Viva New Vegas

There’s another Fallout game out, Fallout: New Vegas, which has returned me, with a surprisingly small amount of resistance on my part, to full-on gaming addict mode, right in the middle of a total breakthrough in revising my book. I am not worried in the slightest, though, because I’ve been happily hunting down vagrant mutants in the Mojave whilst subsisting on squirrel-on-a-stick and irradiated water.

I have finished one playthrough of the game, so I feel confident enough to offer a review, even though I don’t think I have really cracked the story possibilities, given the open-ended nature of the endings of the Fallout franchise. I think this particular installment has more available endings and permutations than even Fallout 2. So, no spoilers beyond that…

It runs on the save Oblivion engine as Fallout 3, so there’s no great technological advancements. The stats have been tweaked some, and there’s a new Hardcore mode (which I used on my playthrough) that requires regular sleeping, eating, and drinking, in addition to non-instant healing and ammunition having weight (it makes the game only slightly more difficult and somewhat more engaging).

Probably the biggest difference from F3 is the theme. F3 was Mad Max. New Vegas is Wild West vs. Rat Pack vs. Mad Max. It veers from skirmishes between heavily armed armies in the desert to gunfights in dusty towns to intrigue in casinos. All the usual suspects are there – the Brotherhood of Steel, the New California Republic, the Super Mutants, an assortment of weird Vaults, plus a host of new factions that all have individual reputation levels in regards to the PC. In that respect, and in some others, it is a move back toward the pure goodness and craziness of F2, including a propensity for quest-related bugs due to the sheer complexity of the intersecting stories. There are a LOT of quests – a LOT – some of which I’m sure I never even got close to stumbling across – and even more that I failed automatically by choosing others to complete instead.

Combat is pretty good, maybe a bit better than F3. I never quite felt invincible, though perhaps some of this was due to the Hardcore mode, not even after acquiring the ultimate status symbol of Fallout, a set of Power Armor. I found two ways to get one and the requisite training, though I suspect there is another way somewhere. As usual, I eschewed energy weapons and big guns and stuck to firearms, finding several that did the job that the trusty Lincoln Rifle did for me in F3.

The music is not quite as good this time around – one of my few complaints – compared to the pitch-perfect selections in F3. “Big Iron” by Marty Robbins is an awesome song, particularly for the small towns in the beginning of the game, but it played so much I have the lyrics memorized – and it’s pretty ridiculous to hear it when using the sniper rifle from a quarter-mile.

The traditional sense of humor of the series is completely intact, though like in previous games, you sometimes have to have a sharp eye to see it and process it. Pretty much every major location has some kind of in-joke, reference to one of the older games and their influences, or a twisting of genre. I was impressed that they managed to get through a western-themed game WITHOUT a one-on-one shootout at noon (five Brotherhood of Steel paladins vs. me hardly counts).

The different companions are an advancement over F3; each has his/her/its own quest to follow, which typically ends in a stat boost and is usually connected to the main plot in some useful way. Unfortunately, it’s still not possible to take more than one with you at a time (though two are like Dogmeat from F3, and can take up a third slot). Interestingly, for some reason, none of them are obviously ‘evil’  characters.

There is a big moral choice to make about 3/4ths through the game that drastically affects the ending. There are at least four, possibly five or six, ways to play it, with a large number of minor variants. None of them are unequivocally ‘good’ endings, though some are far more acceptable than others, which left me with a feeling of satisfaction that the game had not handed me a choice I wouldn’t have to think about afterward and perhaps even regret.

I continue to find it hard to play evil or even shady characters in such games, though it might be fun to replay this one in full-on High Plains Drifter mode.

Two thumbs up and all that.

Civilization V (or 5 for non-Roman types)

When I have a chance in the middle of this amazingly busy semester, I’ve been playing Civilization V. I managed to finish one playthrough and I am now prepared to judge the game entire.

I can’t think of a better way to organize this than by pros and cons, and to note up front that I really liked IV, and I have played all of them since I.

The Good:

  • The combat is the best in the series. It now feels tactical, and each unit functions as one piece in a puzzle that rewards the use of combined arms. Cities are tougher and don’t have to be garrisoned, leaving more time for actual play.
  • The interface is more efficient, again, than any previous game. One of the major weaknesses of the series has been the deluge of micromanagement that happens after a certain point. I didn’t feel that here (though my game ended at 1900 – perhaps it eventually kicks in), even with all my workers on manual. One still needs to pay attention to fortified units, but that’s a given.
  • The new tree system for civics isn’t bad and even welcome, though the one in IV wasn’t broken.
  • The graphics are excellent.

The Bad:

  • Religion has been dropped. Not sure why.
  • I can’t take over a city with culture anymore. Again, not sure why.
  • What happened to the spies? Useful in a pinch.
  • Even more puzzling is the new global status of happiness. In the previous four games, happiness was handled on an individual city basis. Now it’s global – either all cities are happy, or none are. This strikes me as a very crude way of making the game easier to play. It also makes conquest almost a break-even affair; I take a huge hit to happiness even if I make a city a puppet state, and a near-crippling one if I take more than one cit in the same war. Alexander the Great never had to deal with this.
  • Speaking of conquest, I also cannot steal technologies, even from a civilization far more advanced than mine. This removes one of the major reasons to go to war in the first place.
  • The complex byplay between science, gold, and culture is gone. Now science only drops if you run out of gold. Like the happiness change, this seems another crude simplification.
  • The rules for global domination are too easy – instead of wiping out all civilizations, I only have to take and hold their capitols.
  • Diplomacy is near to useless. The AI often offers nothing no matter how hard they are losing a war. Also, technologies cannot be traded, there seems little benefit to alliances. The ‘research agreement’ seems little more than a pre-war trick to drain the treasury.
  • The city-states are a noble if failed experiment. They do fill in the map and keep the world from being too empty, but they’re too expensive to ally with for the ROI, annoying to take down, and between them and other civilizations, you never have much call to build more than one or two settlers in a game. The map is called for pretty quickly unless you start on an island by yourself or well out of the way.
  • The game shipped with severe bugs – one crashing the loading screen, and another crashing save games of a certain size. Neither has been fixed yet.

I have to wonder if many of these changes were made in the spirit of making sure that V was not a souped-up IV. Personally, I would have bought and enjoyed just that – a souped-up IV. Then again, perhaps I am simply being cranky. III felt like this when it came out – it was a big step away from the seeming perfection of II, with the introduction of cultural victories. Perhaps on my second game (I conquered the world by 1900 as the Romans on Prince difficulty) I will feel more comfortable with the entire package.

I don’t think the market for this game has changed all that much. The presentation betrays not a hint of any such change – same goofy national leaders, same pacing, same timeline structure  governed by a tech tree.  IV with updated graphics – or even II with updated graphics – would sell. It’s time to look at the mods.