The first time I met a settler in the Fallout 76 Wasterlanders expansion I bashed in his head with a rocket-propelled hammer. In retrospect it seems a bit mean to pancake the first AI-controlled human I came across in Appalachia (apart from the two greeters perpetually standing outside Vault 76), but it was done out of curiosity as opposed to malice.
Not that it made a difference to my victim. “Hi there, am I allowed to kill you?” Clonk. “Yes, I am allowed to kill you. Thanks for participating in my science experiment!”
I’ve killed plenty more Wastelanders since then, but never without a good reason. I killed the ones that opened fire on me first, I eliminated a gang leader and his followers because they were harassing a bar owner I was helping, and one time I just got annoyed because I was trying to take a photo of Mothman and a couple NPCs started shooting at it and it flew away. Okay, maybe that last one isn’t a good reason, but it’s at least a reason.
Mostly, though, I’m happy to just talk to the new humans with Fallout 76’s new dialogue system, which is thankfully closer to the system in Fallout 3 than Fallout 4. I can’t say yet how deeply the dialogue choices have an impact on the story, but there are lots more options than the ‘pick one of four’ system from Fallout 4. Sometimes there are so many choices you have to actually scroll down just to see them all, and having lots of dialogue options to choose from makes me feel like I’m more of a real character, too.
And when I’m not chatting or completing quests for the new human factions, I’m just watching all the new NPCs going about their business in Appalachia. Settlers, scavengers, raiders, and others appear all over the map, traveling, working, chatting, interacting, and sometimes fighting with each other or the monsters and robots that inhabit the world. Seeing mindless scorched zombies battle mindless feral ghouls, I’m happy to sit and wait to see who comes out on top. Seeing friendly settlers battle ghouls, I’m compelled to jump in and help. (Help the settlers, if that wasn’t clear.)
Having human NPCs and dialogue choices makes a huge difference in Fallout 76, especially if you’re a solo player. I still like Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4 better, but with the Wastelanders expansion, Fallout 76 finally feels like a Fallout game.
I’ve been splitting my playtime in Fallout 76 between my level 45 character and a brand new one, and enjoying both equally. It is a bummer for new players and those starting new characters that the bulk of the new quests and the camp allies you can romance are locked off until you’re level 20, but it doesn’t take too long to climb that ladder and you can still enjoy the random NPCs you find around the world and complete a questline for the bar owner near Vault 76.
With my higher-level character who didn’t hesitate to smash a settler’s head in just to see what would happen, I’ve predictably been focusing on the raider side of things. I haven’t enjoyed every quest I’ve completed—no spoilers, but there was a really excellent quest involving searching through a deep, interesting abandoned mine (a completely new location) alongside a character named Weasel who I now want to marry, but that quest was followed by a pretty terrible one where a deeply annoying kid made me kill one hundred million robots.
By the end of both quests, though, I’d learned a lot more about the raider characters I interacted with and that gives me an investment in the world that a bunch of audio tapes never could. (Seriously, Weasel, please marry me.) Even the Vault 76 Overseer, a character I don’t like very much, makes Fallout 76 more compelling because I can talk to her face-to-face now.
And even apart from quests and dialogue it’s just nice in general to come around a corner or over a hill and see someone that’s not a monster or a robot. NPCs aren’t always up for a chat—there are plenty of instantly-aggressive humans like Mothman cultists and the new raider-like faction the Blood Eagles. But there are plenty of friendly or neutral people you’ll encounter in the world and it makes it feel more like a world, from the guy running down the street shrieking “Don’t let it get me!” to the settler who starting playing the guitar outside another player’s base, to the random scavenger who asked me if I had a spare bobby pin so she could pick a lock. The fun little moments and sights and encounters add up, over time, into the memory of a place that is much more alive than it used to be.
I should say I’m probably not going to play a whole lot more Fallout 76 even though it’s definitely improved. Even with the new additions, I’ve crisscrossed the world so many times now that even a whole new population hasn’t completely freshened the game up for me. Like I said last week, I’m really not that into base-building, I’ve grown a bit weary of collecting old typewriters and desk fans for scrap, and if I never have to kill another mole rat it’ll be too soon. A big part of me wishes I hadn’t played it at all, and could start it for the first time with Wastelanders.
But for players who have been away for a while, it’s still a much better and more complete experience than it was at launch. Fallout 76 finally feels like Fallout, and all it took was filling the world with fake people instead of relying on real ones.