Fallout 76 Review: Not a Bomb, but a Misstep

Fallout 76 isn't quite Bethesda's biggest bomb, but it is the weakest entry in the post-apocalyptic series. Our review...

Release Date: November 14, 2018Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: Bethesda Game StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksGenre: Online RPG

It’s easy to understand the motivation behind the creation of Fallout 76, a multiplayer offshoot of one of the most wildly popular franchises in video games. Allowing players to trounce around a bombed-out West Virginia wasteland with their friends seems like a no-brainer on paper. Unfortunately, Bethesda is infamous for flubbing the execution of its open-world titles, which are invariably released to the public riddled with bugs and irritating (if not game-breaking) gameplay imbalances that mar the experience. These issues are almost always largely forgiven by players as the essence of the Fallout formula is just too good to dismiss completely. Yet, the studio’s tendency to release shaggy products is unfortunately exacerbated by Fallout 76’s sheer scope and complexity. This is a frustratingly buggy game, and with many of the franchise’s greatest virtues nixed from this online iteration, there sadly isn’t enough good on offer to outweigh the bad.

Before jumping into Fallout 76’s strengths and weaknesses, there’s a conceptual misstep that must be addressed, one that is perhaps the root cause of the game’s general feeling of wonkiness. At Bethesda’s E3 press conference this past June, the studio’s executive producer, Todd Howard, revealed the game and said that the studio had always wanted to tell the story of the first “characters” to leave the vaults but that there was one big difference with Fallout 76. “Each of those characters is a real person,” he said as he addressed the hundreds of Fallout faithful.

Further Reading: Fallout 3 Is Bethesda’s Scariest RPG

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This was a puzzling proposition. One of the best things about Fallout games is the sense of exploration and world-building, discovering not just new locations but new characters to interact and develop relationships with. Almost every wastelander you meet harbors a sordid history or some bizarre life issue for you to take care of (even if these NPCs don’t have a quest attached to them, that personal history feels baked into their dialogue). This is one of the great joys of the franchise. Despite the desolation and hopelessness of the post-apocalyptic milieu, these stories, delivered via the colorfully written NPCs, breathe life into an otherwise bleak, lonesome experience.

Bethesda’s decision to demolish this key pillar of narrative and gameplay and put in its place a rickety online multiplayer component was a mistake. Human players will never provide the same narrative substance of written NPCs, and while multiplayer can be a lot of fun in certain contexts, eliminating NPCs makes the game feel empty, soulless, and disposable in the larger context of the franchise’s legacy.

Execution is absolutely an issue here. Yes, the game is buggy, and yes, the online experience isn’t nearly as seamless as it should be. But the real issue is that the idea to rid Fallout of NPCs is ill-conceived. Even if the multiplayer component worked perfectly, there’s no way to take NPCs — the franchise’s primary storytelling device — out of the equation without the game feeling like a heartless shell of its former self. Uncovering the game’s lore via holotapes, computer documents, and handwritten notes simply isn’t as engaging as speaking to and interacting with other characters.

Further Reading: Fallout Lore Changes Explained by Bethesda

There are times when, without a doubt, wandering the wasteland with a pack of friends is a blast. You can easily spend hours exploring, tackling daily events, trading supplies and weapons, sharing custom-built bases (more on that later), and simply jabbering away with human companions and never run out of things to do. Discovering new locations by marching toward hollow icons on the in-game compass has always been one of the great joys of Fallout, and sharing that discovery with friends is a genuine thrill. Plus, each player can search corpses and containers separately, which means high body counts racked up by large groups result in plenty of loot to go around for everyone.

