For the past year or so, Fallout 76 was (rightfully) dragged over the coals for its lackluster, well, everything. To say that the game was an embarrassment to the Fallout franchise is a bit of an understatement. Seemingly no longer willing to bear such a mark of shame in silence, Bethesda released their largest and most ambitious update to Fallout 76 to date. Dubbed Wastelanders, the latest update adds friendly NPCs to the world. That is of course, the most reductive possible way to describe the Wastelanders update.
In reality, Wastelanders may as well be a full-priced traditional DLC pack for Fallout 76. Indeed, the new NPCs are merely the tip of the iceberg. You're also getting new locations to explore, a new main quest and a few new side quests that'll take several hours to complete, a couple of "companion" characters, new random events, new enemy factions and monsters, new weapons and armor, and even a radio DJ. Then there's the more subtle additions, like the dialogue system (more on that later). Basically, Wastelanders adds the not-so secret special sauce that makes the modern iterations of Fallout beloved in spite of their shortcomings.
For the most part, the new NPCs are implemented wonderfully. Before you ask, the most important NPCs (those that are related to quests) are in their own instanced areas. This means that random people can't jump into your game and shoot them in the face. Whatever you do to these NPCs, however you want to talk to them, is isolated entirely to your character. As a minor side benefit, it prevents one of the more immersion-breaking aspects of MMOs where a bunch of random people cluster in front of quest givers and the like.
Considering the circumstances, the voice acting and writing are fairly good as well. The main and some of the side quest story arcs are admittedly a little predictable, though it isn't that much of a deal breaker. The writing for the individual characters is definitely the main draw here. There's a reasonable amount of depth behind the important NPCs, and they generally have enough of a personality to be relatively memorable. You'll get plenty of backstory of course, which is a much needed and pleasant departure from what Fallout 76 offered at launch. Surprisingly, one of if not the best characters in Wastelanders is Julie, Appalachia Radio's new DJ, who is absolutely delightful to listen to.
Speaking of delightful surprises, Wastelanders' dialogue system certainly falls into such a category. At first glance, the dialogue box is more or less the same as the one in Fallout 3 or New Vegas. You talk to a character and can respond in one of several varied ways to them. Depending on your choices, it can either be a friendly chat or you can bully them. Some options give you more info on your quests, some give you backstory, and some just lead to witty banter. Far from revolutionary in this regard. What is different is the sheer number of chances you get to flex your character sheet at them. There are simply a lot of skill checks in Wastelanders, with roughly one or two direct dialogue skill checks per quest stage.
For example, if you have a high Luck stat, you can create some humorous Raider backstabbing during one of the side quests. Strength-based characters can threaten quite a number of people to get what they want, though it's not exactly the most friendly way to approach things. Enough points in Perception will help you discover supplies and clues faster during one of the main quests where you are trying to find a missing doctor. Completing certain actions during the base game also have some very minor effects on Wastelander's story. In other words, in a rather ironic twist of fate, Fallout 76 has the most comprehensive dialogue/skill check system of any modern Fallout game.
It would still be naive to think that Wastelanders will be enough to save Fallout 76's legacy. The damage has been done in that regard. Fortunately enough for Bethesda, Wastelanders is a step back to normalcy for the game. If one were to start playing Fallout 76 right now, with no prior knowledge of anything that happened before Wastelanders, it would certainly live up to the expectation that it's a Fallout game that has multiplayer options rather than a multiplayer game with the Fallout name. Whether or not this is a good thing is up to personal interpretation. Regardless, there's definitely signs of life in Wastelanders, and plenty of credit should be given to the developers, writers, and voice actors who have successfully turned things around against all odds.