Fallout 76: Wastelanders is a game with a flawed past, a hopefully brighter future, but bugs have dimmed it. It's a game that I enjoy despite itself and the difficulties it throws in its own path. Like them or hate them, Bethesda did create a beautiful world in Fallout 76, and the studio finally breathed some life into it through its free Wastelanders expansion.
Fallout 76 has suffered from the typical Bethesda graphics and physics engine glitches. More worrisome, people have also exploited game and server mechanics to take powerful and rare items and duplicate them endlessly. In a single-player game, duping is just cheating yourself, but in Fallout 76, your targets are other players. That, and several PR blunders involving promotional materials, has given Fallout 76 a negative reputation.
A lot of my enjoyment comes from building my personal settlement and sharing it with the community.
That has to make you wonder why anyone would play this boondoggle. Despite its numerous flaws, Fallout 76 is a love letter to people who can't get enough of the Fallout universe and exploration. The West Virginia Wasteland is vast and varied; the different areas of the map might as well be different planets. They range from a verdant forest, hellish ash waste, alien swamp, bleached toxic valley, and mutated mangrove bogs. You have valleys, mountains, rivers, lakes, caves, and ruins, and they're pretty much all yours to settle.
A lot of my enjoyment comes from building my personal settlement and sharing it with the community. A community that, I might add, has been exceedingly generous and supportive.
Wastelanders adds to the game by broadening the player's opportunities for adventure. Sure, the addition of the Raider and Settler factions has expanded the story, but other elements of the background have something new as well. I stumbled upon a hidden Chinese base, fought bizarre Mothman cultists, and tangled with the Blood Eagles, a raider group that even the Raiders of the Crater can't get along with. The landscape of the game has changed, and for the better.
A Lonely Road
The West Virginia Wasteland was a desolate place at the launch of Fallout 76. By design, the only human beings you met were other actual players. Every other human in the game had been mutated beyond redemption or long dead.
It was an exciting concept for a roleplaying game and a radical experiment in storytelling. Bethesda's design was clearly to have a world that was open to whatever the players wanted. As an avid player from launch up until the roll-out of Fallout 1st, I have to report the results were mixed. You'd be introduced to these interesting people on recordings or letters left behind and hear their stories and their struggles.
At the same time, you'd also know that their corpse was out there in the wasteland somewhere, and you could never actually interact with them. No matter what heroism or villainy you showed, the only person you'd affect is yourself. I've rarely had a game make me feel so alone.
The bones of the game were solid, though. Despite the initial roll-out issues that any online game has at the start, and the typical ongoing Bethesda bugs, the game had such a massive world to play in. The C.A.M.P. system allowed you to build your own player home on almost any part of the map, including cliffsides, caves, mountain tops, and the middle of utility towers. Bethesda created a system allowing you to swap out your player build on the fly, going from a crafter in one minute to a heavy weapons specialist to a melee-oriented character with relative ease. And the world, as empty as it was, was beautiful.
What does Wastelanders bring to the table?
Like any good expansion to a game, there are more toys and more enemies to use them against. I have only played with the bow so far (I started a new character to play Wastelanders at the suggestion of the devs), but new toys like the Plasma Caster, the Gauss Shotgun, Pistol, and Minigun are things that I'm looking forward to getting my hands on. I have yet to face the Wendigo Colossus, a nightmarish meld of three Wendigos into one horrid monstrosity, though I've heard it's quite tough.
Then there are the Floaters, which are an older Fallout monster brought into Fallout 76. Although they look comical, they are not messing about in the slightest. They tend to attack in packs and are relentless. It's a fun ramp up in challenge.
Like any good expansion to a game, there are more toys and more enemies to use them against.
Those changes are all well and good, but the meat of the update is the addition of the Raiders and Settlers. The Settlers are new to the area, but bring progress and a cooperative attitude to the Wasteland. The Raiders are former residents of the area, forced out by the plague that ravaged the land. While they are savage and brutal, they did own the land that the settlers are now claiming, which sets up the conflict the player has to resolve. Which of these two do you support?
The main quest the factions offer centers on building a crew to pull off a heist, and I have to admit the quests are pretty fun. The characters you meet were full of personality, and it's just about the only time I've ever heard a Central Pennsylvian accent in a video game and didn't want to cringe. We love you, Lucky Lou.
Plus, these are two factions of actual people you can speak to! You can do that with the dialog system, which was modeled on the system in Fallout 3/New Vegas. While your character isn't voiced like it is in Fallout 4, that element won't be missed. Through most of the conversations of Fallout 76, you'll build your relationships with either or both factions. However, you'll also meet people unaligned with either faction in the game. It's startling to have a scavenger greet you, or comment on their finds when you've had nothing but silence for over a year. They'll offer random events as well. I encountered a woman whose robot was malfunctioning. I had the choice of helping her or sabotaging her robot to attack her. It was very unfortunate for her that I happened to be playing my evil cannibal character that session, but the Wasteland is a deliciously imperfect place.
Speaking of imperfections, I encountered a few technical ones. There is the obvious issue of the player vending machines and display cases being disabled due to dupers using an exploit to copy powerful items. Disabling player vending machines, in particular, makes other player's camps challenging to discover. When a player adds a vending machine to their C.A.M.P., it makes the C.A.M.P. visible on other player's maps and allows players to fast travel to that C.A.M.P.
The lack of player vending machines also makes it harder for newer characters to gain more common C.A.M.P., weapon, and armor plans, as older characters generally have surplus plans that they sell at reasonable prices through those machines. That's not ideal when you're welcoming new and returning players to the game, but Bethesda has promised a fix soon.
There's also an issue with a delay in dialog options being displayed. There can be a gap of several seconds between the end of dialog and your next options to continue the conversations. Even more frustrating, there was a main story quest that kept having an NPC's action begin, but never fully resolve. This caused me to have to stop the quest and restart it by server hopping, only to have the same quest bug out at a different point. It got to the point where I got sick of it and stopped playing. I hope that this is merely a sign of roll-out issues, but it's not a good look to have your main quest not work.
A brighter future?
Wastelanders is a net positive for a game I already liked. While my first impression is marred by the issues I encountered, this isn't my first ride on an online-only game having problems at an expansion launch. Nor is this my first Bethesda game.
For all the flaws that Fallout has had under the Bethesda umbrella, I've always enjoyed their world-building. The base game built that world; Wastelanders breathed life into the game. I feel like when I round a corner, there might be another person there waiting for me. Will they attack me, trade with me, attempt to eat me? Who knows? It's that element of surprise that's hooked me back into wandering West Virginia's country roads once more.
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