas is that it poses the question, so what kind of civilization deserves to exist?

And that is a great question!  The problem is, the game doesn’t offer very intelligent answers.  The Legion’s savagery has nothing going for it at all.  The various mad scientists are not real answers (which is pretty much the same problem I have with Asimov’s later Foundation books).  That leaves only two actual answers: more or less a reconstituted USA, the NCR, or leaving New Vegas as an independent city-state.  That’s an OK choice, but it doesn’t much plumb The Whelk’s question.  It’s not like I get to write New Vegas’s constitution.