A love letter to Fallout: New Vegas

Ten years later, New Vegas remains a masterclass in interactive storytelling and RPG design. (Bonus modding guide included!)

In case you’ve never heard of Fallout: New Vegas — it’s a post-apocalyptic action role-playing game, developed by Obsidian Entertainment and released on October 19th, 2010. Many people will tell you that it’s one of the greatest video games ever made, and that the Bethesda-developed Fallout 3 and 4 suck in comparison. Let me go one step further and actually try to explain why. You won’t even have to watch an overlong YouTube video essay, I promise.

New Vegas takes place in the year 2281, 200 years after a world-wide nuclear war destroyed most of the planet, and is set in the North American Mojave desert surrounding the titular city New Vegas (the name for what’s left of Las Vegas). The days of pure anarchic wasteland survival are over, and humanity is in the process of trying to rebuild itself. But as veteran Fallout narrator Ron Perlman keeps reminding us: War never changes.

Like many people, I bumped off of New Vegas the first time. It can feel a bit pedestrian in the beginning. There are no epic action set-pieces or emotional gut-punches during its first hours — instead the game takes it slow, introducing you to its world and factions carefully and from different viewpoints. Only in hindsight, when the difficult decisions start to ramp up and it’s too late to back out, do you realize how deeply you‘ve become invested over time.

The brilliance of New Vegas is how its combination of highly-flexible scripted content, emergent situations, and role-playing opportunities results in a complex, nuanced and very personal story that has the exact right amount of abstraction to come to life inside the player’s head. I don’t know any other game where actual role-playing works as well, and, honestly, I can’t think of many games that do a better job at interactive storytelling.

A small handful of games like The Witcher 3, Persona 5 or Yakuza 6 come to mind, games that successfully managed to make me emotionally invested in their characters and worlds — but then again, their stories are for the most part scripted and linear, and their protagonists rigidly defined, even if The Witcher 3 allows for a number of branching paths and choices with narrative consequences.

On the other hand, there are cases like 80 Days, Crusader Kings II or even Dwarf Fortress — games that are much more open, but primarily excel in their moment-to-moment writing or interplay of mechanics, not necessarily in terms of offering a working emergent plot, with a beginning, a middle and an end, with arcs, twists and turns, where one event leads logically into the next, and the result is a satisfying story with a coherent overarching theme.

New Vegas on the other hand fuses pre-scripted content and emergent storytelling in a way that is simply unmatched to my knowledge (Disco Elysium may be the exception, but I’m ashamed to admit that I have yet to finish a complete playthrough). You have a wealth of options all the time, and the game acknowledges and reacts to nearly all of them. There’s a lot of bigger and smaller factions you can join, but they don’t simply lock you in different story branches. You can of course choose one and be loyal to the end, but you can also run with several at the same time, double-cross them, change back and forth, play them against each other…

It’s not the most visually stunning game, or the one with the most detailed NPC simulation, but the world feels just so incredibly real and lived in. Its layout and infrastructure largely make sense, the world building happens naturally, and the NPCs feel like real people with their own interests, problems and opinions, not like vending machines for quests and exposition. Instead of a collection of theme park attractions, the post-apocalyptic Mojave comes across as an actual society, composed of groups and individuals with a diverse set of competing ideologies. (Turns out that for a game with the theme “War never changes”, having a lead designer and project director who actually has a degree in history kind of helps.)

Sometimes, you will be torn between conflicting interests, political as well as personal. At one point in my last playthrough, my player character had to kill her newfound father figure in cold blood in order to protect the family of the woman she was in love with. It was intense and haunting and tragic, it made total sense as a part of my character’s arc, and it dramatically changed the political power balance in the Mojave. Some elements of this situation were pre-scripted, some evolved from gameplay, some were just my brain connecting the dots — but the way they all worked together was singular to me and that playthrough.

