Choosing “begin again” as the slogan for Fallout: New Vegas’ first downloadable add-on was a bold gambit given how often some players had to do exactly that when the main game crashed on them. But Dead Money’s willingness to “begin again” by taking risks and finding fresh approaches to well-worn Fallout features is one of its greatest strengths.
Initially an Xbox 360 exclusive, this mini-expansion is now available on all platforms. Dead Money takes place in and around the fabled Sierra Madre casino. Once you travel to the casino there’s no escape until events are resolved and, when you’re able to leave, there’s no coming back.
Prior to entry it’s made clear that the Sierra Madre area is designed for players upwards of level 20, primarily because many of the skill checks you’ll encounter are pretty demanding. When you’re inside though, you’ll gain access to extra perks and weapons, and an increased level cap (35 from 30).
Though the opening moments present the premise as a simple (if twisted) heist, it quickly dawns that a fair amount of time will be spent in Dead Money figuring out the mystery of the Madre, its enigmatic owner and the fates of those who dwelt in its shadow. Put simply, Dead Money is a Fallout short story to New Vegas’ sprawling novel.
While playing through, I found myself noting multiple echoes from the Shalebridge Cradle level of Thief: Deadly Shadows. Before fans of that experience get too excited, Dead Money doesn’t deliver scares like the Cradle did, but there are clear similarities. Both make reference to their central building (the Shalebridge asylum/orphanage and the Madre) as a sentient entity, and both include pivotal scenes in which you ‘wake’ the residents with a particularly noisy, unavoidable event. Dead Money’s shuffling, groaning ‘ghost people’ are also not a million miles away from the Cradle’s bound, twitching inmates.
The origins of the ghost people are something I won’t spoil here, but from a design point of view they’re a clear attempt to force players into something other than trivially plugging enemies with headshots. Unless you ensure that the ghost people are suitably messed up (which means ruining a limb or two,) they’ll simply get back up again. This succeeds to a degree, but the mechanic will be pretty much bypassed by characters who get up close and personal in combat. My unarmed-centric courier (‘Astronaut Mike D’) was regularly bursting heads and limbs with his brass knuckles, negating the regeneration effect. As is often the case with videogame enemies, the reality of the ghost people doesn’t quite live up to the fine writing and dialogue that builds them up in the game.
Dead Money’s atmosphere leans more towards survival than fear – particularly in hardcore mode, which causes characters to slowly lose health over time from the deadly toxic cloud surrounding the casino and its grounds. The add-on strips you of items, forcing you to scavenge around to rebuild your inventory. There are special vending machines around the place which can deliver items in return for ‘Sierra Madre caps,’ but these items are rather mundane (food and basic ammo) until you find individual codes for more exotic choices like chems. I never found the code for regular Stimpaks, so when I finally found one for creating Super Stimpaks after a few hairy encounters with larger groups of ghost people it was a huge relief. With enough attention to your surroundings it’s still possible to salvage quite a bit of stuff, but it’s novel to be thrust back into a situation of some scarcity after hours of plenty with a high level character in Fallout: New Vegas.
Two other things introduced by Dead Money also seem intended to throw players out of their cosy comfort zones. Holograms patrol certain sections of the Madre casino and cannot be killed by normal means. You must either sneak by them (not too tough, as their vision is poor and they can take time to identify you) or find the individual emitters and destroy them.
Thanks to a bomb collar placed around your neck before the events of Dead Money properly begin to unfold, speakers and radios are out to kill you too. Their frequencies will cause your collar to steadily beep faster if you get too close, ultimately ending with some head-pop confetti. The system works well for ratcheting up tension, especially during periods where your health is a bit low and you’re already being pursued by enemies. It can be all too easy to panic and try to just race through an area in the hope of getting out of speaker-radius before the inevitable. At other times, though, you’ll realise the speakers are being used as an invisible designers hand, shepherding you around a specific route in a rather un-Fallout-like fashion. This is particularly the case with the special, indestructible speaker type. My experience with them was roughly one moment of mild annoyance for every triumphant dash or slow, methodical circumnavigation.
The new companions you’ll meet along the way with Dead Money are well written, with convincing back-stories, motivations and engaging dialogue. Chris Avellone (who was responsible for most of the writing here) seems to be able to create believable RPG characters almost at will, and the ones who appear here remind me why Avellone is one of the few videogame writers I can actually name. I’m deliberately avoiding specific details to keep away from needless spoilers, but all of the companions are the equals of those who appear in New Vegas. The only issue is their in-travel dialogue, which should’ve been left on a longer timer because hearing the same stuff being said behind you again and again as you pick your way quietly through the Spanish-influenced architecture can get kind of old. One particular hologram inside the casino is even worse for this, and it changes a potentially creepy situation into a bit of an irritation.
Dead Money’s main narrative thread is a satisfying slow-reveal of all that has transpired at the Sierra Madre. It’s by and large a mystery (with a side-order of heist movie and the repeated theme of ‘letting go’ tactfully interwoven,) so there will be times when all is not clear. But if you’re left with plot-specific questions, you simply needed to explore more to reveal the answers. The quest design is perhaps a little more pedestrian, with the pattern largely restricted to: (1) find your heist buddies (2) get your heist buddies in position (3) now you’re inside, find them all over again. With your three comrades so intertwined with the plot, you’re always pursuing objectives in triplicate.
While Dead Money narrowly misses the mark with its attempts to be scary, and not all of the design decisions appear to pay off as intended, it’s an excellent expansion of the Fallout world. It works as a standalone adventure, separate from the Mojave of the main game, but also manages to keep a grip on the wider picture. There’s no end of foreshadowing to be heard if you listen carefully and one character in particular keeps the link to New Vegas well and truly alive. As a short (ish – my play through took about six hours) narrative it succeeds on almost every level, and shows exactly how the concept of DLC should be used to add new, standalone experiences to games.
Oh yes, it also didn’t crash on me at all. But New Vegas was pretty stable too, so I guess I was one of the lucky ones.