Hearing someone cry for help amidst gunfire is possibly the most excited I’ve been in Fallout 76 since its release. Catching somebody else potentially facing death can really make you feel alive. While I never found who it was or what became of them, it shows just how much the game needed some proof of life beyond the tape recorded echoes and scratched note traces it had previously offered up.
I am Legend
The core of Fallout 76 still has numerous issues that need fixing – which I’ll get to – but adding in functioning non-playable characters is probably the most important and necessary update the game’s needed to make. The difference it creates is so huge that you have to wonder what the original thinking behind the NPC free launch was. Devoid of life beyond mutants, monsters and robots, the original game had a uniquely weird atmosphere best described as ‘bereft’. There are some good missions, and Appalachia is an interesting location to explore, but something about every single quest starting and stopping with messages from the dead creates a profoundly nihilistic experience. What’s it all for, really? When there’s no one left, trying to fix things feels like sweeping ashes around to different spots. There’s a whole meta head cannon for me about my character being literally the last man alive, trying to maintain unraveling sanity by completing whatever odd jobs he finds among the bodies in the face of endless solitude.
NPCs change that, having someone else there in the wasteland alongside you simply because having someone else there adds a layer of meaning to everything you do beyond aiming for better gear. There are ramifications and results that affect more than your loadout now. And, if nothing else, it’s just nice to have someone to talk to (the only person playing on my friends list is on a different format). There’s an astronaut you meet called Commander Daguerre after intercepting a distress call. Turns out she’s just come back from space but doesn’t realise she’s been in cryosleep for decades. The ‘what year is it?’ conversation you tiptoe around is, in the grand scheme of things, meaningless but also possibly one of the greatest moments I’ve had in the game. The simple act of sharing the place with another entity from it brings the world building into such sharp focus it almost hurts.
Elsewhere I’ve helped out Duchess, an ex-drug runner turned Wayward bar owner, and I’m running jobs between Raiders and Settlers who are currently both competing to see who can trust me least. It’s just so nice having people not like you, because at least you feel seen. There’s more to it than just new content and dialogue, it’s the substance and tone of it all. Living people react, have opinions and unpredictable paths. The living are a mystery in a way the dead are not. A corpse is a fixed point. No matter how much fun you have working out how it got where you found it, it was there before you arrived and will remain long after you’ve gone.
Hell is other people
Fallout 76 is obviously meant to be a multiplayer game but it’s always been an oddly isolationist one, where seeing real people is almost something to be feared. Not because there’s any real danger, but more because the old game was so focused on forlorn isolation that having someone else run into your line of sight kind of breaks the mood. 90% of the time, when you see another player, you’re crossing paths on different dead people missions, and in the other 10% - when you take on events and nuclear strikes together - it feels completely separate from the main game.
No, having real fake people to bounce off, worry about, betray, help or ignore adds life to Fallout 76’s dead world and feels like a new start. It makes the place more interesting and even makes some of it’s persistent annoyances more palatable. New places that have arrived with the new population, for example, make getting about a touch more interesting. Past a certain point, once you’ve seen a lot of what’s on the map (often several times), fast travel becomes the main way of getting about. Higher level missions often just involve fast travelling somewhere, killing everything and fast travelling back. At least now there’s a bit more reason to stop and shoot the roses. I passed a base full of people the other day, talked to a few and then wandered on feeling like everything looked just a touch brighter.
There are several underlying things that still need tightening up and, hopefully, the development team can start to unravel those a little more now Wastlanders is out. Issues with weight, over encumbrance and storage limits still need a good kicking about though. My base stash is constantly full to the point where I’ve been throwing bags of worthless, unsaleable stuff on the road just to get rid of it. But, at the same time, I never seem to be able to fix the problem for long.
Inconsistent leveling and spawning can create cacophonous disasters sometimes as well. I’m currently still only level 45, having abandoned the campaign after reaching a mission glitched-filled with 20-plus level 63 enemies, allegedly in a building labeled 'Level 30+'. I get that technically '63' is more than '30+' but, come on. After several attempts that drained valuable armor, ammo and resources I gave up, then went back a few weeks later to find a radically different experience with about ten level 40 enemies that took minutes to complete.
And this is after at least two other previous stalling issues with missions that failed to complete, or disappeared entirely, that made the main story unplayable for months at time until things somehow fixed them selves. Elsewhere, it still feels like things can be a bit of a muddle right in the very foundations of the game which, with everything else built on top, means it’s the hardest stuff to change. I’ve barely changed my loadout in months because I rarely find the magic combination ‘something better’ and ‘enough ammo to use it’. Most of my best armor gets thrown out once broken because it’s currently oddly hard to find the specific materials needed to fix it (while stockpiling so much stuff I don’t need I’m throwing it out).
...and yet you go on
But I’m still playing. It drives me mad sometimes but it’s still enjoyable to have a big, free open world to explore and set your own goals in. I like the space and the ability to chose my own pace. Fallout 76 is still far from perfect but the main thing about the Wastelanders DLC isn’t that it makes things more fun or more interesting, and it certainly doesn’t fix much in terms of mechanics, it’s that it shows Bethesda is really trying. Wastelanders is the absolute antithesis of what launched which should underline how much work has gone into designing, making and implementing an entirely new game. I don’t know if we’ll ever reach a ‘remember when Fallout 76 wasn’t good’ point, but it’s clearly climbing in the right direction.