Fallout: New Vegas – Honest Hearts Review
If Dead Money was an add-on aimed more at the Fallout: New Vegas player who values character-led narrative, Honest Hearts is throwing the explorers a bone (and throwing it quite far so they have to actually look for it). The location makes this latest expansion a lot more open than Dead Money, providing ample opportunities for interesting side-quests and points of interest around the landscape.
Set in Utah’s Zion National Park, Honest Hearts lures the player in with the traditional Fallout carrot of a dangerous and foolhardy venture before chucking them into an even more volatile situation involving the Park’s tribal inhabitants. The clifftop paths and raging rivers of this location give this DLC a distinct look (as the Spanish villa architecture did for Dead Money), and make for another neat change of scenery. If you were bothered by the invisible walls infecting the cliffs of New Vegas, the ability to climb up practically anything here should come as a relief. The addition of rain is also a great touch, though PC players may be used to such things already if they’ve dabbled in the mod scene.
As this Fallout, you won’t be too surprised to learn that Zion’s picturesque hiking trails are now the dwelling places for oversized and angry creatures, including gigantic versions of the Yao Guai found in Fallout 3. There are also herbs and plants aplenty, so a character with both “Animal Friend” perks and some survival skills should have a slight advantage. If not, you’ll have to rely on what weaponry you’ve been able to cram into Honest Heart’s sneaky weight limit to see you through.
It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to mention that Joshua Graham (who New Vegas players should recognise as ‘The Burned Man’, Caeser’s former right-hand man) has returned to his former home and now leads The Dead Horses – one of the canyon’s tribes. Across the Park, another tribe called The Sorrows is guided by Graham’s fellow New Caananite, Daniel. Both are threatened by the encroaching White Legs from Salt Lake and their leader Salt-Upon-Wounds. Naturally, it’s your job as protagonist to sort all this business out.
Including The Burned Man in this DLC presented Obsidian’s writers with a problem: his legend was so well developed in New Vegas that meeting him in the (charred) flesh is going to inevitably be a “Huh, I imagined you as taller” moment for a lot of players. It’s a challenge I think they’ve risen to with reasonable success, as conversations with Graham reveal him to be a well-developed character outside of his own mythology. His descent into ‘sin’ (for want of a better term) is believable, given the setting; as are his new motivations for action. Rather than excusing slaughter in the name of power and order, he now justifies his actions by appealing to God’s wrath. In addition, the fact that neither of the New Caananites pronounce Caeser in his preferred Latin fashion is a subtle rejection of his influence over them. It’s a great example of how good writing never spells things out.
Elsewhere, the DLC is prone to over-exposition. Due to what I assume were time and budgetary constraints, the Dead Horses and Sorrows are represented almost entirely by two tribal companions who travel with you through Zion at various points and provide (along with Joshua and Daniel) the vast majority of information about the area and its inhabitants. Other tribal peoples populate the two camps, but don’t have any kind of distinct personality of their own. The Sorrows have a shaman, and there’s a hilarious cameo from a chem-addicted blowhard named Ricky but that’s about it. This means the bulk of Honest Hearts is spent interacting with four people. In Dead Money, this was also the case, but there it made sense due to the circumstances of the add-on. Here, it feels a touch sparse.
The main quests given to the player are also fairly basic. There’s an initial set of three scavenger hunt type missions, followed by another triplicate of more confrontational quests. At this point, you’ll be at the crunch decision that sends you one way or another into the finale. It’s hard to estimate this with complete accuracy, given how differently people can and do play Fallout, but I reached the major decision of the DLC in around three and half hours, with quite a bit of time spent exploring the area. I’m sure others will burn through the whole thing in that kind of time. Motivation for the main quest is also sort of loose before the climax. Yes, I understand why I’m doing these things … but only vaguely. Those initial fetch-quests are set by Joshua Graham in order that you help Daniel achieve his aims, which later doesn’t quite seem to add up.
On a more positive note, the key decision of Honest Hearts is another philosophical classic from Obsidian. Both options have clear merits and down-sides, and players will find themselves able to justify (or condemn) either course of action with solid arguments. Another welcome touch is the inclusion of two ways to solve many of the main quests in the mid-portion of the DLC. Ridding yourself of a serious Yao Guai problem might be as simple (and foolish) as going in guns blazing, but you can also opt to sneak around and blow up their cave, collapsing it on the poor guys.
The real quest-meat comes in side-missions. While it’s not quite as inventive as the one in Point Lookout, there’s a suitably trippy vision quest given by the aforementioned Shaman, and a cute expedition to rescue a stray Bighorn calf. Best of all are the sporadic diary entries left by an unseen character dubbed ‘The Survivalist’, which effortlessly fill in some of the Zion backstory and represent some of the most affecting Fallout writing to date. In fact, Honest Hearts seems to go out of its way to reward the players who’ll really dig around for extra missions and interesting little asides. If you just blitz through the main portions, you’ll probably be left disappointed.
I spotted the notoriously skittish Gamebryo engine getting up to a few old tricks during my playthrough, most memorably when an unfortunate tribal chap kept running in circles up a cliff and over a painful drop until he died, but also a couple of chaps and creatures getting themselves half stuck inside rock faces. Nothing, though, that prevented me progressing. One particularly poor design decision stuck out, however. Early in the DLC, a friendly NPC is in a position where he looks decidedly unfriendly. I suspect many people will accidentally shoot the guy, sending Honest Hearts off in a rather psychopathic direction before players even realise it.
Obsidian have been careful with their “tribal” characterisations, making sure the people here are portrayed as just another group, like raiders or Caesar’s Legion. They’ve also kept the line of judgement on “civilisation” vs “tribal” deliberately vague. Nonetheless, there were a couple of points where I felt the writers fell back on easy references and got a bit close to the old “noble savage” trap. It’s neither offensive nor jarring, just a touch below the developer’s usual high standards.
While Honest Hearts didn’t quite grab me like Dead Money did, it’s another satisfying few hours in a fresh Fallout location. Once you get over Joshua Graham being an actual person rather than a myth, his character is expansive and refreshing (it’s rare that to find a religious NPC this nuanced in RPGs), and the hiking trails of Zion make for decent exploration. It definitely favours players who will stray off the guided track though, as those who focus exclusively on the main quests will miss out on some of the add-on’s hidden narrative treasures.