Being a longtime player of Bethesda (now Obsidian too) RPGs, I’ve experienced the highs and lows of DLCs. Normally the first DLC for any Bethsoft RPG is the worst, and then things steadily get better. That does seem to be the case with Fallout New Vegas, except that of the three that have come out so far, there’s not a Horse Armor or an Operation Anchorage in the bunch. In fact, the DLCs seem to be tailored to be completely different from one another, and Old World Blues follows this trend.
We started out with Dead Money, which was a claustrophobic survival horror type of mission, featuring a rich back story of the tragic figures who inhabited the Sierra Madre Casino. Then we had Honest Hearts, which was almost completely an outdoor adventure in a lush green forest, featuring tribal warfare and lots of deadly animals. Now we have Old World Blues, which takes us into the pre-war laboratory complex that came up with most of the weapons and technology used in the game, and probably did its part to push the world into a flaming nuclear apocalypse as well. In terms of setting, it’s certainly an urban landscape, but mixes it up between indoor and outdoor environments.
You find the Big Empty (it’s really called Big Mountain, get the joke, Big MT?) by responding to a radio signal just like how almost every DLC seems to start in Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Like the other DLCs, you can’t have solved the game yet, so have a previous save ready. In this case you will be heading to the abandoned drive-in at the southern part of the map. Once you get there you will find a crashed satellite. At night it will project a big eye on the screen. If you interact with the satellite, it will transport you to the Big MT. It will also warn you about the rules of the DLC before sending you along, in case you change your mind. The rules are pretty standard. You can’t take any companions with you. You can’t leave the DLC area once you enter until you’ve solved whatever problems await you. You are told that you can return to the Big MT anytime after you’ve completed the DLC. And you can take any and all equipment along with you this time with no restrictions. Confirm you want to go, and you are off.
The story of Big Mountain is shown. It was a place deep underground where old world scientists conducted experiments of every type in the most advanced research labs on Earth. And then one day something happened and the top of the mountain blew off and almost everyone died. What is left is a giant crater filled with the surviving labs, many of which were apparently far enough underground that they survived the explosion.
Once you arrive you will quickly learn that you have been operated on. Your brain, heart and spine have been removed. But don’t worry, they have been replaced with mechanical gear, well, your heart and spine anyway. These actually give you an advantage, a kind of perk that makes your character better. You meet some very odd robots who are actually the scientists who used to work in the Big MT, their bodies having long since died, but their brains living on inside the robots. Apparently one of the things they like to do now is kidnap wastelanders and lobotomize them, which they did to you. The odd thing is that even though your brain is missing, you are still functional, something that perplexes the scientists. Their only guess is that apparently the Tesla coils installed in the place of your brain (so you can still move and live) are somehow receiving a signal from your brain, which is, by the way, missing.
Now before you can start blasting these fool robots, you realize that they live in a special domed building with a passive field that prevents weapons from being drawn in their presence. And because you have no brain, you can’t resist it. I know it sounds silly, but you will quickly realize that Old World Blues takes on a very silly tone compared to everything else in the franchise. Anyway, the kidnapper robots basically hire you to go out into the Big MT and track down one of their robot friends who has gone rogue and is trying to kill them. So you end up working for your kidnappers, and your brain is missing. Don’t worry, you can plot your revenge against them if you want, though there are worse things in the Big MT which make the odd robots not seem so bad.
The rogue robot scientist has gone off and is building an army of robotic scorpions, which are like rad-scorpions on steroids, except they not only have armor, but are practically made of it. Needless to say, they are some of the worst enemies out in the Big MT. But there are many others. The lobotomized humans have escaped and are running amok, and even though I felt really bad having to kill them since they are basically victims like me, I did it a lot. They are kind of like raiders now, going around shooting and killing anyone they see who is not part of their tribe. There are also packs of night stalkers and a few cazadores for good measure. In fact, we learn that night stalkers and cazadores were both created by the very same scientists who kidnapped you. Thankfully, some of the new perks you can earn by adventuring (not when you level up but ones you get by finding objects and then killing things) will increase your damage against those same creatures, which is more than worth it in my book.
