First-person shooters have it easy. When it comes to DLC, a couple of new multiplayer maps every few months is enough to satisfy the fanbase. The poor old role-playing game, on the other hand, has a far tougher challenge when it comes to expansions.
RPG add-ons need to serve the twin masters of mechanics and narrative, adding new gameplay features and fresh storylines while balancing on the high wire between offering what players already expect and the need to give each new chapter its own distinct flavour.
Fallout 3 managed some great DLC during its run, but also crapped out a few half-hearted clunkers along the way. As the first in what promises to be a similar salvo for New Vegas, Dead Money sets a satisfying standard for whatever follows, while still leaving room for improvement.
The plot kicks off when you pick up a mysterious signal coming from an abandoned Brotherhood of Steel bunker. Investigate and you find yourself dragged off to the fabled Sierra Madre casino, a ring-a-ding resort that never got to enjoy its gala opening thanks to the small matter of nuclear war breaking out. Now shrouded in a cloud of toxic red fog, it's become a post-apocalyptic legend, attracting rumours of lost treasures and eerie hauntings along the way.
Getting into the casino and uncovering its mysteries is your task, given to you by the authoritarian Father Elijah. Complicating matters are the Ghost People, those trapped by the poisonous cloud and slowly driven mad, worshipping the resort's holographic entertainers. Resilient and armed with grisly new weapons such as boxing gloves made from bear traps they're not here to make your job any easier.
As if that's not enough, Elijah has fitted you with an explosive collar to ensure total compliance. Oh, and you've been stripped of all your weapons, armour and loot. No problem, right?
Dead Money then unfolds in three distinct acts. In the first, you're assembling a team by tracking down three fellow prisoners and getting them to co-operate with Elijah's plan.
They're a fun bunch, as well. There's a Super Mutant with a split personality, who alternates between the savage Dog and the erudite God according to verbal triggers. Dean Domino is a suave ghoul who was once the casino's biggest star. And finally there's Christine, a mysterious mute woman whose back-story is perhaps the most interesting.
You're all joined by more than a common goal: if one collar detonates, they all detonate, so working together isn't really a matter of choice. The rest of the story involves getting into the Sierra Madre and what happens inside. Which I won't spoil. Suffice to say, there are twists and revelations aplenty.
It's a hefty chunk of gameplay, easily clocking in at eight hours or more, depending on how you play. There are countless nooks and crannies around the casino and its abandoned villa resort, plus a load of new ambient challenges based around killing or collecting various enemies, items and loot stashes. If you rush through, you could probably polish it off in a few hours, but if that's the case why the hell are you playing Fallout? Call of Duty is over there.
So how does Dead Money deliver on the twin requirements of mechanics and narrative? In terms of new gameplay concepts, it's surprisingly generous.
The Sierra Madre is essentially a self-contained pocket universe with its own internal economy. Rather than bottle caps, you'll be using casino chips, and instead of using vendors and traders, you'll be cashing them in at automated vending machines. Designed for use by casino customers, these can cough up food items, but more substantial goodies like stimpacks can be made available once you find the emergency staff audio logs that activate these features. The vending machines will also let you trade items in, making those cartons of cigarettes and casual clothing valuable commodities.