In the early hours of playing Fallout 76, I was living my best post-apocalyptic fantasy – scrounging through the basement of a dilapidated building, listening to the last will and testament of a long dead countryman, and blowing the head off feral ghouls with my custom-made shotgun.
Then the server skips… and the feral ghoul starts jumping frames around the room, looting boxes suddenly show nothing but a loading icon, and my holotape finishes and begins to rattle of white noise despite my repeated attempts to restart the radio station.
As the hours wore on, this balance between fantasy and flaws only grew worse. The deeper I got, the more its defects started to show. What first looked like jagged edges, turned out to be rust - a deeply ingrained corruption that slowly eats away at what could have been a fantastic Fallout experience. The real tragedy of 76, is that beneath the layers of tacked on multiplayer functionality and all the adjustments that had to be made for it, there is a brilliant single player Fallout game.
Take for example the setting of West Virginia 25 years after the bombs dropped. Both as a location and a time period, this setting offers an exciting and refreshing new lens through which to explore the Fallout universe. Visually, West Virginia is a gorgeous location – full of deep valleys bright with the oranges and golds of its sweeping forests. Then you cross the mountain to the east and see how the radiation from DC is slowly creeping across the countryside, turning the scenery into lifeless sludge as it does so. It is interesting to consider how the world of Fallout changed overtime when all we have experienced of it is the brown and dusty end-result of centuries of fallout on the landscape.
Similarly, it is exciting to consider how society had changed so shortly after the bombs have dropped. 25 years after, the world is still full of survivors of the initial detonations and there is now a first generation of young people who have never known anything but this dying world.
Well, at least that is what there was in the Appalachian countryside until shortly before you begin your adventure. Unfortunately, a new threat has destroyed all humanity in the region, leaving only the decomposing bodies of these survivors and their notes and holotapes with which you can piece together their stories.
At first, this is kind of fascinating. You get to the first township and find their bodies strewn among what is clearly a community trying to rebuild. Strewn among the township are testimonials in which these people document their lives. As a single location, it is an interesting piece of explorative storytelling - making you feel like an anthropologist as you piece together the personalities, challenges and successes of this town. If you imagine it as a single town in the map of Fallout 3 or 4, it would have been a very cool experience.
But, it’s not just this one township. Rather, the entire map – the biggest Fallout map Bethesda has made – is utterly devoid of humanity. The main storyline explores the reasons for this, and there are noninteractive AI NPC’s around the map, but these are clearly smokescreens to cover just how strange a decision it was to not include interactive NPC’s as part of this game.
With many of Fallout 76’s flaws it is possible that Bethesda could release updates which will fix or begin to improve them – but, the decision to not include interactive NPC’s is ultimately the most inherent and irredeemable mistake of the game’s design. Almost every element of the game suffers without interactive NPC’s – quests lack purpose and stakes, exploration lacks surprise and, most upsettingly, the game lacks any sense of roleplaying beyond character creation. I would love to know what Bethesda’s reasons were for not including such an undeniably pivotal aspect of any roleplaying game – but, regardless of their reasons, the effect is that Fallout 76 is, and always will be, an incredibly flawed game.
Underlying this is the normal array of bugs and glitches we have come to expect from Bethesda games. Though annoying, I can forgive those more easily than I can the network issues. Every couple of hours, the game will unceremoniously disconnect from the server or shut down completely. Worst of all, however, is the delay you often experience when engaging enemies or looting – with loading wheels as loot is generated or enemies stuttering as the server loads them in. And, for what? For the multiplayer, of course. Several times in my fifty hours with the game I tried grouping up with friends or strangers to experience this multiplayer, for which my favorite franchise had been bastardised. Not once did I manage to play with others for more than 30 minutes before growing so frustrated that I had to bail. I don’t say lightly, that the inclusion of multiplayer has added nothing and takes away almost everything.
Ultimately, multiplayer runs in opposition to the greatest elements of the Fallout games. Do you like to explore and take in the narrative of environments? Impossible to do with friends in your ear and pushing the pace quickly along. Do you like to take in a rich roleplaying narrative? Doesn’t exist because of the multiplayer. Do you like the strategic combat? Well, VATS is nerfed, and the servers can barely handle you and the enemy, let alone a group of players simultaneously grappling with a group of enemies.
Eventually, I decided to just ignore multiplayer altogether while exploring the world - with the understanding that eventually I would encounter dungeons or raids that would require multiplayer. 50 hours in, I still haven’t encountered anything of the sort, or even know if they exist. The only thing Bethesda have mentioned is the nuclear blast zone as a high-level area which would require you to team up. If that is the only reason that Bethesda found to justify the inclusion of multiplayer, then they shot themselves in the foot for absolutely no reason – because, I cannot find a single justification for multiplayer in this game. I have only found hundreds of reasons it doesn’t belong. For example, do you remember the pleasure I described earlier with exploring the township and piecing together their stories? Well, that was routinely ruined by other player’s avatars moronically jumping past, while blasting peaking music through their proximity chat – until, I had the good sense to shut that shit off forever.
Early on, I decided to avoid other players as much as possible and try and sink into the fantasy of Fallout 76 as a lonely, survival experience. In that, I actually had a really good time – for a while. If played this way, the game is essentially a loot-grind. 76 has taken the weapon and armor crafting systems of Fallout 4 and beefed them out considerably. Perhaps the smartest design choice in this game is how it rolls out upgrades. To discover mods in 76 you either need to find recipes, or break-down weapons in order to use them – meaning, you need to grind enemies for their weapon drops in order to continue to upgrade your weapons. Essentially, they have used the same loot-grind system that makes other persistent experiences like Diablo or Destiny so engaging and incorporated it into Fallout.
For dozens of hours, I was really enjoying the loop of this - venturing out into the world and grinding for weapons and junk, all the while discovering the small narratives on notes, computers and holo-tapes tucked in buildings around the map. Then, the multiplayer functionality of the game pulled the rug out from under me once again when I discovered that there is a storage limit at your camp. Due to the server load of storing items, you are only able to store up to 400kg of items at your camp – which massively undermines your ability to collect everything you need to sustain the loop of loot grinding.
As egregious as many of these flaws are, none strike at my heart as much as the loss of the Fallout quirkiness. Though the game brings with it many of the staples of Fallout – old-timey tunes of the radio, irradiated beasties and off-the-fritz AI – this instalment, and to a degree Fallout 4 as well, is losing touch of the larger than life characters, scenarios and oddball aspects of this universe. Think back to Fallout 3, with Vault 108 filled with Gary clones or the epic battle between the AntAgonizer and the Mechanist – Fallout 76 is devoid of this kind of quirk or character.
Which is tragic! Fallout is easily my favorite franchise namely because I am in love with this stylized and quirky take on the apocalypse. It’s upsetting to see the franchise skewing like this. Even more so because in this instance it seems to be due to Bethesda chasing the most lucrative business model – after all, the game includes a store in which you can buy cosmetic upgrades with real money. If the Fallout trajectory continues as it is – I shudder to think what Fallout 5 will look like.
Note from the Editor: We're doing something a little different for Fallout 76. We'll publish Reviews from both Baz and Chris to make sure we cover as much as possible and see how different of an experience two players may have with the game. Stay tuned for Chris's verdict later!