When I reviewed Fallout 76 at launch, I said it was in desperate need of a hub - a town or a city filled with NPCs. Now, with the release of free update Wastelanders, it's not just got one city, it's got two - and a bucketload of NPCs to boot.
The addition of NPCs and all they bring with them - dialogue choices, voice acting, quests and actual story - drags Fallout 76 towards the traditional single-player Fallout experience, and it's all the better for it. Fallout 76 is improved in pretty much every department just by having other characters in the game world who speak and who are not robots. Even hearing enemy raiders chat while they're skulking about is refreshing, not because it is a remarkable thing for a Fallout game, but because it is a remarkable thing for Fallout 76. This is the thing about the Wastelanders update: it feels great because Fallout 76 was so bad.
I stuck with Fallout 76 for a month or so after it came out, then dropped off pretty hard. So I dusted off my existing character and entered the post-apocalypse expecting the most significant of refreshes - a relaunch of Fallout 76, really. And to Bethesda's credit, Wastelanders is it.
Outside the door to Fallout 76 a robot like all the others has some new things to say. It points you in the direction of a couple of human characters - human characters! - who have arrived in Appalachia on the hunt for a mystical treasure housed in a new-found vault. Talking to them took me aback at first, even though I've spent hundreds of hours talking to NPCs in other Bethesda games. And what's this? Fallout 76 lets you pick from multiple lines of dialogue - none of the response wheel rubbish from Fallout 4. And wait! There are SPECIAL checks. Charisma all of a sudden has value in a game that since launch had been mostly about combat and crafting. Even better, there are unique speech checks you can only select if you have a low rating in one of the SPECIAL categories. These lines open up dialogue that's a lot of fun. Huh. I'm having a lot of fun! It's almost like I'm playing Fallout 3, or Fallout: New Vegas!
Soon enough I'm at a bar that's just opened up down the road. The Wayward is run by a wonderfully voice-acted landlady called Duchess who asks for your help in dealing with a raider problem. This is hardly a revolutionary quest setup for Fallout, but for Fallout 76 it's a breath of fresh air. There are decisions to make, the kind of decisions that actually change how things pan out. There are different ways to complete missions. You can intimidate NPCs into giving you what you want, if your strength is high enough. You can use your intelligence to get your own way. Sometimes your luck will help you out. And yes, charisma is back. Finger guns!
Wastelanders is well-written, too - and at times funny. The ghoul character voiced by Jason Mewes, aka Jay from the Jay and Silent Bob films, is a lot of fun. I ended up trying to intimidate a robot who thought I was a spirit into giving me an assaultron body because the head of an assaultron asked me to find her a new body (long story). Also, the assaultron is sort of maybe having a weird kind of probably quite painful sexual relationship with a chap who I found lying in a mine. This kind of silliness is what Fallout should be about. It's retro futuristic black comedy - and Fallout 76 has had none of it outside terminals, holodisks and dusty scraps of paper until now.
This is all a precursor to the new main quest, which revolves around inoculating two new factions from the scorch disease. Foundation is a new hub that has been plonked onto Spruce Knob and let me tell you, walking up to it the first time gave me that tinge of excitement I always get in my belly whenever I discover a new city in a Bethesda game. It's full of people bashing metal together, sweeping the floor (yes, the toilets are still post-apocalyptic disgusting despite people being around to clean them) and... talking to each other! There's a kid running about. There's a guy who's a layabout. Inside the headquarters I convince one of the settlers, via a luck check, to be my ally, and after I build him a chair at my camp he moves in, giving me a unique quest and plenty of dialogue. The boss of Foundation sets me on an entirely different quest. There's another chap who offers me work. There's reputation with the faction to earn. There's a lot to do, and it's intoxicating.
Eventually I'll have to decide whether to side with this Foundation lot or the raider faction who've built a city called Crater at the Crashed Space Station. But for now I'm happy keeping both sweet, playing their quests, earning rep and enjoying the novelty of what is, ostensibly at least, a pretty decent Bethesda Fallout experience.
There's a lot I've yet to encounter. I'm not far off getting to the new vault, but I've yet to see it. Apparently I can romance an ally, so I'm keeping an eye out for those dialogue options. I haven't got to the point yet where I have meaningfully experienced the new Gold Bullion system. This new currency, which apparently will end up being the late game caps/time sink, is the ticket to the new endgame gear (the new power armour, that sort of thing). And I've only brushed up against the Blood Eagles raiders and the Cult of the Mothman - and by that I mean I ran away as their high-level cronies shot me in the back.
Fallout 76 is actually a game I want to play now, which is something I never thought I'd say after reviewing the thing back in November 2018. Even on the tech side of things the game is much better than it was. I'm not sure if this is something brought about with Wastelanders, but the game runs a lot better on my base PlayStation 4 than it did at launch. There are occasional severe framerate issues, but on the whole it runs okay, and I have yet to encounter a game-breaking bug. This is a win for Fallout 76, as far as I'm concerned.
But I must check myself: there is a novelty here. Wastelanders is the game Fallout 76 should have been at launch, but it still suffers from very serious issues. The combat remains awful. It's unresponsive and janky and nowhere near as tight as it needs to be for Fallout 76 to be played as a shooter, which, given the awful VATs system, is unavoidable. Most of the time it looks pretty crap. Occasionally I'll find myself in just the right place at just the right time of day, with the sun casting rays that reflect off a stream, and I'll think Appalachia scrubs up well. But then I'll look at an NPC face and throw up in my mouth a bit. Fallout 76's NPCs have that trademark Bethesda NPC jank, unfortunately. You'll be talking to one of them and they'll just dart up or down for no reason. They do not look well. At all.
And you can tell Fallout 76's NPCs have been sort of Frankensteined into the game somewhat. Meaningful story decisions (let an NPC live or die, sabotage the settlers in favour of the raiders, etc) are confined to small instanced spaces that allow for world changes unique to you as a player. You cannot meaningfully change the world on a wider basis, because of course you can't. This is an MMO, with lots of players running about the map. You can't nuke a town Megaton-style because other players need to have access to it at all times. Hilariously, if you actually nuke one of the new cities, which is a thing you can do in Fallout 76, the people inside put on Hazmat suits and continue about their business, sweeping the floors and moaning about the work they're having to do. Talk about chill.
And Fallout 76 continues to be at odds with itself because it's now trying to be a single-player Fallout game but other players are in on it. This is good and bad. While I was out questing a high level character trained a super tough boss character right on top of the house I was trying to get into, just, I presume, to annoy me. Fair enough! This is Fallout, I suppose. But it was also annoying. On the other hand, while I was fussing at my (embarrassingly threadbare) camp, a high level player dropped a paper bag on the ground filled with stimpacks and other supplies. I gave them the heart emoji for that. How lovely! And then, there are some players who are just weird. While I was hanging around outside the Wayward, a player nearby noted, on voice comms no less, that there was a lot of corn around. He then said: "I guess you could say... it's CORNY! LOL." Then he left.
Actual humans don't spoil the successful integration of Fallout 76's virtual humans, though. And credit where it's due: Bethesda has stuck with Fallout 76, which suffered one of the most significant launch disasters of this generation, when I suspected it would ditch it. The developer has made some truly baffling decisions with this game. Locking private worlds behind a subscription is even more of a face palm feature now NPCs are in the game. And repair kits, which are used to fix broken weapons and armour (they break a lot), should not be available to buy for real-world money. But adding NPCs was definitely the right call. It means that if you, like me, approach Fallout 76 as a sort of weird single-player Fallout game with the occasional random player jumping about in power armour, it's actually okay.
Who'd have thought?