It is a truth universally acknowledged that the launch of Fallout 76 in late 2018 was one of the most catastrophic in industry history. Fallout 76 was panned across the board by critics and fans alike, and even the most hardcore of Fallout fans (like myself) was astounded at the appalling quality of the game. Upon leaving Vault 76, it became quickly apparent that Bethesda had just created an empty, albeit vast, map. No NPCs, no dialogue, no factions, no choice and consequence – only you, Dongslayer69 and xxxVampQueenxxx against the world. Fallout 76 stripped away all the things that fans loved about the series, leaving behind something similar to a Rust if – if Rust deleted your save files and kept spawning in characters without faces.
Fallout is my favorite game franchise, and to see it brought so low was devastating. After 20 hours of glitchy nonsense, I logged out for the last time. I truly believed that Fallout 76, and by extension, the brand itself was unsalvageable. But in the biggest comeback since Jordan, Bethesda has salvaged it.
Fallout: New Vegas is often cited the high-point of the franchise among fans, with some (including me) calling it one of the best RPGs ever made. There are a few core reasons it receives that level of praise: the deep customization of your character and their backstory, the witty dialogue, branching quests and the intricate factions and reputation system. All of these things were either missing or watered down in Fallout 4, but have returned in earnest to Fallout 76: Wastelanders. I loved Fallout 4 for its reasons, but it wasn’t the simplified RPG aspects. If you miss the complexity in decision making from New Vegas (and you’ve already dipped into its spiritual successor The Outer Worlds), then look no further than the Fallout 76: Wastelander update.
Fallout 4 received some substantial criticism from players focused on roleplaying. Unlike Fallout 3 and New Vegas, it established the protagonist as either a lawyer (female protagonist) or army veteran (male protagonist) from Boston in their early 30s with a baby son. That may not seem like much to establish, but if you’re even trying to roleplay a character who used to be a doctor, you’re SOL. This premise presented another, more significant issue for role-players. If you were a mother or father whose son was kidnapped during the apocalypse, you’d do nothing but search for them. There would be no time for side quests, no time for exploration, no time for building settlements and helping the Minutemen.
Fallout: New Vegas nailed the build-your-own-character premise by making you an amnesiac courier who was shot in the head by Chandler from Friends. Who were you before? Who knows. The driving motivation for your character to act is to locate Chandler and figure out why the hell he shot you in the desert. This setup leaves room for you to explore the Mojave Wasteland at your leisure and hunt Legionaries for sport with Boone, all while providing sufficient motivation for you to keep moving. Fallout 76 sets up your character as emerging from the Vault 76 just 25 years after the bombs dropped and, that’s it. You can be as young or old as you like. You can have been a scientist or plumber or architect before the apocalypse, or you could have been born in the vault. Your primary mission when exiting the vault: find the lost treasure of Appalachia and be the wealthiest person this side of Doomsday.
The base game’s main quest still exists and follows the same story, yet having played through most of this in 2018 and being disappointed, the overhauled version in Wastelanders has caught my attention. The main beats of the story are the same; this time, however, human NPCs have been mixed into the settings and locations central to the story and provide additional exposition and guidance for new players. In Flatwoods, one of the first areas the main quest guides the player to, a delightful new character named Heather will provide some background about the location, herself, the treasure, the runaway Vault 76 overseer and the currently brewing faction war. Her responses and dialogue options change depending on what character knows and how they’ve interacted with other factions.
Human and ghoul NPCs have been added into the game, sprinkled around so that you’re never too far from one. There are two main factions, the Settlers, and Raiders, accompanied by six minor factions: The Blood Eagles, Blue Ridge Caravan, The Mothman Cult, the Free Radicals, the Secret Service and the Responders. From that alone, fans of New Vegas will recognize a similarity in the setup. In essence, New Vegas featured three large factions (Mr. House, the NCR and the Legion) alongside five smaller ones (the Boomers, the Followers of the Apocalypse, the Brotherhood, the Enclave and the Great Khans). In 76, the player will have a numerically calculated reputation with each of these factions, large or small. Standing with the two main factions can be checked at any time in the stat menu, just as in New Vegas.
Quests will open and close depending on your favorability with different factions. Getting too friendly with the Free Radicals will close off your quest and dialogue opportunities with the Responders, and vice versa. You can work for both the Settlers and the Raiders up to a point, and like in previous games, you will eventually need to choose between them. There are also two new populated towns – the Crater and the Foundation – to explore in Appalachia. Main story interactions are cleverly added into this MMORPG-lite by creating instanced areas inside of buildings where the player only exists alongside their teammates. This allows cutscenes and extended dialogue trees to play out without fear of intervention from Waluigi_420 and his roving compatriots.
The factions are, of course, staffed by dozens of voiced, interactive characters with huge dialogue trees for the player to navigate. I have spent nearly 800 hours on Fallout 4, but one thing even I can’t defend is the simplification of the dialogue system. Well, never fear, role-players: the old dialogue system of Fallout 3 and New Vegas is back in earnest. I’ve only met a few of the new characters so far, such as Mort the motivational speaker/hitman and Duchess, the take-no-prisoners barkeep, but it’s immediately evident that Bethesda has brought in some new blood to write on this expansion. The quality and cleverness of the writing don’t quite match Obsidian’s New Vegas, but it’s dramatically improved over Fallout 3 and 4. Also, skill checks in dialogue have returned to open up new options for those role-playing charismatic, intelligent, intimidating or just plain lucky characters.
As much as Fallout 76 is similar to New Vegas in its RPG elements, there’s still the small matter of it being an online multiplayer game. Single-player servers are locked behind a paywall (like in all online games), but Fallout 76 functions more like a singleplayer game that allows co-op play. There seem to be fewer human players in each server, now – I counted only 13 on the gigantic Appalachia map, four times the size of Fallout 4′s map. Since the update, I have played for 8 hours and run into other players only three times, and each time we shared a passing wave and continued. This is to say that those of you who wanted a singleplayer game can mostly have it now. Although some late-game raids and legendary monsters can only be killed in groups, the vast majority of the game can be played without ever interacting with and possibly never even seeing another player.
There is a full RPG in Fallout 76 now. PvP has been toned down almost to nonexistence with an emphasis on cooperative play shows that Bethesda is paying attention to how people want to play the game. I have read story after story of folks being friendly to each other, and even back in the early days at launch, Fallout 76 had one of the least toxic communities I’d ever seen. Fallout 76 has turned itself around like nothing I’ve seen before, except perhaps No Man’s Sky. While it looked for a while like the game would fade into obscurity like EA’s Anthem, Bethesda Game Studios was hard at work, and fans are responding well. At the time of this article’s publication, the Steam review score now matches that of Fallout 4 (75%), which I would not have believed just a week ago. The Fallout 1st pricing model ($15 a month) for private servers is still laughable, but there isn’t a need for private servers even if you wish to have a single-player experience. The Atom Shop still boasts ridiculous prices, but almost nothing in there is worth buying with real or fake money.
There is still a long road ahead in which Bethesda will need to provide free updates and story expansions to gain back the trust of gamers, but they’ve taken a much more significant step with Wastelanders than I ever thought would be possible. I can easily recommend that anyone who already owns this game jump back in and starts a new character. If you’re just a Fallout fan who skipped out on 76 for any number of reasons, it might be time to take a second look. Many of the things you missed from Fallout New Vegas are back – and hopefully, we’ll see them stick around for Fallout 5.