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Fallout 76’s “Wastelanders” expansion makes West Virginia feel like home



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.

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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The Callisto Protocol review: A relentless horror spectacle



Enlarge / Hello, gorgeous.

In the survival-horror genre, building tension and ramping up a sense of dread is the backbone of the experience. As a new sci-fi horror IP coming from the creators of Dead Space, The Callisto Protocol homes in on that creeping sense of unease as it forces you to confront its many grotesque threats head-on. When playing The Callisto Protocol, I always felt on edge, even during moments when I could have let my guard down.

The game takes some strong influences from its spiritual predecessor Dead Space and puts its own spin on a more visceral type of horror experience. That said, The Callisto Protocol‘s influences and genre are abundantly clear, and it occasionally falls back on familiar tropes and some frustrating combat encounters. Still, it maintains its solid, relentless poise as an unnerving yet still thrilling survival-horror game.

Welcome to Black Iron Prison

You play as Jacob Lee (Transformers’ Josh Duhamel), a far-future freelance cargo hauler with a murky past who crash lands on Jupiter’s titular frozen moon. After getting abducted by the ruthless head of security, Captain Ferris (Days Gone’s Sam Witwer), Jacob finds himself trapped in the mysterious and inhumane Black Iron Prison.

Eventually, a mysterious viral outbreak mutates nearly everyone inside, turning them into ravenous monsters called Biophages. Launching an escape with other prisoners, including the enigmatic anti-corporate activist Dani Nakamura (The Boys’ Karen Fukuhara), Jacob delves deep into Black Iron Prison and the moon’s lower depths to uncover what happened and make it out alive.

Right from the start, and despite the grotesque, over-the-top horror setting, there’s a palpable sense of realism to The Callisto Protocol’s story and visuals. This is hard sci-fi through and through, in the vein of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon or John Carpenter’s The Thing (or the original Dead Space series, unsurprisingly). The game plays it straight with its unsettling vision of a future gone awry, which provides a rich environment to play in. Aside from rare one-liners, there’s not much levity, which keeps with the game’s bleak narrative and atmosphere.

Remember to breathe.
Enlarge / Remember to breathe.

As a cinematic, story-driven game, The Callisto Protocol keeps its pace and structure tight, focusing on Jacob’s ordeal as he’s ferried to different encounters and events in a mostly linear fashion. Aside from chapter breaks and more in-depth cinematics, you’re always viewing events from Jacob’s perspective. The performances from the main cast do an effective job of selling the plot’s sense of urgency and dark tone. While the story largely keeps its twists subdued and doesn’t venture far from its initial premise by the end of its 12-plus-hour campaign, it still succeeds as a solid vehicle for an intense and brutal horror game.

What truly sells The Callisto Protocol and its setting are the fantastic visuals and sound design. The presentation is incredibly effective at establishing mood, with small details combining together into the most impressive and effective survival-horror tapestry I’ve seen in a long time. This is especially evident in the gruesome design of the Biophages, as well as the numerous, wince-inducing death scenes.

When the visuals and sound design all work in concert, it creates a stark sense of dread and unease that sticks with you to the end. One section had me explore the depths of the prison while the power was fluctuating, creating moments of darkness for the enemies to move around unseen. Just trying to keep track of where these monsters were put me on edge. It was an unnerving section that really showcased the craft of the game’s impressive presentation.

While Black Iron Prison is slightly similar to the USG Ishimura from Dead Space, the setting comes into its own once the game’s scope expands, showcasing fantastic views of the outside frozen lunarscape and the darker depths of Callisto. The game’s linear progression and tight pacing cut down on backtracking. That said, there are still moments where you can venture off and explore hidden rooms, mainly to uncover some intriguing clues and audio logs about Black Iron Prison history and what came before.

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The Mandalorian season 3 has been delayed—but only a little



Enlarge / A promotional image for the third season of The Mandalorian.

After months of silence about it, Disney has finally revealed the premiere date of the third season of its first live-action Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian. The new season will premiere on March 1, 2023.

That’s just a little bit later than what Disney said to expect the last time it made an announcement; the release window was announced to be February 2023 in a tweet in May.

Minor premiere date slipping aside, it’s been quite a time since the previous season in either case. The second season premiered back in October 2020. That said, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that it’s been more than two years since we last spent time with the show’s two central characters, Mando and Grogu.

That’s because both appeared prominently in The Book of Boba Fett, a limited series that ran from December 2021 through February 2022. In fact, they were so prominent in part of that show that we called it The Mandalorian season 2.5 when we reviewed it.

Expect them to be the main focus of The Mandalorian season three when it premieres March 1, though; that point is driven home by the promotional image shown above and by the plot threads that carry over from The Book of Boba Fett and prior seasons of The Mandalorian.

The Mandalorian received generally positive reviews when it premiered—a stark contrast to the divided responses to most of the recent Star Wars movies. Thus far, the various TV series have been helmed by a different creative team than the movies. Accomplished director Jon Favreau and Star Wars animated series veteran Dave Filoni seem to have done a better job satisfying fans than some of the other directors, producers, and writers of the films.

Disney sought to spin off several additional live-action Star Wars shows from the series, several of which stem from characters who had guest roles in the second season, including the first live-action rendition of Ahsoka Tano from the popular Clone Wars animated series.

Not all of Disney’s now-numerous live-action Star Wars series are Mandalorian spinoffs, though. Earlier this year, Disney+ ran a limited series focused on Obi-Wan Kenobi that took place between the prequel films and the original trilogy. The same goes for the thriller Andor, which just finished its first season to widespread critical acclaim.

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Nintendo apologizes for Pokémon performance problems, promises “improvements”



Enlarge / Portrait of the author learning that some of the Pokémon Scarlet and Violet performance problems might be fixed.

Andrew Cunningham

Our review of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet mentioned some of the game’s pervasive performance issues, and we weren’t the only ones. Even more mainstream outlets like The Guardian and CNN noted the games’ performance problems. Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry team, known for its in-depth analyses of game performance, called the games “comprehensive technical failures,” also calling attention to their blurry and poorly tiled textures and “low-geometry” environments.

Players have noticed plenty of other problems, too; these include a bug that allowed players to run twice as fast by connecting two controllers to the Switch, bizarre animations and clipping problems, Pokémon that blast off into the sky like Team Rocket, and some evidence that online battles were using the same probability seed for every match, making it easier for attentive players to make low-accuracy moves hit 100 percent of the time. I captured a screenshot of a Hoppip that was casting three shadows simultaneously (though it’s possible the Paldea region has three suns that I just don’t know about).

I'm no scientist, but I don't think this is how lighting works.
Enlarge / I’m no scientist, but I don’t think this is how lighting works.

Andrew Cunningham

Nintendo released a 1.1.0 update for both Pokémon games today that includes “select bug fixes” (though the company didn’t specify which). But alongside that mostly routine post-launch update came a less-routine acknowledgment of the performance problems and a suggestion that the company would provide fixes.

“We are aware that players may encounter issues that affect the games’ performance. Our goal is always to give players a positive experience with our games, and we apologize for the inconvenience,” the statement reads. “We take the feedback from players seriously and are working on improvements to the games.”

Notably, “tak[ing] feedback from players seriously” and “working on improvements” don’t amount to a promise that every single dropped frame and ugly texture is going to be fixed. But like Sword and Shield, Scarlet and Violet will likely enjoy a decent amount of post-release support, including functional updates like Pokémon Home compatibility and substantial new DLC content. This should hopefully justify the time and money needed to make noticeable performance improvements, even though the games as they currently exist have still managed to be the fastest-selling titles Nintendo has ever released.

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