Ambitious is a moniker that goes well with just about all of Bethesda’s games that have come out since the company’s inception in 1986. Ever since they stepped into the field of designing open world experiences, every new title has mostly been a marvel, fleshing out every player’s personal gameplay story in ways that few other developers ever dare to do with their releases. With that in mind, it makes it possible to imagine a reason as to why Fallout 76 was conceived in the first place — the first ever Fallout game to be online — even if everything else surrounding this game is positively baffling.
The concept for Fallout 76 sounds good on paper, and considering the beautifully surreal worlds that Bethesda has crafted in the past for Fallout 3 and 4, along with Obsidian’s fantastic rendition of a post-nuclear Las Vegas in Fallout: New Vegas, it’s easy to imagine the West Virginia countryside at the crest of the bombs going off being a fantastic setting for a new entry. Fallout 76 takes place mere years after the cataclysmic events that followed the war between the United States and the “reds”, as Vault 76, which premiered on 2076, 300 years after they gained their independence, became the very first of the series’ trademark end-of-the-world safe haven bunkers to open their doors, its occupants, who are claimed to be the USA’s brightest, tasked with rebuilding the country, with you among them, as you wake up from a hangover after the party leading to Reclamation Day.
At the outset, 76 plays a lot like Fallout 4. The interface is practically the same, and you’ll initially feel familiar with the controls and movement if you’ve had any experience playing that game before. It eases you into its mechanics as you explore the empty vault and are guided along to the exit by bots — something you’ll quickly grow accustomed to — picking up some equipment along the way. As you finally get out to the open world, it becomes apparent that things aren’t what they seem. You don’t run into any other humans, nor are you directly pointed to a clear objective that is meant to guide you through the story. That’s one of Fallout 76’s issues you’ll run into first: the sheer lack of direction. The first point you’re likely to discover as you step out of your vault is an abandoned campsite containing the first of many holotapes with an audiolog that introduces you to the initial “quest” line of a bread crumb trail. I put the word quest between quotations because it’s merely a matter of following waypoints and picking up the next tape, which pretty much boils down the first few hours you’ll spend playing this game.
Fallout 76 is a multiplayer game, so every time you’re playing, you’re theoretically playing with 23 other people that are connected to the same world server as you. The story conceit for there being so few folks walking around the world might be sound, sure, Vault 76 is only the first to be opened to the world, meaning that any other humans that you’re bound to run across are either dead or worse, mutated into irrational beings known as the Scorched, Ghoul-like creatures who still a morsel of intelligence, able to handle guns and tools, but somehow spinning that idea into the notion that the only survivors are the players themselves is one of my main beefs with this game.
The aforementioned “quest” that has you chasing holotapes around is supposedly started by your vault’s overseer, so at least she should be an NPC, but the payoff for chasing her is anything but finding her at all. Comically, even that line had me laughing once I finished it, considering that it broke at the second to last leg, as the sequence broke when I accidentally picked up one of the later tapes and was tasked with finishing it before doing one of the steps that came before it — and keep in mind that I still had the quest in my log well after finishing that last step, so I haven’t been able to clear it.
Other missions have you come in contact with the source of mysterious voices that broadcast over the air waves that your Pip Boy picks up, so unless you don’t tune out of the classic radio station playing “Country Road” and other catchy songs, you’re likely to miss them entirely. In case you do pick them up, you’ll hit that note I mentioned in the intro, the fact that you’d grow used to dealing with robots throughout the game, because, well, practically all NPCs in the game, the few of them that there are, are bots. Sassy, self-serious, incoherent, and even scaredy cats robots, all more than willing to point you towards fetch quests that are bound to lead you all around the deserted map.
Or not so deserted, as you’ll come to find out. In fact, I had one of my unintentionally funniest moments playing Fallout 76 discovering that for myself as I stepped into Morgantown’s capitol building, where one of the pickups happened to be inside, one of the overseer’s tapes. I thoroughly explored it, and after feeling safe enough to get my guard down, I must’ve hit the monster closet, because out of sheer nowhere an insanely large number of super mutants started to attack. I swear I killed around 20 of those things before they stopped storming through the door and I was able to keep poking around. That’s the kind of thing I’m not surprised to see in a Bethesda game, their infamous jank, but I had yet to run into anything like that in any of their previous releases. It’s something that I’m used to getting in an online game — in fact, it often happens in MMOs like World of WarCraft, where the world is constantly being repopulated with mobs so they’re there for players coming in to take out. I never expected to find so many enemies in a single place, out of nowhere, when playing a Fallout game. And that wasn’t the only instance of this happening, only it took place with mole people, and I’d rather not talk about them. They scare me.