One thing that helps with that is the special (no pun intended) approach to the traditional RPG staple of character attributes: strength, dexterity, charisma etc. In a game like, say, Fallout 4, your character’s attributes are just another thing to level up in order to get those dopamines working. In New Vegas, they’re part of the storytelling, defining what kind of protagonist you want to roleplay. In my first playthrough, I played a gruff, silent Man-With-No-Name loner character with a low tolerance for bullshit. In my last playthrough, I played an emphathetic young woman who’s great with people but a little naive. One time, I started a GTA-V-inspired run as “Trevor”, an unhinged, violent sociopath that insults and/or kills pretty much everyone he sees. No matter what curveball characters you throw at the game — it can handle them. In theory, you could run around, kill every single NPC in the game world (well, except kids — got to draw the line somewhere, I guess) and still get a valid ending.

Speaking of which, I’ve always loved the combat in New Vegas. It’s a whole lot of splattery, darkly comic, Verhoefen-esque violence, and similiar to the Yakuza games, you’re basically directing your own personal emergent over-the-top action sequences — brutal ballets with heads and limbs exploding in glorious slow motion while “Jingle Jangle Jingle” is playing. The one thing I don’t like about it (apart from the fact that it’s almost too good of course) is the weak gunplay (like missing recoil, or enemies barely reacting to being shot), but fortunately this can be greatly improved with a few mods. But before we get to that, some words about the DLC.

Apart from a few stupid preorder items, New Vegas has pretty cool downloadable content in the form of four meaty add-on episodes that each take the player on a largely separate few-hours-long adventure in a new location. If you play New Vegas today, you will probably experience a version of the game that already comes with all the DLCs integrated, so just look at them as four particularly rewarding super-sized optional side quests. Each of them has their own setting, themes and gameplay flair, and all of them are pretty good.

So if you crave a breath of fresh air during your travels through the Mojave or need a small “vacation” from the main quest, your companions etc. then just hit up one of these DLC episodes. You can play them in practically any order, just be sure to play The Lonesome Road last, and as late in the main campaign as possible, to get the most out of them narratively.

Anyway, I could talk about New Vegas for hours, but I have to stop somewhere. If you’ve never experienced it and if what I said sounds in any way appealing to you, go out there and play it already. And if you’re interested in modding the hell out oft it (and you should be, it’s half the fun), keep reading.

Mods, Plugins and Tweaks: A very personal guide

What makes New Vegas such a great and timeless game is the fact that you can really make it your own — and the great thing is, that doesn’t just apply to in-game actions, but to the game itself as well.

If you go to the New Vegas section of Nexus Mods, you can find all sorts of mods, tools and plugins, ranging from simple bugfixes to complete gameplay overhauls or even new quests and locations. Modding a technically flawed gem like New Vegas is a little bit of a game itself, but not terribly complicated, it just depends how deep you want to go. To provide a quick guide, mainly intended for my future self, here is my current personal modding routine.

Paving the road

The first part is a little dry, but also essential: Fixing bugs and crashes, enhancing performance, and establishing a framework for further mods.

Some people like to use a special tool to manage their mods. With Fallout 4, I’m using a program called Mod Organizer 2, and it works great. The most popular equivalent for New Vegas is FOMM (Fallout Mod Manager), but from what I’ve read it seems outdated and unreliable. So as things stand, I prefer to mod New Vegas manually, which is pretty straightforward 90 percent of the time: 1) Open archive. 2) Extract archive into New Vegas’s DATA folder. Every now and then a config file somewhere needs to be edited.

Only catch: Some mods require a certain load order, meaning their contents have to be loaded into the game before or after certain other mods as to not create scripting conflicts or similiar problems. Luckily, there’s an easy solution for that: It’s called LOOT, and it’s a tool that sorts your mods automatically with the press of a button, which is great. The less boring (and error-prone) stuff we have to deal with, the better.

