I really like Dead Money. I do. It features Obsidian in top form: intriguing characters, sensible dialogue, and tightly woven plot themes. Basically, it has all of the things that make me willing to tolerate Obsidian’s terrible level design, ever-too-short development cycles, and non-existent QA testing.
Unfortunately, aside from the bugs and rat-mazes that you’d expect from Obsidian, Dead Money is also tarnished by the fact that they decided to spring for a Bioshock-esque survival horror theme. Now, we’ve already demonstrated, in a rather spectacularly conclusive fashion, that this sort of gameplay doesn’t really work on Spoiler Warning. But then, it didn’t work much better for me when I was playing alone either. Oh, certainly, the immersion was better, and the exploration/scavenging elements are much more pronounced when you don’t have three people inside your head yelling at you to get out of the inventory screen and go punch some poor guy’s arm off. But the horror never really worked because there was nothing in the DLC to actually scare me. The Ghost People provided a mildly interesting change of pace, but when you can mow through entire groups of them and take virtually no damage, they aren’t going to stay intimidating for long.
And I’m not really sure there was a way it could have worked, no matter what they did with it. New Vegas is not a self-contained, linear shooter. It’s a sandbox, with an open ended levelling system that enables hundreds of different viable builds. With that in mind, I don’t see any way they could have properly balanced the enemies for even most of the player builds. Sure, they could have taken a page from Oblivion’s book and aggressively scaled the enemies with the player’s level, but that wouldn’t work for the same reason it didn’t work in Oblivion; because level is hardly indicative of the capabilities a given player can have in New Vegas.
Now, there are other routes they could have taken. Maybe they could have made it more difficult by not giving players any useful weapons from the more overpowered skills – most notably unarmed and melee – but that would more likely just serve to frustrate someone who entered the DLC with a full melee spec and no ranged weapons skills. And in the end, no amount of balancing is going to turn New Vegas into a linear shooter. There’s just no way to know how powerful a player is, at least without writing some elaborate system that checks perks and skill point allocations and dynamically balances all of the enemies to be strong against that particular build. And that’s far more work than Obsidian would have wanted to put into it.
Instead, it was (ostensibly) balanced straight across the board for level 20+ characters. And then I beat it easily with a melee/stealth character that entered the DLC at level 9.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the Villa is the worst part of Dead Money. Once you get into the casino and the plot starts to pick up and reveal more about what’s really going on, that’s when Dead Money gets good.