Fallout 76 seemed promising in the beginning. Exploring the West Virginia wasteland after leaving the safe, secure Vault 76 in a persistent online world rife with creatures to defeat and a society to rebuild was a dream come true. The beta period was exciting as well, despite a bit of a buggy start, and it looked like Bethesda had another hit on its hands.
And then the full game debuted. I've had the chance to play hours and hours of the latest entry in the Fallout series, and I've realized one very important thing: I really miss the old Fallout. The future of the franchise, at least as far as the "traditional" Fallout games as we know them, should not have taken place online.
Fallout 76 is Bethesda’s first foray into the world of online multiplayer with the series. It's you against the wasteland, armed with only your wit and knowledge (and what you scavenge here and there) to keep you alive when you go up against monsters, nuclear warheads, and the bleakness of existence after most of humanity's demise. There aren't any NPCs to hand out quests or offer flavor for each mission you embark on. There are, however, other people.
Everyone in the game is another living, breathing person. But they're not there to help you. They can, but they probably won't. Because of this, you've got to take care of yourself. And you do this by carrying food, water, supplies, medicine, and whatever it is you need to keep yourself alive. You could contract some sort of nasty disease by sleeping on a dirty mattress, run out of food during a pivotal time in the game, and you'll have to nip all this in the bud quickly if you want to make any sort of progress. It's a solitary existence and a challenging one that many players will undoubtedly find quite tedious.
All the while, the game will occasionally mete out new snippets of story by way of having you stumble upon old messages, items, and holotapes you can listen to while looking around. It pieces together a narrative not unlike what you would have unraveled in a regular Fallout game, albeit at a much slower and less satisfying pace. Sometimes reading the terminals strewn around the world is intriguing, and the idea that anyone around you could be your nemesis is one that's important when it comes to driving self-preservation. But ultimately there's no real drive that pushes you to continue forward.
Instead, you begin relying on patterns to propel you through the game after you decide that you're going to stay and stick it out, even if you're not having fun. If you're going to stay alive (and not go crazy) you learn to put together something of a cycle: Loot, loot, and then loot again. Kill some monsters. Then go somewhere else. Repeat the process ad infinitum until you're tired of playing, and that's Fallout 76 in a nutshell.
With such a focus on looting and grabbing items, it's bizarre that Bethesda would place a limit on how much you can carry. You can only lug around 400 lbs of items unless you want to become over-encumbered. Too often you're forced to decide whether you really want to ditch heavy weaponry just so you can be sure you've got the room for the rest of the things you pick up along the way. For a game where much of the entertainment stems from finding cool stuff, this mechanic ups the frustration factor considerably.
Luckily, some of the less savory bits of Fallout 76 are tempered by the fun bits that come along with building your own base and popping up your own part of the wasteland amidst all the chaos. This is the only moment it truly feels as though you're leaving any real sort of mark on the world, weirdly enough, and it still never really seems legitimately yours. Unfortunately, the building controls are a bit frustrating to deal with, and your camp never quite looks the way you really want it to. And if someone builds too close to you or vice versa? You can kiss it all goodbye.
Of course, you need your own camp to take shelter in after dealing with the various nasties of the wasteland. Whether it's a humanoid mutant or one of the various creepazoids prowling around, you'll be fighting off a fair number of enemies as you go from point A to point B and back again. Tangling with the occasional higher-level monsters roaming the countryside is fun the first few times, but it quickly becomes a slog when you realize that’s about as good as it’s going to get. Nuclear bombs dropped on certain parts of the map (a process that's long and involved that you'll probably never want to borrow with) will create areas with higher radiation levels that will spawn more powerful monsters and those are occasionally thrilling, but the enjoyment is ultimately hollow with no real narrative to push along to mark fights where you emerge victorious.
Then, there are the aforementioned people – the other players you'll contend with (if you ever see any.) Typically, other people are the reason I usually prefer playing single-player games. I don’t like to depend on others for help or play on teams in shooters or in parties — too many players make it such a frustrating affair, whether they’re goofing off or comprised of kids who commandeered Mom or Dad’s headset. I knew going into the game this would be the case,
With a limited number of players per server (24 to be exact), the map feels empty and deserted. Without characters to interact with like a single-player Fallout, it feels like you’re exploring a ghost town that was never meant for human interaction. It’s a double-edged sword, because I don’t particularly want to play with other people either, but you rarely see them while exploring.
If you do find anyone while wandering around, you’ll surely hear them, too, as I often did, listening to mic chatter from players streaming the game and not bothering to mute themselves while speaking nonsense to their viewers. I heard players who weren’t even relatively close to me quite often, which lead me to make the decision to simply mute everyone around me with a mic. It’s pretty immersion-breaking to hear that trademark “Heywhat’supyouguys” of YouTube and streamer infamy while beating down irradiated mutants.
For much of your time in Fallout 76, instead of feeling as though you're really accomplishing anything, the constant feeling of exploring and finding something new that no one's ever seen before (at least that's what it seems like sometimes) begins to wane. Something about the game feels rather lonely, as though you're an observer wandering around the world like a ghost.
My initial impressions of the game were positive, though I only had a modicum of time to try it out. After having spent quite a bit more time in the wasteland, I’m not nearly as enthused, though I truly want to be. Unfortunately, right now there are too many factors that weigh the experience down dramatically to the point where it's difficult to recommend the game now that it's out of beta. If anything, it seems as though it's deteriorated since then.
It feels much like a classic Fallout game at its best, but at worst it's a reminder that you could be playing a much better game from Bethesda's catalog. I would suggest playing it in short bursts, as that's how I first experienced it, if you're looking to pass some time in between playing something else – possibly Red Dead Redemption 2's Red Dead Online mode, which has already trumped Fallout 76 in many significant ways.
While there are updates coming down the line for this ambitious yet disappointing adventure, it's going to take a fair amount of doing to improve it enough to recommend it over sitting down with one of the previous Fallout titles, whether you start at the original or split off into Fallout: New Vegas. In its current state, investing dozens of hours isn't the best idea – though if you want to traipse about in the apocalyptic wasteland of Appalachia, it certainly serves that purpose well.
Fallout 76 is currently available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.