But first things first: Let’s start by installing Fallout: New Vegas, preferably the “Ultimate Edition” that already has all the DLC and official patches. Do not under any circumstances use the version from Bethesda.net, as most mods won’t work with that piece of shit. The Steam version works fine, but I ultimately prefer the GOG release. There’s no DRM, no fucking around with the Steam folders, and, most importantly, the GOG version supports 4GB RAM out of the box. With any other version, we’d need a separate mod for that (this one).

So now that New Vegas is installed, let’s boot it up once, just to be sure that the Windows registry entries, ini files etc. are created correctly and all that. The we exit the game again.

Next step: We make sure that our Microsoft Visual C++ 2015–2019 Redistributable (x86) library is up-to-date. You can get it here. If it asks us to “repair” or “uninstall”, then we already have it installed and just select “repair”. One and done.

Next up is the New Vegas Script Extender (NVSE) (extract into the New Vegas root folder, where the .exe is) as well as the JIP LN NVSE and JohnnyGuitar NVSE plugins (extract into the New Vegas DATA folder). As the names suggest, these three greatly expand upon what modders can do with scripting and are therefore a basic requirement for many other mods. Some mods have different options you can configure, and for that we need The Mod Configuration Menu (aka MCM — modders really love their abbreviations) and User Interface Organizer (UIO).

I like my games like I like my men: smooth and stable

Now, let’s fix a shitton of New Vegas’s bugs by installing the Yukichigai Unoffical Patch (YUP), again by simply extracting it into the DATA folder.

The next step is to boost the game’s performance and get rid of its annoying-as-hell micro-stuttering. My tool of choice is the New Vegas Tick Fix (NVTF), which is optimized for Windows 10. Also, we want to stop the game from randomly crashing with New Vegas Anti Crash (NVAC).

Okay, the dirty footwork is over. Let’s get to the fun part. From now on, the choice of mods is simply a matter of taste.

Git HUD

First off, New Vegas’s UI is horrible. You have tiny windows with huge text, and after a while you will go crazy looking for that one item in your inventory. There are lots of UI and HUD mods, but I tend to stick with the positively ancient MTUI. It was last updated ten (!) years ago, but it is simple, looks good (but not too different), and does the job.

One thing I’ll mention, even if I personally always managed well without it, are the different mods that adds the quick loot menu from Fallout 4. I remember an article where a journalist said that they couldn’t get into the game until they installed one of those. It’s pretty damn convenient for sure, but I don’t know — I kind of like the small sense of surprise when opening a container or searching a body, and I also prefer to make an active decision of what to loot after examining the environment, instead of menus popping up wherever I look. If you think it’s for you, I’d imagine that Just Loot Menu does the job well, as my experiences with mods from the author have always been good.

Concerning the HUD, I’m actually okay with the look of the vanilla one, except for the fact that it is way too intrusive. Things like the HP and AP bars are displayed all the time, even if you don’t need them, cluttering the screen and killing immersion. To rectify that, I use an awesome tool called IStewieAI’s tweaks, which allows you to tweak countless aspects of the game to your liking, the most important being the option to switch certain HUD elements off and on with the press of a button. You can even add RGB sliders for the UI, making it possible to change it to any color you prefer without being constricted to just yellow/white/green/blue.

Now and then, I like to turn the whole UI off for the purpose of taking screenshots, but that can be done very quickly in-game with the console command “tm” (toggle menus). Also great for screenshots: “tfc” (toggle free camera).

Last, but not least, we want to get rid of the annoying pop-up messages at the beginning of the game, announcing that DLC was added and the level cap raised, which also has the side effect of cluttering your quest log with stuff you aren’t high-level enough to do at that point. Delay DLC allows you to discover the DLC content naturally in the course of the game.

Low FOV and no head bobbing are crimes against humanity

Now let’s get to one of my personal game-changer mods: Enhanced Camera. What this does is giving the player character an actual visible body and shadow in first person mode. It also disables forced switches to third person, like when sitting down. Yes — being able to sit on a couch in first person, look down, and actually see myself and what I’m wearing, makes my immersion shoot through the roof. I’m a hangout gamer, after all.