Grouping up is the best way to play, and while the lack of NPCs and a litany of other issues make Fallout 76 the weakest game in the series, there’s still fun to be had here, especially if you link up with like-minded friends. Most of the random player encounters you experience will amount to little more than a shaky, short-term alliance in which very little of consequence is gained loot-wise or fun-wise. But if you find people to play with who embrace a true role-playing approach, it makes the game exponentially more enjoyable. One player I linked up with was a gun-crazy pharmacist of sorts, who specialized in trading stimpaks, buffouts, Radaways, and the like to support their proclivity for rare and weapons, armor, and mods. After looting a bitchin’ drifter outfit in an abandoned house, I felt compelled to adopt a nomadic playstyle, setting up camp in an area, spending a few in-game days raiding and looting whatever I could find, and then packing up and finding a new town, dungeon, or irradiated farmland to plunder. My doctor friend joined me on my journey and our respective roles gelled quite well: they’d keep me stocked up on life-saving drugs, and I’d help them find rare armor and artillery.

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This kind of simpatico interaction is encouraged too strongly throughout the game, as PvE encounters are crippled by limitations. You can only deal minimal damage to others unless they choose to return fire, and even then, combat feels woefully imbalanced. Melee-based players with a strong V.A.T.S. ability seem to almost always dominate the field, for example, and the hit boxes and responsiveness of the controls feel fidgety and loose. The worst part of bumping into players of the griefer variety, who have more of an interest in being trolls than immersing themselves in post-apocalyptic West Virginia, is that the real-world trash talk can often break immersion in the game world. This is a matter of preference, of course, but immersion has always been one of the strengths of the series, and to break that immersion can feel distracting in the worst way.

Further Reading: Revisiting the Original Fallout Game

Despite this fatal flaw, let’s not forget that Bethesda is a tremendously talented studio and that many of the things that make Fallout great remain intact in 76. When you exit Vault 76 and stumble into the blinding sunlight for the first time and begin to wander along, you’ll find that, like its predecessors, the game has the ability to feed mercilessly on your compulsions, constantly presenting new avenues of progress, common-to-rare items, and new bits of lore to uncover via holotapes and notes. The loot-based, level-building mechanics remain the game’s greatest strength, so while the game’s anemic, hollow narrative fails to engage in the way past titles’ have, the traditional RPG elements help to buoy the experience.

In fact, weapon, armor, ammo, and food crafting feel better and more robust than ever. From classic pipe guns, to laser rifles, to outlandish melee weapons (my favorite was a deadly guitar sword), each piece of your arsenal can be modded to your heart’s content with myriad upgrades. Cooking is more flexible this time around as well, and instead of leveling up to “learn” new recipes, you’ll find them scattered about the wasteland (you can also buy them from merchant bots or trade with other players).

Scrapping items is as crucial—you’ll sometimes find yourself one or two components shy of crafting some awesome piece of armor, and recycling some nearby junk will often yield the missing pieces. Item scarcity plays into the survival aspect of the gameplay, which adds an element of immersion to the game and never feels like a chore. You’re forced to constantly keep yourself nourished with food and drink, which can often be the key to managing an overstuffed inventory. Overall, the looting and crafting feel well balanced.

Further Reading: Why Interplay’s Fallout 3 Didn’t Happen

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Combat, on the other hand, is a bit of a mess. The time-stopping V.A.T.S. we know and love is understandably nonexistent in this multiplayer-based affair, and in its place is an almost useless mechanic that’s best used as a way to target small or hard-to-see targets when entering new areas. Third-person combat is incredibly clunky, and while first-person play fares better, the game’s perpetually herky-jerky framerate makes combat feel infuriatingly imprecise at times (V.A.T.S. helped alleviate this in previous titles, but alas…).

Unlike V.A.T.S., the Perk system is overhauled this time around for the better. The traditional SPECIAL (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck) format is still in place, but now modifiers are applied to your character via a sort of trading card system, in which you’re given random packs of perk cards when you level up. Some cards make you more resistant to radiation, some make medical items weigh less, and some cause enemies to explode into bloody bits when defeated. There are countless ways to customize your character to fit your playstyle. You can stack duplicate cards to increase their effects, and each card can only be applied to one of the SPECIAL subsets. The coolest aspect of the new system is that you can trade cards with other players, yet another way Bethesda has incentivized group play.

