Version tested: Xbox 360
The latest expansion to the scorched New Vegas landscape is almost the exact opposite of the previous offering. Dead Money was a narrative-driven adventure that took place in a boxed-off pocket universe, carefully set aside from the open spaces of the Mojave Wasteland. Honest Hearts inverts that equation, adding a decently sized free-roaming annex to the Mojave map, but spinning a story that feels thin and underdeveloped.
Your journey to Zion, a frontier area set in Utah's national parkland, begins when you pick up a radio signal from the Happy Trails Caravan Company advertising for an extra pair of hands on a treacherous journey to the east. You respond (otherwise it's one hell of a waste of 800 Microsoft Points) and are told that the position is open for one person only (no companions). You'll also have to trim your inventory down, though there are several ways to talk your way out of this if you don't want to ditch any useful kit.
Then it's off to Utah, where things go horribly wrong almost immediately. The Happy Trails gang gets gunned down by the tribal White Legs and you're left alone and stranded in unknown territory.
The story kicks in quickly, introducing you to a new companion, Follows-Chalk, a novice scout from the Dead Horses clan. He takes you back to their camp, where you discover the fate of The Burned Man, the nigh-mythical figure who plays a tangential role in the main Caesar storyline. There's also a third tribe, the peaceful Sorrows, and Daniel, the missionary who is trying to get them to flee the valley, away from the warlike White Legs. Dictating the fate of these characters is your ultimate goal, and the pay-off is a map which shows you how to get home.
There's a streak of spiritual searching in this concept, as well as a pastiche of Western civilisation's fetishisation of tribal life. But the most interesting part of Honest Hearts is the Zion Valley itself. As indebted to classic John Ford westerns as Dead Money was to the ring-a-ding swagger of the Rat Pack, this is a place of broad winding rivers, sand-blasted mesas and maze-like canyons, and the map's high elevation means it offers some of the best views yet seen in the game.
It's a survivalist's dream for those playing in hardcore mode, with no Stimpacks to be found but abundant fruit and meat. As the setting is an old national park, there are plenty of campsites where you can cook up new stat-boosting recipes - or devastating poisons - using your foraged ingredients.
It's not a huge map, but it does offer around 30 new locations to discover and at least one great new enemy in the shape of Yao Guais (think Sloth from The Goonies and you'll have the pronunciation). Though never as pant-soiling as Deathclaws or Cazadores, these hulking mutated bears hit hard and will prove a tough challenge for anyone attempting this DLC with a low-level character. And, of course, there are new weapons including some powerful handguns and SMGs, and a special weapon called She's Embrace which has to be seen to be believed.
There's a fascinating tale to be told about this place, so it's a shame that Honest Hearts doesn't really offer much to sink your teeth into where quests are concerned. It's mostly a selection of slim fetch quests, none of which are optional. There are a couple of side quests, but nothing particularly robust.
Most disappointing is how perfunctory the main quest line feels, boiling down to another simplistic binary choice - what I like to call the Platoon Dilemma - between two surrogate leader figures; one a bloodthirsty killer, the other a hand-wringing pacifist. This being a video game, whichever one you choose to follow, the result still involves shooting lots of people in the face. Ho hum.
There are a lot of highbrow influences swimming around in Honest Hearts' thin narrative soup, most notably Apocalypse Now and The Mosquito Coast, so it's a real shame that any interesting moral questions or themes are shoved to the background in favour of rote mechanistic missions that send you scuttling through the scenery, shooting and scavenging, while never requiring you to engage with its inhabitants in any meaningful way.
Your time is far better spent exploring in your own way, making use of the extended level cap to try out some of the new perks or attempt a couple of the new ambient XP-boosting challenges. Indeed, the best story in the pack is actually hidden away, out of sight, in the numerous cave systems that worm through the red rock mountains.
Six survivalist stashes can be found, each one accompanied by booby traps galore and a series of diary entries that spin a melancholy tale of a refugee from the nuclear war, and how he came to be woven into the superstitions of the local tribes in the following years. It's a sad and poignant tale, told simply but efficiently, and it stands in stark contrast to the blunt comic book posturing of the tribal quibbles you're expected to solve in order to make it back to the Mojave in one piece.
But find your way back you surely will, in around four or five hours, depending on how much nosing around you want to do. The Zion Valley remains open to you after completion, and success also grants you a nice bonus stash of armour and weapons to go along with whatever else you've nabbed along the way.
As a side story to the main event, Honest Hearts is forgettable and predictable. Where it justifies its asking price is in the takeaway benefits it supplies to the long-term wasteland wanderer. More levels, more perks, new weapons and new enemies - this is what really benefits the game, and Honest Hearts delivers more than enough to make it a worthwhile diversion for players of all levels. It would just be easier to recommend if the story wrapped around the gameplay additions was more compelling.
6 / 10
Honest Hearts is out now on PC and Xbox 360. A simultaneous release on PlayStation 3 was intended for today but has been postponed.