My typical pattern in playing games is focus the vast majority of my ‘efforts’ on a single game at a time. I am not one to flit from one game to the next unless I’ve picked a series of uninspiring ones, and that hasn’t happened for months, maybe years*. Recently, my focus has rested on the game Fallout: New Vegas, which by my count is the fourth in the Fallout series (ignoring a few silly spin-offs). For those who aren’t familiar with these, the setting is a world in which the Chinese and the Americans got into a war which ended with everyone pressing all the available Big Red Buttons. The games are set in post-apocalypse America, with the first two set in the western United States, the third taking you to the D.C. metro area, and the fourth taking you to its namesake and the surrounding hostile wasteland. I’ve played through the latter half of the series, and in both cases (Fallout 3 and New Vegas) found myself hooked.
This should come as no surprise to those that know the games and me. It’s science fiction, it’s action, it’s role-playing, and it’s a bit of dark humor from time to time. This combination rates well with me. Still, there are other games that have ticked most or all of those boxes but haven’t made it into my playlist. I’ll spend the rest of this post trying to articulate what makes Fallout: New Vegas** special.
The thing that most distinguishes New Vegas/Fallout 3 in my mind is the sense of place that you get. I’m not talking about realism here. The plotline occurs some 200 years after the bombs fell and there’s still intact buildings with books, empty pop bottles, tin cans, and “pre-war” money stuffed in desk drawers or strewn across the floor***. I’m talking about being transported to a place, no matter how fantastical the details are. It’s a world where the mantle of the Scary Communistical Person was smoothly handed from the Soviets of the 20th century to the Red Chinese of the 21st century. The build-a-bomb-shelter, school-children-duck-and-cover-under-your-desks, watch-out-for-labor-union-zealots kind of thinking from actual 1950’s America has run itself to the worst possible conclusion. The backyard bomb shelter industry evolved into the Vault industry where a small town’s population of specially selected people were put into bomb-proof structures buried beneath the earth’s surface. Propaganda posters. Architecture. Radio programs. McCarthy-style “watch out for commie infiltrators” announcements on posters, employee computers, and old audio recordings. All of it lifted from cold war America of reality and spun out to oblivion and beyond. The bombs came raining down, and now, here your character and some other (sort of) lucky survivors are, wandering and living through the remnants of something that feels weirdly familiar.
This is helped along by the accuracy with which the game developers reproduce geographical details. For a single example among many good ones, zoom in to the Las Vegas area on your favorite Internet map. Follow Interstate 15 south and west until you see Jean Airport. That, and the town of Goodsprings up Route 161 a few miles west, is in the game, albeit in bombed-out, post-apocalyptic form. Now this type of detail is nice, though not terribly difficult to do…but they went one extra step: put the Jean Airport into your favorite search engine and you’ll get links to (1) A Wikipedia page, and (2) a page for Vegas Extreme Skydiving. Both note that the Jean Airport is largely used for skydiving, glider rides, and hobbyist flying. Wander down the road from Goodsprings in the game, and lo, there is a flat, bombed-out area that might have been an airport at some point and a shack that is the former headquarters of “Jean Skydiving”. Awesome. Again, not about realism****, but a sense of place and enough detail to give you a shiver if you’re aware of this little connection to pre-apocalypse reality.
There are a lot of other things I like about the game. The story is engaging. The characters, though a bit shallow in many cases, do the job adequately in all cases, and are exceptional in a few cases. The world, in addition to being detailed, is vast. …but the example of the Jean Airport encapsulates a big part***** of what I love about the game. The developers had to know that there are precious few people that would ever notice that detail. That they took the time to do it tells me (or at least implies to me) that the developers loved making the game as much as I love playing it. That goes a long way.
So, hey, for those readers who are interested and haven’t played it, it’s not as if the game doesn’t have flaws. There are balancing issues. The game gets pretty easy in the late game stages. If you play it longer than a half hour at a time, your chances of a crash-to-desktop are unusually high. Still… If you like these RPG-type games, rush out and buy it this game right now******, or more realistically these days, open another browser window and buy a digital copy with a click or two. Well worth it.
* I’m not really attributing this to any particular skill of mine. There is just a deep backlog of good games out there for anyone who doesn’t play video games 24/7. Or maybe I’m just easily entertained.
** Most of the following applies to Fallout 3 as well, but I’m trying to focus here. We’ll see if I’m successful.
*** In fairness, at least these things are somewhat abandoned/dirty/rusty/cracked/rotted.
**** To illustrate, shortly after this your character will probably be attacked by bandits throwing dynamite and packing 9mm pistols. Or giant mutated geckos. Or both.
***** Another part I’m sure has something to do with the psychology of my month-long period of unsettled nervousness during 7th(?) grade after I saw Terminator 2 and did some subsequent reading and viewing about nuclear bombs. Now that I’ve grown up, post-apocalypse is fun! Huh. Maybe I was smarter when I was younger.
****** Right now.