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I thought I was out of Fallout 76 — and Wastelanders pulled me back in

It’s not a perfect RPG, but it does set a new standard

Fallout 76 - a shot of a new NPC from the Wastelanders update Bethesda Game Studios / Bethesda Softworks
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Fallout 76 had a rough launch, but it was the game’s subsequent updates that really strained the game’s servers. While the community did its best to keep the game alive through role-playing and events, traditional MMO additions, like new combat raids, fell flat. Bethesda hoped to remedy these issues with Wastelanders, an update that promised to bring back human NPCs. I’ve spent 20 hours with the new content, which is out today, and can say that Fallout 76 is much more enjoyable now.

Actually, the game might even be sustainable now. Fallout 76’s rough areas have been hammered out, and Bethesda has managed to polish the experience up. If a player found anything fun or intriguing in Fallout 76, such as world building or politics, it’s been brought to the forefront. Some of the base flaws are still here, but Wastelanders accomplished the tough task of getting me to reinvest in a game that had worn out its welcome.

How it works

Wastelanders takes place a year after Fallout 76, and it brings the Fallout franchise back to the Fallout 3 and New Vegas era of conversation design. I can collect two fleshed-out companions from around the wasteland, meet people in the world, and navigate social situations via dialogue trees. Dialogue checks that rely on SPECIAL stats — both positive and negative — are back.

You won’t find the same degree of depth as a game like New Vegas here. Instead, the game has instanced story zones that are reminiscent of Star Wars: The Old Republic. When I’m in one of those zones, anything is fair game, and the gameplay becomes a little more organic. When I walk into a bar and see a guy robbing the place, my first reaction was to just pull my switchblade and stab him. Later playthroughs revealed I could have talked him down, intimidated him, or drilled him for info. Most quests work like this; the game gives me multiple options to approach every problem.

“Besides the storyline, there’s a host of people — we call them denizens — that litter the countryside,” says Jeff Gardiner, project lead on Fallout 76, in an interview with Polygon. “They have new dialogue, new interactions, and so it’s far more of a Fallout 3 quality experience now.”

There are four major chunks of content, the first of which is a “starting” storyline surrounding the Wayward, a new bar that’s sprung up and is attracting trouble. Players will also get companion quest chains, and two major factions in the Settlers and the Raiders. The new content doesn’t act as a tutorial, but it does start off a set of new quest chains for people to enjoy.

The whole thing feels more grounded and character-based, with new enemy factions and storytelling elements based off fan canon. Certain theories, like the idea that the entire game is a giant Vault-Tec simulation, are meant to remain ambiguous. But other memetic elements, like the Mothman cultists, are now in the game as a wink and a nod to longtime fans.

Fallout 76 - an in-game shot of a large settler environment, with equipment and settlers moving in the area. Image: Bethesda Game Studios / Bethesda Softworks

Post-launch plans

Wastelanders doesn’t feel like a No Man’s Sky Next-style overhaul where a big update revamps the core experience top to bottom; instead, it’s a little more incremental. Companions are here, but a future update will make them customizable paper dolls that can be dressed up and changed to look unique from CAMP to CAMP. Any time I ask about future plans, the developers immediately get cagey — a lot is in the works, Bethesda says, and new tools to make it all possible are also in the hopper. This expansion is a pivot, and we can expect more in the same vein to come out over time.

“We knew we only had so many companions, so we wanted to make them as intriguing and interesting as possible. The fewer companions you have in a game, the more you have to swing for the fences,” says Gardiner. Right now, the companions hang out at the player’s CAMP; players can put a custom item tied to the specific companion out to have one hang out at a time. They sleep in beds, chat, and are otherwise a friendly presence who happens to assign quests to players to be completed back out in Appalachia.

With these improvements in mind, it raises the question: Is Wastelanders meant to be a reward for players who have stayed the course, or something to bring in new players?

“I’d say both,” says Ferret Baudoin, lead designer on Fallout 76. “I know that’s a cheesy answer, but we want this game to have appeal for people who love us for our storytelling. We took a lot of that out of the world we built, so we want those people to take a second look. But definitely, the fans who have stuck with us are the most amazing people.”

I was someone who rage-quit Fallout 76 after sticking with it for months. I was ready for the game to burn me again this time, too. But Wastelanders won me over. It’s less the content that’s there, and more what it represents — this is a confident, strongly executed new path that allows Fallout 76 to be a well-supported online game rather than a series of floundering experiments. I’m back on the Fallout 76 train, ready to see where this weird game heads next.

The next level of puzzles.

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