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.
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.
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.
Your bomb collar also tweaks the gameplay in an interesting, though not always enjoyable, manner. Bodged together from pre-war components, it's vulnerable to signal interference. Anything from a domestic radio to the casino's own speaker system can set it off, causing an incessant beeping whenever you get in range and culminating in a rapid cranial eruption should you linger too long. Normal radios can be turned off or destroyed, unshielded speakers can be shot from afar, but there are also invulnerable speakers that can only be deactivated using a terminal, or cannot be switched off at all.
Also providing environmental menace is the toxic red cloud, which eats away at your health with ferocious speed should you venture into it. If you're playing in Hardcore Mode, even the seemingly clear atmosphere itself becomes hazardous, reducing your health slowly whenever you're outside.
The cloud also adds some fun new recipes to your crafting options. Find or collect some cloud residue and it'll brew up some seriously nasty poisons or a useful stat-buffing cocktail, depending on how you mix it.
And, finally, there are some interesting new enemies in the shape of the casino's holographic security system. These glowing drones are limited in reach by their emitter range, but are otherwise indestructible and come armed with deadly laser weapons. Navigating your way past them, either through cunning or by changing their programming, is one of the stiffest stealth challenges the game has to offer.
Story-wise, it's a substantial affair. Each chunk of missions feels like a fairly epic undertaking in its own right, and the game pairs you up with each character in turn, giving you the illusion of a four-man team without breaking the game's one-partner rule.
There's a fairly enormous amount of back-story to be devoured, covering the history of your play pals as well as the murky past of the Sierra Madre itself. The broad strokes are covered in dialogue scenes, but there's a lot more to be unearthed through shrewd conversation choices and hacked terminals.
To begin with, the mystery is enticing, but unless you're incredibly thorough in your info-hunting and absorb every detail of the many text logs, there's a good chance the climax to the tale will only make a vague sort of sense. Certainly, I thought I'd been paying attention but there were still a few major plot points that I didn't quite understand by the time I was dropped back in the Mojave.
Things pick up considerably once you're inside the Sierra Madre, where the script does a good job of dolloping out revelations and gameplay twists that fly in the face of your Ocean's Radioactive 11 expectations. But that final stretch with its infuriating collar-popping tricks and against-the-clock stealth knocks the wind from the story's sails right when it needs to be in full flow.
These are, admittedly, nitpicks that will really only annoy those who hope for perfection every single time – and they certainly shouldn't deter New Vegas fans from making a start on their first DLC adventure.