I pushed through the brush in the Savage Divide, a mountainous region bisecting wasted Appalachia, and came across a raider punk shouldering a backpack. I couldn’t see his eyes behind his welding goggles, but there was enthusiasm in his voice. He wanted to get out, see the world, and set up his radio to talk to other people. I asked if he’d like to set up his radio at my camp, but he declined.
The punk was really into cryptids and there were dialogue options I could have picked to keep him talking, but my skills were too low. At level 50, I could have told him about my journeys through the wasteland. With a higher raider reputation, I could convince him to come with me. With a luck of 8, I could have taken a wild guess and asked him about the Mothman stealing his dreams. Which was frustrating, because it was the first I'd heard anything about a Mothman But I didn’t have the conversational skills to keep dialogue flowing so I left the raider punk and continued through the mountains.
Later, at the edge of a cliff, I saw the Mothman itself and remembered the punk’s talk of cryptids and the dialogue option I couldn’t take. Smoke poured off its wings and its glowing yellow eyes stared forward. I crept up to take a picture, only for him to vanish. He vanished, I heard what sounded like a giant cicada behind me, and started taking damage. I ran down the mountain and into a raider camp. The raiders fired on the monster and I slipped away from the chaotic scene as the Mothman tore through the bandits.
This is one small moment in a sea of small moments that makes up my experience with Fallout 76 since Bethesda released the Wastelanders update. The expansion is full of these little surprises based on the things you learn about the world, and the doors opened or closed by how you've built your character. As I moved through Fallout 76, these moments began to add up and I realized I loved it. More than that, I realized it was one of the best Fallout games ever made. Ain’t that a kick in the head?
Bethesda has put a lot of work into Fallout 76 since its initial release in November of 2018. I played at launch, but put it down when a bug in the main storyline kept me from progressing. Fallout 76 was, and to a certain extent still is, a broken mess. With the Wastelanders update, it’s also proof that Bethesda can actually make a good Fallout game. It leans on Bethesda’s strengths—aesthetic, environmental storytelling, and weird characters—and addresses some of the studio's glaring weaknesses.
Set a year after the initial events of Fallout 76, Wastelanders moves on from the trite story of the original game and imagines a West Virginia wasteland where people are returning to the mutated region and putting down roots. The goofy PvP nuclear wars are also sidelined in favor of factional warfare between two different groups. It’s up to the player to decide who to support.
Both Fallout 3 and 4 disappointed me, in part, because they are overt power fantasies. In Fallout 4 in particular, there was rarely a log I couldn’t pick, a terminal I couldn’t break into, or a monster I couldn’t kill. The player starts weak but quickly becomes a death-dealing monster, able to pick any lock, hack any terminal, persuade any character, and explode any enemy. The player character is a superhero determining the destiny of the wasteland by virtue of their omnicompetence.
Wastelanders makes skill checks, and therefore the choices you make about your character, much more meaningful, and it makes the story and writing more interesting as a consequence. Dialogue trees in Wastelanders feel more dynamic than they did in Fallout 3 and 4. Conversations are full of weird checks for skills like perception, charisma, luck, and intelligence, de rigueur for Fallout, but absent from the launch of Fallout 76.
These skill checks both enhance the story and reinforce a sense of danger that permeates Fallout 76. Being an online game, I couldn’t save and reload my game if I failed a conversation check or lacked the skill points to complete a task. This makes Wastelanders feel more like New Vegas or Fallout 1 and 2 than Fallout 3 and 4. I could save scum in New Vegas, sure, but it felt like cheating in a way it never did in Fallout 3 and 4.
In a secluded trailer, I met a soldier who’d contracted the Scorch disease. There’s no cure and he would turn into a monster. I had to shoot him in the face before he turned. If my Charisma had been much higher, I could have pursued a different end. But that character is dead now. I can’t buff my stats and have that conversation again. In a desolate Nuka-Cola factory, I lacked the technical knowledge to fix machinery I needed to finish a quest. My low intelligence and mediocre luck sent me scurrying around the factory and, several times, caused me to fight off waves of feral ghouls I could have avoided completely if I had different stats.
Most of the locks and terminals will remain forever closed to me because I don’t have the skill to access them and probably never will. I meet NPCs and leave them behind because I don’t have the conversational skills to break into new dialogue trees. My choices in Fallout 76 feel more consequential than in other recent Fallout games. The NPCs absolutely elevate this game, but it’s everything they bring with them—the skill checks, the lore, and the added context they bring to the environments—that makes Wastelanders special. With people added to the background, it’s easier to see the beauty of the world Bethesda built.
Forty hours into this playthrough of Fallout 76, that Appalachian world still feels like a dangerous and overwhelming place. I may, at any moment, run into a monstrous animal that will kill me before I can get my gun from my holster.
The West Virginia wasteland is cruel, inhospitable, and gorgeous. It’s hard for me to play Fallout 3 and New Vegas now because the scenery is so drab. The Capital Wasteland is a boring series of green/ grey tunnels punctuated with ghouls and super mutants. New Vegas has an incredible story but its major city is a Technicolor exclamation point in the vast red brown Mojave Wasteland. Fallout 4’s skyscrapers and billboards, at least, bristled with color if not life.
