Dead Money is the first DLC expansion for the hugely popular but insanely broken Fallout: New Vegas. Released last month for Xbox,Dead Money not only adds a very large quest in an entirely new area, but raises the level cap to 35 and comes hot on the heels of a major update that promises to fix many of the bugs which caused this reviewer to dock a full star off our review score, and consider not considering the game for The Escapist‘s Game of the Year award.

Before jumping into the overview of Dead Money, I wanted to mention that the update (patch) actually did fix a great many bugs in Fallout: New Vegas, which is both good and bad. Good in that those bugs are now gone, of course, but bad in that there were so, so many of them needing to be quashed. Seriously, a game that incredibly broken in so many ways (up to and including averaging one hard lock crash per ten hours of play) should not have been released without a “Beta” sticker. In any event, most of the bugs have been fixed (although there are now a few more), so let’s move on to discussion of Dead Money.

Dead Money introduces players to the fabled Sierra Madre Casino, nestled somewhere deep in the Mojave Wasteland. After downloading the DLC pack, players receive the Sierra Madre Casino radio signal and will notice a new location on the map, an abandoned Brotherhood of Steel bunker just South of NCR Camp Forlorn Hope. The radio signal is an advertisement for the casino, extolling the virtues of “beginning again,” and the bunker is little more than a basement with a radio in it. Walk towards the radio and BAM!

CUE: BioShock camera swoop. FADE TO WHITE, then FADEUP to SETTING: Sierra Madre, where you find yourself talking to the holographic image of a man who informs you that A) you have a bomb around your neck and B) he will make it explode if you don’t help him break into the Sierra Madre Casino. Thus begins the heist portion of the DLC, or as I like to call it “Tediously escorting three endlessly-nattering companions (well, two and a half, really) to random places on the map that have no bearing on anything whatsoever.”

The new companions in Dead Money, while suffering from an even more severe shortage of dialogue than their main game counterparts, are nevertheless fun and interesting characters. I actually enjoyed them more than the companions in New Vegas. They are (in no special order): Dog, the schizophrenic super mutant; Dean Domino, the one-time New Vegas-headlining crooner; and Christine, the mutilated mute with a mysterious past. Christine, in particular, is fascinating and her background, once revealed, will raise a few eyebrows for long time fans of the Fallout games.

The three are allegedly going to help you with your quest to infiltrate the casino and help your tormentor, a man named Father Elijah, plunder its riches, but in actuality they don’t do much. The first half of the game, in fact, involves wandering around with them in the villa just outside of the casino and leading them to odd locations from which they will theoretically help you get the doors open. It’s a bit convoluted and silly and, I suspect, engineered to make the quest feel longer than it needs to be.

That’s where the knocks on Dead Money end though, because it brings a great deal to the table that is both much-appreciated and sorely absent from previous Fallout titles. Namely: tension. The new enemies, the mysterious “Ghost People,” feel somehow more sinister than anything yet devised for a Fallout game, and in any event are surprisingly difficult to kill. This, combined with the first ever genuine shortage of weapons and ammunition in a Fallout game (odd, considering these are “post apocalypse” games), and the introduction of “the Cloud” a toxic gas slowly consuming the Sierra Madre, serve to introduce an element of dread, making Dead Money worth playing for the adrenaline alone.

Plus, it’s damn hard. The game warns you before you begin the quest that it is recommended for characters at level 20 and above and I would urge you to heed this warning. I started the quest at level 18 and came very close to having to start over from scratch, having backed myself into a corner with no ammunition and very little health. Triumphing in the face of that adversity felt genuinely rewarding, but the trial and error involved was time consuming. A stronger character would have been more fun to play.

In addition to the companions and enemies, Dead Money adds new outfits and weapons which will be a treat for players already bored with New Vegas‘s offerings. The Assassin Suit provides bonuses for stealthy play and the Sierra Madre armor is just plain cool in that Mad Max kind of way. On the weapon front, the Police Pistol offers 357 Magnum punch in a concealable package, while the Automatic Rifle gives fans of the powerful .308 ammunition the fully-automatic weapon they’ve always wanted. It’s effectively useless at the Sierra Madre, where you will be lucky to find enough ammo to fill a single clip, but once you take it home it may easily become your favorite weapon of all time. You will also get a Holo-Rifle as your first new weapon, which fires some kind of holographic projectile and looks way cooler than it actually is.

In short, Dead Money is a near-perfect expansion. It breaks the style and mechanics of the original game just enough to offer something truly unique – but not so much that it feels out of place – and adds enough new content to give players a reason to spend even more time with the game than they already have (I’m at 200+ hours and counting). The story is inventive and enjoyable (if a touch overwrought at times) and all of the new elements are welcome additions. I finished playing Dead Money wishing it had been longer – or that the main game of New Vegas had shown as much polish and inventiveness.

Bottom Line: Worth the shekels for those who are enjoying New Vegas in spite of its technical flaws and are curious to see what creative minds can do with the powerful and engaging Fallout mechanics.

Recommendation: Buy it.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Fallout: New Vegas – Dead Money
Genre: RPG
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: December 21, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360
Available from: Xbox Live

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