It’s just my luck. A nerd in the vault and a slave in the wasteland.
I’d just barely escaped the destruction of Vault 18 with a pack of survivors and enough supplies to last a few nights when the raiders came. The warlord, who’d taken over an abandoned mine, tossed me into the pit and gave me a simple task: convince a monster down below to continue helping with the mining work. Thankfully, I’m a charismatic vault-dweller and the mines are full of fellow slaves just waiting for the right person to rally them to a cause. After a few conversations, I headed towards the monster backed by an army of enslaved miners.
This happened during my first playthrough of Fallout: New California, an ambitious new fan-made mod for Fallout: New Vegas that is effectively a whole new game. Having played both, I have to say that, from what I’ve seen, Fallout: New California has the better story and stays true to the spirit of the series in a way that Bethesda’s entries—which began with 2008’s Fallout 3—don’t.
In particular, Fallout: New California will satisfy players’ craving for a new Fallout narrative—something that the upcoming official sequel Fallout 76 lacks. I like Fallout 76, but I’ve always found that the Bethesda’s Fallout games don’t have the same emotional and story-driven impact of Fallout 1 and 2, which were developed by Interplay Productions and released in the 90s. Fallout: New California captures some of that old school magic by prioritizing player choice and the starkly divergent paths your decisions can reveal.
New California is the work of Radian-Helix Media, an independent game studio, and the brainchild of developer Brandan Lee. He’s been working on New California, off and on, since 2012. “It’s more or less my master thesis in game design,” he told me over Facebook messenger. “Made my own curriculum and then set out to prove my thesis that good game design takes its time letting a plot move at the player’s pace and provides rich narrative dialogue.”
New California plays like a love letter to Interplay’s original Fallout and Fallout 2 games, but that didn’t really click for me until my second playthrough. The game starts inside Vault 18—a vault with vast resources nestled in the heart of the California Wasteland. The protagonist is an orphan from the surface that was discovered by the vault’s scouts as a baby and returned to the vault to live a life of relative luxury.
The game opens with a vault-ball game (it’s basically football, but underground). Your character has just received the ball, runs down the field, and has to make the first of many choices. Do you dodge the incoming tackle, or do you do meet the opposing meathead head on? During my first playthrough, I dodged.
I wasn’t fast enough and the meathead broke my leg. I limped around the vault, talking to people, repairing computers, and reading dozens of pages worth of lore from computer terminals. After finishing some quests and sleeping in a bed, the leg healed. Then, tragedy struck the vault and I had to flee. I rounded up three other survivors and we ran into the California wasteland. Just an hour into that journey I was taken by slavers.
After this, I decided to take a break from this character and see how different I could make the game through my choices. As it turns out, in New California your decisions can take the game down some shockingly different paths.
The second time around, I tackled the oncoming meathead. Rather than hobbling around the vault with a broken leg and a list of chores, I was a star athlete. The coach loved me and talked to me about his dream of returning America to its former, pre-apocalypse glory. When he initiated a coup against the vault’s leadership, I joined him. I rounded up survivors as before, but after they’d outlived their usefulness, the coach executed them.
In my first playthrough, I’d left the vault with a party of other adventurers, each with their own personality and skills. This time, I was completely alone. When the slavers came for me, I murdered them and proceeded into the California wasteland.
I can’t stress enough how different each of these playthroughs have been so far. I’m about three hours into both, and I’m on completely different tracks. In one, I’m an officer for Enclave, a military cult obsessed with bringing America back to its pre-war glory days, searching for the remnants of a failed military campaign against Vault 18. In the other, I’m a slave in a raider’s mine trying to convince a monster to get back to work and looking for my lost friends. New California feels like an old school Fallout game, most notably Fallout 2.
Those games pushed you into a wilderness, introduced you to various stories and factions, and let the player decide how those systems would interact. Bethesda’s Fallout games tell linear stories with a few branches, but the focus is on looting stuff and drinking in the sights and sounds of the open world. Both are fun, but I prefer the old school, and New California is full of that old school spirit.
Lee told me he wanted to build a Fallout game that focused on the story and rewarded players for exploration. That feels true. In my first game, I rushed through the story because I wanted to get out of the vault and see the wasteland. In my second, I took my time, slowed down and got to know people. New California rewarded me for taking my time by handing out perks that granted great bonuses to my various skills. The more I talked to people, the more perks I got, and the more options I had during later dialogue. New California rewards you for investing yourself in the story.
New California stands in stark contrast to Fallout 76, which is taking s the series in a very different—multiplayer-oriented, NPC-less—direction which some fans hate. Lee released his mod the day the Fallout 76 beta opened to players, but he doesn’t see himself as competition for the official series. “It’s just more of what we love,” he said. “[ New California] is definitely being used as ammo for some fans, but I like Bethesda.”
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t see the problems with Fallout 76. He understands why fans are upset, particularly with how the game makes nuclear annihilation—the gloomy background for all Fallout games—into a player-versus-player game mechanic. “That wasn’t supposed to be desirable,” Lee said. “It wasn’t a source of pure entertainment, it was also a warning,” he said. “That warning is now a symptom. It’s weird.”
Even before Fallout 76, though, Lee argues that Bethesda’s Fallout games lost the original series’ spark. “ Fallout's pre-war [period] was supposed to be horrific,” he said. “If you didn't keep that happy days smile on, despite stagflation making tank of gas cost $4937, New Plague killing thousands, and riots in LA resulting in police brutality never before seen all... that was a nightmare. Fallout 4 made it look idyllic.”
Lee said he felt he understood the soul of Fallout and wanted to make a game that reflects that soul.
“The message is that the great war happened for reasons all too human,” he told me. “We failed to learn from our mistakes in time. Let our prejudices and hatreds grow too deep. We lost ourselves to progress but forgot the consequences. And that was what Fallout was about. About a generation recovering from losing the promise of the world of tomorrow. Growing up in a wasteland they didn't make. So that's the soul of Fallout right there. When that message gets lost, more timely now than ever before, it's a bad day for the lore and franchise.”
In New California, players struggle through a wasteland they didn’t make and interact with factions and tribes fighting wars they only barely understand. You pick sides, make friends, and kill super mutants. Along the way, you learn a little something about the American spirit. That’s a Fallout game in my book.
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