But Appalachia pops with vibrant and saturated color. It is desolate yet lush and teeming with strange life. It’s unique biomes bristle with chaotic energy. It’s here that Bethesda shines, these moments of quiet solitude and environmental storytelling. Fallout 76 is a gorgeous world that is now, thankfully, populated by people. It feels lived in, but my favorite moments come when I slip away from civilization and get lost in its wilderness.
That wilderness was little more than a beautiful backdrop to Fallout 76’s original story, in which players emerged from their vaults to find an Appalachia devastated both by nuclear war and an infectious disease called the Scorched Plague. At launch, players quickly devised an inoculation for the plague then spent the rest of the story gathering the strength to nuke the irradiated beasts that carried it.
Post Wastelanders, new players emerge from Vault 76 to find the overseer of their vault alive and Appalchia repopulated by various factions. The citizens of Foundation are a collective of farmers, tinkerers, and workers. They’re trying to eke out a living and survive. Raiders thrive by stealing the fruits of the Foundation’s labor. Instead of working to build nukes, I spent my time courting the factions and convincing them they should both be innoculated against the Scorched Plague. Once both cities were free of disease, I settled into the rhythm of getting to know the factions and their people before siding with one or the other.
Fallout 76’s big themes are—and yes, it does have big themes—are rooted in class struggle and the unique opportunity rebuilding after a disaster provides. Most of the people in the West Virginia Wasteland have pulled together, both to rebuild civilization and fight a pandemic that threatens everyone. Helping the people of the wasteland fight off a deadly disease and reestablish the communal projects that help humans survive resonated with me.
The environments of Fallout 76 always told a story of a labor struggle. West Virginia is coal country, and it’s a place where 10,000 members of the United Mine Workers union fought and died in the second largest armed uprising in American history. The bosses won, but the battle and deaths of the mine workers galvanized the labor movement in the United States.
It happened at Blair Mountain in West Virginia, a place you can visit in Fallout 76. In the game, a massive earth mover sits atop the mountain, dominating the landscape in every direction. In Fallout 76’s alternate history, America was on the cusp of replacing its manual laborers with robots. A giant unmanned earth mover sitting atop the site of one of labor’s greatest defeats is a helluva visual message.
The story of labor and automation was always present in Fallout 76’s much derided holotapes, computers, and notes. But without people populating the landscape, much of that history passed me by. Managing relations with the The Crater and Foundation in Wastelanders provide important context to this lore. It was a crucial bit of the formula missing from Fallout 76 at launch.
David Thorpe founded and led the Raiders faction before the Scorched Plague washed over West Virginia. Before the war, Thorpe was an executive for a pharmaceutical company. He found his skills in the boardroom translated well to managing a group that survives by exploiting other people.
His raiders founded The Crater. When I asked the citizens of The Crater how they felt about Foundation, they said they were happy about it. For the Raiders to exist, they needed hardworking people to exploit.
One Raider who sported a freshly laundered tuxedo and called himself Gentleman Johnny Weston put it best. I asked him why The Raiders don’t just take out Foundation. “Where’s the percentage in it?” He said. “Say we attack, guns blazing. Best case is we win. After that, what then? Who do we shake down for caps and food? And I, for one, am not cut out to be a farmer.”
The dialogue is full of revealing moments like this. Scraps of story and lore that enforce the idea that relatively verdant post-apocalyptic West Virginia is now the site of the evolution of the fight between workers and the professional managerial class. In the absence of office buildings to justify their wages, the bosses have become what they always were—pirates.
When I tired of the struggles of Foundation and The Crater, I could always go home—a small schoolhouse style building I’ve constructed in the mountains. Every time I stop in, I scrap the items I’ve found during my journey and build up my settlement a little more. The longer I play, the more time I invest in this base and the more ownership I feel over it. I enjoyed Animal Crossing, but fell off of it fairly quickly. Fallout 76 is scratching the same itch—the ability to build and customize a home in an environment I love—with the added benefit of letting me roam a wasteland and kill super mutants.
I love Fallout 76, and it runs and plays much better than it did at launch. I’ve had far fewer crashes than I did at launch, but it still crashes. Multiplayer is best by strange design choices and it’s hard for a group of players to play through the Wastelanders content, which is obviously meant for a solo runthrough. But taken as a single player RPG with light survival elements, it’s my favorite Fallout game since New Vegas and certainly the best Fallout game Bethesda has ever made.
Fallout is my favorite video games series. Fallout 1 & 2 gave me a gift it’s hard to quantify. It helped me understand my parents, nuclear war, and the Cold War. It shaped my career both as a games writer and a minor nuclear pundit. When I play Fallout, I feel like I’m standing in the wreckage of the American dream that was sold to my parents and grandparents. These odd Googie buildings and flailing limbed robots are how they envisioned the future. It’s a future that never happened, but its possibility led us to this one.
Prior to Wastelanders, Fallout 76 didn't have anything to say about that vision. If anything it fetishized it, just as it fetishized the worst fears of the Cold War world by having players play nuclear tag. Wastelanders brings the classic Fallout lesson to the hills and hollows of Appalachia: Global nuclear war didn’t end civilization and it didn’t stop the old fights. It only stripped away the pretense.