They say war never changes, but if that’s true, nobody told Fallout 76. Following a rough launch in 2018 that was plagued by bugs, server issues, and a generally lackluster game, Bethesda has, to its credit, not given up: it’s consistently delivered a slew of updates that’ve brought new content, features, and more in an effort to revive a game that stumbled and fell before it ever really got a chance to run. Wastelanders, its latest free update that’s more like a full expansion, is a dramatic overhaul of Appalachia from top to bottom it desperately needed. It finally introduces mostly interesting human NPCs, an abundance of fun new quests, and satisfying alterations to existing areas. As a result, Fallout 76 is starting to feel like a true Fallout game – even if it’s still not as consistently enjoyable as its predecessors.
Wastelanders’ believable and intriguing story fast-forwards the world a year and focuses on the sudden repopulation of Appalachia after rumors of a hidden cache of valuable lost treasure start to spread. During the base game’s story, an inoculation against the Scorched plague was discovered (hey, timely!), so this next chapter is all about distributing that vaccine and convincing the new Raider and Settler factions to work with you.
In concept, Wastelanders has an interesting format for an expansion to a persistent online world. Rather than segmenting content and delineating between new and old quests, Wastelanders’ new quest is organically threaded throughout the world, fundamentally changing what Fallout 76 is. MMORPG expansions often pressure new players to finish the original story and every expansion, in order, on top of all the repeatable open-world content and end-game activities, but here many old and new quests overlap. That makes the new content feel seamlessly integrated, even if you’re dusting off a mid-level character from just after launch. Although, it can be annoying that there is no indication of whether or not a quest is new or old other than whether it includes a human NPC or not.
However, playing as a brand-new character does have some weird quirks. For starters, lots of the best and most interesting dialogue hinges entirely on your SPECIAL stats, and in many cases require far higher stats than you would likely have early on. It’s a little silly to have to exit a conversation, pop some stat-boosting pills, and then have the same dialogue over again just to get a better result. I guess that’s Fallout in a nutshell to some extent, but still kind of bizarre.
If you’re starting new and going directly into Wastelanders’ story, eventually you’ll also hit a point where Fallout 76 requires you to be at least level 20 before going any further. This means you’ll be forced to step off of the Wastelanders path and run into the base game’s countless optional fetch quests, left-behind letters, and holotapes recordings. Those are hard to go back to after interacting with the much more compelling human NPCs in the Wastelanders story. If I were to do it over again I’d probably hold off on starting Wastelanders until I was high enough level to complete it without having to take a break in the middle.
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Visually, Wastelanders makes some improvements to the wasteland, but overall it still basically looks like Fallout 4, which didn’t look cutting edge back in 2015. The lighting system in particular has clearly been upgraded since launch though, especially in the wilderness, bringing out more saturation and colors in trees and wildlife. Shadows feel more pronounced as well. However, this introduces some new bugs from time to time with weird shadow clipping through terrain or the draw distance causing textures to pop in and out in a noticeable way. At least it never crashed on me, which it often did back at launch. As recently as a few weeks before Wastelanders came out I recall quests that were still bugged or missing waypoints, so it feels like a big stability improvement.
While the introduction of actual human characters is definitely an upgrade over the faceless robots we’ve seen since launch, Wastelanders’ NPCs are generally a bit awkward. They’re often facing the wrong direction when conversations start and several of the voice recordings are jarringly low quality. At base camps such as the Blood Eagle Raiders’ Crater and the Settlers’ Foundation, you’ll spot NPCs just sort of standing around and not really doing much, which is a big step down from what single-player Bethesda games like Fallout 4 or Skyrim have led us to expect. They have nowhere to be and nothing to do – they’re just vending machines with faces. You can even flagrantly steal any items you want in full view of any NPC, even from their shops or homes, or even shoot them, and they don’t even blink. It flies in the face of how Bethesda RPGs are usually designed.
Another use for NPCs is that Fallout 76 now lets you have ally NPCs… but they don’t follow you around on actual missions like Fallout fans would expect. Instead, once you complete a series of side quests for them, they just live at your camp with you and offer you recurring missions. It’s a bummer not getting to go questing with them in place of or in addition to other players, but at least their presence does help make your camp feel less lonely.
All that being said, many of the new quests themselves are extremely well-written and entertaining, rivaling some of the best from any Bethesda game I’ve played in terms of storytelling. One standout moment comes when you have to track down a demolitions expert named Lucky Lou. In doing so, you’ll meet a tracker with a deep, computerized voice box that can’t translate all the words she wants to say, resulting in some excellent dialogue that would otherwise be very vulgar coming off as childlike. Seeing her get frustrated with her own words is hilarious, as is the quest itself.
Lou leaves behind a series of amusing notes alongside some very dangerous experiments. It’s a great example of Bethesda doing what it does best: you could blow through a given quest in 15 minutes without exploring the environment, but as soon as you slow down, listen, read, and look at your surroundings, compelling new layers of storytelling are revealed. Coming face to face with Lucky Lou and then actually talking about what you saw is precisely what was missing from Fallout 76 before this update, and it’s refreshing to have that sort of two-way dialogue system back once again.
It’s aggravating, though, that sharing these story quests socially is so awkward. They’re instanced so that you can make dialogue choices like in other Fallout games, but in practice, it’s a bad experience. When you enter as a team you get two options: everyone goes in solo, playing through their own versions, or you can accompany your team leader and watch them have conversations and make decisions and don’t get credit for completing the mission yourself. This might be nice for high-level players who want to help others catch up, but horrible for friends that want to play the story and progress together.
In terms of the amount of new content Wastelanders adds to Fallout 76’s roughly 50-hour pile, your mileage will vary depending on what you like to do. If you want to seek out and complete every new quest that’s been added, that could easily take you upwards of 30 hours (even as an established character) between the various main quest paths, side quests, and ally quests. Not to mention the new end-game content like raiding Vault 79, daily tasks, and events. But if you only care about the new main story content, that’s maybe 10 hours for a beefed-up, end-game ready character, and double or triple that at least if you’re starting fresh.
Bethesda also offers a premium subscription plan, called Fallout 1st, for $13 per month or $100 per year. The biggest benefits, on top of some exclusive cosmetics, a monthly stipend of atoms, unlimited scrap storage, and a free mobile survival camp site you can summon almost anywhere to dorp off scrap and take a rest, is the ability to play in a private instanced world with just you and up to seven friends (who don’t have to be subscribers). It is a bit odd that Bethesda thinks not having to play with many others in the world is worth paying a premium for, given that the social aspect is arguably the whole point of an MMORPG in the first place. Take from that what you will.
Regardless, compared to the cost of Atoms in the shop, it’s actually not a terrible deal, given that 1,000 Atoms costs $10 and you get 1,650 Atoms monthly with your subscription. In other words, if you’re planning to spend money in Fallout 76, 1st is the way to go, but based on my experience you don’t need to in order to progress through the content smoothly.