• A human being? In my Fallout 76? It’s more likely than you think.

  • So advanced that the terminals float on their own!

  • Weird flex but OK.

  • Thanks for all those stashes.

  • Happy hour.

  • Ready to meet some new friends.

  • When in doubt, head for the bar.

  • Take me home, country roads.

  • Putting on a show for my scorched supporters.

When Fallout 76 launched in late 2018, it wasn’t exactly a flawless experience, as publisher Bethesda would be the first to admit. It was buggy and glitchy, the online experience was inconsistent and subpar, and worst of all, the wasteland felt empty without the series’ classic NPC personalities and meaningful dialogue options.

A lot can change in a year and a half. Since its haphazard launch, Fallout 76 has received a number of quality-of-life updates and even got its own battle royale mode. But the always-online post-apocalyptic RPG’s actual saving grace might just be Wastelanders, a free, massive expansion that went live last week. Wastelanders brings living, breathing characters back to the Appalachian wastes, and suddenly West Virginia is a lot less lonely.

People who need non-player people

Of course, this expansion does a lot more than simply sprinkle a fresh helping of NPCs throughout the enormous map. Wastelanders also comes with new quests, including a core storyline that drives the narrative forward. Canonically, it takes place one year after Vault 76 reopened, and people are just starting to return to Appalachia. There are NPCs to befriend, factions to join, and dialogue trees to navigate, complete with the series’ trademark skill-check chat options.

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It’s a massive undertaking, but it’s also exactly what the game needed to stay alive.

After 80 hours with Fallout 76 in the months after launch, I wanted to start fresh with Wastelanders, so I created a new character and hit the ground running. Fresh from Vault 76, I was startled to run into a couple of NPCs right off the bat—two women chasing a rumor about a hidden treasure somewhere in the wasteland. It actually took me a second to realize these weren’t other player characters; I hadn’t expected to run into the expansion’s major feature so soon after starting.

Though the encounter was brief, it set the stage for the next dozen or so hours in Appalachia. I was constantly finding myself startled and pleasantly surprised to find random characters in burned-out buildings, basements, or responder headquarters. You don’t have to create a new character and start from scratch to enjoy Wastelanders’ benefits; the new quest pops up as soon as you load an old save. What I found interesting when playing from the beginning, however, was how the addition of NPCs changed the dynamic of those early missions. Previously, you knew you were only ever going to find corpses and bots; now you’ll actually run into living people along the way.

Though many of the NPCs will only make a brief appearance in your journey, you’ll spend a lot of time with two characters in particular: Duchess and Mort. Duchess is the bartender at the Wayward, an establishment that sprang up near Vault 76. Serving up hard drinks and attitude, Duchess is a key player in the search for this mysterious treasure everyone’s talking about.

Then there’s Mort, a ghoul who frequents the Wayward and is happy to share his knowledge about the inner workings of the wasteland. They’re both great, but Mort is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters in Fallout lore. His unflinching attitude about his, uh, lack of a face and his humorous instructions about building structures inject some much-needed humor into Fallout 76.

Group and technical issues

Having more wastelanders around is a refreshing change of pace, but Fallout 76 really clicked for me when I ran into an important character whose presence was only made known by notes and holotapes before the update. Suddenly, all of those lonely earlier missions seemed worth it; there was a “human” light at the end of the tunnel.

This also drove home what a major overhaul Wastelanders is—it completely changes the tone of the game. Instead of wandering through a nuclear ruin full of corpses and monsters, there are these little pockets of hope everywhere. When there are other survivors, everything is different; you never know what you’ll find.

Speaking of survivors, Fallout 76 brings back the faction system from previous games, allowing you to earn loyalty with certain groups based on your actions. These groups, the Settlers and the Raiders, will provide additional objectives and lead you to revamped locations, should you choose to help them out. A side effect of Fallout 76’s original lack of NPCs was the lack of meaningful choices; now your actions directly affect your standing with other wastelanders.

While Wastelanders is ideal for players who spend a good portion of their time solo, it can make things a little awkward while in a group. There are times when only one person can enter a structure to experience a plot point, so you and your buddies won’t be experiencing the new main quest at the same pace. There are still plenty of timed quests to play with your friends, though, including a couple of new events.

After so much time away, I had hoped that Fallout 76 would be a smoother experience, technically speaking. I was fairly forgiving of its warts at launch—most games aren’t perfect at launch these days, especially ones with heavy online components. However, a year and a half later, I’m still encountering some of the same technical issues.

There are still audio problems, with sound disappearing from the game entirely no matter how much I fiddle with the controls. Load times continue to be excessive at regular intervals. I was completely booted from the server once. Then there were smaller bugs, like computer terminals floating in midair.

Sure, it’s still a little janky, but overall Fallout 76 almost feels like a new game with the Wastelanders expansion. This injection of new content is exactly what was needed to make 76 feel like an actual Fallout title rather than an experiment in always-online mechanics.

I’m not even close to seeing everything Wastelanders has to offer, but I’m ready to discover more. After being “clean” from Fallout 76 for over a year, I’m fully back in—collecting and scrapping every bit of junk I can find, crafting new weapons and armor, building up my campsite, and documenting the process via the in-game photo mode. You have to be prepared for anything, after all; you never know who you might run into around the wasteland.

Fallout 76: Wastelanders is available now as a free update for those who already own the base game.

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