BOSTON – Fallout 76 has had its ups and downs since its rocky launch, but one thing most players seemed to agree on is that they missed having interactable non-player characters (NPCs). These colorful humans, ghouls, super-mutants and robots have been part of the Fallout series since its very first installment, and it felt like something was missing without them. The Fallout 76: Wastelanders expansion will come complete with a big roster of NPCs, and the game immediately feels much better for their inclusion.
I went hands-on with Fallout 76: Wastelanders at PAX East 2020, and right from the get-go, it felt more like a traditional Fallout experience than the base Fallout 76 game. The adventure kicked off in the mountains of Appalachia, long after a nuclear apocalypse. I played as a survivor whose family had spent generations in an underground vault. At the beginning of the demo, a robotic companion exclaimed that there were people – people! – just down the road, and I should go see what they wanted.
I followed the path and met up with two women who had been conned by a local bartender into thinking that there was treasure somewhere nearby. The bar was quite a distance away, but traversing long stretches of nature has always been a part of the Fallout experience.
As I wandered through the green mountains of West Virginia, I encountered some mutated mole rats, giving me a chance to try out the combat system. Not much has changed here. You can still use the V.A.T.S. system to target an enemy anywhere in your field of view, then dispatch the foe with a melee strike, a ranged weapon or even just your bare hands. I started off the demo with a machete, but later graduated to a small pistol. Both weapons felt intuitive to wield, and I didn’t have much trouble with any enemies in my level range.
Once I reached the bar, I could see right away how adding human NPCs could have a profound effect on the game. When I walked in, a bandit was holding the bartender up at gunpoint, demanding to know the location of the treasure. I had the opportunity to step in and handle things however I saw fit. First, I asked the bartender what was going on; then, I tried to intimidate the gunman into leaving; when that failed, I decided to fight him myself, rather than risk the bartender getting hurt.
Compare and contrast to how Fallout 76 used to work. Missions all came from computer terminals and contextual items. This served well enough to propel the player along, but it didn’t do much to raise the stakes of the story. Everything that was going to happen had already happened. Players could usually just try to piece together information after the fact.
With other characters present, though, my choices had immediate and profound consequences for the quest I was working on. The bandit died; the bartender and her other patrons lived. One of them shared some valuable information with me, which kicked off a whole new questline. The bartender rewarded me with food and spare parts. But had I let the bandit threaten her, perhaps I would have come across another piece of information to help me.
What’s more: Most indoor quest locations with NPCs present are private instances. If an NPC dies, he or she won’t simply respawn for the next player. The game will remember the choices you make, and you’ll have to abide by them. This is especially consequential, since the game is an online-only affair, and saving and reloading isn’t an option.
After the standoff in the bar, though, the next quests felt a little more typical of Fallout 76. I had to set up a base camp and craft a bunch of items. Then, I had to ingratiate myself with a scientific survey – but I did so through a series of information terminals, electronic kiosks and dead bodies carrying important info. Whenever I had to do a quest without NPCs, the whole world felt very impersonal again.
Still, having some NPCs is a better situation than having no NPCs, and longtime Fallout fans should enjoy their presence. Fallout 76: Wastelanders will go live on Apr. 7 as part of a free update for Fallout 76. You can play it on PC, PS4 or Xbox One. As for whether to start it now or wait until the update goes live, that depends on how much you enjoy your digital solitude.