After 20 hours spent in the West-Virginian wasteland of Fallout 76 via the now-concluded B.E.T.A. (I’ve been playing on Xbox One X, if you’re curious), I’ve been left with an overarching sense of curiosity. Mainly, I’m curious why Fallout 76 exists.
That’s not meant to be a criticism. With so many elements working together and against one another, I wonder why this is the next Fallout game that we’re playing, as opposed to one that leans harder into the traditional story-driven single-player experience or a full-fledged multiplayer survival game set in the Fallout universe. As it stands now, Fallout 76 is neither of those things – it’s stuck in some strange Appalachian limbo between two points.
Fallout 76 appears to be another very competent take on what we’ve come to expect from a Bethesda open world.
That’s not to say I think Fallout 76 is bad – I don’t. And this isn’t a review by any means, as I still have plenty of hours to log on post-launch servers. But so far, 76 appears to be another very competent take on those elements we’ve come to expect from a Bethesda open world.
There’s a huge, almost exhaustively open, open-world to explore. Every structure is loaded with containers to search and junk to pick up, turn over, and scrap to support the as-vast-as-ever crafting system. That pervasive atmosphere – the one that promises something incredibly cool could be in the middle of nowhere – is as thick in West Virginia as it was in DC and Boston. All those elements are in Fallout 76, and I’ve found myself – even now after playing for six hours straight – thinking about small shacks, concrete asylums, and seemingly haunted cabins that I didn’t get a chance to tear apart in search of secrets.
I have a particular soft spot for the sound design in Fallout 76. There’s a satisfying thud when you connect with a bullet, and firearms send sharp cracks echoing across the open world.
And West Virginia can be gorgeous. I’ve regularly gone back and forth between whether Fallout 76 graphically looks better or worse than Fallout 4, but the truth likely lies somewhere between. The art direction in Fallout 76 is great: the moody lighting and haze over a marsh can be super creepy, and streaks of sun filtering through autumnal branches in the forest is a beautiful scene. Despite that potential beauty, there are a small army of graphical issues – forgivable for now, since this is a beta – like textures loading late or not at all, a draw distance that causes whole elements to fade into existence when zooming through a scope, corpses that simply disappear right before your eyes, and more. Hopefully many of these issues will be addressed – I imagine many of them won’t be, but we’ll cross that bridge in the review.
I have a particular soft spot for the sound design in Fallout 76. There’s a satisfying thud when you connect with a bullet, and firearms send sharp cracks echoing across the open world. The directional thump of a super mutant lumbering somewhere above you, and the wheezing taunts of a Scorched in the next room both give you both information and aural color. Fallout 76 is a joy to listen to (but be cautious of drive-by screaming from other players with open mics and no shame.)
None for All, and All for None
But for everything I find that’s right with Fallout 76, there are a number of disjointed elements. First and foremost is the multiplayer. For the first time, a traditional-esque open-world Fallout game is accessible to multiple players occupying the same digital shard of the post-apocalypse at once. On paper, this seems like an easy win: a vault opens, the survivors pour into the unknown and hijinx ensues as they devolve into roaming bands of leather-chap-clad warriors, or band together to rebuild society that once was.
My frustration with the multiplayer is that those scenarios may very well be true. Perhaps by the time we reach level cap the ways to interact with one another will be more meaningful than the first 20 levels, but I don’t know for sure. What I can speak to is my experience with other players thus far, which usually boils down to watching another player run through a zone, or building, before going back to what I was doing.
Fallout 76 never really feels like a social experience. It’s quiet and interacting with other players are entirely optional.
In fact, other players in Fallout 76 appear to be the least impactful change made to the series, at least so far. The framework in place makes it clear Bethesda wants players to work together: You can share your perks with other members of your team, you can can freely fast travel across the map to someone in your group (rather than spending a few caps to teleport to a landmark you’ve discovered,) and there are public events that throw fleshy mountains of monsters at you or task you with escorting a robot from an army of ghouls that seemingly require multiple gun-toting survivors to complete.
In that same breath, Fallout 76 never really feels like a social experience. It’s quiet and interacting with other players are entirely optional. There’s no real centralized social space to interact in (once you leave the starting areas). Granted, there doesn’t need to be. The world is so vast and so dotted with places to access your stash, trade, restock, or sell items (including your mobile camp/workshop) that you’re as self-sufficient outside of town as you would be in one.
But the benefits of grouping together are mechanically middling, so I never found a dire need to band together with other players outside of companionship. In this way, Fallout 76 is very lonely social game. There’s a sense that in order appeal to the broadest set of player styles, Fallout 76 is a jack of all trades, but a master of none.
Even the meaningful aspect of fighting other players is relegated to the appropriate time and place.
