Fallout 76's Steel Dawn expansion brings a new shine to the wastes of Appalachia

Articles: Gaming
Dec 05, 2020 Written by:Eric Born

Within minutes of winding my way out of the strangely empty Vault 76, I was ambushed by radiation-crazed mutants and chased down a rocky mountainside into the ruins of a tiny town. There, I limped through the doors of the only occupied building around—a bar, of course—only to find myself in the middle of a Mexican shootout. There, I had to make a quick choice based on limited information. Should I take the side of the plucky bartender trying to establish her own business in a ruined world, or do I ally with the ruthless-but-well-off gang that’s trying to extort her for protection money?

These first few minutes of action confirmed for me that Fallout 76 is a true Fallout game. This entry to the series took some risks, focusing at first on crafting and survival systems, PVP mechanics, and giving players a space to tell their own stories. Last April, competing factions of NPCs moved into the game’s post-apocalyptic Appalachia, providing the rich narrative experience that fans have long associated with the series. Now, the iconic Brotherhood of Steel faction has made its debut in the major Steel Dawn expansion. With a new faction to explore, hours of new quests added, and the just-introduced ability to craft your own underground vault, it’s a great time to dive into Fallout 76.

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I’ve been investigating vaults, collecting bottlecaps, and slaughtering molerats since the series’ isometric debut back in the ‘90s, so I was both excited and apprehensive to explore Fallout 76. I just wasn’t sure what to expect about the multiplayer component. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have been so concerned. It’s an MMO, to be sure, but the game’s cities are nowhere near as jam-packed as World of Warcraft’s capitals were back in its glory days. Fallout 76 invisibly manages how many other players are in the game world with you so that the post-apocalyptic Appalachia is just as sparsely populated as it should be. When I wander around, scavenging for materials and following the narrative threads of my quests, I rarely run across other players, but when I visit one of the major NPC vendors or quest hubs I’ll see a person or two.

Most of my interactions with other players have come through public events. These are server-wide quests that anyone can join simply by showing up. The big ones are advertised across the zone along with a suggested minimum level for participation, while others simply pop up as I explore the wilderness. In one, I had to help defend a lakeside compound from waves of robot attacks. In another, I escorted a messenger drone as he completed a long-overdue delivery. Both times, I was joined by other players, and the difficulty of the encounter seemed to scale as our ranks increased to a small team of three or four.

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I have some leveling up to do before I can join in one of the endgame assaults on a nuclear blast zone, but there’s plenty to do in the meantime. The recently-arrived Brotherhood of Steel faction brings hours of questing as Leader Paladin Leila Rahmani works to establish a presence in Appalachia. This quasi-religious group of authoritarian thugs have been part of the Fallout series since the beginning, so their arrival in Fallout 76 is a welcome sign of things to come. Bethesda indicates that the Brotherhood storyline has only started and will be expanded in 2021. I’m just itching to get my grubby hands on a good suit of their power armor.

I’m also eager to get started on the new C.A.M.P. features. Right from the start of the game, Fallout 76 gave me the tools to construct my own base of operations out of scavenged materials. I started small, with just a couple platforms, some walls, and a roof over my head. I also constructed a rough shelter for my crafting tables and a bed that wasn’t on the ground. After I’ve exhausted the possibilities of one corner of the map, I can pack up my C.A.M.P. and redeploy it somewhere new. I love the portability of this system, and I’m thrilled to get started on adding a C.A.M.P. Shelter to my setup. These are underground instanced housing units that greatly expand the amount of space that I can set up and customize. It’ll be like designing my own vault.

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With my C.A.M.P. to build and new content to explore, I have plenty to do in Fallout 76. Quite often, though, I ignore the growing list of quests in my Pip-Boy and just wander around. Maybe I’m partial, considering that I work and live in real-life Appalachia, but I’ll argue that Fallout 76 is more of a visual spectacle than any other game in the series before it. The designers clearly did their homework on this region, and their work resulted in an environment that’s both rich in detail and surprisingly varied. When I crest a vista and get an unexpected view of the autumnal foliage, I have to stop and admire the landscape.

Over and over again, I’ve found locations and objects that are uncannily familiar. The game has all the building quirks of my region. Squared-off Sears-Roebuck houses sit shoulder-to-shoulder with austere Colonials. I’m as likely to run across a trailer park as an old stone mansion when I take a side trip down a back road. With fire pits made of cinder blocks, old steel heating oil tanks squatting in the corners of basements, and quarries cut deep into the sides of worn-down mountains, Fallout 76’s Appalachia is almost too close to reality for comfort.

But that’s one of the main allures of the series, I think. Its ravaged version of America has always felt a little more plausible than I’ve cared to admit. Fallout games make me confront tough questions. If I found myself alone in a world of two-headed cows, irradiated monsters, and heavily armed gangs, would I have the courage to pick up a pipe wrench and Pip-Boy and carve out a life for myself? Would I keep my humanity, or turn savage like so many? Hopefully, I’ll never have to find out, but the fact that I’m asking these questions means that Fallout 76 isn’t just a Fallout game in name. Over time, it’s developed into a true sequel. If it’s been awhile since you’ve checked in on what it has to offer, I highly suggest that you give it another look.