I’m in the lower cavern of the Free Radical raider camp, face-to-face with their goateed boss Roper, looking for a way to keep his cronies from harassing the good folks at the new watering hole outside Vault 76. This is my moment. “I want you to leave The Wayward alone,” I tell him.
“And why exactly would I do that?” He sneers back with his smooth dude raider voice that reminds me of my beau MacCready from Fallout 4. I could attack him. I could tell a feeble lie. Or I could pass a strength check where I threaten to rip him and his gang limb from limb. So I do that. Just like I bullied a settler family to get the password allowing me into the Free Radical camp and just like I strong-armed a kooky hermit into giving me some Stealth Boys.
“Dunno why you care so much but, pft fine,” Roper says. That’s the end of that, and once again I regret flaunting my intimidating muscle. I suspect jumping through hoops or fighting my way out would have been the more entertaining options.
Appalachian welcome wagon
Fallout 76’s new Wastelanders expansion, which arrives next week on April 14, brings NPC humans back to West Virginia where only assorted robots and exotic American cryptids once lived among all the players. You can start a fresh dweller and jump right into the new Wastelanders story, but I decide to uproot my level 30 character from her currently pitched camp near the map’s center and haul her back to Vault 76.
South of my former Vault, the landscape is littered with signs announcing a newly opened bar, The Wayward, proclaiming “all kinds welcome.” Outside the new establishment are neatly planted rows of corn which I freely nick, summer-y string lights over the outdoor seating, and a giant black and white spotted Sentrybot named Bessie hanging out with a couple brahmin in a pen.
Things are less pleasant inside The Wayward because some shady character has his gun pointed at the bartender when I walk in. “Honey, you picked the wrong time to get a drink,” she says. She clearly needs some assistance, so it’s exactly the right time by my book. When he notices me, the would-be assailant stammers out a “w-woah woah uh y-you lookin’ for trouble?” I presume he’s reacting to my status as a higher-ish level player. With the help of bar regular Mort the ghoul, I dispatch the rowdy visitor.
There are other newly inhabited places to visit shortly after as Wastelanders’ new main quest line jogs on. Raiders and settlers alike have all moved back into the valley looking for some unknown treasure that Duchess seems to know a thing or two about. Meanwhile there’s the Scorched plague to contain with the help of Vault 76’s Overseer who we finally meet face-to-face after over a year of chasing after her, always one step behind.
The Settlers have dug out a new home called Foundation whose grassy underground cavern almost feels magical with its blue-hued atmosphere. The raiders’ new home The Crater also has an underground component, though it’s a bit more to their personal taste with mining lights and tight dirt hallways. Each settlement is packed with new folks, some of the nameless “Foundation Guard” variety and others with names and stories of their own to share.
So far, Wastelanders’ new human inhabitants have seemed just a bit overeager to spill their backstories, betraying how keenly aware Bethesda is that it needs to make me care about them immediately. Duchess the bartender drips with wry southern sarcasm beneath her hospitable exterior. Her irradiated go-getter Mort is outgoing for a ghoul, happy to share his history. Over at The Crater, Molly the bartender tells me of the tragic fates of her former competitors. Nearby another raider gent has a problem with the annoying Mothman cult and considers starting his own cult of devotees to the Megasloth.
I hope that deeper into the storyline characters will feel a bit more measured than effectively begging “Please engage with me!” They’re just names and blurbs to me so far, but I can imagine enjoying their individual quirks as I see more of each.
Talk the talk
If I were to run down a checklist, Wastelanders adds almost everything I’d asked for. It’s cribbed a list dialogue system similar to Fallout 3 and New Vegas instead of the quasi-radial menu from Fallout 4. It’s added Settler and Raider factions and a reputation system to track my alignment with each. Most importantly, it’s got humans and, quality of the people themselves aside, my lizard brain just likes them more than Mr. Handys and Protectrons.
It also brings repercussions for my actions, or so it says. The Wayward warns me when I enter that it’s an instanced area where I’ll make story choices with “large consequences.” I’ve chosen to spare characters who are infected with the Scorched plague that will eventually turn them into Fallout 76’s irradiated feral ghouls. I’ve picked a new body for an assaultron head who has become tragically parted with the rest of her frame. Each of these choices seem like they’ll probably have some bearing on the future of my personal Fallout 76 questline, but I’ve not yet reached the point where I see the payoff.
Where dialogue is concerned, I get the feeling that someone gave Bethesda’s writers an inch and they gladly stole a mile. That’s not a complaint—not inherently, anyway. Conversations with most of Appalachia’s new human inhabitants give me a solid handful of dialogue options. Often there are one, two, or even three options locked behind checks against my S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats. I’m all in for stat-based dialogue, being the faithful follower of Black Widow perk dialogue in Fallouts 3 and New Vegas that I am.
However, at times they seem less like different roads to the end of a quest and more like adjacent lanes on a highway to the same destination. In more than one conversation, I’ve looked at my four responses and suspected that they’re just different flavors for getting an NPC to submit to my demands all leading to the same next objective in my Pip-Boy quest log.
There are often so many possible stat check choices that I’ve rarely run into a situation I couldn’t muscle (or luck, or charisma) my way out of. I imagine the effect will be magnified for players who are even higher level than me, needing to consciously choose not to use their skills in order to see side objectives that they’d otherwise easily sidestep.
Pacing and depth concerns aside, Wastelanders may be what brings me back to Appalachia to stay for a while. Human weirdness is the texture of Fallout’s universe that its glossy robot NPCs were lacking since launch. By nature, Fallout 76 won’t ever feel as personal as a singleplayer Fallout game, but its new residents may have just enough proper Fallout soul to keep me invested for a while.
I feel like I’ve gone on a promising first date with Wastelanders but won’t really get a sense of its true personality until the second or third. I am willing to take the chance though, and won’t be ghosting it after our first encounter.