Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money was a nice little experiment, but like a science fair volcano with way too much baking soda, the mess that followed wasn't worth the trouble. Numerous cheap deaths along with straying too far from the core Fallout experience made Obsidian’s first crack at New Vegas DLC more annoying than fun. The good news is that their second attempt in the form of Honest Hearts is a dramatic improvement over Dead Money, but its general soundness opens up all new problems that are slowly starting to demand attention from the developers.
Honest Hearts starts out in familiar fashion, as installing the content will enable a radio broadcast to lead your character along on his new journey. This time, the broadcast comes from the Happy Trails caravan, who is recruiting for an expedition to Zion National Park in southern Utah to help locate a group of traders they've lost contact with. The park itself has warring tribes fighting for control, and one of these tribes is referred to as the White Legs. They don't like you. In fact, they hate you so much that they completely destroy your caravan and kill everyone aboard while you manage to escape upon first entering the park.
So now you're stuck in the middle of Utah, but one look at your surroundings will show this isn't as bad as it sounds. It turns out that Zion has been nearly unaffected by the nuclear destruction, so the serene beauty of the park's world-famous canyons and caverns is intact and ready for exploration. Foliage naturally grows throughout the land and the rivers are clean with fish merrily swimming around to boot. It's a far cry from pretty much every single other location ever depicted in any Fallout game to date, which further solidifies the setting as the best part of the whole pack.
Above: Zion National Park is one of the most beautiful places on planet Earth, and it's very well represented here
What makes it ever better is how it uses its varied landscape to enhance gameplay. There's a certain verticality to the environment that helps Honest Hearts distinguish itself from the mostly flat, desolate landscapes that make up most of New Vegas. You'll end up spending just as much time laying waste to giant, majestic beasts and overgrown Yao Guais as you will taking it to the White Legs, which adds to the naturalistic vibe of Honest Hearts. Also, the areas seem far more wide open over the confined spaces of the main game, which makes combat a more long range affair.
The one thing Dead Money had going for it was its great story, which was due to the eclectic cast of characters that accompanied you, but the same unfortunately can't be said of Honest Hearts. It's not a bad little yarn, but it's somewhat uneventful and not quite up to Fallout's lofty standards. There's only one interesting character to speak to, and while the deformed Joshua Graham is certainly a highlight whom you'll want to know more about by the time the credits roll, the natives that inhabit Zion don't keep the player involved enough to form an attachment.
Above: What's wrong with your face?!
However the biggest problem with Honest Hearts has little to do with the story or the content's design, but rather the game itself. Since the release of Fallout 3 over two years ago, nearly everything that game excelled at, from the dialogue system to the interactivity of the world, has been done significantly better in other games. New Vegas got away with this somewhat due to the extremely high quality narrative and script, and since Honest Hearts doesn't have that to fall on, the formula is starting to dramatically show its age. There are only so many times that going into VATS and electing to shoot whatever is running at you four times in the face can be entertaining, and that well is drying quickly. Finally, the environments, while artistically pleasing, aren't up to current standards, and the character models are uglier than ever with facial animations that are now downright laughable.
This is further exemplified by the rather standard main quest line that doesn't veer too far off from the “go here, grab this, talk to this guy, kill some dudes” mission template. There's the now mandatory moral quandary that takes the final half hour or so of the pack in different directions depending on your decision, but that's about as varied as it gets. Honest Hearts is also significantly shorter than Dead Money, as about three hours is all you'll need to complete it unless you want to squeeze another hour or two out of the side quests. Also those quintessential Fallout crashes are in full effect here, as the game pooped the bed on us a few times during the review process.
Above: Luckily, fire axes are an indigenous plant in this region of Utah, as the natives have been using them in combat for generations
It's not that Honest Hearts is good or bad, it's just kinda there. After two giant games alongside now seven DLC packs, we're not as excited to enter the destroyed-beauty apocalypse as we once were. Whether you should play Honest Hearts comes down to this simple question: do you want to keep playing this style of Fallout? If so, this isn't a bad way to go about doing that, and there's always the level cap increase if that's important to you. For everyone else, the change in scenery isn't quite enough to get excited over playing yet another content pack of a rapidly aging game.
May 24, 2011