Fallout 76: Wastelanders Review
I've written a fair bit about Fallout 76 pre-Wastelanders, and some impressions after Wastelanders' release. I have now finished Wastelanders - well, as much can be finished (more on that later). Many of my thoughts will be similar to my impressions post, so I don't want to repeat too much. I'll point you to that post for a complete picture.
I approach this review as someone who had played through much of Fallout 76 over the last year and a half. A lot of people have avoided this game, for good reason, but something it has done remarkably well over time is build a narrative and world over a long period of time. It was always designed to be like so, of course. The vanilla Fallout 76 merely served at setting the stage, with more stories to come. Over the first half of 2019, we saw a ton of content flesh out the world with new DLCs and additions throughout the game. Now, we have Wastelanders, the first major new DLC. I call it DLC, but technically, it isn't. Wastelanders is free and not optional for all Fallout 76 players. There's no way to go back to Fallout 76 pre-Wastelanders - everyone is now on the Wastelanders build. Call it expansion, call it DLC, call it an update - you know what I mean. That's a shame, because newcomers will never be able to experience Fallout 76 like we did.
I tried creating a new character and getting a feel of what someone new to Fallout 76 might experience - and it truly is a very different experience. I have only played a couple of hours like this, but in reading impressions from others, it does seem like being a long time player offers a different perspective.
And this is where Fallout 76: Wastelanders is superlative. For anyone familiar with Fallout 76's world and lore, it moves things forward in a way that's incredibly satisfying. There's a good amount of references, skills checks / dialogue options referring back to everything you have done in Appalachia. Every time the game or its characters acknowledges everything you have done before is always rewarding. The Appalachian wasteland continues to be terrific - truly one of the finest open worlds ever created. Now with NPCs fleshing things out further, it feels more "alive", though there's still the signature desolace. Some of the ways the new content uses the existing locations is very creative, and another nod to old timers.
Back to Wastelanders, there's a significant amount of new content, though it's definitely not a new Fallout game. It's a new paradigm, where the game will be expanded constantly over the years. If you focus on only the new main quest and some side activities, it can be finished in 10 hours. If you want to get more in-depth, finish the ally missions, it'll take at least 20, probably more. More on that later.
The NPCs are back, and in style. The dialogue system is the best one in the series. You get ample skill checks, including some rather hilarious negative skill checks when you fumble a check for something you're not skilled enough. Now, you can converse with two people at the same time, with a moving camera. You are free to move the camera yourself, though the camera will also automatically pan between the multiple characters as they speak. This panning is a little distracting, though it's likely the only way to make conversing with multiple characters possible. The writing is top notch, as it's always been in Fallout 76. There are plenty of delightful characters, fun dialogue options, and memorable moments.
Making dialogue choices and consequences possible in a multiplayer game was always going to be challenging, and that's why Fallout 76 shipped without NPCs. The solution implemented here is instancing, or private interiors. Basically, while you're in an interior, only you can interact with the NPCs, and the choices will apply only to you. You can take your friends for a ride, but they'll only be "assisting" you, and they'll have to make their own choices separately. Once you leave the private interior, the open world is public as ever. Of course, this is a rather limited approach, so let me make it very clear - Wastelanders does not make Fallout 76 a singleplayer game. It's still an online-only experience, with all its advantages and limitations. For some, the advantage of playing with your friends alone will outweigh any of these limitations; meanwhile, for singleplayer only players, it'll simply never be as good.
Some of this is reflected most starkly in quest design. The quests that take place in the outer world are fairly routine, with mostly fetch-type quests with some flavour sprinkled on top. However, some of the more private, main quest type quests are really well done. It's obvious there are significant limitations to designing quests in public worlds, and the developers haven't found a solution to that just yet. Fortunately, through the strength of the writing and world design, even the mundane quests can end up being engaging.
There are two new companions - or allies - in the game, and both feature excellent and surprising stories. The quests associated with the allies are unfortunately of the public world limited type, but wanting to discover their stories kept me hooked regardless. The allies stay in your camp, for now, though I hope they can journey with you on the public world in the future. Obviously, there are technical and design issues to solve before that.
Wastelanders isn't an epic adventure by itself, like Fallout 76's base game (or any other game in the series) was. Instead, it's a continuation of the Fallout 76 saga, and tells more of a shorter, focused story. While it's easy to assume that human NPCs are a backtracking strategy for BGS, for anyone familiar with the game will know that it was always planned. Fallout 76 didn't have NPCs for a reason - humanity was wiped out by the scorched plague. The main mission ends up with you finding an inoculation, and delivering this to the new human NPCs is your first task. This is what makes human NPCs return in the game. Oh, and of course, rumours of a treasure.
Much of Wastelanders unfolds as an elaborate treasure hunt, culminating with preparing and executing a heist in the guise of a Vault raid. There are two factions. While you can do all of the preparatory quests for both of them, leading up to the heist, the final vault raid can only be done with one faction. Because it's an online game, I can't go back, reload a save and do it again with the faction - without restarting the game from scratch. I would definitely like to see an option here. The main quests mostly fall into the category of private, and as mentioned before, are all really well done.
OK, back to the "more later". The game does have a meaty endgame, but I don't thing singleplayer fans will like the grind. A lot of the most special gear is locked behind this endgame grind. On the other hand, I'm sure the diehard Fallout 76 fans will appreciate this, as it'll keep them going for quite some time. I suppose, on balance, it's the right decision for an online-only live game, but it'll nevertheless be disappointing to singleplayer Fallout fans.
Last, but most importantly, all of this does not fix many of Fallout 76's flaws. Yes, it still looks and feels like an older game, there's still visual glitches aplenty, and as mentioned before, the limitations of an online game means you can't always achieve the singleplayer vision. Of course, all of the same applies for The Elder Scrolls Online, and it's turned into a beloved game over time, so it's up to you to decide how much these matter. I don't think Fallout fans will mind though, Wastelanders is the perfect time to jump back in and give 76 a shot. Just remember, this is not just one singleplayer game, but one that'll tell a continuing story over time. That's where its appeal lies, and Wastelanders confirms that. Can't wait to see what's next. For those expecting a Fallout 5, however, best continue skipping it.
(Cross-posted from Hive Gaming)