If you were to list your favorite aspects of Fallout: New Vegas, "trap avoidance" would not likely be a top entry. Nevertheless, New Vegas' first downloadable add-on, Dead Money, requires you to make your way through trap-infested streets and corridors, where you must keep your eyes peeled and your ears keen, lest you miss the signs of the game's deadly hazards. The focus on careful exploration sometimes acts as a strength; at other times, a weakness. Escaping a mine-infested street can make for tense progress, which in turn leads to a pleasant feeling of relief should you make it through unharmed. On the other hand, these constant dangers eventually lead to frustration because the labyrinthine and monotonous levels suck the joy out of exploration. Fallout: New Vegas - Dead Money too often stresses the main game's worst qualities. For example, it's incredible that developer Obsidian Entertainment thought to include several jumping bits, considering the game engine's terrible, unresponsive jumping mechanics. Fortunately, great voice acting and intriguing new characters provide a counterpoint to the flaws and inspire you to push ahead regardless of the frustrations.
As with Fallout 3's add-ons, Dead Money begins with a radio signal. In this case, that signal draws you to a bunker entrance, where you are knocked unconscious, stripped of your belongings, and outfitted with a collar that threatens to explode if you refuse to comply with your orders. Those orders come from the holographic image of a man called Father Elijah, who enlists your help to infiltrate the infamous Sierra Madre casino and pilfer the riches within it. Many have already followed the signal and apparently failed at their task, victims of the casino's built-in defenses, a hazardous red mist that has settled over the area, and their own treacherous greed. You have little choice but to follow Elijah's orders, which means finding three other individuals and convincing them to follow your lead.
Dead Money's highlight is its characters--specifically, the three companions that join you as you stalk your way through the dangerous corridors and later figure into your sojourn in a mysterious casino. A mutant with two personalities is the most memorable of them, alternating between a hungry and obedient simpleton (Dog) and a logical sophisticate (God) eager to keep his unintelligent other self "in the cage." Each personality offers its own companion perk, and Dog's is one of the more helpful ones. Unless you dismember them, the creatures you encounter will rise up again after defeat, but Dog can munch on their downed bodies to render them dead once and for all. Christine, another companion, is a mute that communicates with awkwardly animated gestures, but you eventually discover she's got even more bite than Dog. And then, there is Dean, a smooth-talking ghoul with slippery morals and a talent for self-preservation. Turn by turn, you lead these three characters to key locations, and though you leave them behind once you arrive, they still play a role in your adventure. It's unfortunate that all three of them require you to complete a fetch quest once you reach your destination. By the time you lead your third companion to your objective, all you can do is groan as he or she predictably drums up an excuse to make you go collect or kill something.
You spend most of your time in the streets of the casino's surrounding villa, making your way to important locations while avoiding a number of dangers. One such danger is your collar, which begins beeping--and eventually explodes--when you wander too close to radios and other devices that trigger its self-destruct mechanism. You can destroy most of these instruments, though locating them during the small window of opportunity can be a challenge, forcing you to put yourself in temporary danger to find the offending radio and shoot it down. Your collar isn't the only reason to proceed cautiously, however. The streets are dotted with bear traps and mines, and doorways might be protected with shotgun traps. And then, there's that feared red cloud, which reduces your health should you breathe in its vapors for long. The pace is slow and methodical, and at first, the resulting tension makes for a pleasant twist on the typical New Vegas exploration. Gunning down a speaker as your collar signals your impending demise provides relief to the rising stress, as does spotting and disarming a bear trap before it harms you.
The tension turns into tedium with time, however. This, in part, results from the sameness of the corridors you traverse. The villa is separated into a few different sections, but the maze of streets and balconies looks much the same everywhere you go, and the imprecise quest marker doesn't always provide a clear sense of direction. The red cloud and subdued lighting are atmospheric at first, but because there's so little to break up the view, the muddiness loses its short appeal. After hours of slow progress--punctuated with frequent saves and reloads--you long to explore without so many stringent rules holding you back. Once you make it into the casino, your eyes will thank you for the visual variety, but the invulnerable holographic sentries you encounter don't ease the frustrations. A forced stealth sequence in which being spotted means an instant fiery death is New Vegas at its worst, as are multiple timed escape sections that test your patience and have you cursing the game's clumsy movement mechanics and vague sense of direction. The casino trip rewards you not with fascinating exploration, but with excellently written backstory uncovered at terminals and in voice recordings. The Sierra Madre's riches aren't the resources locked in the casino's vault--they are the glimpses of past greed and deception, as well as the drive of one man to protect the woman he loved.
Fortunately, New Vegas' flexibility occasionally shines through the trial-and-error murk, most notably in how you approach your companion relationships once you enter the casino. If you aren't big on combat, there are still plenty of chances to talk your way out of certain quests and hack into security systems. If you prefer to get your hands dirty, you get new toys to play with, such as bear traps fashioned into melee weapons, throwing spears, and a rifle that comes in mighty handy during the end sequence. If you have these on your person when you complete the add-on, you get to keep them, along with anything else you have pilfered, though otherwise, Dead Money is a mostly encapsulated experience. It features its own economy, based on Sierra Madre chips, and has its own network of vending machines. (One nice touch: You stumble upon codes for unlocking new items to purchase at these glowing machines.) It also offers crafty players new items and recipes to cobble together.
Dead Money represents a change of pace for Fallout: New Vegas, though it's not a consistently enjoyable one. Tense, deliberate pacing gives way to aggravation as the game forces you to watch every step while you meander through its dull surroundings. Lest you forget this content's Fallout roots, however, there are numerous technical oddities to remind you of them. Activating VATS targeting while firing at a turret may get the game stuck in slow-motion purgatory for a minute or more; companions might get mired in the environment or inexplicably make their way to the rooftops while you traverse the streets below. Nevertheless, Fallout: New Vegas - Dead Money's provocative characters and fantastic writing make it a tempting detour for Fallout fans aching for something new. You also get some bang for your buck here: depending on the thoroughness of your exploration, you could spend anywhere from four to eight hours on Dead Money for only 800 Microsoft points ($10). Here's hoping that New Vegas' next add-on sticks to what the game is good at rather than forcing its weakest gameplay mechanics on players who want to do things their own way.