For years, Black Isle was Bioware’s ugly little sister, obfuscated by her flashier, more popular sibling, but owning deeper charms that would give rise to such seminal works as “Fallout” or “Planescape Torment”. While working on an unreleased “Fallout 3”, the company came to pass, leaving behind two promising spawns that rose from its ashes: the now extinct Troika (“Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines”) and Obsidian. The latter went on to the most promising of starts, “Knights of the Republic II – The Sith Lords”, Chris Avellone’s spiritual sequel to “Torment”, a game of refined, mature storytelling, whose prose remains unmatched in the genre still today. But what befell next? “Neverwinter Nights 2”, a pathetic exercise in meta-humoristic parody, so absorbed in its tropes and typifications it seemed to hark back to an early C-RPG age. “Alpha Protocol”, an insipid and paradoxical convolution between classicist RPG ideals and a populist desire to please the “military shooter” audiences. Knees deep in lesser projects, one began wondering what happened to the creative minds that so utterly defined their genre. And so we come to “New Vegas”, Obsidian’s last redeeming chance to set things right, and tell the world how would “Fallout 3” be, had Black Isle been able to complete it.
Let us get the unfortunate constraints from out of the picture: J.E. Sawyer (“Icewind Dale II”) and company were limited to a game structure not of their own making, forced to work in Bethesda’s engine to deliver their own vision. T’is a heavy burden for Obsidian, to deliver what is, for all intents and purposes, an overwrought “Fallout 3” expansion pack. The engine hasn’t aged well, the aesthetics remain somewhat drab and incoherent, and the gameplay suffers from constant feelings of déjà vu. Minor changes here and there keep our perception of repetition deluded: grey has toned its way for sepia, cold-war zeitgeist has taken western overtones and the barren landscape now contrasts with the neon-lit “New Vegas” casinos, those flashy, gaudy dens of sin that are the focus of the game’s narrative. And therein lies the most notable facet of this adventure: Avelone’s branching penning remain’s witty and bold, delving into harsh subject matters which Bethesda is incapable of pursuing. “New Vegas” deals with Man’s perversions in a society-less world without obfuscating the violence and depravity of it all, tackling such themes as cannibalism, prostitution, the horrors of war, capitalist ambition, religious fanaticism, fascism, etc, etc.
The tone is unpretentious and light, embodying that very special brand of dry humor that is so characteristic of “Fallout”. What ultimately fails here is that this discourse never moves beyond literary expression, remaining ever-enclosed in those eerie first person dialogues inaugurated by “Oblivion”. This represents clearly “New Vegas” fall from grace: it’s a work filled with potential, but delivered by designers who can’t seem to move beyond the stylistic coordinates of classic RPG tropes. The gameplay ideal that underlies all of the experience is archaic, mechanicist, inorganic and unnaturalist, lacking in aesthetic splendor and quality craftmanship. The game opens with a dated FMV, cherishes abstract, stat-based gameplay, incentivizes hoarding and compulsive quest-solving and is riddled with text and text and more text. For all this, and much more, it soon dawns on you that Obsidian really is a new Black Isle, but one that never got past the nineties. It’s 2010, time to move on.