Here we go again. Fallout 3 spawned more than its fair share of downloadable content packs, spanning the sublime and the ridiculously bad. Dead Money is New Vegas' first piece of DLC... and right from the start, everything appears to be business as usual. A radio message (as always) will lead the Courier into a disturbing standalone tale of intrigue and discovery. Waking up alone, without any gear and and strapped into an explosive collar, players will soon find themselves fulfilling the whim of an enigmatic villain who covets the hidden treasure beneath the legendary Sierra Madre hotel. It's time to round up a team... and discover the deadly secrets hidden within the abandoned resort.
First things first. Yes, Dead Money is just about long enough to warrant its price tag. The main quest is fairly hefty and there's a lot of exploring to do. I'd urge you to rummage through every inch of the levels to make the most of your money (remembering that you can't go back once its completed). If you blow through the story as the crow flies, don't come complaining to me that it didn't last long enough!
Dead Money brings a lot of refreshing new challenges into the New Vegas package. Most obviously, scavenging makeshift weaponry and waging desperate guerilla warfare against your mysterious foes makes a real change from lording it over the Mojave. The brutal 'harvesters' are extremely durable and can only be killed through dismemberment, adding another gory new dimension to the basic combat. Without wanting to give the game away, a number of audial hazards and combat holograms also make the exploration a lot more methodical than just running and gunning.
Once assembled, your team comprise three of the most intriguing characters to have made it into a Bethesda RPG in recent years. A tormented super mutant with a split personality, a mutilated mute with a mysterious past and an obnoxious ghoul all fulfil different combat roles. More importantly, each of your newfound allies harbour plenty of dark secrets, motivations and disturbing backstories that reward chatty players for taking a little extra time.
Dead Money's storyline is well-written, thought-provoking and delivered with exceptional pacing. The sense of complete mystery and isolation creates a profoundly creepy atmosphere that feels more like Bioshock than the traditional Fallout grind. Many horror games, films and books rely on the fear of the unknown to instil a sense of dread in their audience... and though it's never truly scary, Dead Money succeeds at being extremely tense and unnerving.
Hardcore mode adds an extra taxing dimension to the proceedings. As well as being threatened by the dangerous enemies, your companions can be killed by the radioactive poisonous smog that shrouds the Sierra Madre... but your explosive collar is linked to their lifesigns. You die instantly if they pass away, meaning that tactically scouting out dangerous situations and keeping them alive is absolutely paramount. You'll love this tense and tactical new addition to the formula if you love hardcore mode. If you don't, you'll find it an unremitting and inconsiderate slog. Be warned.
The main problem with Dead Money is the level design. The stages are decepitively large and promote fastidious exploration, but they're also labyrinthine and skinned with uniquely boring repeated textures. Criticising a Fallout title for being visually dull seems like flogging a dead brahmin, but most of Dead Money ends up being a bit of a chore that could have done with a splash of colour and considerate map design.
The risk vs reward ratio is also completely ridiculous. It's challenging enough and the story is excellent, but you won't have anything to show for it afterwards besides some weak weaponry and a character level or two under your belt. The level cap increase is the only major payoff, but it feels utterly disconnected and disjointed from the rest of the experience. This unfortunately makes the price tag feel fairly steep despite the hefty amount of content.
- Genuinely creepy atmosphere with a Bioshock flavour
- Unique challenges and scavenging due to lack of gear
- Interesting new companions
- Bland, obnoxious level design
- Disconnected from the New Vegas experience
- Little reward for a lot of hard work
The Short Version: Dead Money succeeds at bringing something unique and interesting to New Vegas. It's creepy, engaging and provides a stiff challenge, but unfortunately the level design doesn't live up to the storytelling. Glory hunters and looters will have a miserable time; but most players will find Sierra Madre to be a thoroughly worthwhile trip.