There used to be two distinct camps of Fallout gamers. There were fans of the original games on PC made by Interplay, and fans of Bethesda’s first-person reboot following the purchase of the IP. If you plot these groups on a venn diagram, Fallout: New Vegas sits right in the middle: made by the original developers on Bethesda’s tech. With Fallout 76,Bethesda aims to capture a third camp–fans of multiplayer games. Fallout 76 lays some serious groundwork for greatness, but as of now, it’s no where near that quality experience.
I should preface the rest of this article with a couple things: I’m playing on three different computers, none of which meet the minimum requirements for the game. All three do meet the minimum hardware requirements of Fallout 4, which you can tell Fallout 76 was built upon. I have not run into the game breaking glitches that are plaguing other players, as reported on various social media sites. The only issues I have sometimes is a botched connection to servers on my laptop, which can be attributed to shoddy wi-fi and dropping connections. Other than that, I have run into virtually no game breaking bugs or horrible crashes. From what I have read the console versions are far less stable than the PC version. Based on what I have read online in various forums, I am incredibly lucky in regards to software stability and having the game actually run.
Despite my luck in dodging bugs and crashes, Fallout 76 feels incomplete… and even that’s sugar coating it. Bethesda pitched a grand vision for this game at E3 that had me intrigued and curious more than anything. Of course I was going to play it, but the final product doesn’t come close to resembling what Bethesda promised.
The biggest claim Bethesda made was that there would be no human NPCs in the world. Bethesda delivered this exact experience, but in turn made the world feel less alive. I understand this is supposed to be post-apocalypse, but it feels very empty and desolate compared to the charm and tongue-in-cheek humor the series was built on. Making matters worse, sometimes I come across a band of super mutants standing over a corpse labeled “Wandering Merchant”, so this world should be populated, but the game is actively working against that ideal. It feels incredibly inconsistent.
One thing that makes other MMO’s stand out is when developers introduce larger than life threats and characters. It helps drive the player base into a story. These enemies are classic archtypes that gamers want to defeat like Arthas, Emperor Arcann and Molag Bal. This also gives players characters to aspire to, like your Thrall’s and Satele Shan’s. Fallout 76 has none of this, and that is sadly by design. There is no righteous paladin from the Brotherhood of Steel to follow and no members of Ceaser’s Legion to fight against. Bethesda wants players to craft their own stories and be their own heroes, but all of that is shattered and destroyed as soon as you end your gaming session.
Fallout 76 takes place in instances of West Virginia. Every time you load up the game, you are dropped into a sprawling gorgeously rendered, death filled version of the state. It brings a lot of character to the environment that feels haunting and ripe with possibility, but sadly those feelings are all short lived. When you log in, you are randomly placed into a version of West Virginia that has an open spot for a player and since you’re hoping from session to session, nothing is permanent at all. That outpost you took and defended against a horde of Mirelurks? Void and empty as soon as you log out. There is no way for players to effect the world, and if Bethesda wants players to craft their own stories there needs to be consequences and a baseline people can affect. If you set up a giant base surrounded by turrets to defend against another group of players that killed you, you can certainly do so. But if they don’t want to deal with your huge base of retaliation, all they have to do is click through a couple of menus to be in a different version of West Virginia where you, and your Fortress of Solitude, aren’t there.
This makes grouping up with friends a pain too. If you want to join a friend, but their instance is at player capacity, you are stuck at a menu screen with little to indicate why you can’t join your friend. For being a multiplayer game, joining your friends is a pain, requiring jumping through additional hoops like an independent friends list and potentially large level disabilities. Luckily, once you do get grouped up, the grouped experience is exhilarating. Working together to fight Deathclaws is electric and unlike anything else I have experienced online or otherwise, especially with the amount of variables each player has at their disposal. It is even more magical when you are not in a group and another player comes over the hill to save the day.
There have already been multiple squabbles on the internet about a few things related to Fallout 76 that aren’t directly about the game itself, and a few that are game related. First off, Bethesda’s first patch on December 4th had a large number of balance changes that were not included in the patch notes, despite Bethesda promising transparency. Second off, players that purchased a special edition were given nylon carrying bags instead of the advertised canvas carrying bags. Bethesda is offering to ship out actual canvas bags following a gross misstep of offering around $5 worth of virtual currency for the in-game store, which was less than what an in-game canvas bag is worth. Furthermore, anyone who put in a request for a canvas bag had their personal information, including names and addresses, exposed through a flawed customer ticketing system.
Bethesda promises things will get better moving forward, but it feels like the developer is constantly talking down to players and not talking with them. Time will tell if Bethesda can course correct.
The new leveling system still has all of the trademark Fallout schtick built in. Every level you gain a new point to put into your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, and with it a new perk card. Perk cards can be swapped out at any time, and every few levels or so you will gain a perk pack with four or more cards. These perks can be anything from bonus damage with automatic weapons, or reduced carrying capacity for food items. With so many perks, you can really customize your character the way you want to play, and that is a refreshing take for a multiplayer RPG than following a strict, number-crunched and optimized skill tree.
With the lack of story, exploring the world can feel like a bit of an afterthought, with most play sessions boiling down to “There is an unexplored icon on my compass, let’s head that way!”. This leads to a world that is incredibly sprawling filled with multiple players, but comes across incredibly empty. With no funnel to lead players into the same spots, everyone is kind of left to their own devices, which spreads players far and wide across a gargantuan map.
As far as actual gameplay goes, Fallout 76 delivers. The improvements to the VATS system in a realtime environment takes a while to get used to, and I do miss the cinematic killshots that track the bullet, but it works incredibly well. Item management gets a bit cumbersome, especially when you have to change weapons in the heat of battle, but once you start utilizing the favorites system the game really starts to take off when it comes to combat options. Switching between melee and ranged weapons is quick thanks to PC hotkeys, but I shudder to think of how it all comes together on console.
The final nail in the coffin though has to do with what I dub Stash Math™. Everything in Fallout 76 has a certain weight value associated with it and you character can only carry so much. I am not exaggerating when I say everything. Even things like ammunition have a weight value. While this was an optional setting in Fallout: New Vegas, most modern Bethesda games have done away with ammo weight. All of a sudden every session has its momentum stopped dead in it’s tracks when you become over-encumbered and have to move stuff between your private stash and character just to be able to move at a reasonable speed. Bethesda has since upped the limit of your private stash from 400 weight to 600 weight, but even then it punishes people who want to collect every different outfit and multiple weapon types because your stash fills up so fast. Another minor downside (as I suspect it doesn’t effect most people) is that there is no account bound stash allowing you to transfer items to a second character.
Bethesda has been publishing some small, paragraph sizes chucks of promised future content, such as weekly quests and events and eventual faction based PVP, and I sincerely hope that these add-ons bring about some much-needed excitement to the game. As it stands right now the only form of endgame content present is launching nukes to irradiate an area and fight some super bosses for loot, but even that feels shallow compared to the likes of other shared world games like Destiny.
Wait, but try it in the future. Bethesda is trying to build something new and exciting that honestly could have used a few more months of cooking. Right now it feels like Fallout 76 is in an extended BETA period, and in a world of early access games, it feels a little – little being the keyword – forgivable. Like many games in the past few years (No Man’s Sky, Diablo III, Destiny 2) I expect it to be in a better place come mid-2019. Until then, let the hardcore sadists like myself put the game through the ringer.