When Fallout 76 was first announced back at E3 2018, the image I had in my mind was basically a Fallout version of Rust: surviving with friends in a harsh post-apocalyptic world, where we could slowly build up a base, fend off other groups of players, and construct a community of our own.
Then, of course, came the actual game, which was very different. PvP was an agreed-upon event rather than omnipresent threat, and while this solved any potential griefing problems, it simultaneously removed the challenge of defending yourself - something I felt would make the game feel more, well, Fallout.
My hopes were raised once again when the Fallout 76 survival mode beta was announced. In theory, this could have provided some of the tension created by PvP for those who wanted it (me) without disrupting those more focused on quests, PvE or peaceful base construction.
Unfortunately, while it does seem to have satisfied some high-level players in their quest for PvP, the current survival mode beta seems to have once again missed the mark. If you were expecting anything beyond a giant deathmatch - one that's particularly hard on casual players - you're going to be sorely disappointed.
Firstly, perhaps the most obvious problem with survival is that it's linked to the regular game mode (adventure): your character, and all their items, can transfer between the two modes. This includes any progress you've made in terms of levels and perks.
While the mode may be beneficial for high-level players seeking a more thrilling endgame, it's not going to entice any lower-level Fallout players to return. I had to create a new character to try out survival mode (as Digital Foundry borrowed my previous one for testing and handed it back diseased and starving with no aid, ammo or weapons - thanks Tom Morgan). It's safe to say it was a disaster: as soon as PvP was enabled at level five, I was repeatedly smacked around by level 184 players. Even a level 11 was able to sneak up and one-shot me, so despite Bethesda's attempts to alter combat to "reduce the likelihood of one-shot kills", it's still happening a lot.
In other words, the only way to actually compete in survival mode's PvP is to grind it out in adventure first.
To make matters worse, after dying you often get stuck in a cycle of spawn camping. As free fast travel is limited to Vault 76 and your camp, and you must pay caps to spawn at stations, everyone ends up crowded at the start areas. It's then very easy for high level players to spawn camp low level players, and seemingly the only way to get around this is by world-hopping until you find a quieter start point. The best way to avoid spawn camping is to immediately place your camp in the middle of nowhere, otherwise you'll end up like me: dying three times in a row simply from respawning at Vault 76, until eventually managing to peg it down the mountain. According to the patch notes, there's a brief invulnerability period after spawning, but from my own tests I repeatedly died in under 30 seconds. Others have reported dying in two seconds, so I'm not sure what's going on there.
Part of the reason for the spawn camping problem, however, is that hanging around the starting areas and workshops is pretty much the only way to guarantee PvP action. Other than this, you can attract attention by climbing to the top three spots on the scoreboard and being marked on the map (by surviving, killing players and earning XP). The downside is this removes any sense of stealth and the marker puts you at a huge disadvantage - which in some ways makes it excitingly tense, but in others makes combat feel a bit unequal. Showing player locations within a wider area or circle would potentially solve this issue.
The problems with survival mode seem to extend beyond unfriendliness to low-level players, however, as many Fallout 76 veterans have complaints about the system. These centre around the high cost of being killed - both in terms of aid lost (although you can get around this by leaving stimpacks in your stash) and caps deductions. Some have called for legendary effects to be removed, as many mods such as two shot explosive are incredibly powerful and make PvP combat difficult. This option is apparently going to be discussed by the Bethesda devs. Personally I'd also like for them to reconsider the chameleon mutation which makes them temporarily invisible.
Not everything's bad about survival: it did provide me with some tense moments when I was sneaking around to avoid other players, and the XP boost is a nice way to quickly level up your character. Along with the weekly challenges, overall it's a more high-risk high-reward option if you want to progress your character, and somehow I still prefer it to the original version. For now some of the high-level players seem to be enjoying repeatedly slaughtering each other, although with no clear long-term objectives, I wonder how long this will last.
Yet it's also a missed opportunity to create a truly exciting new mode. Imagine if everyone, including the high-level players, had been suddenly placed on an equal playing field for some true gritty survival. Not only would this let returning players feel they could stand a chance, but it would have kept high-level players on their toes and created some truly exciting (and equal) fights in the wasteland. At the very least servers could be organised by player level.
Although still in beta, survival mode is so far not a game changer - and in its current state it's not going to entice anyone back.