Fallout: New California is a fan made 30 hour RPG worthy of your attention
Fallout 76 is the first title in the series to be developed as a full-fledged multiplayer title, and we're only a couple weeks out from roaming the post-apocalyptic wasteland with our friends and enemies alike. While we are excited for 76, it's a bit of a departure from the typically single-player experiences we've come to expect from Bethesda's Fallout entries. Luckily for series's fans, there's a new single player Fallout game also available now, one that's been in development for around 8 years.
Fallout: New California, previously Fallout: Project Brazil, is a fan-made stand-alone campaign built for the PC version of Fallout: New Vegas. This mod has been incubating since 2010, originally conceived as a mod for 2008's Fallout 3. Renamed late last year, New California is a total conversion of sorts that acts as a stand-alone prequel expansion for New Vegas. While those in the modding community have been aware of the project for a long time, I personally wasn't really informed until the narrative trailer along with the release date was dropped earlier this year, and shared into one of my news feeds.
The length of development for New California made gathering data on the mod, and more to brass-tacks: how exactly to play it, a little more difficult than I originally anticipated. Not only did the mod change names last year, but initially released as a first installment all the way back in 2013 under the original name. Complicating things further, the rise and fall of various mod utilities and managers in the last several years along with the modding community of New Vegas itself made navigating new and old, relevant and obsolete data, a frustrating experience.
New California starts the player off inside of Vault 18, a 'control' vault of sorts that is absent of the sort of social experiments and bizarre conditions often found in the other vaults. The game opens up in the middle of a football game, and presents the player with an immediate choice: to either tackle through an oncoming player or attempt to dodge. Those that make the first tackle will find themselves on the 'Path of the Warrior', and the game proceeds into Coach Bragg's office, the player being victorious. If they attempt to dodge, they wake up a loser and injured on the 'Path of the Scientist'. Both paths give the player unique perks, and start the game's prologue off with different quests.
It's in this sort of variable outcome, represented in the opening 5 minutes with a simple football tackle, where New California appropriately borrows the correct ideas from the base game New Vegas, and makes for some incredibly clever design when it comes to the mod's primary questline. New California is advertised as having 11 unique endings, and I can already foresee how the game splits drastically from a key set of decisions. Not only does the initial tackle provide a unique branch of quests and perks, but it's even a determinant in which companions can be recruited.
Once they've made their way outside of Vault 18, the player is eventually introduced to three or four factions in a similar manner to the primary factions introduced in New Vegas. There's the New California Republic, playing a similar bureaucratically militaristic role that they're expected to. Later the player meets the remnant Super Mutants loyal to The Master, a character introduced in the original Fallout. There are also options to side with a united Raider front under the banner of the warlord Elsdragon. Lastly, there's a presented option to side with the pencil-pushing US Congress represented by half mob boss half Senator Paul Duville.
While I didn't have the chance to explore absolutely every presented branch, I spent enough time reloading saves checking out the possible outcomes to be sufficiently impressed with the level of variability here. For instance, when the player and their companions attempt to regroup outside of the Vault after the prologue, they find themselves surrounded by a group of survivalists looking to return the escapees to the raider warlord, and this is another place where the game offers a major split.
Players that aggressively repel the initial attack are then generally tasked to cross the map over to Union City and are allowed to explore at their leisure otherwise, which can be rewarding for those that want to have that level of freedom early into the mod. Those that try to peacefully negotiate will find themselves eventually captured by Elsdragon, which leads them to the Raider camp tasked to either ally with the warlord, or figure out how to escape alive - which alone can take several different forms.
This option also allows the opportunity to meet with one of the game's first Super Mutants, which can come into play near the end of the game. There's also an option to defect to the NCR after pretending to ally with Eldragon's raiders. As you can see, there's been a lot of thought put into the quest design here, worthy of being attached to New Vegas.
Another unique trait of New California is how it weaves both the S.P.E.C.I.A.L stats as well as skill levels into pretty much every dialogue window. While the Speech skill or Charisma stat often carries an understandably unbalanced level of importance when it comes to avoiding firefights and negotiating your way out of combat situations, I found that New California offers a much higher level of variability when it came to incorporating the other stats into these sorts of outcomes. Strength is used to intimidate characters out of their initial dispositions, Charisma allows characters to gather more information than what would otherwise be freely shared, and so on. Even Endurance was used in a few dialogue checks, which, in my experience anyway, is not really characteristic of the stat.
Skills such as Barter and Science are given similar leverage on the Skill side of the court -- having a high Speech won't carry as much weight on its own as one might expect. Perks unique to New California, often rewarded for completing side objectives, will also often reappear as dialogue options, expanding the amount of player agency in this respect even further.
