Fallout 76 launched with more furor than fanfare. Many players (myself included) were met with game-breaking bugs, an empty world, and a game that overall lacked what has made the series great in the past. It makes sense that Bethesda would relaunch it with Wastelanders: a free expansion that brings speaking NPCs and real quests back into the mix. But that’s a bit odd, isn’t it? How do you suddenly just dollop humanity back into the post-apocalypse when the entire game was predicated on empty spaces — just waiting for a tone deaf story of re-colonizing America?
The answer is actually pretty cool.
In the original story of Fallout 76, you began as a Vault Dweller. While the rest of the world burned, you stayed safe inside a sealed environment (Vault 76) with the ultimate goal of taking over the country for the evil Vault-Tec corporation. The game opened on Reclamation Day — when Vault 76 opened for the first time — with your character recovering from a post-party bender that had them wake up after everyone else. That’s how Fallout 76 explained you starting later than other players, but not too much later, you know?
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More-or-less the same events play out in Wastelanders. Except now the Mr. Handy robo-butlers that saw you off into the world at launch have all-new, much sillier dialogue that recontextualizes your wake-up call. They explain, with synthesized exasperation, that you’ve been in the open vault for months. The party favors and signs strewn about the facility have been moldering there the entire time. Every morning, you character has been too scared to venture out into the (admittedly hellish) world around them. Fallout 76, which came out in late 2018, has finally progressed in real time — or something close to it.
It’s a nice bit of flavor in a game that sorely needed it. Fallout 76 is bleak in both ways the game’s creators intended (seen through the survivor stories you pick off corpses) and ones they probably didn’t (like how it whitewashes colonialism). And while the series has always been a dark, increasingly realistic critique of American imperialism, it’s usually delivered with a rictus of gallows humor. Restarting the game to find out I was a nervous homebody forcing robots to party every night for a year scratches that itch.
From there the game returns to pretty much what I remember of the original story. You hunt down journals from the Responders, a gang of do-gooders wiped out before the events of the game, as well as the Overseer, the leader of Vault 76 who went looking for nuke codes.
That part is a bit strange. It’s still framed as if the Overseer is just hours ahead of you, leaving behind miraculously untouched supply drops in a world that now has scavengers crawling through it. Even more seams are visible in the old text logs. If Vault 76 seals forever after someone leaves, how do you get out at all? But it’s still preferable to the unadorned tale from before.
The aforementioned scavengers that make up most of Wastelanders‘ new humans are hunting for treasure. This, too, seems to play to Bethesda’s recent strengths. The studio has never excelled at A plots (or at least not for a very, very long time). Establishing a rootin’-tootin’ quest for gold (or something), rather than even attempting a more nuanced main plot, is a better move in my opinion. Just let sleeping dogs lie.
Fallout 76 did have some nicely nuanced side plots hidden in its world all along. You can find tales of Appalachia becoming privatized and exploited by one of many mega-corporations during pre-apocalypse society — before the National Guard and lethal robots were brought in to kill rebelling miners. And I’m happy to have another excuse to rediscover those morsels of good writing on my adventure, for however long it lasts. Hopefully the journey is a lot smoother this time.