“Wouldn’t it be nice… “
It’s probably safe to say that Fallout 76 is one of the most divisive games released this year. Being a highly popular single player focused series and having it jump into the always online multiplayer realm, it was bound to be the topic of heated conversation. While certain aspects of the game work extremely well and can be a very enjoyable time with the right group of friends, Fallout 76 is a technical mess that lacks polish in nearly every moment to moment experience the game offers. Fallout 76 is most certainly a good game, it just doesn’t feel anywhere remotely finished.
My introduction to the Fallout series is through 2008’s Fallout 3, the first title in the series under the Bethesda brand and probably the one that a large majority of players also started with. Since then, we’ve had Fallout: New Vegas, a spin-off by Obsidian Entertainment, which is often considered the best of the series, as well as the fairly enjoyable yet narratively flawed, Fallout 4. Whereas the previous Fallout games were packed with enjoyable characters, companions, and a hefty serving of story, many were afraid that Fallout 76 and its “every human you encounter is another player” scenario would diminish what had come before and create a very lifeless experience; that is mostly the case, yes, but not the whole truth.
Fallout 76 doesn’t contain traditional npc’s, but it does contain a tremendous amount of story, not all of which is told in the same ways that previous entries have rolled out before. You have a core story to investigate as you leave the vault, one that is largely a game of catch up as you track down the previous locations of your Vault’s Overseer. This story is actually far more engaging than that of Fallout 4’s lost child drama as that never felt treated with the sense of urgency it required. Here, alongside some fantastic voice work, we get to know who she was before the bombs dropped. Much like the main story, many of the other quests that you’ll undertake are in full knowledge that everyone is dead and your interactions are mostly with terminals, robots, letters from the deceased, and hearing their stories from a lifeless holotape. Apart from a chance encounter with a super mutant and his pet cow, I never ran into anything else that spoke to me, apart from one of the many robots that make up this massive open world.
Set to the tune of “Take me home, Country Roads”, a song originally performed by John Denver, Fallout 76 takes place in the location mentioned in the song, West Virginia. This location is four times bigger than any seen in the series history. Now, despite being a fairly lifeless open world, it is hands down the best in regards to the sheer variety you have to explore. There are countless caves, abandoned factories, museums, toxic mines, theme parks, and so many more locations that I could go on for hours. The exploration aspects to Fallout 76 are wonderful as you never really know what is lurking up ahead. You have a typical navigation bar at the top that will indicate if you are close to a location and I’ll be honest, seeing those undiscovered locations pop up can create an obsession to seek them all out.
The locations themselves can often tell a story through how they are set up rather than some standard method of an NPC telling us of their troubles. Approaching demolished homesteads and seeing dozens of radiated bodies, still standing or posed in some way, until you interact with them and see them crumble into a toxic dust, can often make you take pause and wonder how their last few seconds of life played out. Since this Fallout takes place at the earliest point in the lore, much of the carnage is still fairly fresh when compared to entries in the series that took place far longer down the road.
Most quests have you tracking down the remains of a once living person, gathering certain bits of information, killing a set amount of creatures or clearing a camp of super mutants or scorched ghouls. The content of these quests may not feel initially satisfying, but many of the holotapes or stories that you encounter are actually well acted and expertly written. The problem with unloading your story through these methods is that they can be hard to hear or read the subtitles when you are getting swarmed by diseased ghouls or your teammate is crunching down on some chips on the other side of the microphone. This is made more difficult as the holotape volume is far too low when compared to every else around you and one of many aspects of the game that I would love to see addressed in a future patch. The stories in Fallout 76 are actually quite good, but the way in which we are told them just doesn’t live up to what we’ve had before and seems to be one of the biggest complaints coming out of the game, apart from how buggy it is.
Again, while the nature of how you are given quests is not exactly exciting, many of these narrative quests are actually quite good. I think my favorite quest might be one I discovered when I tracked down a secret under the Riverside Manor, one that had such a cool transition within the building itself. Several quests will usually have you tracking down an object and returning to the quest giver, and while many of those are not terribly exciting, there are the few ones that have you interacting with interesting characters such as Rose, a rather hilarious robot you’ll encounter a dozen or so hours in. While tending to completing various objectives, there are events that you can take part in that will reward you upon completing them. These activities pop up on the map extremely frequently but vary in their quality.
