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Posted by Tagaziel

Fallout: New Vegas Honest Hearts review

Written by Tagaziel

Honest Hearts is the second installment in the Fallout: New Vegas downloadable adventure series, set in the relatively unspoiled wilderness of the post-nuclear remains of the Zion national park, as a war between the inhabitants of Zion and the invading tribes erupts. The player is thrust into the middle of the conflict as the caravan he accompanies is raided and he is forced to aid the tribes in order to return to the Mojave.

Much like Dead Money, Honest Hearts is primarily story and character driven. The main plot focuses on the conflict between the savage White Legs and the indigenous tribals of Zion: the Dead Horses and the Sorrows. Its enjoyable - but linear - quests have to be completed in a predetermined order and it is not until the end that the player can make some real decisions. However, the amount of subplots and background information included in Honest Hearts more than makes up for the simplicity of the main plot.

The most prominent of the subplots is the story of the Survivalist, an ex-soldier who survived the Great War and settled in Zion. Over the years he became a legend, leaving behind an ample supply of caches and terminals hidden in caves across the canyon. Closely following are the backstories of the main characters. Last, but not least, Honest Hearts puts a lot of effort into expanding the universe and putting the adventure in context, rather than keeping it suspended in the void, with no ties to anything. A lot of places are mentioned, ties are estabilished to the Mojave and the Core Region, tribes are provided with the "why" and "how" of their existence; in short, Honest Hearts doesn't feel detached or out of context, but connects to the Fallout universe and does it well.

Much of this is thanks to a cast of distinct characters, foremost Joshua Graham, the Burned Man. Instead of the ultimate evil that eats puppies out of spite, he is a fallen angel that now atones for his sins. Graham is a born-again Christian, having rediscovered God after surviving a fall into the Grand Canyon. However, old habits die hard and while he may be a man of faith once more, he also believes that he cannot rely on God to do all the work, that he must fight for himself and his kin. The Burned Man is a complex character and the treatment he receives in Honest Hearts is appropriate. He is not a comical Bible thumper nor a fanatical zealot nor a crazy religious nut. Graham is a strong character with a lot of intriguing things to say, a lot of depth and an interesting story behind him. However, this portrayal might not sit well with players that expected him to be more like his Van Buren incarnation: brutal, ruthless and if not evil, then at least terrible.

The rest of the characters carry their weight, although they do not stand out. They are, as one might expect from Obsidian, well written and characterized and meeting them is a pleasure, but after you finish Honest Hearts, it's Graham and Keith Szarabajka's voice that you will remember, not the mild-mannered Daniel, the mormon missionary, Waking-Cloud, the Sorrows midwife, or Follows-Chalk, the Dead Horses young scout.

But even if they are not all equally memorable, they do all fit well into the gameplay. Each of of the above will become the player's companion in Honest Hearts at one point or another and each one provides a unique bonus, fitting to the challenges offered. For example, the first companion, Follows-Chalk, provides a perk that boosts the player's perception and uncovers all nearby map markers when he reaches an overlook, such as a ranger station or a peak. This provides an incentive to explore the valley and works well enough. However, companions suffer from one, large flaw - each of them is assigned to the player temporarily for the duration of a quest stage, after which they can no longer be recruited. Hence it is impossible to, say, explore a bit with Follows-Chalk, then swap him for Waking-Cloud in order to fight some White Legs, to then go back to exploration. It's an all-or-nothing sort of deal.

This also ties into the biggest flaw of Honest Hearts - it has little to offer after the adventure is finished. All named NPCs disappear, leaving behind only generic characters and the valley itself to explore. No more quests are made available and those that aren't finished when the player chooses to complete the main quest instantly fail. To a certain point this is mitigated by the fact that the game tells you when you are about to reach the point of no return and advises you to complete all quests beforehand, but it still leaves a bad taste. Furthermore, the end comes much too soon - the main quest consists of slightly more complicated fetch quests and a slightly larger set piece finale, all of which can be completed by a competent gamer in under three hours. For such a character and story driven adventure, reducing the length of the plot and cutting the player off from the main characters afterwards is detrimental to the quality of the experience.

Thankfully, the rest of the gameplay is free from such problems. Exploration in Zion is rewarding (especially when the player stumbles upon one of the Survivalist's lairs) and locations feel memorable and distinct, despite the fact that it is all set in a National Park (meaning no vaults, military bases or secret underground dwellings to be found). Of course, this is a matter of taste: some players will dislike the lack of these traditional Fallout locations, and instead trekking through campgrounds, caves and ranger stations. The new equipment may make up for it to an extent, as Honest Hearts adds several new weapons (most notably the .45 Colt M1911 pistol, the M1928 Thompson .45 SMG and the Compliance Regular, a long range taser), armours (the most memorable being the Desert Ranger armour) and a brahminload of new recipes, including custom made leather and metal armours. On top of that, there are a few new perks and a raised level cap.

The graphical quality of the new content, especially the Desert Ranger armour and the .45 weapons, is good, given the technical limitations Obsidian had to work with. There are quirks, such as the rather weird reload animation on the Thompson or the awkward clipping), but regardless, Zion Canyon ends up looking quite beautiful. While it isn't as stunning as the environments in recent releases (such as Witcher 2), it is pleasing to the eye and offers some really nice views. However, upon closer inspection, the age of the engine shows, as does the fact that Gamebryo just isn't that good at creating lush natural environments. Thankfully, audio is not affected by the engine's shortcomings. Zion sounds like a post-nuclear national park should, but where the game really shines is in the voice acting. Again, the Burned Man eclipses other characters as Keith Szarabajka brings Graham to life. Listening to him is a pleasure, especially with the quality of the script.

In summary, Honest Hearts is a good downloadable adventure, adding a large area to explore, items, recipes and a cast of interesting characters. However, the enjoyment depends greatly on what you value in a game. If it's the characters, story, lore or exploration (or any combination of the above), then Honest Hearts is definitely a good purchase for reasons outlined above. On the other hand, if you value quests and non-linear design or dislike tribals in Fallout, then passing Honest Hearts up should be considered, as it may turn out to be a chore with its short, linear main quest and omnipresent tribals.

By the way, where's New Canaan anyway?