One additional, very important feature of Enhanced Camera has to be activated manually in the NVSE_EnhancedCamera.ini file (found in DATA\NVSE\plugins) by changing the value “bEnableHeadBob” to 1. Voilá! Now the player character feels like an actual person instead of a floating camera.

A big remaining problem, which especially concerns third-person mode, is the lack of diagonal movement animations for the player character, which leads to the character sliding around unnaturally whenever he or she doesn’t move strictly in one of the four cardinal directions. The most famous solution for this is the mod Diagonal Movement, which seems to be great, but unfortunately is not compatible with Enhanced Camera. For that reason, I use the more modern DiaMoveNVSE, which offers Enhanced Camera compatibility out of the box, and even allows useful tweaks to the third-person camera. Now playing in third-person actually feels like a viable way to experience the game.

And while we are on the topic of player movement: One of the bigger flaws of Vanilla New Vegas is the slow movement speed, which makes traveling the Mojave kind of a chore at times. There are a number of mods that add a sprinting button and animation to the game, my personal favorite being Just Vanilla Sprint. To ensure it looking good with DiaMoveNVSE, I recommend setting the function of the strafe keys while sprinting to “turn” instead of “nothing” in the mod’s MCM settings.

One of my favorite things to complain about in games is a low FOV (field of view). The default is 75. Unless you’re looking at a tiny monitor from across the room, crank that bitch up to at least 85. To do this properly requires the following steps:

  • Go to Users\[Username]\Documents\MyGames\FalloutNV
  • Deactivate “Read-only” on Fallout.ini and open it.
  • Change fDefaultFOV to 85.0.
  • Change fDefault1stPersonFOV to 65.0.
  • Add the line “fDefaultWorldFOV=85.0” to the [Display] section.
  • Save the file and reactivate “Read-only”.
  • Go to the New Vegas root directory.
  • Make the same changes to Fallout_default.ini.

Phew!

It’s my party

If you enjoy the companion mechanics in the game, you may want to get JIP Companions Command and Control to make the most out of it.

Not only does JIP CCC offer a toggleable GUI for quick and easy management your companions, it also greatly enhances the things you can do with them, like checking their stats, dressing them up to your liking, letting them relax or even do useful stuff instead of standing around, or having an unlimited number of them follow you at the same time (though in my experience, a maximum of three is advisible if you want anything left to do in combat — alternatively, turn the difficulty up to give the enemies more hit points).

Pimp my Mojave

I respect the hell out of the writing and world-building in New Vegas, and even with a playtime in the triple digits, there is still a ton of stuff I haven’t even seen. So I’m generally not too interested in adding fan-authored content, like new locations, quests or NPCs (even if the New Vegas Bounties series by someguy2000 is supposedly really good). Unless you have played New Vegas before multiple times, I would advise saving things like that for the postgame.

New Vegas has no postgame, you say? It has now, thanks to FPGE — Functional Post Game Ending. Unlike similiar mods, this one doesn’t just let you continue playing after the credits, it also takes the changed world-state into account, including restoring cut NPC dialog that was recorded for that purpose. It’s cool, but not perfect, and I don’t see it as strictly necessary, because the narratives of all quests, DLC, and even most fan-made quest mods take place before the final showdown of the main game. Also, in my opinion, the original ending does an awesome job of wrapping up the story in a satisfying way.

Kind of related, but way more important, are these two: Uncut Wasteland and The Living Desert.

Uncut Wasteland brings back a whole lot of world detail and NPCs that have been cut after release in order to increase performance on consoles. So this is not one of those cases of “Here is our fan fiction of what the devs would have probably done with more time and resources”, but stuff that actually was in the final game at one point.

