Everyone loves a party, right? I know I do. I'll jump at any excuse to hang out with my mates for a good old sesh of music, games and lovely, lovely booze. But, in the case of today's Reclamation Day celebrations, I'll think I'll be partying by myself because to be honest with you, Fallout 76 is a multiplayer game that's much more fun to play on your own.
Fallout 76 is meant to be a social experience. It's been designed with teamplay in mind, what with the 'always on' voice chat, the lack of NPCs, the trading aspects, the timed public events and so on. And don't get me wrong, I tried to embrace these design choices, I put over 10 hours into the beta sessions across PS4 and Xbox One and I've teamed up with friends on both. It's just... I didn't really enjoy myself as much as when I was pootling along at my own pace, doing my own thing. My time with beta convinced me that the multiplayer elements of 76 simply frustrate the experience of what could be a semi-decent single-player Fallout game.
Let's start with immersion - an important thing with roleplaying games and Fallout games in particular. In Fallout 76 we've just emerged from a sealed vault into a ruined world where all your friends and family have been vaporised by a nuclear war. It should be a somber moment, that first step into a new world. A brave new start tinged with sadness, loss and fear. A time for reflection, maybe. It didn't really feel like that for me though because the first thing I saw when I emerged from Vault 76 on the PS4 beta was a group of people in their pants doing love heart emotes at each other whilst one of them pumped Eastern European dance music down their microphone. Don't worry, friends, I'll find a quiet spot to weep for you later...
It's not just randoms who'll ruin your immersion though, teammates are way more likely to make you forget where you are. To replace the lack of NPCs in the game, Bethesda has littered Appalachia with notes, computers and holotapes that are crammed with well written, world-building lore. Most of the Survivor Story holotapes are genuinely great; well acted, grim dark tales that paint a picture of people trying to survive in a world turned to ash. It's just really hard to listen to them properly when they're drowned out by your mate who's screaming for backup because an indestructible Radscorpion is trying to sting his legs off.
When I played by myself I could invest my time in those little scraps of paper that I found next to shrivelled corpses. I could sit back and slowly flick through pages of data on glowing computer screens, soaking up the lore at my own pace. It was nice! Somewhere amongst all the digital blurb there might be information about the Overseer's motivations, perhaps. Maybe there's a clue to some random loot stash hidden in the hurried scrawls. You won't know that if you play in teams though, because it's terribly hard to absorb written information when you've got mates jabbering away in your ear. Or forcing you to run forwards to the next objective because they're bored and ready to move on already. Sure you could mute them and catch up with them once you're done, but by that point they'll have already powered through most of the mission leaving you with pretty much nothing else to do. Except for reading more notes and listening to more holotapes, I guess.
One of the real problems with Fallout 76's forced multiplayer though, is that no one really interacts anyway. There'll be people playing in teams who will chatter and barter with each other, sure, but the majority of players I've seen in Appalachia just skip on past me without so much as a thumbs up emote to show that they've registered my presence. I had a few trade or teaming offers in my first couple of hours of the beta on each platform but after the novelty wore off, everyone just went about their own business. It's almost as if Fallout 76 players have turned to treating other people on the map as if they were side characters to be ignored and forgotten about. Is this what Todd Howard meant when he said he wanted human players to take the place of NPCs? Surely not, but that's what's happening.
So yeah, I was at my happiest in Fallout 76 when I was on my own, tinkering with my house that I'd built from scratch, using wood that I'd scavenged during solo trips into the surrounding towns. It was in those quiet moments that the game actually felt like a proper Fallout experience. Without the pressure of keeping track of my friends, or the guilt for not running to their aid, I could explore the huge map that Bethesda has created to my heart's content. I was back in the Wasteland, a lone survivor in a hazardous land, learning about the past and working to turn a little bit of that burnt world into my own little paradise. It's just shame that there's always the risk of other people turning up to gatecrash my party for one.