Much of what Fallout 76 has you tasked with apart from taking on quests is hoarding resources to craft new items, weapons, armor, and food supplies, with the latter being susceptible to spoiling should you not use them after a set period of time. While you can craft these items at the various crafting benches you’ll find scattered around West Virginia, you have the ability to craft these stations anywhere you like via your C.A.M.P. (Construction and Assembly Mobile Platform). Your base is something that you can use the resources and plans that you’ve discovered to create a structure to call home. While the spending budget of your base is certainly smaller than that of Fallout 4, you can still construct some pretty impressive locations to retreat back to and outfit your characters for a long journey. The one problem that I found to be ridiculous is that each workstation can only have one active player using it at a time. This is even more annoying when a random player has shown up and taken over it, forcing you to either wait or craft a second station nearby. While it seems you can scrap some items alongside another player, allowing each station’s crafting section to only be used by one player at a time is a design choice that seems bizarre. This could be fixed by eliminating the animation of using the bench and simply to just treat it like a normal menu.
As you explore the countryside and numerous rundown locations, you’ll be picking up a ton of resources. The aluminum cans, glue, typewriters, pencils, and various plants that you discover will start to add up and while you have a fairly decent carry weight, one that can be upgraded, the storage you have at your base is painfully small at 400 pounds. This small weight can be filled up extremely quickly as most weapons can take up 10-15 pounds each and combine that with all your junk, you will hit 400 pounds within the first few hours without even trying. This isn’t even taking in the weight of all the Power Armor pieces you’ll find and then discover you are not a high enough level to use, thus needing to keep them safe until then. While I type this, Bethesda has announced that the storage will be upgraded to 600 pounds and should that run smoothly, then it will see another increase at a later date.
Fallout 76 brings with it many of the same mechanics, menu’s, and gameplay structure that we experienced in Fallout 4. The big problem here is those systems were created for a more slower paced single player experience. V.A.T.S is here, but it is largely just a real-time targeting system that never feels useful as it tends to rise and drop percentages whenever the wind blows; essentially, it is more or less unreliable. Using the Pip-Boy itself used to be a joy, but here, with the world moving around you as you browse its awkward menu’s, it feels like it just doesn’t belong here. This is to say nothing of the painful controls I’ve read up on via the PC release and while the controls via the console versions are fairly sound, the game can still certainly feel clunky to play around in, all while trying to stay alive while you attempt to snack on a cooked chunk of Molerat all while swatting down a diseased cave critter.
Taking a page out of both Fallout 4 and New Vegas, Fallout 76 has mixed the Survival and Hardcore modes of both titles to force players into babysitting food and water meters as well as your typical allotment of health. At first, you will barely notice these meters dropping, but eventually, they can feel more like a chore than anything fun. I’ll state full well that I am not usually a fan of survival games, so take my opinion as you will. To compensate for how intrusive these meters can feel, you can equip perk cards to your Fallout survivor as a means to slow down your hunger and thirst levels by allowing you to either slow down the meters themselves or allow you to eat corpses or drink radiated water to tend to those needs.
As you level up in each of the various S.P.E.C.I.A.L attributes, you will unlock a storage space for a perk card. These cards can be upgraded should you track down duplicates as you’ll open packs every few levels. These perks will allow you to carry more weight, withstand more radiation, hit harder with a variety of different weapons, or cards that grant additional bonuses when joined alongside more players. The perk system is easily the most polished and functional system found in the game and certainly has made leveling up a more engaging experience.
Going back over what I’ve written, I really seem to be slamming this game and don’t get me wrong, it does deserve many of the negatives I am laying out, but I still find the game incredibly fun to go exploring with my friends. The team dynamic is essential to surviving as many enemies tend to hit a lot harder than I feel they should and having a few people together can certainly cause you to expend less ammo and take fewer hits, allowing your weapons and armor to last that much longer. I enjoy traveling in a set direction and mentioning over the headset that I found a secret bunker or unlocked a door to the basement, only to find a room devoted to some sort of Mothman cult. The exploration aspects to Fallout 76 are superb, I just wish the world felt far more alive.
Fallout 4 was easily the best the combat has been across the series by a significant degree as Id Software came in to assist Todd Howard and his team during the title’s development. Sadly, none of that finesse was brought to Fallout 76 as the combat here is painfully weak and clunky at best. Shooting just doesn’t feel fun and the real-time efforts of V.A.T.S. doesn’t really seem to assist in the ways it should. Melee combat can be somewhat satisfying, but it is rare that my hits ever make a connection or even feel like my barbed wire bat or Electrified Chinese Sword is even making contact. I will say that the mole miner gauntlets are the best part of this game and I’ll fight you on that. While you can equip different scopes and various addon’s as you break down weapons to learn the plan’s associated with those modifications, I never found anything that made the gun-play satisfying. I’ve tried nearly every gun that has been made available, but the shooting here is satisfactory at best.
