DLC review: Fallout: New Vegas - Dead Money

After your Pip-Boy picks up a new radio signal, you are granted access to an abandoned bunker formerly used by the Brotherhood of Steel. Moments after entering, gas fills the bunker and you pass out only to awaken in the courtyard of the Sierra Madre, a first-class casino that never got a chance to see its glory days thanks to the nuclear war. You are instructed by Father Elijah to seek out three others who will participate in a heist with you, and he informs you that - thanks to the explosive collar around your neck - you have no choice but to cooperate. The first stretch of your mission has you rounding up your partners-in-crime - a split-personality super mutant named Dog, a mute human named Christine, and a former musical star Ghoul named Dean Domino. While Father Elijah comes across as a demanding prick, these three prove a colorful cast amidst the hopeless backdrop of the Sierra Madre.

From the moment you set foot inside the Sierra Madre Villa, you are denied use of anything and everything you might have gathered during your adventures in the Mojave. Your weapons, apparel, aid, and bottle caps have all been taken by Father Elijah. While the Sierra Madre Villa is a decent size, there isn't much of anything to explore. There is a hologram merchant who can sell you a few useful items, but you'll have to sell other things that you find in the area, since you have no caps on you. Certain areas are blocked off by toxic gas, though Dean Domino grants you a perk that allows you to walk through it unharmed. Far more frustrating are the numerous traps inside of seemingly every building and the speakers that set your collar on a timed countdown. Some speakers are easy to spot and can be destroyed, saving your life. Others cannot be destroyed at all and you must find a nearby computer terminal in order to shut off the speakers and save your brain from being splattered all over the walls. The DLC does not bother to differentiate between the two types of speakers, and thus it is up to you, the player, to be extra cautious anytime your collar begins to beep.

Dead Money introduces two new types of enemies, the first ones you encounter being the various rankings of Ghost People that inhabit the Sierra Madre Villa outside of the actual casino. The Ghost People place an interesting spin on traditional combat, as they are capable of jumping incredible distances as they dodge your attacks. They bear a creepy visage by wearing gas masks and hoods, and they will only fall unconscious when their health bar reaches zero. If you do not follow this up by hacking their limbs off, the Ghost People will rise back up and continue fighting. However, combat as a whole proves rather frustrating, as only a very small number of stimpacks can be found in the Sierra Madre. Access to food is also restricted, as the vast majority of it is accessible only through vending machines that require you to collect Sierra Madre chips. And as most of these chips are found in areas crawling with Ghost People, the result is zero-sum as you've fought long and hard to spend your chips and end up using all of your food to heal the wounds that you earned fighting to get those chips in the first place. To top things off, once you've completed the first leg of your trials in the Sierra Madre Villa, the game sends a horde of Ghost People to throw spears and gas bombs at you while your struggle to make your way back to the central fountain so that you can continue on to the casino portion. Hologram patrols await within, and they can strike you down with a just a few ranged hits. Combat is incredibly unforgiving, even if you are playing with a fully leveled-up character, and this entire approach seems poorly planned.

The casino portion is relatively short - less than an hour if you have decent stats in lock picking. You will interact with your three partners briefly, in scenarios that test your abilities to sneak and play defensively. As you explore the upper floors of the Sierra Madre and the vault beneath, the loudspeakers come back into play, though it is (once again) frequently unclear if the speakers in the immediate area can actually be destroyed or if you simply need to high-tail it to a nearby safe zone (usually a secluded corner or hallway between rooms). What should be a relatively short distance to travel ends up taking the most time out of anything in the casino, and frequent saves are recommended.

In the end, you don't earn as much in the way of special items or equipment as you do in the other Fallout: New Vegas DLC packs. Those weapons that are exclusive to the Sierra Madre prove mediocre when compared to the high end of what the Mojave can offer. The presentation of the Sierra Madre incorporates an atmosphere along the lines of action-horror, which is an interesting and welcome spin on the adventure-RPG formula already established. In many ways, Dead Money feels like more work than it's worth, and can be thoroughly frustrating in large chunks. It is not uncommon for the early DLC packs for a game to feel weaker than those that follow, but it seems counter-intuitive for Bethesda to have released the most challenging one first.

My rating: 6 (out of 10)*

*(rating applies solely to downloadable content, not its inclusion with the content on the original game disc or other downloadable content)

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