Apocalypse #4: Fallout 76: Wastelanders

There goes the neighborhood.

This review was originally posted on Twitter on May 15, 2020.

Initial release: 2020
Platforms: PC/Playstation 4/XBox One
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios

In retrospect it was inevitable that Bethesda would introduce NPCs into Fallout 76. There’s only so much you can do, narratively, with lonely emptiness. Wastelanders is an important revival of a solid, but struggling game.

Prior to Wastelanders’ release it seemed that Bethesda was leaving it to other players to form their own communities and narratives; we would hear stories of people roleplaying their own hospitals and markets. It was cute, but it was only just to make up for the bigger issue. Though the Wild Appalachia update added a lot of content, it didn’t fundamentally change much, generally a mixed bag with a bunch of quality of life improvements like vending machines and backpacks. Likewise, Nuclear Winter didn’t do much for the game proper aside from some now-defunct “Vault raids,” being centered around the much better recieved battle royale mode. So for all intents and purposes, Wastelanders is the big update the game’s arguably been needing since day one. And what an update it is.

With the arrival of NPCs, the entire tone of the game has been altered. Previously, Appalachia was a lonely, bleak, desolate, beautiful place, like Zion Canyon in Fallout New VegasHonest Hearts DLC. With people, there’s a new sense of… hope. Everything has been overhauled. There’s new locations, and revamps to old ones (some of them quite dramatic.) There’s new quests, new events, and some subtle balance changes. And there’s still a mystery or two as well. And that’s to say nothing of the new currency system.

While it doesn’t become available until you finish the Wastelanders main quest, gold bullion is presented as a a sort of prestige currency (much like scrip, but earned differently) that can then be spent on rare plans created specifically for the currency. While the actual value of these plans is debatable, there’s always room for Bethesda to add more. Fallout 76 has never been good about making quest rewards worth it, so here’s hoping that bullion might soon actually be worth the expense of earning it.

Bethesda has managed to carefully weave the new content in with the old, preferring to use out-of-the-way places with no existing connection to the old main quest for its new content. Now the only thing left is to explain why people are still coming out of Vault 76 a year after it was supposedly closed. The main quest centers around two major factions: honest, hard-working settlers, most of whom are new to the area and have built a town around an old monorail station, and ruthless raiders, led by veterans of the moribund Diehard gang who live in the crater made by a crashed space station. They’re not the only groups out there, of course. A bar not far from Vault 76 serves as a sort of neutral ground and has its own questline; there’s also other raider gangs roaming the roads, chiefly the violent chem-fiending Blood Eagles. And then there’s the Mothman cultists.

Other random NPCs dot the map, plus of course there’s the Overseer herself, finally given a face to put to the voice. It’s through her that the new storyline gets started. Companions return in a limited way as well; two have their own questlines that start in specific places, while the others are randomly encountered. The companion system is different from what we’re used to; they’re tied to items that must be placed in your camp. Plop it down and they’ll come to stay and you can interact with them. You can only have one at a time, but removing them won’t reset their quests… usually. [This was supposedly fixed.] A proper dialogue box returns, looking a lot like what the old Fallout 3 and New Vegas dialogue boxes used to look, as opposed to the rather awful dialogue wheel that Fallout 4 used with its ill-advised voice acted protagonists. It’s a positive change, though your dialogue options are still rather limited. You won’t be making a lot of important choices in this game, as your dialogue options will mostly be [important thing to say], [questions], [bye]. But that’s par for the course for Bethesda.

That’s not to say there aren’t some tough choices, here and there, but even then, don’t expect your decisions to have a terrible amount of impact. At best, it’ll alter your standing with the settler and raider factions. Given the nature of the game that’s probably unavoidable.

I’d been playing the game over the last few weeks and finished the main quest tonight; when I logged in today, there was a big splash screen detailing Bethesda’s roadmap for the rest of the year, including announcing more content, the return of the Brotherhood of Steel, and so on. It says a lot to me; Wastelanders has been a boon for a game that, in my opinion, is rather unfairly maligned, and that only a month after its release, Bethesda announces their plans for upcoming content makes it feel like they’re really putting some effort into this game now.

This is a beautiful game that has long deserved better, and with Wastelanders we might be seeing a ray of hope for the future. I’ll miss the desolate emptiness, but Fallout 76 is feeling more like the game it should’ve been, even if it’s no longer the game I wanted it to be.

Addendum: the release of Wastelanders coincided with, at long last, the game’s Steam release. While switching over was a pain (your Atoms and 1st subscription do not carry over) it’s been worth it to finally introduce the game to my friends who otherwise wouldn’t have bothered. To someone like me who got in more or less on the ground floor and knew the ins and outs of the game, the introduction of all my friends makes the game feel more alive, and makes me want to stick around. Bethesda should have released the game on Steam to begin with.

-june❤

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june gloom

june gloom

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Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [they/she]