A long list of issues contributed to Fallout 76‘s tepid debut in 2018. While the game suffered from poor balancing, glitchy mechanics, and an incredibly ill-advised microtransaction system at launch, no issue was as glaring as the lack of NPCs with which to interact with, a key element of the Fallout franchise stripped away seemingly to encourage players to make their own fun.
Bethesda’s intention with Fallout 76 seemed to be to breathe new life into the franchise by creating a post-apocalypse populated solely by real-life players. Perhaps the studio hoped that this would connect the game’s community in a new way. But the concept backfired. Instead of making Fallout feel more alive, replacing NPCs with real players made Fallout 76’s Appalachia feel isolating and lifeless. The game was depressing and lonesome to play, and anything good the title had going for it was marred by this issue.
With Wastelanders, Fallout 76’s biggest update yet, Bethesda proclaims proudly that “People are back!” Sure enough, the game’s mountainous West Virginia sprawl is now populated with not just players but dozens of NPCs to interact and mess with — and the impact is immense.
Jumping into the updated game for the first time in months, it feels like a breath of fresh air to find, right outside the doors of Vault 76, a pair of NPCs eager to chat me up about a mysterious treasure they’ve been hunting down. Branching dialogue options make a triumphant return too, with certain branches only available if you have a high or low enough rating in various SPECIAL categories. Finally, my character’s high Charisma level is actually worth a damn.
Needless to say, being able to talk to NPCs, hear their stories, and carry out their quests is a familiar feeling for fans of the series and a welcome return to form. Fallout 76 was a hollow experience when the stories were exclusively delivered through computer logs and robots, and the new stories anchored by human NPCs are a much-needed improvement.
Wastelanders’ larger narrative revolves around two factions: the raiders holed up in The Crater, their headquarters in the Northern part of the map (outfitted with a sweet outdoor concert venue), and the Settlers, who’ve built up a cozy, quaint compound in the South called The Foundation. Both factions have their own set of allies you can befriend and hang out with at your C.A.M.P., as well as leaders who will try to recruit you to their cause.
The reputation system from previous titles returns, and as you complete quests with the Settlers and Raiders, you’ll naturally gravitate toward one group over the other. Both communities have unique benefits—I love the Foundation’s laid back vibe and sense of warmth, and the Raider’s cast of characters have a no-bullshit attitude that also speaks to me. I’m currently leaning more toward the Settlers, but we’ll see how it all shakes out as the narrative continues.
The update also features plenty of little stories scattered about the nooks and crannies of West Virginia. There are raider outposts ripe for, well, raiding and all manner of profanity-laden mayhem. You’ll run into scavengers picking at stinky piles of junk in random outhouses in the mountains, groups of settlers trying to start anew amid all the chaos, a crashed astronaut who has no idea what year it is, and even a traveling fireside storyteller ready to regale you with tales of mythical (or not so mythical) creatures roaming the wastes. One of my favorite additions is the “Mothman Cult,” who look absolutely filthy and rave some nonsense about the almighty Mothman. I recently found their mountainside place of worship and…wow. Creepy doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Now that there are all of these stories waiting to be uncovered across the game’s enormous map, I have ample motivation to actually explore, whereas before I was so deflated by the game’s emptiness that I had no interest in going on long treks, a sad statement to make about a Fallout game. But now I often find myself simply going on strolls in arbitrary directions just to see what or who I might find.
Not only is the new content fun, well-written, and satisfying, but it makes me appreciate many of the game’s strongest elements, some of which were there all along. Now that the game is encouraging more exploration through its NPC storytelling, I’m able to take in more of the beauty and variety of the environments, particularly the staggering verticallity of the craggy areas of the map. And speaking of the map, as I mentioned before, it’s positively gigantic, and there’s a ton of stuff to discover, with little to no stretches of terrain that feel empty or unworthy of exploration. The creature design is underrated too, with a slew of behemoths scattered about the map that scared me half to death (Sheepsquatches! Snallygasters! Honeybeasts, oh my!).
Putting my newfound excitement for Fallout 76 aside for a moment, I must acknowledge that the game, like most Fallout titles, is still janky as hell in certain respects. Combat is herky-jerky, imprecise, and not as satisfying to play as a first-person shooter should be. The menus are endlessly frustrating to navigate (why does it take 500 button presses to repair my weapons and armor?), and the favorites wheel is so cumbersome that it’ll absolutely get you killed throughout your adventure. And while I actually do enjoy the wonkiness of Fallout graphics, some of the visual glitches are grotesquely distracting and disorienting at times, like when all of the furniture in a room fails to load, or when you open a door to the outside world and all you see is completely flat ground texture.
But Fallout 76’s biggest flaw of all is that the online component doesn’t add all that much to the experience, and often detracts from it. I love Fallout as escapism, a chance to explore a huge world that I can get rapturously lost in. But when you hear a random, real-life player yell, “Hey bro, why the fuck won’t this fucking door open bro?!” at you, it sort of ruins the experience. I’ve definitely enjoyed sharing the game world on occasion, like when I was on my way to getting absolutely bodybagged by a gang of supermutants only to be saved by a high-level do-gooder with a gatling laser. But overall, the MMO element feels like more of a diversion for the series than an evolution.
I gave up on Fallout 76 shortly after playing it for review in 2018. But after revisiting the updated game for over 20 hours, I’m happy to say that I plan on returning to the wasteland on a more regular basis. The addition of NPCs is far from revolutionary—it basically just makes Fallout 76 feel like an actual Fallout game. But you know what? This is a good thing, and I’m here for it.