The phenomenon of DLC - downloadable content - is a controversial one for many gamers. On the one hand, the notion of adding additional content to your game after release, extending its lifespan, is a welcome one. On the other, there is a temptation for developers to hold back features that could have been incorporated into the game at launch to make more money from fans later on, which is not acceptable for many.
Happily, the approach to DLC for the Fallout franchise has been exemplary. Fallout 3 - itself a massive game - was followed by five expansions which added a fair bit of new content to the game. These expansions were varied in tone and structure, but packed a lot of content into modest prices. Fallout: New Vegas continues this fine tradition, with four extremely large expansions released after the main game which expand the playing experience. They are now packaged with the base game in the Fallout: New Vegas Ultimate Edition. For maximum enjoyability, it is recommended you play the expansions in order of release (Dead Money, Honest Hearts, Old World Blues and Lonesome Road), though it's not too much of a problem if you don't. However, I would recommended that New Vegas players get their character to Level 25-30 in the base game before tackling them, as they can be a lot more unforgiving than the main game. Note that installing the DLCs without playing them still raises New Vegas's level limit by a cumulative 20 levels, however, which is extremely helpful.
First up is Dead Money. Investigating a distress call leading to an abandoned Brotherhood of Steel bunker, the Courier falls into a trap and is knocked out. He wakes up in a town near the Sierra Madre, an opulent casino built just before the nuclear apocalypse. His equipment has been taken and a bomb attached to a collar around his neck. A man named Elijah contacts the Courier and informs him that he has been recruited into helping stage an audacious raid on the Sierra Madre's treasure vault. The Courier has to find the other members of his team (a schizophrenic Super Mutant, a mute woman and a dapper ex-entertainer ghoul) scattered about the town, break into the casino and carry out the heist. Needless to say, there are numerous complications. Radios in the town and the casino interfere with the bomb collar and can cause it to detonate if the player is not quick to disable them. Extremely hard-to-kill 'ghost people' lurk in the area and can rise from the dead if not dismembered. Weaponry and ammunition are difficult to find, and the area is also patrolled by invulnerable security holograms equipped with lasers.
Dead Money is probably the weakest of the four DLCs, which is a shame as it is packed with good ideas. It is tremendously atmospheric and exploring the low town whilst dodging clouds of a killer substance and trying not to blow up your own head is effective for a while. Unfortunately, this section of the game goes on for a bit too long, and the last haul before you get into the casino itself (when you have to cross most of the town hunted by packs of ghost people with weaponry and health supplies both in low supply) can be an exercise in frustration. The casino itself presents a fun series of puzzles to overcome, and there is a powerfully-written narrative to follow (via diaries and computer terminal logs) as you uncover the secrets behind the founding and building of the casino, and the doomed romance at the heart of it. The DLC also has a flexible ending, with several options available for the player to wrap up the quest (though be aware that one of them effectively ends the game for good). Overall, it's solid stuff, likely taking 4-6 hours to complete, but the gameplay is a little lacking compared to the strong narrative.
Honest Hearts has the player recruited by the Happy Trails Trading Company, which is trying to open a new caravan route to the township of New Canaan via Zion Valley in Utah. Upon reaching Zion Valley, the Courier's employers are wiped out and he finds himself recruited by the mysterious 'Burned Man' to help end a devastating conflict between the tribes of the valley (a former nature reserve). The Courier has to visit the different factions and either forge a peaceful resolution (an evacuation of one of the tribes) or a more violent one (siding with one of the factions and wiping the other out).
Honest Hearts is an entertaining expansion, featuring some of the best vistas and views in the entire Fallout series to date (and makes one wish that the upgraded Creation Engine from Skyrim could be retrofitted onto it, to make it look even more impressive). Unlike the more restricted environment in Dead Money, this is an open world setting which you can explore at leisure. The quests are strong and the characters memorable, but the narrative is less powerful than Dead Money's, with the expansion ultimately ending with a shoot 'em up sequence no matter what choices you make. The expansion also has a very clunky opening in which it's impossible to save your travelling companions from death (which given New Vegas's normal flexibility is a bit weak) and then almost immediately depicts a confusing melee in which it's very easy to kill your potential allies, resulting in you auto-failing every quest in the DLC instantly. Once you get over that bump, the rest of the expansion is fun with some cool companion characters, good gear and a solid moral conflict at the heart of the story (and a great choice of two endings, neither of which are totally good or bad and have their own advantages and disadvantages). If you power through the game you might take 6 hours to complete it, but a thorough exploration of every cave and point of interest in the valley could take a lot longer. It's more fun than Dead Money in gameplay terms but isn't quite as atmospheric or well-written.
