Everyone thought it was impossible, but somehow, Fallout 76 actually got good. And all it took was for Bethesda to not be Bethesda. That’s a taller order than you might think.
Going into last week, Fallout 76 was the poster child for how to badly screw up a franchise and an MMO. Copious words have been written and said about Bethesda’s monumental and ongoing failures to develop and operate this game in a way that wasn’t an embarrassing failure. It was a poor solo experience and a bizarrely awful social experience, all bundled together with a bad business model and horrible bugs. There should’ve been no coming back from this but for the studio’s grim determination to make something out of its failure.
That brings us to Wastelanders: Fallout 76’s huge “do-over” that isn’t quite a relaunch, but it’s close enough for government work.
Caveats are on the house
I have a few piles of caveats that I want to unload on you before I go into my first impressions of Wastelanders because all needs to be said to establish proper context for what’s to follow.
Firstly, this isn’t a Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn-level revamp, and any attempt to draw that comparison is probably coming from hype more than reality. The reality is that Wastelanders is essentially an expansion that’s serving as an overlay to wedge in content and systems that were grossly missing from the previous version of the game. It’s a huge, widespread fix, but it is a fix and not a bottom-to-top reworking of Fallout 76. The game still plays as it did, for the most part, and if you hated some parts about it, chances are that those parts are still going to be there.
Second, for all Wastelanders does for the game, it doesn’t address many of the glaring issues that still persist. These include the ham-handed Atom store, no proper VATS feature from other Fallout titles, the monument to stupidity that is Fallout 1st, and the lack of truly useful social features (guilds and chat channels, chief among them).
Thirdly, I continue to maintain that at its core, Fallout 76 has an enjoyable gameplay loop. I’ve always thought there was something here very much worth salvaging because it’s not all crap. It’s an exciting world to explore, and I am really happy that it’s getting this second chance to make a first impression. So let’s get into those impressions, shall we?
The omission of NPCs and designed roleplaying from the launch version of Fallout 76 will go down as one of the dumbest decisions Bethsoft ever made. I can’t imagine the amount of crow the studio had to eat to admit this, but happily for us players, it did. Wastelanders is an expensive mea culpa, with a response that attempts to correct the error rather than merely acknowledge it.
The addition of NPCs — whether they be human, ghoul, or talkative robot — is a balm that soothes a very sore wound this game has had for the past year-and-a-half. Some people may like survival games with a minimum of dev-written narrative attached, but certainly not anyone who loves the Fallout series. It’s simply wonderful to have characters to finally talk with after feeling so lonely for so long in the game.
And not just talk with but interact in a variety of ways! There’s a great dialogue system that goes back to New Vegas and Fallout 3’s style and includes some really funny choices, skill checks, engaging writing, and (so far) above-board voice acting. Did I mention that there are personal instances, branching choices, and optional objectives as well? Yes, all of this should’ve been in the game to begin with, but at least it’s here now, and it helps make Fallout 76 feel whole in a way that it hadn’t to date.
A new pace
I found that the NPCs and their associated quests to be a welcome change to the mostly aimless wandering of the original Fallout 76. Sure, that had quests too, but I didn’t care as much when they were assigned by pieces of paper or personality-free bots. Wastelanders adds a full new campaign in addition to the old one, giving both veteran and greenhorn players a fresh journey.
What I also appreciated was that the game gives you a base right out of the gate. With the addition of the Wayward Inn, new players have a free bed, storage, crafting stations, vendor, and a giant robot that thinks it’s a cow. What more could you ask for?
This means that if you don’t want to build a C.A.M.P. — or you want to put it off until later — you have that option. I really enjoyed having this populated mini-hub as a place to begin and end my play sessions, all the more so when I contributed to the success of the Wayward and its small group of settlers. I found myself following the quest lines more than I did before, veering off to explore nearby locations as I traveled to my destination. The whole package feels more satisfying than it did before, and I was downright eager to log back in every day.
Tune in to the apocalypse
Again, it’s hard to explain just far significant having other computer-controlled humans goes in bringing this world to life. When I went into familiar locations that used to be barren, only to find some new “settler” with which to speak, I was quietly delighted. Having enemy mobs include human raiders that trash talk is a great change of pace from the growling Scorched. And maybe it was just the first week and my imagination, but I was bumping into so many other players of all levels during my journeys.
Speaking of the human touch, I also want to give a shout-out to the new radio announcer they got for this patch. Her name’s Julie, and she’s this upbeat 23-year-old survivor who took over the previously DJ-free station. See, I always liked listening to the radio in other Fallout games because having that DJ and those golden oldies playing made me feel like I had a companion of sorts. Now, I have that in Fallout 76. The community seems a bit divided on Julie, but I think she’s the bee’s knees and I’m glad she’s chirping in my ear.
Those who don’t like the radio will be glad to hear that composer Inon Zur returned to craft 15 additional pieces for the soundtrack.
Many miles to go before I sleep
Going into Wastelanders, I was cautiously optimistic. After having played over the last several days, that optimism has graduated to glowing praise. Bethesda still has a lot of real work to do on Fallout 76, but guys? This is an actually fun game now.
Having started from scratch for these impressions, I wasn’t able to blitz my way through the quests as the higher-level people have, which means I haven’t yet gotten to the two main factional hubs or dug much into the vaunted ally system. I’m looking forward to it, but there is a long way to go before I get a full picture of how effective Wastelanders is as a whole.
But for now, it’s the game that’s consuming my time, attention, and passion, which is a better sign than “dragging myself through enough hours to justify an article on it.” And as the outside world has the aura of an apocalypse these days, at least I’m free to run around this virtual wasteland without any concerns about catching a bug.
I’m still going to wear a mask, though. Can’t be too safe, you know.