Fallout 76’s Wastelanders update almost makes it feel like a proper Fallout game

Fallout 76 was always missing something. Sure, it had lots of other problems — frustrating bugs and glitches, and vastly overpriced microtransactions — but what always stood out the most to me was how empty the world felt. The game’s post-apocalyptic rendition of West Virginia was overrun with supermutants, giant mole rats, and other players. But aside from the odd robot, there were no real characters to chat with. Those conversations and connections are a big reason why I play Fallout in the first place, and their absence is part of the reason why I didn’t really click with Fallout 76, despite spending many hours with it.

Last week, developer Bethesda released the game’s biggest update yet, dubbed “Wastelanders.” The most notable change is that it adds NPCs back to the game — and while Fallout 76 still isn’t a proper Fallout game, the expansion brings it much closer.

To test the update, I started up a new character and ventured back into the wasteland. The general premise remains the same: you’re a newly emerged dweller of Vault 76, heading out into a post-apocalyptic world for the first time. Now, when you start the game, there are two questlines. There’s the original main story where you follow a series of messages left by Vault 76’s overseer, essentially introducing you to the world and how to survive. But as soon as you emerge from the vault, you’ll also find two people standing outside just waiting to talk to someone.

This new questline revolves around a rumored treasure inside of the vault, a rumor which has been reignited by you, a former resident, emerging. What struck me most was how natural the experience felt. The conversation you have with the wastelanders is pretty basic — they give you a few details about the treasure and point you in the direction of a bar where you can learn more — but it’s exactly the thing you’d expect to happen in a Fallout game. Conversations work much as they do in a standard Fallout experience: you have multiple dialogue options and, depending on your skills, you can get away with sweet-talking or intimidating people to get what you want. Eventually, you’ll have to deal with warring factions that will force you to pick a side.

Quests similarly work much as they do in a typical Fallout game: someone asks you to do something, you go out into the world, explore a dangerous locale, and finally collect an object or kill a baddie. The first two main quests involve clearing out some nearby raiders that are causing trouble and rescuing a pair of hired guns lost in a mine. The beats remain the same, with lots of shootouts, looting, and lore to uncover. But the new conversations add two main things that help change things up (at least compared to the base Fallout 76 experience).

For one, there are now multiple ways to solve problems. Depending on how you’ve allocated your skill points, you can either talk the raiders into leaving or just take out the leader and send the rest of the crew a terrifying message. It’s not a huge range of options, but it’s nice that it exists. The NPCs also add a much-needed sense of calm to the experience. When I play Fallout 76, I’m constantly on edge; no matter where I am, it feels like threats are always present — whether that’s a gang of feral ghouls attacking my tiny dwelling or human players trolling me for fun. But when you’re chatting with a ghoul voiced by Jason Mewes in a quaint little pub, that feeling goes away. It’s actually a bit peaceful.

Of course, what I’m describing here is what fans would expect from a Fallout game. Fallout 76 still doesn’t exactly have a proper single-player-style campaign; the story, while interesting, isn’t as deep or thrilling as what you’d find in the main games, and I’ve yet to come across a character that’s as endearing as a someone like Fallout 4’s Nick Valentine. The Wastelanders update does a lot to make the game feel less empty, but it’s still Fallout 76 at heart.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the expansion is that it’s completely free. It might not be worth jumping in for newcomers, but if you’ve already played Fallout 76, Wastelanders is a good excuse to return. Maybe it’s the many weeks stuck indoors talking, but I’ve found it soothing to wander around the wasteland, going for walks alongside ruined highways or alongside toxic rivers while listening to The Beach Boys and Billie Holiday. I’ve even stopped using fast travel so I can make those walks last a bit longer. Many of Fallout 76’s big problems still persist after this update — but at least now it’s a little less lonely.