To say that a Fallout game is barren, demoralising, and largely free of life is usually to its credit. After all, part of the ‘appeal’ that comes from stepping into a post-apocalyptic world so bleak is the promise between developer Bethesda and its player base, that they can be its one glimmer of hope. Previous entries have delivered on this promise by setting you on a journey in search of your father, son, or in the case of fan-favourite spin-off Fallout New Vegas, revenge. Fallout 76 strips away all this purposeful appeal, instead pitching itself as a multiplayer-focused prequel. The result is a misjudged MMO that forces you to find your own fun – a hard task given myriad technical glitches.
Red flags that the technical performance of Fallout 76 wasn’t quite up to scratch were raised early, when Bethesda itself prepped beta players to expect numerous bugs. “We need your help finding them, and advice on what’s important to fix,” read the studio’s elaborate Twitter post. “We’ll address all of it, now and after launch.” We don’t doubt this was meant in earnest. But even now, roughly a week after release, it’s all too clear that Fallout 76 simply isn’t in a completed state.
Issues arise almost immediately after the game’s opening cutscene. As with most Fallout titles, the story begins with your player-created character awakening from the confines of a comfy vault – this time home to America’s best and brightest minds. Only in Fallout 76 there are plenty more walls and objects to clip through and get stuck in than before. 15 minutes into our playthrough, and the simple act of exploration had us caught within an alcove that proved impossible to get out of. We were forced to restart our console and see if a second attempt fared better. Not the best first impression.
Getting into the meat of Fallout 76 proper, and the post-apocalyptic depiction of Appalachia, West Virginia set roughly 25 years after the bombs fell is quite stunning at times. Areas of the map are luscious and varied, with the beauty of seeing the light pass through the trees hauntingly contrasted with the dilapidated buildings that surround. Much of your time spent exploring and completing objectives involves combing through said areas for resources, feeding into this iteration’s larger emphasis on survival.
Staying alive in Fallout 76 is, naturally, all about preventing your thirst and hunger levels rising. This means constantly drinking, eating, and not just doing that, but ensuring that everything you do consume is clean and free of radiation. As such, what were previously mechanics used to keep your health up in prior games is now a constant ticking clock that only serves to annoy for the most part. Thankfully, the game’s base camp system is a nice addition. It’s here where you get to dig deep into the nitty gritty of surviving, setting up shop wherever suits before purifying water via boiling and cooking healthy meat.
As you’d expect, the switch to multiplayer means that the story takes a back seat, sensibly to encourage you to party up with other players and complete objectives interspersed throughout the map. Most of these take the form of standard, multi-part missions designed to reveal more about this place and time, but it’s really Fallout 76’s randomly generated public events that are ripe for tackling with friends and/or strangers. These range from something as simple as escorting an AI bot across the map as it unlocks safe rooms full of useful goodies, to taking down an infected horde of mutated enemies known as scorchers. All of which would be fun, were it not for the constant framerate dips and clipping, coupled with the game’s clunky ranged and melee combat.
This is because Fallout’s love-it-or-hate-it VATs system – where players slow down time and target specific body parts of enemies, before assessing the percentage chance of a hit – has been replaced with a dumbed-down version. Fallout 76 still allows you to gauge the likelihood of you damaging enemies where intended, but it all must be considered in real-time due to the game now being an online space shared with other players. In this manner, Bethesda’s ambition to make Fallout 76 primarily an MMO hinders the pure thrill of landing a perfect shot between a mutant’s eyes.
Customising your character is at least stronger than ever – both in terms of physical attire and skill attributes. The more objectives you complete and the more enemies you kill, the faster you will rank up. Every time you do level up, however, Fallout 76’s revised SPECIAL system allows you to place points in one of seven categories: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck; each one geared towards a particular style of play. Want to get the most resources out of a safe? Boost your intelligence. Want to run farther for longer? Skill up your agility. You get the idea!
Whereas this extra layer of customisation was an appreciated touch in past Fallout games, the added survival elements now mean that a lot of your time is spent in menus micro-managing stats. Rather than present you with an interesting world for you to run around in and enjoy amongst other like-minded survivors, Fallout 76 too often descends into tedious bouts of frustrating micro-management – leaving just the general act of playing feel like busywork. And broken busywork at that.
Fallout 76 is an odd MMO in that it proves challenging to work out who it’s actually for. If you want an interesting story, you won’t find it. If you want a fun co-op experience with friends, there are more suitable choices. Its nature as an online, ‘living’ game does mean that it has a chance at salvation by way of future updates, but that does little to help satisfy those seeking a stable Fallout right here, right now. The franchise mantra famously states that “war never changes”, but we can only hope that Fallout 76 as it stands eventually will.
Fallout 76 is available now for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.