Fallout 76 strips away most of the things I love about Bethesda's Fallout games and replaces them with human-controlled avatars. But while other players are doing the best they can with what they've got, this is a game world that spectacularly fails them - on pretty much every level.
The high-level conceit here is the question, what if Fallout was multiplayer? And I think this is a grand thing to wonder about. The collision of Fallout and multiplayer sparks all sorts of exciting ideas in my mind, most of which have to do with post-apocalyptic role-playing. What if I ran a town, hosting elections and keeping the peace? What if I opened a shop, selling exotic items to other players in a desperate bid to raise enough caps to survive the harsh wasteland? What if I worked behind a bar, serving drinks to other players, passing on gossip and words of wisdom? What if I was the head honcho of a group of raiders, ordering other players to attack camps and loot the corpses of our enemies? What if I founded my own faction, something like Caesar's Legion from Fallout New Vegas, perhaps? What if I wanted to infiltrate a player-run faction I didn't get on with, befriending their leader before stabbing them in the back?
Unfortunately, Fallout 76 does not facilitate any of those fantasies. What it does instead is facilitate boredom, frustration and game-breaking bugs. And I'm not talking about the radroaches that kill you, either.
Fallout 76 is a video game at odds with itself. It feels as if it's wrestling with what it wants to be even as you're playing it. Is this a game best played on your own? It certainly seems so at first. After you emerge from Vault 76 on Reclamation Day, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to rebuild Appalachia, Bethesda's post-apocalyptic recreation of West Virginia, you're presented with a main quest to follow the trail of the overseer who, like everyone else in the game world, has already buggered off. This main quest leads you towards the kind of places we're familiar with from the Fallout games: burnt out towns, creepy buildings and cobbled-together settlements. But something's different. There are no NPCs. Well, that's not entirely true. There are robots. Lots and lots and lots of robots.
As a result, Fallout 76 is a ghost town, which is apt since the main quest feels like you're chasing ghosts. There are holotapes and scrawled notes and terminal entry logs to find, and while some of these are interesting and well put together, Fallout 76's world-building suffers without NPCs. Following the overseer's footsteps feels like turning up late to a concert, the venue trashed, echoes of fun you weren't a part of whispering from the walls. You're always one step behind the overseer, a person who constantly teases you with tales of all the wonderful adventures you're not having.
Most of the quests Fallout 76 has you do are so boring they border on the hilarious. One early quest had me boil water. Another had me pick up bottles. Most missions are little more than fetch quests. Go here, get the thing, bring it back, interact with a robot, job done. It's mind-numbing in the extreme. It's Fallout at its worst: basic, monotonous and lacking nuance.
Without NPCs, Fallout 76 lacks a soul and it lacks consequence. Fallout 76, of course, argues the soul and consequence this time around comes from other players, but as a multiplayer, sort of MMO, sort of sandbox experience it's a failure, too. Encounters with other players are rare, so huge is the map and so few are the players who inhabit a server at any one time. But when you do come across another player, there's little reason to interact. I've read forum posts where players tell stories about helping others out, about building bases for newcomers, about following a stranger around for hours for no real reason. But what this is, really, is players making their own fun in a game world that doesn't seem to know the meaning of the word.
The only reason you'd want to group up with other players in Fallout 76 is to make the killing of bullet-sponge monsters easier and quicker. I've played the game for hours with other players - friends on mic, mainly - and I've come to the conclusion that Fallout 76 is better with friends, but only by default, in a shits and giggles kind of way. Fallout 76 players play together to brute force the game, to take down a scorchbeast (think a Skyrim dragon spliced with a bat), to help with the grind to fire nukes. The fact two players in the same group doing the same quest each have to pick up the same item to progress, rather than one player getting one item and the other getting another to save time, as you would actually do were this a game that made sense, says everything about the co-op experience.
The Scorched, Fallout 76's zombie-like humanoids that run at you with melee weapons or shoot guns at you from behind cover, are the game's main enemy, but there are also super mutants, robots, mutated wildlife and horrible monstrosities to contend with. The problem is, nothing in Fallout 76 is particularly interesting to fight. Even the public quests, which are undoubtedly easier when done with the help of other players, are boring in the extreme. Most amount to little more than fighting waves of enemies. One of the more annoying public events saw my group fend off waves of rats - small, fast-moving ankle biters that exposed Fallout 76's combat for what it is: cumbersome, annoying and unresponsive.
