Version tested: Xbox 360
Fallout used to be funny. Like, properly laugh-out-loud funny. There are certainly moments of levity in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, but the endearingly surreal streak of humour that once made the series stand out has been notably absent since Bethesda took it over. So here's the good news: Old World Blues brings funny back.
The previous New Vegas add-ons, Dead Money's casino heist and Honest Hearts' frontier myth, were both relatively straight-faced and narrative-driven experiences at least partly defined by their setting. Each gave you a small pocket universe within the larger Fallout world, then led you through it with quests that revolved around meeting - or defying - the expectations of others. Such an approach is fine, but it's not the only way to expand an open world role-playing game, and Old World Blues takes a different tack.
The tone of the add-on is evident right from the start, when you're summoned to a desolate drive-in for a midnight show. More than any other modern Fallout episode, this one revels in the sci-fi and 1950s fantasia. It's a tongue-in-cheek romp, part Buck Rogers, part Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Accept the invitation to be transported to the Big Mountain research facility (or Big MT, or Big Empty) and you're greeted by a quintet of bickering scientists, led by the constantly shouting Dr Klein. Or at least, you're greeted by their brains, hovering around in robot bodies, with extendable monitors for eyes and a mouth. The bad news is that they've removed your brain. And your spine. And your heart. The good news is that they've been replaced with bionic parts that offer the first of many perks and upgrades on offer in this generous expansion.
This opening scene is incredibly funny, featuring such wonderful dialogue as "Fully erect hand penises!" and "The FORBIDDEN ZONE! Where no brain has EVER entered!", but it does drag on. Comparisons to Portal are inherent in the concept, but where Valve laced its brilliant chatter through those games so you were always doing something while being amused, Obsidian sticks with the old "locked in place, waiting to move" approach.
That blast of entertaining exposition out of the way, you're free to explore the ruined crater in which the facility sits. The plot is minimal at first, unfolding naturally as you poke around and fetch bits and pieces for Klein. Basically, one of the science brains - inevitably named Dr Mobius - has gone rogue and now fills the area with robot scorpions and beams, rambling threats at the rest of his former team. Mobius has also stolen your brain, and the radar fence surrounding the crater will kill you if you attempt to leave without retrieving it.
From there, it becomes the most open DLC yet for New Vegas. The game doesn't nudge you towards attempting the quests in any particular order, and the Big Empty crater is anything but. It's small in terms of square footage but dense in features, with 35 specific locations sprinkled across (and below) its surface. So if you'd rather poke around, discover the enticingly titled Mysterious Cave and tackle the monstrous Legendary Bloatfly, that's entirely up to you. In any other game, this would be a story-punctuating boss battle. Here it's just one of several surprises tempting you off the beaten track.
The laissez-faire approach pays dividends as the story unfolds at its own pace, filling in not only the backstory of the warring science-brains and their mountain retreat, but also other elements of the wider Mojave wasteland. There's a lot of information on Elijah, antagonist of Dead Money, and even explanations for some of the unique flora and fauna of New Vegas. If you want to know who to blame for f***ing Cazadores, this is the download for you.