Arriving at the Atlas Observatory in Fallout 76’s public test server was odd. The Brotherhood of Steel, a highly militarized group, has set up shop there … and moments after encountering them, it became clear that I was already on their shitlist. The Brotherhood members I initially spoke to were dismissive and rude. What’s worse is that they’ve pissed everyone else off in Appalachia, and they don’t really care. It’s a pickle, and the new expansion Steel Dawn is about tackling new problems in the wasteland and joining the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood has been in Fallout 76 since launch; a small expedition traveled to Appalachia. That expedition died, and the expansion will show another group trailing behind them to investigate what happened. “They assume that [the original group] is dead because they haven’t heard from them. So they want to know what happened to the folks out there,” says Mark Tucker, design director, in a call with Polygon. The Brotherhood soon find Appalachia to be a stable region with lots of resources, and they put down roots.
Meet the Brotherhood (again)
The Brotherhood of Steel is much older than Fallout 76; they were a major part of the very first game in the franchise back in 1997. The Brotherhood has become iconic as a faction to the Fallout games. The franchise can never wander too far from them. The complication is that every time they show up, they’re handled in different ways by a different set of writers. Black Isle Studios, and later Obsidian, depicted the Californian Brotherhood of Steel as elitist and reclusive, doomed to die out by their own arrogance. The Bethesda-written Eastern Brotherhood of Steel is depicted as far more noble, and thriving due to their own might.
But since Fallout 76 is a prequel, this Brotherhood of Steel is the proto-version of both orders. There are, of course, the iconic Paladins in power armor and heavy weaponry. But many Brotherhood members around their base are wearing gear scavenged from American space facilities, like retro space suits. There’s a neat vibe to this era’s Brotherhood. They draw on iconic American sci-fi aesthetics, and feel like a bridge between the “old world” and the game’s inevitable future.
In the Steel Dawn campaign, the player character gets to influence the Brotherhood of Steel and choose which interpretation they prefer, as both paths must come from this current iteration of the Brotherhood. This is the first half of a two-part campaign, and the player’s early choices will come back later.
“One of the things we have to deal with is even though the world is advancing on a timeline, and we’re introducing new things, players may or may not have played through all of the previous content,” says Tucker. “So we have to make sure that everything we do works and fits in with any state the player can be in.
Players may have finished Wastelanders, but not the main quest, or the other way around. They may have finished both or neither. Steel Dawn has dialogue that accounts for all possibilities. It exists in the now, and the game has to evolve and adapt to make the timeline work for all players.
The Brotherhood’s arrival marks another major evolution for the map. Wastelanders filled Appalachia up with NPCs, and added two new major settlements of Foundation and Crater. Steel Dawn adds another layer of content, and the game’s settlers and raiders have the chance to react to the Brotherhood. The next update, which also deals with the Brotherhood, will expand on the seeds sown in Steel Dawn.
The team has been forced to deal with not just the usual issues of developing an online title — schedule, regular updates, technical issues — but they’ve also massively pivoted what Fallout 76 is. The game launched with no NPCs, and it now hosts multiple factions. Adding new areas to the map is difficult due to technical limitations, but the team managed to work instances into the game for varied, story-rich but isolated areas. “That seems like a simple piece of tack that people are used to now but man, that was a heavy lift,” says Gardiner, but he cites it as one of the team’s biggest successes for the year, along with the public test server.
Finding the future
Those successes have been hard-earned, especially after the original launch (and disastrous reception) of Fallout 76. But the developer has learned how to take fan feedback and pivot the product towards what they want. And when it comes to the harsher or more vitriolic criticisms that thrive on YouTube or certain fan forums, Bethesda has learned to roll with that as well.
“It’s a mix, still. But it’s honestly not that bad. Even after launch, in what I call the dark times, it wasn’t that bad,” says Jeff Gardiner, project lead at Bethesda. “There were always people who were enjoying the game. And, you know, what I used to say all the time is at least they’re still talking about this game, and they want it to be good.”
Bethesda is also learning how to work with the game’s avid builder community. At one point, the developer fixed a bug with stacking two walls next to each other that it “thought was very benign,” according to Gardiner. “It turned out that people were using that to build special things in CAMPs. It was a big to-do for us, because we weren’t aware of it, and the community loved to make double sided walls.”
Steel Dawn is an update that doesn’t have to play quite so much catch up as previous iterations of the game. It’s building off the successful Wastelanders expansion, and the developers have a stronger hand on the wheel. For instance, the addition of phased CAMP basements that have a much larger building budget and tons of customization, is a meaty bone for the game’s builders and role-players to chew upon. Folks can now theoretically build their own vaults. Steel Dawn touches on familiar territory for the Fallout franchise, but it feels unique — a sign that Fallout 76 has found its feet as its own cohesive game and world.
Steel Dawn will be released on Dec. 1 as a free update; a second part to the campaign will release some time in the future. Both updates, along with Wastelanders, are free additions to the game.