A well written story and an immersive atmosphere outweigh some of Dead Money's annoyances.
Similarly to Fallout 3's add-ons, Dead Money begins with a mysterious broadcast; this one leads the player to an abandoned bunker. The broadcast itself promises an exciting experience full of gambling, luxury, and fortune. Of course, this experience isn't exactly what's bargained for, and soon enough the courier finds his or herself in a spooky looking location with a slave collar around their neck and an inventory stripped of virtually all belongings. A voice of a familiar name informs the player of the situation and provides specific instructions that must be followed or that will be the death of them. It doesn't take long at all for Dead Money to set a mood that quickly differentiates this add-on from Fallout 3's add on as well as New Vegas itself. The primary focus of the plot is to recruit an odd bunch of companions who have managed to succumb to the call of the Sierra Madre one way or another. Everyone then must work together to infiltrate the elusive casino in which an enormous fortunate is thought to be located within. The journey isn't without its conflicts, and fortunately there are some choices to be made, which has always been an essential element in the Fallout series.
Dead Money takes place entirely within the Sierra Madre, a location that never got to be what it was made to be due to the Great War breaking out before it ever really opened. An ominous red haze shrouds the city, turning the skies red and the city dark. The atmosphere is wonderfully dark and a breath of fresh (or toxic, rather) air compared to the bright blue skies of the Mojave Wasteland. Portions of the city are engulfed by this red toxic gas that steadily chokes the health out of the player if stood directly in. This is one of the few, but deadly, dangers scattered throughout the Sierra Madre. Frag mines and bear traps are seen as they would be anywhere else, but the most significant threat to survival are radios and other various gadgets that interfere with the collar's signal, ultimately causing it to explode after a short period of time. These radios and other devices can usually be destroyed, but some are protected and must be disabled by other means, or are simply difficult to locate. While an intriguing and unique concept at first, this is way overdone and hinders some of the exploration as you must cautiously navigate your way through tight locations at all times.
Besides placed traps and the threat of your collar exploding, "ghost people" are another significant trouble. Besides the few surviving prisoners, these ghost people are the only remaining inhabitants, and practically the only hostiles to encounter. There are a couple of variants, but it's still too bad that these are the only creatures to be seen besides a lousy radroach here and there. These strange beings can however be a formidable challenge given the lack of arsenal and supplies there are to work with. The player is handed a Holorifle in rather poor condition upon arrival, so even that may only be used sparingly throughout the entire add-on unless the player has the skills necessary to repair it with raw materials needed to create a weapon repair kit. Supplies in general are scanty though, each stimpak found is essential, weapons and ammo especially are difficult to come across, and places to rest and heal are at a minimal. Dead Money tests the player's ability to survive without an abundance of items, and forces them to scavenge and even trade in casino chips found throughout the Sierra Madre for materials needed to survive. It's exciting as it can feel like a struggle to live at times, but overall it greatly affects the pace and makes exploring and navigating throughout the city go much slower.
In terms of gameplay and audiovisual presentations, not much has been altered. Ghost people are often knocked unconscious before being killed by a critical hit or mutilation, which is different from any other enemy found in New Vegas. The exploding collar of course is new, but it's not something you'll appreciate after a while. Reloading saves may turn out to be a common occurrence if you can't find the source of the source of the beeping that doesn't take long to blast your head off. For an add-on in an enclosed location, it's not entirely linear. There are opportunities to explore during the main quest line, though there's not too much to see in the maze-like villas. Surprisingly, Dead Money doesn't come with any technical downfalls that set it apart from the core game. It's still Fallout however, so don't be surprised if you run into a few oddities along the way, but for me it ran smoothly throughout and failed to crash on my file that had already amassed a great chunk of play time.
The few characters within Dead Money give it the spark of life it definitely needs to keep the experience bearable at times. These companions each come with their own unique backstory and some well written and spoken dialogue. You have a schizophrenic mutant with two very different personalities, a ghoul who lived a life of fame and was personally invited to the Sierra Madre before the bombs fell, and a mute who suffered, but survived some horrific experiments that have left her deeply scarred. After recruiting them, individual quests must be completed for each of them to prepare for the grand heist that your captor wants accomplished. At this point, some of the initial enjoyment of this add-on begins to deplete as the scenery starts looking more and more dull and the traps become more and more annoying. The companionship at least would be nice if they didn't continuously repeat the same dialogue over and over during your travels.
Dead Money fortunately piques interest again towards the end and once finally accessing the casino. Sadly, it's met with more traps and hazards than much of the adventure that took place in Sierra Madre's villas. Deadly holograms unaffected by gunfire are thrown into the mix of increasingly frustrating collar beeping. Some decisions are to be made as the plot gets to its thickest point, but they aren't for the most part all-that impactful leading up to the conclusion. It takes some time, effort, and patience to get there, but the ending is satisfying as it leaves you with a lot of information to think about, some goodies, and an overall decent conclusion to an inconsistently enjoyable adventure.
Once said and done, Dead Money can be described as a bittersweet introduction to Fallout: New Vegas's downloadable content. While the captivating story and well rounded characters shine brightly, there's no getting over some of the irritations that came with this add-on. Despite some of its awkward gameplay mechanics, New Vegas has rarely been a frustrating experience. However, with many trial and error situations and even a small portion of platforming, Dead Money has proven that even the most enjoyable of games can be infuriating with a few minor tweaks. Still, the immersive atmosphere and the assortment of other positive factors still make Dead Money an overall good add-on. With its slower pace, Dead Money consumes a solid six to eight hours of time, but could take up to 10 or so hours to get every last drop out of Sierra Madre before leaving and never being able to return. Even though coming back the Sierra Madre isn't possible, Dead Money provides a fair amount of content for a $10 add-on, and as a result is a good place to start when playing Fallout: New Vegas's add-ons.