Fallout 76 Wastelanders is a big improvement with its NPC characters, narrative choices, lively world

Fallout 76 made a bold claim upon the release of the Wastelanders expansion — people were returning to West Virginia. As I took my first steps into the Appalachian wilds, I noticed that non-playable characters were not the only people returning to the country road. Players were coming back in droves to find out whether a couple of new faces could fix an entire game. Since I was there for the same reason, I strapped on my party hat and went searching for someone to talk to.

Following the new main quest line, I ended up at a bar called The Wayward, a location designed to showcase how much better the game is with a dialogue system. Having just exited the vault, I had no ability points to assign, meaning that I was dumb and awkward walking into that bar. During my conversation with the bartender, I was given the chance to proudly display just how socially inept I was, leaving the poor woman shaking her head as she slowly detailed her plans to me. What struck me the most about this encounter so early on in my experience was that, finally, I felt like I was playing a Fallout game. Having the ability to answer questions with a ridiculous response or resolving discussions with overt violence is at the heart of what endears so many to Fallout games.

As I continued my journey across the wasteland, I encountered a group of enemies that were guaranteed to kill me. I was outnumbered, out of ammo, and running as fast as I could to escape. When all hope was lost, I saw another player run past me, kill the glowing ghouls, complete whatever mission they were on, and leave. They did not acknowledge me, but in that moment, they were my hero. I have seen countless players of ridiculously high levels party up with low levels like me. I have fast traveled to conveniently placed player camps, rested in their beds, and waved goodbye as I continued my journey. These little moments of kindness, whether known to the other player or not, are one of my favorite parts of Fallout 76. They bring extra pockets of life to the corners of Appalachia that are still untouched by the new life that Wastelanders brings.

Fallout 76 Wastelanders expansion is a big improvement with its NPC characters, narrative choices, lively world

Diverging off the main path feels like it has a greater sense of purpose now that life has literally been interjected into many of the side quests that cover the map. During my adventures, I stumbled across a house overflowing with jack-o’-lanterns being maintained by a Mr. Handy robot appropriately named Jack-o-Lantern. In a world before Wastelanders, this experience would have been nothing but a brief interlude from the desolate scenery of West Virginia. Instead, I was given the opportunity to question, ignore, or help the delightfully chipper robot.

Not every encounter offers the chance to engage in dialogue, but moments such as these redefine Appalachia to possess the devilishly quirky tone that exists within other wastelands in the Fallout universe.

Just because Wastelanders succeeds in shaking up the stale world that came before does not mean the expansion makes the game perfect. One of my biggest frustrations at launch is still apparent now — inconsistent enemy leveling. Every feral ghoul or scorched that I find is level 1, 6, 9, or 15. Super mutants are not much better, coming in at levels 5, 10, 15, or 22. Worse yet, the battles feel the same, regardless of enemy level. The biggest difference in combat instead lies in how quickly they can kill me. I understand that Fallout 76 is a survival game at its core and that gear is everything, but is it too much to ask for a battle with a mole rat to feel different from a battle with a raider? To be fair, deathclaws live up their name with all of our meetings ending horribly for me.

Despite the latest expansion introducing an all-new set of main missions, the first few levels are still a grind. The majority of the new content exists after the player reaches level 20, suggesting that the original questline may be the best way to level up. Hell-bent on leveling as quickly as possible, I threw myself at the previous main questline so I could delve deeper into the new content. Although the older missions have been slightly reinvented for the update, as a lone wanderer this task was still difficult. Fallout 76 offers substantial XP bonuses for party play with the right perks and few alternatives for players that choose the solo path. Continuing on with no in-game assistance, I eventually reached level 15, the point at which I started to feel comfortable with the mechanics and understood how the game wanted to be played. From this point onward, gaining XP started to become much more enjoyable as I was better able to tackle the dangers hiding throughout Appalachia.

The reason I stopped playing Fallout 76 at launch was because of a bug that prevented me from completing a main quest. At the time of writing, I am yet to come across any game-breaking bugs; although, I did witness an NPC named Rose elastic band around a room, which was both terrifying and magnificent.

Fallout 76 still has a lot of problems, but they are ones I am willing to forgive for now. The West Virginian wasteland finally has a story worth telling in a world filled with the iconic Fallout spirit. I look forward to continuing my adventure across the wasteland, because war never changes, but thankfully, Fallout 76 did.

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