Another excellent idea Bethesda has integrated quite well is the expanded building system, which sees players outfitted with a portable camp that they can set up and tear down almost anywhere in the game world, as opposed to the specific build sites offered in Fallout 4. The actual building mechanics can still be frustrating when trying to build on top of jagged pieces of terrain, but the ability to move your camp around and even show off your custom abode to friends makes building a much more gratifying feature this time around.

Further Reading: Why Fallout Shelter Is the Darkest Mobile Game Ever

While the absence of NPCs is crippling to the game’s storytelling, Bethesda nevertheless proves once again to be adept environmental storytellers, with dozens of bizarre, ruined locations populating the enormous game map, each with a history baked in. Sometimes you’ll find notes or holotapes, but on most occasions, the environments tell intriguing stories on their own. A towering, crashed space station called Valiant offers little narrative in a concrete sense, but the way in which its shell is half plunged into the earth, ghouls aimlessly roaming the gutted innards, hints at a catastrophe with darker underpinnings than one might first infer. When you find a spacesuit and helmet inside one of the airlocks, putting it on may feel somewhat macabre when you consider the skeletons of the space station’s crew strewn about the crash site. If this kind of subtle storytelling sends chills down your spine, know that the game has no shortage of these haunting, experiential tales just waiting to be discovered.

It won’t come as a surprise to anybody that Fallout 76’s presentation is a bubbling jambalaya of every common open-world glitch you’ve ever seen and then some. Heads and limbs will expand and shrink randomly, vanished data will block your progress on main quests (“How am I supposed to fix this vending machine when I can’t even interact with it?”), and, of course, the game sometimes crashes, the most frustrating and unforgivable glitch of all. Textures load at alarmingly slow rates, as do post-processing effects, and animation is as stiff as ever.

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Glitches and goofs aside, the game looks…okay. In certain respects, it’s better looking than its predecessors, particularly when it comes to enemy design. Some of the creatures prowling the wasteland, munching on hapless neo-West Virginians, are fantastically imaginative, from the plodding, muscly Grafton Monster, to the insectoid nightmare Honey Beast. In fact, one of the most compelling reasons to continue playing Fallout 76 in spite of all its shortcomings is to see all of the awesome beasts Bethesda has churned out of their monster factory.

Further Reading: Bethesda Details Fallout 76 Updates

What Fallout 76 lacks, though, is a sense of artistic cohesion, something Fallout: New Vegas struggled with as well. While much of the environmental and character designs are, frankly, eye-popping, there isn’t an overarching aesthetic vision tying the visuals together. The landscapes are varied and more colorful than ever before, which is nice in a way, but the presentation simply doesn’t feel as grounded and polished as Fallout 4’s.

Progression/loot-based games can be a lot of fun despite their repetitiveness. Joining up with a group of players to fight off hordes of enemies to find launch codes for a nuke, giving you access to the game’s ultimate high of highs, is an arduous process that maybe isn’t quite worth it in the end (the explosion sure looks spectacular, but beyond that, the rewards are light). But as the cliche goes, sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination. The hamster wheel that is Fallout 76’s primary gameplay loop — kill enemies, loot items, craft better items, kill stronger enemies, loot even better items, etc. — isn’t for everyone, but some, like yours truly, will find themselves being a relatively happy hamster.

There are a lot of terrific ideas bouncing around Fallout 76, but they’re all mired by a grand irony that hovers over the game like a dark mushroom cloud: Bethesda meant to make a bustling, social, multiplayer version of Fallout but instead created the loneliest entry of them all. Sure, the companionship of real-life players has its appeal and makes for some solid fun, but the game feels devoid of life because none of the characters you encounter belong to the game world — they belong to ours. This dissonance zaps Fallout of its charm, which results in an intrinsically confused game that can’t measure up to the legacy of its predecessors.

Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.

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3 out of 5