Even the meaningful aspect of fighting other players is relegated to the appropriate time and place. You can attack other players, dealing absurdly reduced damage until they decide to fight back, at which point it’s game on… but you’re dependent on their approval for murder. I’m not a bloodthirsty kind of player, but I do want to have the option to kill someone without asking permission in a multiplayer game where a player-versus-player element A) exists, and B) is marketed like an engaging portion of the experience. So far – and maybe it comes into focus more at higher levels – I’ve discovered a public event that promotes PvP, and an opt-in hunter/hunted-style minimode. I’m sure there are more options out there, but as of now, the threat of player violence isn’t much of a threat at all.
The danger of getting killed by other players, or killing them, simply doesn’t exist in my experience. Currently, I’ve taken to trying to dive in front of players’ bullets like some kind of absolute moron in the hopes one clips me and I can finally empty both of my shotgun barrels into a fellow vault dweller. I’ve got some other ideas on how to game the system, but the fact that I need to concoct ridiculous plans to kill others shows that Fallout 76 is stretching to dip its toes in both the cooperative and competitive pools, without ever taking the plunge in one or the other.
I was ambushed by players who sliced at me while strafing in a small circle like a homicidal interpretive dance squad.
From a design perspective, I do understand that it works the way it works for a reason. Having well-equipped groups of absolute savages roaming the hills in search of fresh meat and easy pickings is a surefire way to turn players off of the Fallout 76 experience before they even get started. I laughed for ten full seconds before the novelty wore off, finished my looting of a derelict plane’s cockpit, and walked away. About halfway down the runway they must have got bored too, because the sounds of metal scraping against my skin stopped. I didn’t bother to turn around to look. It didn’t matter.
I can admit that had I been killed from behind by those knife-wielding pseudo-dancers while I searched for super glue and loose screws I’d probably be pretty pissed in the moment. But right now I’ve yet to find a way to opt into the prospect of real, post-apocalyptic wasteland-style danger from other players. Ideally, I’d love to see a checkbox as to whether you’d like to join a no-mercy server that removes the PvP buffer, or the current structure where fighting between players is systemically supervised.
My other main curiosity about Fallout 76 is the dilution of the story structure and delivery. Unlike past games with loads of characters, branching dialogue options, and quests to undertake, Fallout 76 is a mostly follow-the-trail-of-breadcrumbs experience. For some reason Bethesda has decided to remove the traditional non-player characters – maybe for technical reasons, maybe for simplicity – and instead has us interacting with robots, languishing AI constructs, and listening to holotapes to get the information for the next crumb in the trail.
Playing through the story makes me feel like I’m chasing ghosts. The beginning story arc is to follow a series of recorded messages from a number of dead characters, with the goal to being to either putting the finishing touches on whatever they were working on before their death, or just to find the next holotape. Occasionally there’s an AI machine that speaks at you, but these too are simply more elaborate voice recordings. The message I hear will be the message you hear will be the message someone else hears because there’s no option to interact, only receive.
Satisfaction of Fallout 76’s story comes from patching together bits of the lore of the world, rather than your exploits.
In this way, satisfaction of Fallout 76’s story comes from patching together bits of the lore of the world, rather than your exploits. It’s like watching a movie or reading a book. You’re interacting with an account of something that happened, rather than making it happen: the shadow of a story. My hope is those shadows become more interesting. As you uncover more information and branch out into the fringes of West Virginia, you start uncovering factions and more involved fragments of what happened here as The Great War swallowed America.
Now, this isn’t as detrimental as it might seem. Bethesda in general and the Fallout series specifically has excelled in its environmental storytelling, and that’s no different in Fallout 76. You’ll find a skeleton lying in bed clutching a mannequin (oh my), or a skeleton in the stairwell of a high school with cigarettes scattered around the body. These staged elements tell fun, small stories that always make me chuckle.
Because of Fallout 76’s past-tense nature, this environmental storytelling is as important as ever.
But because of Fallout 76’s past-tense nature, this environmental storytelling is as important as ever. There’s a unified theme of automation sweeping through West Virginia replacing a human workforce that I found referenced in a dozen or more places throughout the B.E.T.A. Memos to prison guards stating they’re being fired in favor of security droids effective immediately, picket signs demanding their creators’ jobs back, and AI constructs that speak to an efficiency and optimization beyond their human counterparts. These types of stories are alive in Fallout 76 without the need for characters to reveal them, and so far, they’re the most potent form of storytelling here.
Where Country Roads Lead Next?
Fallout 76 is a strange beast of a game. Its ambition and scope is admirable, but we’ll have to wait and see if Bethesda fleshes out the many elements all politely making room for one another as we move into higher levels and the endgame.
And despite my wariness of how Fallout 76 interacts with itself, I’m a little disappointed I can’t get back in right away and uncover more of it. Maybe Fallout 76 is one of those rare cases of a game being more than the sum of its parts. I certainly hope that’s the case. We’ll know more when the servers go back up on November 14, but until then, I’ve got a dulled optimism that Fallout 76 is more than a watered-down single-player experience with forced cooperative elements, and I’m looking forward to finding that proof somewhere in West Virginia.