I spoke before on how the idea of playing an online Fallout game seemed good, but it feels like Bethesda took it in the wrong direction with Fallout 76. The idea that I held for one of those would be a Fallout where quests are generated and added in the more and more I played it, how settlements could grow and thrive as they did before I came into the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, and most importantly, how huge the world can potentially be, even bigger than any single player experience. Fallout 76’s map has borders that you can physically throw yourself against. The interactions with other players during my time with the game boiled down to me running into the same extremely polite and nice Southern gentleman that happened to be doing the same quest as I was and could not for the life of him find the next quest item since it was not clearly marked — just like me — so we both emoted at each other and searched containers for about twenty minutes before we found anything. The second time I ran into another soul happened due to the same circumstances, and that was about it. You’ve probably read that PvP in this only takes place if both players attack each other, and that’s one aspect that potentially works as a plus for Fallout 76, considering how many potential ways to die that there are in this game.
Perishing doesn’t just come from losing all of your health points from fighting. You have to keep tabs on two separate hunger and thirst meters, which would be a fantastic survival additional aspect to Fallout 76 if it wasn’t so damn arbitrary and easy to break. Like past Fallouts, you can pick up perks and a variety of skills, some of which completely negate those concerns, along with bumping up or impeding others. The SPECIAL stat breakdown is another part of 76 with which I was initially impressed by, since it’s where every aspect of your character’s customization is tied to. Unless you have a certain number under a particular stat, you won’t be able to equip skill cards that you earn and win along the way, but that eventually bogs down progression and can easily lead you to a path that’s very difficult to get back from. For instance, if you’re like me and love to break into safes and hack terminals, it’ll be worth it to invest in intelligence since that’s where those skills link to, but say you eventually only win a really good card that requires a high strength number in order to activate. Unless you bump that number up, you can’t use those, and since you only earn one point per level up, you’ll be forced focus on that instead of playing your character the way you want to.
What’s worse, even if you do stick to a path that you like, it might not pay off in even the short run. In my case, it quickly became apparent that investing in those skills wasn’t really worth it because I never found anything worthwhile behind any of the doors that I hacked on inside any of the safes I lockpicked my way through. In fact, none of the exploration I’ve done in the game so far has felt consequential at all. Buildings are pretty much husks full of rows of Scorched zombies or other mutated bullet sponges to shoot through with no tangible reward at the end. Their layout don’t help matters either. It’s been years since I’ve played Fallout 4, but I quickly grew aware of just how some of Fallout 76’s structures are built EXACTLY like ones in that game, like a hospital with makeshift ramps and ladders that I found while exploring was put together the same way that another did back in Boston. Add to that the fact that a lot of the locations that you’ll come to you won’t be able to go into since they’re boarded up and inaccessible, it begs the question just how much there really is to “discover” in this game in the long run. I’m far from adding every single location to my map, but man, it feels like I already reached the end of its deck twelve hours in.
I haven’t even touched upon how weird it is to fight in a Fallout game that’s online dependent. Since Fallout 4, the shooting has been more FPS than it’s ever been, so in that regard, aiming and pulling the trigger feels okay, but considering that there’s a server response behind every bullet you shoot, the impact never quite has the hit. Enemies always take a moment too long to fall down, or worse, they shift around and don’t even react to hits at all, or even your presence sometimes. The VATS system, which in past Fallouts slowed down time and allowed you to aim for specific body parts obviously cannot work the same way in an online environment, so in Fallout 76, it’s merely a lock-on feature in real time; that is, positively useless unless you’re only facing a single opponent (read: almost never). The only time VATS came into play was the first time I came into contact with (I hate to bring those guys into the discussion again) the mole people, since it helped me find their weak spot by sheer coincidence, which led me to be able to dispose of them more quickly.
The building feature from Fallout 4 makes a return in 76, but its progression is halted by just how limited your initial set of options is. You’re forced to discover schematics for items you want to put together, and you guessed it, the only way to get those is buy exploring and finding them, or by trading with other players. You can even build your own base if you wish, but the few times that I did so myself, I found that the server failed to save its location, so every time I fast traveled to it, it was nowhere to be found. Later on, it eventually worked, or at least it did when I last played. Here’s hoping my bed will still be where I left it next time I boot the game up. Building was never the most exciting part of Fallout 4 for me, and I merely used it in that game in order to get the most serviceable structures up that would help me get the plot rolling along, so I don’t expect to be any different in 76, even more so since there’s so little of a narrative to follow in it.
Fallout 76’s world is beautiful in its own flavor of post-nuclear apocalyptic horrors that I simply can’t help but love, even if that’s something that’s already better served in the other Fallout games. I really want something that will keep bringing me back to it that it currently lacks, a reason that will help it stand out. Considering Bethesda’s long term support for their games post-release, I’m hopeful that Fallout 76 will get some much needed improvements and, well, actual substantial, worthwhile content that makes the hours I play well spent. I don’t want to completely write it off, but as it stands, it’s a game that’s hard to recommend even to die-hard Fallout fans.