And what of player versus player combat? Fallout 76 has one of the most bizarre PvP systems I've encountered in a video game. To flag as PvP, you have to do damage to another player. But this initial damage is negligible. If the person you've fired at fires back, then it's on. But why bother? Die from PvP and you respawn nearby, ready to go again with no real harm done. Win at PvP and you get some caps. If you tune in to the Hunter/Hunted radio broadcast, you queue for a dedicated PvP mode. But in all my time playing the game - tens of hours of time - it never managed to gather the four players required to kick things off. I get the impression the developers were so terrified Fallout 76 PvP could riddle the game with griefing, they went too far when setting the rules of engagement. What we have as a result is an odd dueling system. There's nothing interesting about it, and so it's understandable hardly anyone does it.
If there's one area of potential PvP that's remotely successful, it's the Workshops system. Here, you clear out an area that, once claimed, acts as a home base from which you can generate rare loot. The idea is these Workshops should attract attacks from groups of players who wish to claim them for themselves. But in reality these Workshops are not hotbeds for back-and-forth PvP, and I think that's because the game doesn't do a great job of explaining how they work nor how PvP works within them. And it feels unfair to be defending an owned Workshop when invading players can instantly respawn nearby upon death over and over again. Workshops would be more interesting, I think, if they were dedicated, open PvP zones where everyone who dares enter is fair game for a fight. Keep it simple and keep it tense.
Without NPCs, dialogue or a meaningful story, Fallout 76 leans heavily on combat. The problem of course is the combat is terrible. As a first-person shooter Fallout 76 is janky, inaccurate and often broken. The enemies are as basic as they come. They'll either rush you or shoot you from behind cover, and that's about it. You'll sometimes see Scorched frozen in place, oblivious to your presence for tens of seconds before they spark into life. You'll sometimes see them locked into a pose while sliding across the floor before they attack you. I managed to kill an Enraged Grafton monster - a level 30 beast that does high-damage melee attacks - by cheesing its bullet sponge body from the safety of a building it was too big to get into. Luckily for me, the Grafton monster kept trying and failing to get in through the open door, stopping only to occasionally pound the ground in apparent frustration.
And then there's VATS. Oh god, VATS!
VATS in prior Fallout games lets you stop the clock and spend action points (AP) on queued attacks that play out in immensely satisfying, slow motion explosions of gore. In Fallout 76, the real-time, impossible to pause video game, you can use VATS to do all of that except stop the clock, queue attacks or trigger slow motion explosions of gore. You know, the cool bits! So, all VATS amounts to here is a bizarre automatic targeting system. In the always-online world of Fallout 76, there's no time for strategy. It's shoot and keep on shooting until everything dies. Hilariously, you'll hit enemies you're not even pointing your gun at as the camera darts about like a fly.
The combat also highlights other technical problems with Fallout 76. It suffers random framerate drops and has an odd camera stutter that can make fighting unplayable for tens of seconds at a time (for more on the game's performance check out Digital Foundry's video analysis). I found an automatic pistol that set enemies on fire, but I was put off using it because the fire effect tanked performance.
The graphics, too, are a bit of a mess. Fallout 76 can look nice from a distance. Find high ground from which to gander at the lush forests and distant mountains of Appalachia and you do get that Bethesda open-world sense of wonder. And, occasionally, when the sun bleeds through trees, Fallout 76 looks lovely. But most of the time it's an ugly-looking game, with buildings and, particularly, interiors seemingly parachuted in from a bygone era. At night, especially, Fallout 76 looks grim - and not in a cool, post-apocalyptic kind of way.
Bethesda games have a reputation for bugs, but Fallout 76 is perhaps the company's buggiest release yet. Apart from the scores of minor bugs I've seen (AI pathfinding, can't play holotapes when in power armour, items disappearing, spawning half in the ground, the list goes on and on!) I've encountered two major bugs that have prevented me from completing quests. One had to do with a significant side quest I'd put at least two hours into before I couldn't progress because an object wouldn't let me interact with it (this bug was subsequently squashed via a 47GB update).
