Running down the hill from Vault 76 where I emerged a year and a half ago, I spot a couple hiking up a stone path. They are the first people I’ve ever seen in Fallout 76 in my over 100 hours with it. They ask me if the vault’s still open and if I’ve heard about something called the “big one.” A conversation option appears that allows me to lie and tell them I know all about it. Eventually they realise I’ve been jerking them around and refuse to talk to me anymore. C’est la vie. Humanity is back in Appalachia, and as with everywhere else in this game, it’s a bit underwhelming.
Today’s free Wastelanders expansion brings these and other NPCs to Fallout 76’s irradiated West Virginia. Each of them hope to discover some treasure deep within a mysterious new vault. In the south, friendly settlers have built an encampment called Foundation where they’re hard at work trying to rebuild civilisation, while in the north a rival group of raiders have set up shop hoping to plunder the region’s burgeoning prosperity. The expansion also adds more quests and myriad quality-of-life improvements to reward those players who have stuck with Fallout 76 all this time. Presumably the new changes could also win over new players who may be curious, just like the new residents of Wastelanders, as to whether a reinvigorated Wasteland is truly on the move again. After playing for a few hours, I’m still not convinced it is.
The expansion revolves around the two new factions and which of them you decide to throw in with. Each side will have its own special gear that you can only obtain by boosting your reputation with them through completing loyalty quests. You need to be level 20 to get started with them, but for those arriving in Appalachia a new series of quests has been added near the beginning of the game to help ferry players right along.
Currently I’ve been playing for both sides, but eventually Bethesda says to push your reputation to the max, you’ll need to turn against one group or the other. The mystery around the secret new vault is intriguing, as is the potential for an inter-factional war whose consequences reverberate out across the map, but early on both sides come across more like glorified quest givers than the independent and emotionally rich characters of previous Fallout games.
The leader of the raiders, Meg, sports a gruff voice and a crew cut haircut. After going through great and tiresome lengths to broadcast the voice of another renowned raider telling her to meet with me, she tasks me with finding some of her grunts and helping them fight off Scorched. Higher stats in charisma or intelligence open up additional conversation options where you can tell her, in so many words, that she’s an idiot, but eventually I hit a wall in the back-and-forth, and so off to do her dirty work I went.
Paige, the de facto spokesperson for the nominally democratic settlers at Foundation, has a similar ask, although getting some facetime with him is much less arduous. Voiced by Beau Billingslea of Cowboy Bebop fame, he’s suspicious when I tell him that his followers need to be inoculated against the Scorch infection that ravaged Appalachia before they arrived and told me to go discuss it with their doctor, who’s currently hanging out in a bog just south of the settlement. Paige doesn’t have much of a story to share, nor do the rest of Foundation’s residents. One of them, a soon-to-be father named Derrick, tells me he’s from Pittsburgh as he tries to mask a Canadian accent. I pepper him with questions but none of them lead anywhere interesting. Other settlers say nothing at all beyond ominous weather forecasts along the lines of “looks like rain.”
Wastelanders adds companions who can’t leave your base but will help defend it while you’re away. Here’s how I met and recruited one of them: out of the blue, I got a distress signal from someone claiming to be an astronaut. I eventually found her bleeding out in a secret bunker. Called Commander Daguerre, her shuttle crashed nearby after she was in cryosleep for decades. I gave her a stimpak, found the black box from her ship, and invited her back to my camp to help her work on decoding it. Her story is one of the brighter spots I’ve encountered so far in the expansion, hinting at something more nefarious. She never said how her ship crashed and the game repeatedly prompted me to regard her story with more than a hint of Agent Mulder-style scepticism. Like so many Fallout 76 players, I’m a glutton for conspiracy theorizing, and I’m now holding out hope she’s part of some nefarious ew Vault-Tec experiment. For now I let her use my workbench and read my books and find her the trinkets she needs to try and locate her crewmates.
The most remarkable part of seeing NPCs in Fallout 76 is just how quickly I stopped being shocked by it. At long last, Bethesda’s multiplayer role-playing game has achieved a modicum of the character-based world building just about every other game in its class had at launch. But at what cost? While none of the new characters have won me over yet, they’ve managed to set the rest of its world oddly ill-at-ease as I continue adventuring through it, highlighting clunky disjunctions and vacant dead-ends that I used to have an easier time ignoring.
Now that there are human settlements, barebones as they feel at the moment, the rest of the wilderness is even more austere by comparison. The same groups of bullet-sponge enemies carrying the same junk spawn over and over again as if raising a big middle finger to anyone straying from the main path. And despite a fresh slew of bug fixes and claims by many players on the game’s subreddit that Fallout 76 runs smoother than ever, the combat still feels like searching for a needle in a bucket of rusty screws, and the frame rate still routinely plummets on my Xbox One. An hour into playing today, the game crashed my console altogether.
Wastelanders is an attempt to graft the hallmarks of Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas onto a failed but radical experiment in open world games, and I’m still not sure it will take. Bethesda made a bet that real humans thrown into a post-apocalyptic playground could create stories as engaging as anything in a single-player game. It didn’t pan out. I hope the tricks Wastelanders seems to be hiding up its sleeve turn out better.