Having survived the rough launch of Fallout 76, the survivors of the nuclear apocalypse are finally making themselves known. Fallout 76's Wastelanders update released earlier this week, at last giving players something resembling the experience they signed up for: a traditional Fallout game that also happens to be fully online. The original iteration of Fallout 76 saw players interacting with a dead world.
In the immediate aftermath of nuclear war, humanity was dead or in hiding, leaving your Vault 76 dweller to interact with audio logs and automatons. Your main motivation was walking in the wake of Vault 76's Overseer, tracing her story through audio logs that were intended to be haunting, but were mostly just tedious. In comparison to Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 4—all rich story-based experiences—it was severely lacking.
Fallout 76's Wastelanders update fast-forwards another year, following the in-game triumph of the Vault 76ers over the Scorchbeast Queen. Rather than the fully dried out, dead husk of West Virginia, players are now faced with the only slightly less dried out, dead husk of West Virginia. Humanity has come to this wasteland, rebuilding certain locations and pooling into two factions. In short, Wastelanders is the update that puts "Fallout" back in Fallout 76.
It's largely successful if that's your only metric. I started a new character to try out the starting experience and found two brand-new NPCs right outside of Vault 76. You can talk with them about why they're wandering around the Vault—stories of a fabled treasure hidden within is what has drawn settlers to this part of West Virginia—and you can even outright lie to them.
Walking down the road takes you to the Wayward, a new bar established across the way from the original location of the Overseer's camp. Inside, you'll find the first instanced interior, Fallout 76's way of preventing the common problem of finding a cool new spot, only to have it picked clean by another player. Inside, Fallout 76's new narrative bent is highlighted, as you have to deal with a man who has the bar's owner at gunpoint. I shot him my first time around, but started another new game to find that you can actually talk him down. Dealing with him in short order introduces you to Duchess, the aforementioned owner, and Mordecai, a ghoul resident with dreams of making big money.
It's Fallout as you remember it. Oddly wooden NPCs—Bethesda's presentation has improved relatively little since Fallout 4—give you the lay of the land and quests that'll take you to new points of interest. There's also SPECIAL stat checks, like a Charisma check with Duchess that's intended as a small joke. During my completion of Duchess's mission to get some raiders off her back, I successfully completed a Strength check to avoid combat entirely. Choices, wow! The bar is low, but Duchess and Mort are immediately far more interesting than 80% of Fallout 76's original iteration. Bethesda clearly made the right move in reintroducing NPCs and roleplaying mechanics.
Wastelanders is grafted onto what Fallout 76 was though, with the result being some weird moments and interactions. Take the Overseer, for example. All of her original audio is still intact, mostly talking about the barren world she's wandering across. And yet her tapes are now inside the Wayward, a fully-working bar complete with automated security and alcohol. It just feels hard to believe the jump from the world she describes with no survivors whatsoever to the current state of Fallout 76.
A lack of engagement is apparent elsewhere in Fallout 76. Take a smaller system like stealing: In Fallout 3 and Fallout 4, items within an NPC's home were considered their items. But Fallout 76 was originally just you, robots, and various mutated life, so you could take everything. In Wastelanders, people act like they own places, but they don't actually care about anything inside. Daniel, a brusque settler at the Anchor Farm wants nothing to do with you, but you can simply take all the food and supplies in his house, no harm done. (Seriously, none, because even if you shoot NPCs point blank, they won't die.) The same is true of suspicious raiders, who mostly just threaten me even as I'm taking all their stuff. The ownership is apparent in the dialogue, but not in the gameplay, making the NPCs feel a bit less real.
Likewise, there are new citizens added in places with nothing meaningful to be done with them. Consider Heather Ellis, a new Responder trainee in Flatwoods. She offers some background color, but doesn't engage with the quests in the region, which are the same ones that were originally in the humanless Fallout 76. An RPG like Fallout 4 is built from the ground-up with narrative quests as a driving focus, while Wastelanders bolts them on top.
You can tell where Bethesda spent its resources, and where it simply dropped in a dialogue factory. The main focuses are on the primary quest line that extends forward from Duchess and the new hub cities of Foundation and Crater. Both are wonderful additions to Fallout 76, built on top existing locations. Over their questline, you'll get a feeling for their respective factions, the Settlers and the Raiders, before you ultimately join either. Here, Wastelanders definitely feels more like an MMORPG, with more engagement on the "RPG" side.
But even then, the limits are related to Fallout 76's original state. Players have already tried to see what happens when you nuke Foundation or Crater. The answer? Nothing much. Either city puts on radiation suits and goes about their business. They don't even acknowledge the nuke itself, the radiation, or your actions in setting it off. It's just a thing that happened in their world. Another annoyance on a Wednesday afternoon, like running out of milk.
Existing Fallout 76 players are very happy with it and I can see lapsed Fallout fans potentially giving it a try. Wastelanders is a major improvement, and hopefully just the first step in a much larger plan for Fallout 76. However, it now feels like two different games that are at odds with each other: the original, lonely survival experience, and this new RPG. The edges of the wound where the new robotic arm was attached are still very clear and festering. Perhaps over time they'll heal and become a beautiful whole, but for now I'm so busy looking at the wound that I miss the conversation we're having.