The other affected part of the main quest and mysteriously prevented me from crafting a key item despite having the materials for it. Exiting the game world and logging into another server as a quick fix is a recipe for disaster, as doing so often rolls back your progress. Related to the latter bug, logging out and in again lost me enough progress that the game thought I hadn't received the items I needed to craft the quest item, but the quest itself seemed to remember I had progressed past that point. And so, the game wouldn't tell me where those quest items were in the world. Since I couldn't remember, myself, that was that. The reality of playing Fallout 76 is it feels like an early access release. But it's not, is it? It's a full-price game with microtransactions at launch. You can pay eight pounds for a dress.
Onto the building. Fallout 76 takes the base-building from Fallout 4 and makes it worse, with a crippling stash limit (Bethesda has said it'll increase this in a future update) and build budget that hinders creation. The idea is you set up camp - sorry, C.A.M.P. - and from there explore the world. Then, you can pick up your base and plop it down anywhere in the world where it'll fit. This, in principle, is a nice idea, but in practice it's a horribly fiddly thing to do.
Let's say you spend hours building a nice-looking home base - a house, perhaps, with some cool bits inside and out. When you log back into the game, you might find your base has been packed up and put into storage because someone in that game world has built a base where you built yours. Okay, fine, find somewhere else to place your base. The game world is huge and there's plenty of room for everyone! Unfortunately it's not that easy. Fallout 76 struggles to let you plop down elaborate bases because, it seems, objects have a hard time shaking hands with the ground. My colleague Ian, who's big into Fallout base-building, was forced to rebuild his base from scratch - repeating hours of work - after running up against this issue. (Fallout 76 says your base is "floating" when this problem occurs.) Scared off by this, I've kept my camp basic. It's just a collection of workbenches for crafting, a water purifier, some turrets and a dirty old bed. Why invest in something better when I might have to rebuild it all?
What's frustrating is there are flashes of Fallout brilliance buried within Fallout 76. Exploration can be exciting, especially when you discover interesting-looking areas such as the crashed space station, the ash heap, the Mothman Museum and the Top of the World attraction, and then venture inside. And Fallout 76, like previous Fallout games, can do environmental storytelling well (Bethesda are experts at telling tales with carefully-placed skeletons). The highlight of my current playthrough is enrolling with a firefighting faction. To join, I had to venture deep into a deadly mine while wearing protective gear. Inside, holotapes told the story of how a team of budding firefighter exam candidates had died trying to put an end to the Scorched infestation. The ridiculousness of the situation I was in and the chirpiness of my robot quest-giver's dialogue, juxtaposed with the horror of hearing the cadets' desperation grow as I followed in their footsteps, was the quintessential Fallout adventure. Such a shame shooting Scorched was the only way to see it through!
If Fallout 76 isn't really a solo game, and it isn't really a multiplayer game, then what is it? There are survival elements, but they're so basic and easily dealt with that you forget they're a part of the game at all (you're always only a no-cost fast-travel to home camp away from rest). Once you reach the higher levels, Fallout 76 settles down into a grind of loot-hunting and crafting, shooting and item repairing, all the while you're wrestling with the limits set on how much stuff you can carry at once and how much stuff you can store in your camp. I think I've worked out the core gameplay loop: identify a thing you wish to build or craft (for me I'm after endgame power armour, so I'm looting rare junk), go out into the game world, fill your boots until you can't carry any more, go back to base, stash, repair, craft, rinse and repeat. That's about it. I'm not sure this is what Vault-Tec had in mind when it tasked Vault 76's inhabitants with rebuilding Appalachia.
This is not the role I want to play in a multiplayer Fallout game, and this is what worries me most about Fallout 76. Bethesda can update the game to fix bugs and increase the stash limit and open Vaults and add faction-based PvP, but Fallout 76's fundamentals are deeply flawed. Fallout 76 is in desperate need of a hub - a town or a city or something filled with NPCs - a place players can visit safe in the knowledge they will run into other players. Without one, it's hard to ground yourself in the game world. Everything here is a means to an end rather than meaningful; surface level rather than deep-rooted. Even after tens of hours of play, Fallout 76 has failed to claw its way under my skin. All of Bethesda's games - from Fallout to The Elder Scrolls - instantly got inside my head, so much so that I'd think about them even when I wasn't playing them. I haven't thought about playing Fallout 76 since my last game-breaking bug.
This is why I think Fallout 76 is best avoided at this point. Can Bethesda turn the game around? I remain hopeful. The Fallout multiplayer dream is worth chasing, after all. It's just a shame that, as it stands now, Fallout 76 must go down as a failed experiment.