The Living Desert is probably my single favorite mod for New Vegas. One of the greatest aspects of the base game is how dynamically the story reacts to your decisions, but the Mojave itself never truly reflected that. It always felt a bit static and empty, sometimes leaving you with the feeling that you’re the only one in the world actually travelling around and being pro-active. With this mod, the desert finally comes to life: traders travel from town to town, prospectors explore the wasteland, soldiers patrol, raiders raid, and so on. These events are not purely random, but depend on the world state, bringing a great deal of emergent moments to the game and making the world feel even more alive and reactive. And again, like with Uncut Wasteland, all of this is accomplished by skillfully shuffling around and restoring vanilla assets — no fan fiction.

Concerning the look of the game world, there is currently only one mod I use to make it “prettier”, and that’s Nevada Skies, which changes weather and lighting, greatly adding to the atmosphere. Nevada Skies is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s a bit buggy and inconsistent. On the other hand, a sandstorm ravaging through the Mojave is something to behold. Most importantly though: It makes nighttime actually look light nighttime, instead of daytime with a blue filter slapped over it, which is something I absolutely could not do without. There are other mods that do similiar things, but I haven’t found the perfect one yet. So until then, its impressive effects and wide array of customization options make Nevada Skies the default winner, even if I wouldn’t classify it as “essential”, as long as you can find another mod that fixes nighttime lighting.

Mechanical underpinnings

Like with the design of the game world, I tend to be extremely conservative in regards to modding gameplay mechanics. At the end of the day, I love New Vegas, and don’t want to turn it into a different game.

There is one exception, but with good reason: JSawyer is mod from the actual lead designer and project director of Fallout: New Vegas himself, Josh Sawyer, which rebalances the game — especially hardcore mode — to make it more interesting and challenging.

For example, stimpaks in the vanilla game are basically broken, because they can heal you instantly at any time. As long as you have enough of them (and in non-hardcore mode they don’t even have weight), you are practically invincible. With JSawyer, stimpaks take a few seconds to heal you (like in Fallout 4).

JSawyer is no mod for a first playthrough, but at least one aspect of it is too good to pass up: the preorder items included with the Ultimate Edition are scattered throughout the game world instead of just dumped in your inventory at the beginning of the game. Fortunately, there is a mod only for that: JSawyer Scattered Preorder Items.

Golden gunplay

Improving the gunplay in New Vegas is all about identifying the parts of it that don’t work for you, and then systematically fixing them. Here’s what I ended up with.

First, Immersive Recoil, B42 Weapon Inertia and Gun Follows Crosshair in First Person make the movement of the weapons itself feel better. Like I said, your mileage may vary, but the last one is pretty essential in my book and adresses a simple problem that should have been fixed in the base game.

Then, there’s the problem of enemies barely reacting to being shot. To fix that, I use a combination of Immersive Hit Reactions and Ragdolls. Both can be configured using the Mod Configuration Menu, so you can tweak both to figure out the settings you like.

Last, we pimp the crosshair with Just Dynamic Crosshair and Just Hit Marker. I don’t actually use the dynamic crosshair much, but again the mod gives you a lot of configuration options, and I prefer a simple dot to the ugly default crosshair. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way of fixing the completely broken third-person-aiming crosshair behaviour from the base game.

The (again highly configurable) hit marker is the interface equivalent to the improved hit reactions from enemies — giving you that last missing piece of feedback and extra satisfaction.

Weirdly specific stuff

Before we close, two examples of how niche some of these mods can get. Chances are that if something bugs you about New Vegas, well, “there’s a mod for that”.

I mentioned that my last playthrough was with a female character. The female sitting animation in New Vegas just doesn’t look good or comfortable. But no worries: Female Sitting Animation Replacer is here to remedy that.

And because my character was a decent lass, she of course joined the bro-est gang in the Wasteland, The Kings. Sadly, there’s no female hairstyle available in the game that quite matches their Elvis-inspired look. Unless of course, you install You’re the King in Disguise — Pomp and Tunnel Snake Hairstyles for Female NPCs.

Glorious PC gaming master race indeed.

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