As soon as I entered the massive world of Fallout 76, I strayed from the given quest markers and explored the world at my own pace. I ran into all sorts of different terrifying beasts and abandoned houses right away, and I started learning what had happened in the world I now inhabited. I’m pretty sure this is exactly what was intended all along.
I was given the opportunity to play the beta a couple weeks ago and was able to play enough to provide some initial impressions. I really enjoyed exploring with friends, and I had experienced enough fun Fallout moments that I knew I wanted to see more. Since then, I’ve dug deeper into the stories sprinkled around Appalachia, and I’ve learned a lot about what this game is — as well as what it is not.
One thing it is for me is fun. It’s a flat-out blast, especially while playing with other people. 76 is the first game in the series that breaks away from Bethesda’s traditional single-player model and introduces multiplayer co-op and PvP. Teaming up with other players, whether they’re my close friends or complete strangers, adds a sense of community in an otherwise lonely, desolate world. With no human NPCs, the West Virginia wasteland can feel overwhelmingly empty. In lieu of other humans, stories are told mainly through the environment: handwritten notes and love letters left in people’s homes, diary entries hidden in computer terminals, and urgent messages left in holotapes (read: audio logs). This once lived-in world feels vaguely familiar and desolate, like an abandoned shopping mall you frequented as a kid.
One of the first images I saw when I loaded up Fallout 76 was a screenshot of Camden Park, which immediately reminded me of the local amusement park I worked at in high school. Right away, I felt a sort of nostalgia for a place and a world I had never been to. One thing 76 does well is crafting a world that’s interesting and worthy of exploration. I came across a dead woman in a tattered dress, which led me to an entire questline involving a (now eradicated) secret society of women who trained to be like a television superhero. Even discarded notes which don’t directly begin a quest can give some hint as to where the player should explore next, leading me to a strong suit of power armor or an area with plentiful resources.
Since Fallout 76 focuses more on survival mechanics, it requires players to stay hydrated and satiated, so it’s important to find or create your own sources of food and water. Raw food and dirty water can cause disease, so needless to say I always kept as much cooked food with me as possible, especially after I had a bad time with some parasites. These elements aren’t very intrusive, and it’s not as in-depth as a hardcore survival game like Rust; they’re just a necessary part of navigating a nuclear wasteland.
The “C.A.M.P” certainly makes amassing food and water easier, provided you have the right materials to craft the cooking station or plant some of your own. Like Fallout 4, the junk littered around the map can be scrapped into crafting materials. The crafting system also allows players to create or modify weapons and armor, as well as various supplies such as ammo, explosives, and medicine. This system is also used for repairs, which is often necessary since gear is fragile and breaks easily. I once broke all of my weapons while exploring for the correct materials to repair even a couple of them. Not to mention I haven’t had a completely unbroken set of armor since I began the game.
I was constantly running out of one important crafting ingredient, whether it’s steel, screws, or adhesive, so I tended to run around the map trying to pick up as much junk as I can carry — which isn’t much. While the crafting and weapon durability systems make sense in a survival context, they brought me a lot of unnecessary headache. I wanted to spend time exploring all the regions in this massive map, but I had to spend it picking up packs of duct tape and wrenches lying around in buildings. It sometimes felt like I was missing out on some of the other, richer experiences I could’ve been having with the game.
Though I haven’t dealt with any particularly game-breaking bugs, there are certainly times when the game freezes up or runs at a cool 10 FPS. Especially when opening crafting menus and my stash, the game chugs a little and may take a while to get back to normal. Bethesda continues to address some of these problems, but some quests have previously been bugged so that they don’t allow players to progress. It’s pretty disappointing to embark on a quest only to not be able to finish it because of a technical issue. This hasn’t hampered my experience too much, but for others, this may be a real deal-breaker. I’ve had enough fun traveling around Appalachia that I could easily overlook some of these bugs.
The real purpose of Fallout 76 is to explore, learn about the region, and rebuild it. How players decide to rebuild human society is entirely up to them, and some players are already pursuing different roles. This is a role-playing game, after all. The lack of guidance and dialogue with other characters actually meshes well to literal role-playing, where some players become the NPCs. Some are acting as raiders, terrorizing every player they see, while others are friendly traveling merchants offering medicine and ammo to lower-level players. I really enjoyed interacting with other people in the game, and it helped with some of the oppressive loneliness from the decimated wasteland.
I haven’t come across many people who tried to attack me (though I have the option to ignore them even if they did). Attacking players does reduced damage until the other player retaliates, thus commencing a duel. This prevents players from needlessly killing each other all the time, like the absolute war-zone of a game that is GTA Online. Aside from simple PvP, 76 also offers a “hunter/hunted” mode, which is essentially the Secret Santa of murder: you’re given a target to hunt while someone else has you as their target. Except, unlike Secret Santa, only one person is left standing. It’s an interesting manhunt mode, but people play it about as often as actual PvP happens, which is to say, rarely. Players may choose not to attack each other because they’re deterred by the reduced damage, or maybe because the combat already doesn’t feel great. Fallout 76 is still a first-person shooter, so one would expect the shooting and combat experience to be pretty good. However, since this is a multiplayer game, there is no ability to pause.
Picture this: a giant, diseased radscorpion is scurrying toward you at the speed of light, and your weapon breaks. You now need to open up the Pip-Boy, navigate to your weapons, and choose one this isn’t also broken or out of ammo. At this point, the radscorpion has already caught up to you and stung you for half your health. If you’re out of stimpaks, you’ll need to once again bring up the menu and consume some health items. By the time you get to what you need, you may have already died. Rinse and repeat. Enemies often seem too quick, and navigating menus and reload animations too slow, to react effectively during combat. This was mainly my experience with combat when I played alone, but when I got together with a team of friends wailing on a horde of super mutants, we couldn’t be stopped. If I needed to heal or reload, I could step away while enemies focused on another teammate instead. The game was clearly made for playing along with others, though it is still possible to enjoy alone — if slightly more annoying.
One of the most rewarding experiences in Fallout 76 is taking down the mythical beasts with a group of other people. Though I’ve run into Mothman staring at me from a distance, I still have yet to actually fight him. However, I’ve stumbled across a gigantic honeybee with entire hives on its back, as well as the Grafton Monster, an absolutely ripped headless yeti. The designs of all of these new monsters feel novel and interesting, and at times truly terrifying. Even though I’m a high enough level to handle them now, wendigos still horrify me, and I still run away at top speed when I spot a deathclaw. Of course, these scary enemies are a lot less frightening when I have a team of others to back me up.
Some of my favorite experiences with the game have been from teaming up with friends, like when we went to the water park I mentioned in my preview. We are a pack of barbarians and scientists traveling together to rebuild the wasteland, and I’m their fearful leader (I have a lot of points in charisma but I’m still terrified of every enemy I see). We each specialize in something different, and my experience with the game is really enhanced by having others at my side, not least because I have a perk which grants more XP for each teammate I have.
Fallout 76 exceeds in allowing players to choose how they want to play and providing the landscape for organic role-playing. Where it falls short is in its unsatisfying combat and its myriad of technical problems. Some of the issues I have with the game are entirely alleviated by teaming up with other players and beginning an adventure together. For those looking for the typical single-player experience Fallout is known for, Fallout 76 may be disappointing. However, for anyone who wants to explore a rich, massive world full of interesting stories and quests, all while playing with others and taking down terrifying beasts, this just might be for you.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Bethesda Softworks.
Though it suffers from graphical issues and bugs, as well as unsatisfying combat, Fallout 76 is fun nonetheless, and the experience is only enhanced by cooperating with other players.