I have mixed feelings about the general atmosphere of this DLC. On the one hand, we are dealing with some pretty heavy issues. This is an example of science running wild without any moral component. We have evidence of detention camps, forced experimentation, torture, cruelty to animals, addiction in different forms and severe examples of mental illness. Really, Old World Blues could have taken us to one of the most depressing places in the whole wasteland, and probably should have. But instead, the story is told with a sort of quirky 1950s evil scientist B-movie vibe. It’s funny in parts, but in other places it tries so hard to be humorous that it’s almost painful to watch. The scientists, when confronted with their crimes, lapse into long monologues (some do that anyway) to justify their actions, but again, instead of really confronting these issues, a really blatant humor is used.
Some people may like this approach, but even among the DLCs, this funny attitude is rare and I’m not sure players will enjoy it. I loved the moral of Dead Money, finding out about the evils of unrequited love and obsession. The hard choices you have to make as to what path the tribes of Honest Hearts would follow can be a real dilemma too. But here, it’s like "I tortured my dog," "I experimented on prisoners against their will," "I created some of the most loathsome creatures of the wasteland" or "I helped usher in the holocaust." Now let’s celebrate with a pithy comment or a cute aside with another scientist. I was sometimes waiting for the seltzer water and shaving cream pies to bust out. Again, some people may appreciate this, but I personally didn’t like breaking away from the serious nature of the core game, especially given the setting. Fallout New Vegas (and Fallout in general for that matter) is dark and depressing, and that’s how I think we like it.
One cool aspect of this DLC is the fact that you are given a house right off the bat. You can then do quests to improve your new lair. Once it’s all up and running, benefits of the home include your own auto-doc, a way to grow your own food, both types of workbenches, your own personal computerized vendor and a 100-skill repair machine plus a few wacky extras like mood lighting that gives you a boost to your charisma for twelve hours. Of course, going on the humor theme, all of the little machines in your home are over the top silly with comments and crazy actions of their own, but you can talk to your master computer and turn off their AI if you want.
Another neat thing about Old World Blues is a sort of undocumented quest where you can learn more about the mysterious other courier who is setting up to become your nemesis. He traveled with Christine from Dead Money apparently, and you learn a bit about both of them. I have to say I am very excited to see what the deal is with the original courier six, which should be revealed in the final DLC, Lonesome Road. He seems to be a patriot with dreams of resurrecting the old United States, but at the same time he also seems to work for very bad people, like Caesar, a fact that was revealed in Honest Hearts. I guess we will see. But we hear his voice for the first time, and I’m already forming a picture of him in my mind. He sounds a bit like The Jackal from Farcry 2, self-righteous and unflinching, but perhaps that’s just me.
This DLC seems to be the largest so far. There is a lot of surface area within the crater, probably about as much as the Zion forest from Honest Hearts. But the Big MT is littered with laboratories where you will find all kinds of horrible secrets, like medical suits that walk around on their own, their charges long since turned into skeletons. They are now wandering killing machines, protecting their already dead patients. You are sent to several of these labs as part of the main quest, and they really shine here, setting up various challenges like High School Hell, where you have to relive the high school days of one of the crazy robot scientists, only you get to act like a Communist infiltrator. Many of the labs are off the beaten path, but all of them seem to contain either a self-sufficient story about what happened there before or just after the war, or are part of a loosely based confederation of stories that help to advance the main plot. Your courier "friend" has visited many of these sites before you, which you can tell by seeing his Old World Flag spray-painted to the side.
In terms of loot, Big Empty is anything but a void. In fact, I think this DLC has some of the best loot in the game so far. There is a new heavy weapon for you brutes that uses standard .357 magnum ammo. There is a pair of very useful night-vision goggles that have become part of my standard load out. And there is an energy weapon that uses sound waves to harm enemies and drop force fields. There is also a silenced sniper rifle to find that is totally kick-butt. And there is a stealth suit that talks to you as you adventure, though I was angry that the new suit was made as MEDIUM armor, making it not really worth it for a lot of characters given that the light security armor from the Sierra Madre is four points better and most characters will already have a 100 stealth by this point in the game. However, if you look around, you can find a lot of new gear, which is a nice prize for a DCL so close to the finale. No reason to hold anything back at this point, right?
Despite my personal distaste for the (somewhat forced) humorous aspects of this DLC, I will say that this is one of the best so far. It’s very well put together, tightly scripted and has a lot of content for the money. And your new house is almost worth the price of admission alone, especially if you do the work to track down the activation chips for all the cool gadgets inside. And it will prime the pump for the final episode, where hopefully all secrets will finally be revealed.