While I spent more than seventy hours ravenously consuming the breadth of content offered by Fallout: New Vegas, I didn’t bother picking up either of the first two pieces of downloadable content. Dead Money appeared to focus on aspects of Fallout I didn’t find particularly interesting and Honest Hearts got lost in the shuffle. Old World Blues would have skipped right past my net as well had a review code not arrived. The lukewarm reception of the first two packs tempered my expectations a bit, but that actually seemed to work in Old World Blues favor; it’s a surprising and solid collection of content.
First, let’s get a few mechanical facts out of the way. Old World Blues bumped my level cap up by five and offered several new perks. Accessible by examine a crashed satellite at a drive-in in the southern part of the wasteland, Old World Blues’ map, known as The Big Empty, is a completely separate area and, once completed, can be revisited for mop-up duties any time. You can take all of your current loot with you, and whatever you find can be brought back. Bringing along a companion was prohibited.
In Old World Blues the player wakes up to discover him or herself in a patient’s gown with a fresh set of scars. Stumbling into the Think Tank, you discover your brain has been removed by the facility’s unsettling robotic inhabitants. For what seems to be the hell of it, they also removed and replaced your heart and spinal cord, but, as a trade off, you’re given a new set of traits that make you particularly adept at resisting chem addiction, but more skilled at taking down robots (along with a handful of other perks). In an exhausting conversion, you’re then told you’re in the middle of a research facility, known as The Big Mountain Research Facility, and the surrounding land is composed of bunkers and buildings that once housed grand experiments. Your captors are cagey about venturing beyond their lab, and task you with a handful of missions to aid their vague purpose. In exchange, they promise to lead you back to your brain.
What’s immediately apparent of Old World Blues is how damn weird everything is. Bethesda and Obsidian’s interpretation of the Fallout universe has always erred more toward a sinister spectacle than a dark comedy, but the tables are turned with Old World Blues. Take, for example, your new robot overlords. A collection of brilliant scientists, they transferred their consciousnesses into crudely designed robots composed of giant TV screens broadcasting crude approximations of eyes and mouths. Time and relative isolation have more or less wrecked their minds, and each boasts a rather insane personality. Dr. Klein, the purported ringleader, speaks in all capital letters and mistakes your toes for an array of penises. Dr. Dala is a subtle pervert, Dr. Borous is (or was, I wasn’t really sure) a cannibal, and Dr. 8 speaks exclusively in symbols (^%#@&%$). Each of the Think Tank doctors offers either a side mission or generous set of optional dialogue in which they player can solve some of their more uh, personal problems.
And then there’s The Sink. Ostensibly, the The Sink is your general base of operations, but it’s really an excuse for exhibiting a collection of characters even crazier than the deranged doctors. By combing through the facilities of the The Big Empty the player can find holotapes with personalities for The Sink’s various facilities. Practically this means activating certain bonuses for the player. The auto-doc, for example, can alter the player’s appearance, heal wounds, and install cybernetic implants while the Jukebox can tune your Sonic Emitter (a new weapon) to induce particular afflictions upon the mechanized menaces outside the facility. That stuff is neat, but the actual personalities within the facilities steal the show. The toaster is a violent maniac hell bent on engaging oblivion while remaining completely ignorant to its lack of actual power. The Book Chute hates communism and is driven to transform any pre-war book into a collection of blank pages. There is also a set of rival light switches and, of course, a sink in The Sink that functions as a sink. Marrying endearing personalities to practical applications was a genius move, as doubly reinforces interaction with every character.
It’s immediately clear that the folks at Obsidian had a lot of fun writing these characters. One dimensional personalities are forgivable (even expected) given that the cliental of Big Mountain are literally robots with one specific purpose. The writing team turned a limitation into strength, and issued a series of characters that were a pure delight to engage and exhaust every dialogue option. It was quite a change from the unending lines of text I pushed through during much of New Vegas-proper, and did well to remedy a tired aesthetic and aging mission structure.
Playing with dialogue is undoubtedly the best part of Old World Blues, but the missions are no slouch either. Most are simple fetch quests; go into a research facility and kill whatever until you find the prize, but there are a few standout instances. Bits of stealth are required at the X-13 facility, while the Sonic Emitter can be upgraded to remove energy walls elsewhere. The most impressive bits of The Big Empty, while only loosely tied to a few missions, are found in the Higgs village. A suburban pocket intended to house the facility’s staff, exploring the houses in the neighborhood yielded unique assets along with bits and pieces of narrative inferred by the furnishings inside the dwellings. It was an odd pocket of serenity, and a nice break from the endless waves of antagonists outside its gates.
Mechanized scorpions, lobotomized denizens, nightstalkers, and robodogs populate the odds and ends of The Big Empty. Thankfully a rather robust assortment of new weapons is available to aid the player in killing everything out there. The LEAR is a super powerful rapid-fire laser gun, the K9000 cyber dog combines a dogs brain with magnum ammo and does some rather peculiar dog-like things I’d rather not spoil, and the Proton Axe is geared toward melee’ing robots. On the defensive end, the X-13 cardiac regulator sneak suit can be collected and assembled into a stealthy apparatus. It also vocally monitors the player’s surroundings, as well as automatically issuing stimpaks and other healing items as needed. There’s a ton of loot out there, and not all of it in overt locations.
Unfortunately Old World Blues also falls victim to both Fallout 3 and New Vegas’ Achilles’ heel; it runs like garbage. New Vegas undoubtedly hit the triple digit mark in full system crashes when I played through it last fall, and it hasn’t gotten much better. Old World Blues brought the frame rate to a crawl frequently and completely crashed nine or ten times in the eight hours it took me to cover every inch of it. Arguments can be made that a certain amount of jank is forgivable in a large open world with countless options and exceptional freedom, but it still sucks to have to physically unplug my machine and lose whatever progress I had made almost a dozen times.