Fallout 76: Wastelanders review – no longer a waste of time?
Bethesda’s infamous online version of Fallout receives its biggest expansion so far, but how much does it improve on the launch experience?
When we first reviewed Fallout 76, back in late 2018, we described it as ‘a bad idea, poorly executed’. We still think that’s entirely accurate and yet Bethesda, to their credit, has not abandoned the game and a steady series of more minor updates has led to Wastelanders, a free expansion that addresses many of the original complaints head-on. But the question is, when a game starts off as bad as Fallout 76 just how much better can it really expect to get?
If you’re not familiar with Fallout 76 its set-up is very straightforward. It’s a prequel to Bethesda’s other Fallout titles, a persistent multiplayer game that has you emerging from a vault of post-apocalyptic survivors with the goal of establishing a new society in terms of infrastructure and government. All of which sounds excitingly different to the Fallout norm, except what that translated to in practice was boring fetch quests, terrible combat, and some of the most broken gameplay mechanics and visuals we’ve ever seen in a full price video game.
But the design flaws were just as egregious, since bizarrely the original version had no proper non-player characters of any kind. At first Bethesda tried to pretend this was a positive, but that didn’t fool anyone and one of the major changes brought by Wastelanders is the addition of lots of computer-controlled characters you can talk to and take along as companions, just like a proper Fallout game.
Wastelanders introduces a new story campaign, which revolves around two factions of survivors, The Raiders and The Settlers. Given the less than subtle names they’ve chosen for themselves we think you can probably work out their general perspective on surviving the post-apocalypse, but you’re free to run missions with either, which increases your reputation level and gives you access to more missions and unlockable items you can buy from merchants.
The campaign runs to around 12 hours and is basically a mini-Fallout game, as you play both factions against each other until you’re forced to pick a side for the final mission. Being able to speak to real characters, instead of just logging into a computer or listening to audio files, makes a world of difference, with a proper dialogue system whose choices are in part determined by your own stats and skills.
All of this is a clear step forward but what’s not changed as much you’d hope is the missions, the majority of which are still just thinly veiled fetch quests. There has been an attempt to improve the existing missions as well, which were even worse, but there’s too few that have any real human element to them, with the ones where you’re helping someone out or talking to them always being significantly more interesting than just going to a location and killing a set number of enemies.
The quest design is still far too much like a 2000 era MMO than a proper Fallout game (not that Bethesda are necessarily the best mission creators in the business, even at the best of times) and that problem is compounded by the fact that, despite a few tweaks, the combat is still absolutely awful.
Because you can’t slow down time – since this is a multiplayer game and it’d affect everyone else too – V.A.T.S. doesn’t do anything but auto target specific body parts. So all you’re left with is the clunkiest first person shooter this side of the PS1 era, where you’re better of just hitting enemies with a club than trying to get into a serious firefight.
At the same time, the survival elements, where you have to constantly keep on top of your hunger, thirst, and radiation poisoning, remains nothing but a low-level irritation rather than anything that adds any tension or strategy to your adventure.
One element of the original that wasn’t underdeveloped though is the base construction, which is even more versatile than Fallout 4 and which you can see veteran players have mastered to create some hugely impressive camp sites. The interface is still fiddly and obtuse but thankfully most of the bugs and glitches from it, and the wider games, have been fixed – or at least lessened.
Without better combat or missions Fallout 76 is still a seriously flawed experience, but at least it works reasonably reliably now and doesn’t just feel like a half-finished mod by a not particularly skilled fan. Now it feels like a three-quarters finished mod by a semi-competent one. That’s not to suggest it’s in any way bug free though, and the frame rate can still slow down to a crawl at times, but now, 18 months after its initial release, it behaves like a normal multiplayer game at launch.
Fallout 76 still has a long, long way to go before it reaches anything like its full potential but oddly the greatest improvement we’ve noticed is nothing to do with Wastelanders or the addition of non-player characters; it’s the fact that the community is, generally speaking, extremely helpful and friendly. That’s not a thing you get to say about many video game communities but having stuck with such a pillorised game for so long they’d have to really love it, and that love is something they’re willing to share.
At least during launch week, you can easily find veteran players hanging around in highly visible locations, handing out items and resources to whoever wants it and offering to help out with quests and monsters. We’re not sure Bethesda has done anything to deserve such loyal and understanding fans, but the fact is they’re there and the social elements of Fallout 76 are as a result very compelling, especially in these strange days of self-isolation and government lockdowns.
Fallout 76 has been a public relations disaster for Bethesda from the moment it was announced, and with good reason. Wastelanders represents the most significant improvement so far and while the overall experience is still deeply flawed there are clearly people enjoying it, and sometimes that’s all that matters.
Fallout 76: Wastelanders review summary
In Short: Wastelanders transforms Fallout 76 from a technical and conceptual disaster to a merely flawed online experience, which has a far better online community than it deserves.
Pros: Proper non-player characters and companions make a world of difference, although not as much as the unusually friendly human players. Large and generally well-designed game world.
Cons: Most of the original gameplay flaws remain, including terrible combat and flaccid survival elements. Majority of mission quests are still formulaic and repetitive. Still some serious bugs and glitches and very outdated graphics.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Release Date: 14th April 2020
Age Rating: 18
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