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.
It's in the extra material that Old World Blues really makes its mark. New tools and weapons are casually dropped into the world, often so useful that you'll wonder how you got through the game without them. The Protonic Inversal Axe carves through robotic enemies like butter. The K9000 Cyberdog is a brutal machine gun that literally barks and snarls. There's a Sonic Emitter weapon that both plays a vital role in the story, and disintegrates force fields and fries electronic foes. In a nice touch, you can augment its abilities by finding new sound recordings, from opera singers to the screams of a giant tarantula.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The level cap has been raised by five, and a handful of new perks, both regular and unlockable, quickly prove beneficial. Them's Good Eatin' is an absolute godsend for those playing in Hardcore mode, as it gives every defeated enemy a 50 per cent chance of providing free, powerful and valuable health items in the shape of Blood Sausage and Thin Red Paste.
The plot picks up pace when it needs to, but never intrudes when you decide to follow your own muse, and Obsidian's skill at writing narrative into the scenery means that nothing is there for no reason. Whether it's a room piled high with Mentats or a test chamber based around a high school, you'll always understand exactly what it means for one or more of the characters. Even something as simple as picking up an old dog bowl can send you off on a side quest that deepens your understanding of the motivations and rivalries slowly bubbling to the surface.
Usually with these downloadable packs, it's easy to summarise the goodies that players will take away at the end, but in the case of Old World Blues there's simply too much to consider. There's a small, automated apartment, The Sink, that contains nine appliances, each with its own personality and benefits. Revive and upgrade the toaster and it will somehow create a fearsome melee weapon for you.
There's an Auto-Doc that will heal wounds, change your features and install body modifications. A roaming robot called Muggsy has a mug obsession and will exchange these useless items for energy ammo and scrap electronics. Even the light switches (two of them, locked in a bitchy rivalry) can alter the ambience to give long-lasting status boosts.
You never once interact with another living being during Old World Blues, yet it has more personality and wit than any of the previous DLC offerings. Every conversation is a joy, and the voice acting really helps to sell the idea that a Biological Research Station would talk like Barry White and drawl seductively about giving up some seeds.
It all adds up to the strongest expansion in the relaunched series, across both Fallout 3 and New Vegas. The story alone takes a good six or seven hours to play through, and even then there's still enough juice in the tank to warrant a few more just poking around and finding new things. Best of all, it fleshes out the past and teases about the future, setting the stage for Lonesome Road and the end of the Courier's journey.
9 / 10