Old World Blues is the jewel in New Vegas's crown. The Courier is drawn to a mysterious broadcast at a drive-in theatre in the Mojave which teleports him to the Big MT, an advanced scientific research outpost located in the middle of a huge crater, isolated from the rest of the world. The scientists there lost their mortal bodies to age decades ago, but have transferred their brains into robots. They apologise to the Courier, as they removed his brain for analysis and have since misplaced it (the Courier is effectively piloting his body on remote-control for the duration of the expansion). The Courier's quest, therefore, is to retrieve his own brain! He also has to discover the secrets of the facility and uncover it's backstory.
Old World Blues is flat-out bonkers. Inspired by 1950s American B-movies, there is a silly - maybe even camp - tone to events. As the expansion was created in early 2011 and released late in the year, I suspect an influence from Portal 2, particularly the Cave Johnson-like voice announcements from a long-dead scientist that accompanies one particular journey. It's the funniest slice of Fallout to date and in places threatens to become inconsistent with the rest of the setting (particularly the teleporting technology, which is an order of magnitude more advanced than what even the occasionally-glimpsed aliens in the series appear to be capable of), though they just about dodge this. It's very funny, but as the Courier completes the quests and uncovers the secrets of the facility it also takes a turn for the tragic, as elements of the backstory come into sharper focus. Completing the main quest in Old World Blues will likely take 8-10 hours (longer than many full games) but exploring the full map and the various facilities will take a lot longer. The reward for completing the DLC is impressive as well: a technologically-advanced house inhabited by various AI assistants (including a homicidal toaster, possibly a tribute to British SF show Red Dwarf), a medical suite and a buy/sell terminal. A cool place to hang out once in a while.
One common thread links the first three DLCs: the Courier keeps finding evidence of a man called Ulysses - codenamed 'Courier Six' - who has taken an interest in the Courier's activities. In Lonesome Road the Courier receives a message from this individual, who has taken up residence in the Divide, a once-prosperous community (visited by the Courier himself many years ago) that was destroyed when some nuclear warheads kept in a nearby silo were accidentally detonated. The Courier is challenged to traverse the length of the radioactive Divide and meet with Ulysses personally. As they move towards a showdown, it becomes clearer that Ulysses and the Courier have an important shared history...even if the Courier cannot remember the significance of it.
Lonesome Road is the most divisive of the four DLCs, mainly because it's very linear. Whilst there is some scope to go off the road and investigate passing areas, most of the time you simply have to press forwards. This linearity seems to go against the ethos of New Vegas and its immense flexibility in allowing players to do what they want in the game, but in this case it may have been a worthwhile sacrifice, as it allows Obsidian to do something very interesting with the narrative. Essentially, the expansion asks the question about what would happen if you were just a randomly-passing NPC in someone else's epic story? Ulysses was the main character of his own Fallout narrative and the Courier a passer-by, but one whose actions had an immense impact on Ulysses, sending him on a huge journey across the Mojave, the Sierra Madre, Zion Valley and the Big MT. The Courier himself barely remembers the incident and is bemused by the whole situation, but must play a crucial role in resolving Ulysses's story, one way or another.
For all its linearity and brevity (at around 4 hours it's the shortest of the expansions, but is still a fair bit longer than the shortest Fallout 3 DLCs, Operation Anchorage and Mothership Zeta), Lonesome Road is still a lot of fun. Combat is entertaining and varied, with a number of side-missions which can be challenging in themselves. The series' most iconic enemies, the deathclaws, are back in force after being low-key in the other New Vegas games, resulting in some tense battles. There's also some interesting narrative developments later on which open up areas further back along the map, allowing for some additional exploration. However, everything is building up to a powerful showdown between the Courier and his apparent nemesis, which is gripping stuff.
Ultimately, the four expansions to Fallout New Vegas are all worthwhile. Even the weakest, Dead Money, is well worth playing and the best, Old World Blues, should be required playing for every Fallout fan. All four are enjoyable and between them they add a significant number of new perks and weapons to the game (cazadores need never worry you again after completing the relevant sub-quest in Old World Blues). But most impressive is the way that each expansion contributes to a genuinely innovative and interesting storyline, which is flexible enough to be played in any order (though it makes slightly more sense to play the expansions in order of release), light enough not to restrict your choices too much but weighty enough to have a real impact. It's no surprise that the writing team behind Planescape: Torment (the greatest western RPG of all time) were behind this offbeat storyline.
Dead Money (***½)
Honest Hearts (****½)
Old World Blues (*****)
Lonesome Road (****½)