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How Fallout 76 fixed its post-apocalyptic malaise

The online role-playing game reboots itself a year and a half after its launch with a more traditional take on the Fallout franchise.

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Dan Ackerman/CNET

Even for the post-apocalyptic wilds of West Virginia, Fallout 76 always felt kinda lifeless. Missing from the familiar vaults and run-down towns were the colorful characters that made previous Fallout games come to life, with their colorful backstories and dialog trees. Sure, we never forgot they were AI automatons, but more thought clearly went into their lines, delivery and motivations than into any Fast and Furious movie dialogue. 

Instead the ambitious online multiplayer game gave us some computer terminals to hand out missions, and occasional chatty robots or humanoid ghouls, who mostly just grunted and snarled. You could always talk to the other players, a couple of dozen per instanced server, but that's not exactly the narrative thrust Fallout games are known for. 

Like pretty much everyone else I knew, I didn't get much past the game's fall 2018 launch. 

In April 2020, I returned to the Appalachian wastelands, just as the long-awaited Wastelanders update to the game went live. I rolled a new character and began my journey again, from Vault 76 out into the unknown. While most of the new Wastelanders content is reserved for higher-level characters, the changes in the game were immediate. I'm playing the PC version, now available on Steam, via a Razer Blade 15-inch gaming laptop

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Unlike real life, bars in Fallout 76 are open for business. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

I ran into a couple of vault hunters immediately, who directed me to a nearby bar, populated with nonliving, nonbreathing, but perfectly conversational virtual characters. There I picked up a few more assignments, and more importantly, got involved in the political dynamics between two groups of wasteland survivors. There were others, too. Random wanderers like myself, haggard survivors who never seemed to mind that I woke them from a deep sleep to talk or trade trinkets, even some old-fashioned Road-Warrior-style raiders. 

Basically, it suddenly felt much more like Fallout and less like a Fallout side project. Yes, in the Wastelanders era, much of the exposition still comes from prerecorded messages left lying around or computer terminal email logs, but the game world feels suddenly much more alive, at least for a devastated post-war slice of inhospitable countryside. Factions can be negotiated with or fought against; favors can be traded. And yes, somehow that makes the other human players in the game slightly more interesting, as we're all part of a larger story now, not just randos looking to farm XP by taking out the same robot uprising or Scorched hordes over and over again. 

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Even with human characters around, the robots still get most of the best lines. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

It's taken about a year and a half, but Fallout 76 is my go-to quarantine game now, and feels like an entirely different experience than the one that launched back when we could all go outside, take the subway, see a movie, etc. 

Why spend my days in a simulated Mad Max movie when we're basically living a real-life disaster movie every day? Maybe it's to see the lush landscapes of West Virginia, where nature has retaken much of the land and wildlife roams free. Maybe it serves as a reminder that being locked inside with good Wi-Fi is still better than being outside with bloodthirsty mutants. Maybe I just like Fallout games. 

Unlike many persistent online games, there are no monthly fees to keep playing after buying the base game (although the game never fails to remind you that many cosmetic add-ons and game supplies are available for real money, not the Fallout universe's preferred bottle cap currency). So if you've been sitting on the game since its underwhelming launch, jump back in, start with  fresh character (not required, but I think it's a better overall experience) and meet me by Vault 76.

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