Since the player is only given 5 extra points to slot into their stats at the outset of the game, it can be expected to fall short in one place or another when it comes to these sorts of skill checks. While this can be initially frustrating to not be able to navigate the questlines in the exact particular way the player desires, it does make for an engaging set of trade-offs. Concessions have to be made when the player finds themselves not able to sidestep as many conflicts as they may expect to, which gives weight not only to the decisions made with respect to discrete dialogue choices, but which skills to put points into on level up. I found myself carefully seeking out drugs like buffout and mentats alongside carrying a decent stash of beer and wine in order to give me a little extra edge when it came to passing dialogue checks more frequently.
Being a fan project, there are a few ways that New California obviously falls a little short compared to a published product like New Vegas. While the mod is fully voice-acted with thousands of lines of dialogue, a lot of it is presented either in stunted delivery or is otherwise awkwardly directed. While the level of unique interactions is impressive, and I do feel that a lot of the actors eventually settle into their roles to some degree, it never really escapes the reality of being an amateur project. There are a couple of performances that wouldn't sound out of place in New Vegas, such as Jen and Dr. Rossman, but a lot of the major characters such as Bragg, Elsdragon, and Duville always come across as being a little bit silly.
Some of the dialogue itself is also incredibly goofy, with the discrepancy between diplomatic and aggressive options coming across as being very campy and unrealistic. When I didn't immediately agree with Coach Bragg early in the game about his Pro-American "Patriot" agenda, the dialogue ended up with him shouting to leave his office. It ends up being the sort of strictly paragon-renegade sort of dichotomy that early Mass Effect and Infamous games were criticized for. The dialogue often also takes the opportunity to introduce joke and joke-like quips in otherwise natural conversations, which ends up falling flat more often than they actually land. There was one instance where I called a stranded caravan a group of "sitting ducks" to be asked what a duck was. It's a minor fourth wall break that ends up being a bit humorous, but also fairly unnecessary.
Lastly, the map and locations present in New California often feel incredibly empty, especially in areas outside of the main quest lines. The overall map is about half the size of the base game's, but many of the locations are simply marked highway exits and roadsigns without anything else of interest present. Even in more relevant areas like Union City, there's a lack of detail that makes the areas feel less lived in. Houses are empty with no items on the tables, there's no containers or clutter found on the back of trucks or tucked away in hotel rooms. Abandoned trailers sit completely bare and at best, you'll find one relevant footlocker with a few chems if a location is even able to be entered. Many locations are littered with inaccessible doors, forgoing even the illusion of scale from the outset.
It can be argued that the level of general clutter to be found in copious amounts of burned books and broken dishes is not really that big an omission for a mod like this, and would provide only limited tangential return if it even was present, which is fair. However, it does make exploring off the beaten path feel far, far less rewarding than it did in New Vegas. For those looking to sink extra time into New California, I would recommend playing through some of the questlines in multiple ways, rather than expecting to find a lot of worthwhile experiences by scrubbing the corners of the map too thoroughly. The way New California links itself to New Vegas also ends up feeling entirely unearned, but as essentially a piece of fan fiction, this really isn't worth dwelling on too much.
For anyone interested in New California, I strongly suggest Mod Organizer 2 for use with most files available on popular PC modding site, Nexus Mods. As of the time of writing, the most up to date version of New California labeled 202, is available here as a single archive. While I originally installed New California with the classic Nexus Mod Manager, support of this application seems to have faltered a bit over the years, and my re-install using Mod Organizer I found to be far more stable.
A note to anyone with the Steam version of the game, in order to play this mod and many others, you'll need to run this unofficial 4GB patch to allow the game to make full use of the RAM available on modern computers. This is not necessary for GOG.com versions of New Vegas.
A mod the size and scope of New California actually making its way to a final release is a bit of rarity, due to the nature of fan projects relying purely on the continued passion and capability of their oftentimes singular creators. That said, there are a lot of upcoming projects for 2015's Fallout 4 worth keeping track of, such as Fallout Miami and Fallout Cascadia. If even one of these projects ends up defying the odds and makes their way to their finish lines, we can only hope that they approach the level of design and scope that New California has been able to accomplish, even with its shortcomings considered.
Fallout: New California isn't going to fool anyone about its identity as an amateur fan-made product. It falls short in certain of areas of polish that make its rough patches in terms of voice acting and world design pretty damn obvious. That considered, it still offers a compelling story and especially well-designed quests that make for a rewarding experience, even after pushing through the shortcomings. Even if it wasn't the only new single-player Fallout title this year, I like to think I'd still give it my recommendation.