Given that real people were going to populate this world, PVP was always going to be a concern to those who want their Fallout to be one of a more solo experience, given what the series has been known for. Running into players has been an ok experience as I’ve only had maybe a handful ever attempt to initiate any sort of hostile attack on me. Should you want to attack another player, your attacks, or those against you, will hit for extremely low numbers until that fire is returned and then all gloves are off. Killing a player without those attacks being returned will mark you as a wanted target, as will breaking into another player's locked C.A.M.P, or stealing items from a claimed workshop, both of which I discovered by accident. You’ll remain wanted until you are killed, so I recommend having a teammate exit your team and do the deed themselves. Thankfully, should you die, you only drop your junk items and nothing of considerable value like your caps, armor, or weapons. PVP was never going to satisfy both camps of those who want it and those who didn’t, but Bethesda has found a way that somewhat assists in preventing griefing, even if some players keep trying to pester you into returning fire.
Creating a multiplayer version of Fallout is not essentially a bad thing, in fact, much of the aspects of what that entails is rather well done here. I’ve had zero issues in joining my friends or creating a batch of food to pass along to them, and even helping new players along allows me to revisit old areas and loot them all over again. Quests that you share with friends are fun to complete, and your quest list will even make you aware of some quests that your friends have yet to complete. I’ve encountered random players that have dropped some healing items in front of me, to those that stop and take the time to wave to me and show me some sort of secret hatch to an underground bunker.
While “Country Roads” had a big impact by setting the tone and feel of what to expect with Fallout 76, the rest of the soundtrack is somewhat hit and miss. Sure, we get “Wouldn’t it be nice” by the Beach Boys, but several of the other songs are simply pulled from other Fallout games and deprive Fallout 76 from having its own unique and varied Soundtrack. You do have a few other stations, but most of those are just lines of dialogue used to bait you to those areas. There are a few fun robot characters and the typical sounds you expect from a Fallout release, but nothing present here, apart from some of the acting via the holotapes, allows this version of Fallout to stand out from the rest.
Upon leaving the Vault during my intro to the game, I was actually surprised just how good Fallout 76 looked, at least when compared to my expectations of what I had imagined before release. While the game is anything but spectacular, I am still in favor of saying it is a good looking game while at times being very problematic when it comes to consistently working textures or the fact that sunlight will literally shine from the side of mountains. Given that West Virginia didn’t have nearly the same level of destruction that was present in the previous Fallout games, West Virginia is full of lush forests and a considerable amount of vegetation that is bright and colorful in ways we haven’t really seen in the series so far, at least to this degree. There is a considerable amount of green and red present here that is one of the only ways that Fallout 76 stands out from the typical post-apocalyptic genre.
Depending if you are playing on a decent PC rig or an Xbox One X or PS4 Pro, Fallout 76 does in many ways look better than Fallout 4, at least when viewed from up close. Textures, when they work, are certainly more sharp and detailed, but there is a soft effect to the depth of field that makes areas away from you not look nearly as crisp as what was present in Fallout 4. Overall, I would say that Fallout 76 is largely inconsistent in its visuals, but a far better-looking game than I had initially expected it to be. Given the sheer size of the map and that this is a shared online experience, I’m surprised the game even looks as good as it does.
That being said, I’ve had numerous technical problems that often plagued my experience with the game. I’ve had dozens of disconnects, quests disappearing, or objectives just flat-out not working. While I’ve not encountered nearly as many bugs as what I’ve seen reported online, certainly not anything that has stone-walled my progress that wasn’t able to be fixed by re-logging back in, it is no secret that Fallout 76 is severely bug-ridden. While bugs have jokingly been the norm for Bethesda titles, you have to wonder how much longer we can expect them to be part of their products. While I am sure that Fallout 76 will see numerous patches to fix certain things, the aging engine that this game runs on is really showing its flaws and it makes me very hesitant about the next Elder Scrolls, a game that will be built using this exact same engine. On the topic of Elder Scrolls, some of the same code used in Skyrim is found here as the Scorched Beasts are programmed using the exact same coding as Skyrim’s dragon’s, with even the word “dragon” being featured within this very code.
Fallout 76 is a title that both excites me as well as disappoints me at the same time. Exploring this massive area of West Virginia is extremely fun, despite how hollow it can feel with not a single living soul to encounter. I talked before about how every person you come across is another player and frankly, I’ve maybe come across a dozen or so in my travels. Had each instance been filled with hundreds of players rather than the 24 we currently have, then ok, I could see how this could work, but as it is, Fallout 76 feels largely empty no matter how many people you encounter. Fallout 76 does play like a Fallout game, but the framework around making it online makes those systems clash with what it wants to be. I can see what Bethesda wanted to do, but frankly, I think we are months, if not a year away, from seeing exactly what this title was truly meant to be.
Fallout 76 was purchased by the reviewer.
All Screenshots were taken on an Xbox One X.