Apocalypse #5: Fallout 76: Steel Dawn
The Brothers are back in the hood
Initial release: 2021
Platforms: PC/Playstation 4/XBox One
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios\
After Wastelanders, it was clear that Bethesda has big plans for Fallout 76, morphing the desolate survival sim into a more straightforward (if ambitious) MMORPG. Steel Dawn is the first new content release in this framework. Over the summer, some of the groundwork had been laid down with a pair of major patches that altered the game. The first, “The Legendary Run,” solidified once and for all the MMOification of the game, featuring seasons and “legendary” perks — basically super-perks.
The other, “One Wasteland For All,” was a game-wide rebalancing, removing the region-based level scaling in favor of all enemies scaling to your level. In addition, the same enemy will appear as different levels to differently-leveled people.
There were also some minor quests, mostly laying the groundwork for the big content update that would drop over the holidays. Originally titled “Fractured Steel,” Steel Dawn reintroduces the Brotherhood of Steel as a faction into Fallout 76. (We just can’t get rid of these guys.) The original Appalachia Brotherhood were an offshoot built from the ground up by former Army personnel in contact over satellite with the main group in California. When contact was lost, California sent an expeditionary force to find out what happened. Setting up shop in the old ATLAS observatory and renaming it Fort Atlas (it was previously home to some robots), the new Brotherhood have quickly established an uneasy relationship with their new neighbors, in large part due to a leadership conflict that seems to reflect a greater ideological split in the Brotherhood.
At the top is Paladin Rahmani, a magnanimous leader who views her position as an opportunity to help the locals who are still dealing with the remnants of the Scorched, the local raider groups, and of course the Super Mutants, because we can’t get rid of those guys either. Her immediate second is Knight Shin, an extremely no-nonsense, no-fun hardass who has a fervent belief in the original mission of the Brotherhood — the seizure and safe storage of pre-war technology to prevent humanity from blowing itself up again. He ain’t your friend.
What’s important to emphasize here is that Shin isn’t a villain, nor is Rahmani necessarily correct. There’s value in the Brotherhood’s core tenets, if not necessarily their execution; at the same time, there’s a question of duty to one’s neighbors, especially in an apocalypse. The DLC opens with a recruitment call from the Brotherhood. Of course, if you’ve finished the original storyline, you’re already a member of the Brotherhood, but that don’t matter worth a hill of beans to the First Expeditionary Force. Once you do get in, the main driver of the plot is the loss of powerful weaponry that has turned up in civilian hands — and raiders’ as well. Tracking these weapons involves threading a thin line between civilian self-defense versus triggering an arms race.
How you handle this situation ties deeply with the ideological split between Rahmani and Shin, and the incident that caused it; that particular thread eventually comes to a head in the penultimate questline in which you decide one way or another who is right.
Steel Dawn is not as robust an update as Wastelanders. Explicitly described as only part one of a two-part storyline, the questline is short and it ends somewhat unsatisfactorily, with no real conclusion but the situation between Shin and Rahmani worse than ever.
What makes it work is the writing; I can’t say for sure who wrote what, but Steel Dawn features nuanced characters that feel more fleshed out than you’d expect from Bethesda NPCs. They went so far as to write backstories for all the characters; the extra effort shows.
That being said, there is a little bit of new fun to be had. What quests don’t involve carefully navigating wastelander politics involve some fun underground sequences, including a massive abandoned enclave research lab with every variety of Scorched wildlife that’s in the game.
However, unlike Wastelanders, there isn’t a great deal of additional material. The biggest addition is the long-awaited arrival of personal vaults, large rooms in the traditional vault style that have their own C.A.M.P. budget but also have slightly different building mechanics. While the add-on ships with a small room, the Atom Shop offers a few additional ones to use. Ultimately however, the result is a bit underwhelming. The game bars you from placing crafting benches or allies in your shelters, which kinda makes me wonder what the point even is then.
The new weapon is pretty fun to use. It’s the classic four-barrelled rocket launcher as seen in action movies and the Resident Evil games, and much more powerful than the regular rocket launcher. Finally, a use for all those missiles the game likes to dump on us.
The other big change removes the last vestige of Fallout 76’s survival sim roots: the hunger and thirst meters. No longer does increased hunger or thirst debuff you or cause your health to drain; instead, by keeping your meters topped off, you get progressively greater benefits. This is a huge change, and while survival sim nerds like me will miss the old mechanic (I’m a big fan of mods like Fallout 3’s big overhaul mod, Fallout Wanderer’s Edition or Skyrim’s equivalent, Frostfall) this is just another step in making the game more accessible to new players.
And the game sorely needs it. Fallout 76 is Bethesda’s best game in years, but you’d never know it for its disastrous launch and the dedicated hatedom from weird, horrible nerds. Anything Bethesda can do to make the game more palatable is welcome, even if I miss the old days.
In the end, Steel Dawn is a bit of a mixed bag. In terms of content, it’s rather anemic, albeit continuing to give the game a sense of time moving forward; in terms of gameplay, however, it’s a couple of very important steps forward.