Fallout 76 Review
Published on December 6, 2018
Fallout 76 at its surface is a dream come true for many fans of the franchise. The ability to meet and interact with other players online while they roam Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic world. Grouping up with three other friends to loot, kill and build the perfect base. Getting that legendary weapon drop after taking down a monster with a raid group. All of this would be complemented with MMO features and long-term updates to keep players hooked for years to come. However, after spending time in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, one thing is clear: Bethesda has lost the strong handle it once had on the Action RPG genre. With a plethora of questionable design choices, weak world building, and game-breaking bugs, Fallout 76 is a fall from grace for the series.
You play as one of many vault dwellers of Vault 76, a special vault that has been tasked with rebuilding America after the nuclear wars. Having presumably partied too hard the night before, you find yourself in an empty vault, completely alone. You stumble upon the overseer’s terminal, who has been given a different mission: get access to the nuke bunkers that are scattered throughout West Virginia. The high-level premise of Fallout games have never been strong, and the latest entry does not stray from the beaten path. This backstory sets up the premise for the multiplayer objects: either build a base or find the keys to the bunker to launch a nuke.
The game tries its best to stick to the multiplayer features it has marketed so heavily, although it’s questionable if they add to the experience. There is no option to play the game offline or alone. This means if the game ever detects an interruption in the connection, it will completely stop the gameplay, leaving you immobile and unable to make any actions. In-game voice chat is an excellent addition to the foundation of the game, but there is no option to enable push-to-talk, which means you’ll often hear the clicking and key presses of those around you, even if they are not in your party. V.A.T.S. now plays out in real-time, removing the edge against enemies it gave in previous games. But the worst of all the multiplayer changes is that since the server and all players need to be constantly moving forward, there is no saving allowed outside of the auto-checkpoints that are done.
This means that every minute mistake made in the game; whether that be the fault of the player or the game, will carry consequences. Being a Bethesda game, Fallout 76 is not short of frustrating bugs and issues during playthroughs. Quest markers disappear sporadically, requiring a restart of the game. The AI is unpredictable, at times stuck in a mindless animation loop, while at others, able to teleport next to players at will. Server issues will at times impede your progress for a quest completely, requiring you to find a new server that’s not stuck in a bad state. Quest items while playing in a group is a complete disaster, with duplicate objects spawning at times, and not enough being generated at times. Although not a dealbreaker on its own, these small problems will accumulate to become a bigger headache during longer sessions.
However, the biggest culprit is the C.A.M.P. base building mechanic, which was supposed to be one of the biggest draws of the game. It extends a feature introduced in Fallout 4: the customization and building of your camp complete with housing, crafting stations, and defenses from outside attackers. However, the unlimited storage capability has been removed, severely limiting your materials cap to 400 weight units at your stash (recently increased to a mere 600 after the recent patch). Unfortunately, this is not nearly enough to store your weapons, armor, junk, and materials you need to play the game as intended. The game becomes a hardcore inventory management simulator later on, as being overencumbered forbids you from running or fast-traveling across the vast map of West Virginia.
If that wasn’t enough, different C.A.M.P.s are not allowed to be within a certain proximity from one another. This rule implies that if you join a server with a player that has their camp in the same area as you, the game will remove your C.A.M.P. You will not be charged materials to build the different components that you’ve already bought, but it is a tedious process to find a new location and put down all the structures in their place a second time. This exception seemed to happen outside of the rules that Bethesda has defined, as my base disappeared almost every time I logged into the server.
Outside of the multiplayer functionalities, the interactions themselves were surprisingly pleasant in Fallout 76. I’ve had offers of the safety of a fortified base when I lost in a high-level area, or a party invite when struggling to finish a quest. Even with the always-on voice chat, people were reasonably shy, and always had polite things to say when they decided to talk. That’s not to say hostile encounters are non-existent; even with its confusing damage rules, PvP is still a part of the game that is present, and also sometimes encouraged. A notoriety system similar to the one in Grand Theft Auto V provides a right balance between cooperative and adversarial temptations.
Aside from having a weak overall premise, the signature story and world-building that Bethesda is known for are entirely absent. Due to the design choice of removing all NPCs except robots, the missions and dialogue are relayed mostly through holotapes and terminals. It’s even fitting that the NPCs that you can deal with are all robots, as their purpose is to simply transmit information to the player without any interactions. Factions from the past such as the Raiders and the Brotherhood of Steel make their return in the different parts of the main story, but having been wiped out from the world long before the players, they don’t make any meaningful impact on the game.
The hollow shell of a story and characters combine to create the most isolated Fallout game in the series. The world feels empty, and everything in the game exists for the sole purpose of pushing players to the next checkpoint and goal. There is no character development or a sense of creating a connection with the world around you. The side quests which were often Bethesda's strong suit, feel like they are there for the sake of providing an option to level up your character, rather than building out the world. None of the elegant designs that nudged players to explore off the beaten path or seek out different ways to approach a problem are present in this game. Even while roaming the large map of West Virginia, the game sets up the player for a mundane, linear experience.
The game doesn't do much better in the visual department as well. Fallout 76 looks fairly similar to the way it did in Fallout 4. It still utilizes the Creation Engine (which is still based off of the Gamebryo Engine) and although the map is significantly larger than predecessors, the game seems to focus heavily on quantity over quality, as I never found myself stopping to take in the environment during my playthrough.
The biggest conundrum of Fallout 76 its confusion on what type of game it wants to be. If it’s aiming to be an RPG, although the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system makes its return, the changes in the perk system which completely tosses the skill tree system and replaces it with a chance-based card system, feels like an insult to the genre. Uninspired quests and the removal of karma severely cripple it from presenting the player with moral choices and consequences of their actions. There are simply too few choices and agency given to the player that makes Fallout 76 feel like an actual role-playing game.
Furthermore, there haven't been any improvements in the action area: the lackluster shooting mechanics and gunplay limit its ability to become a great FPS. The stripping of the V.A.T.S. mechanic requires more careful aiming from the player, but it's made difficult by ridiculous hitboxes of enemies and unreliable accuracy of the guns. Modding makes its return from Fallout 4, but hasn't been improved on; there's no real sense of accomplishment when getting the "perfect" weapon drop, or decking out a gun with all the available mods.
Finally, in what I feel is the most disappointing aspect, Fallout 76 is a bad multiplayer game. It sets itself up to be an MMO, with server instances and ease of grouping up with players. But with its monotonous quests, no options to build out your character and lack of a real endgame, it relies too heavily on the concept of playing with a friend, rather than building out fun features. Even with a plethora of similar games to learn from, Bethesda doesn't show any effort in trying to make a high-quality game. There's no way to easily search for players for a given quest, and the grinding mechanics feel like mindless tasks.
In the end, none of the genres can come together to create a cohesive experience that pushes the series forward. Instead, a mishmash of subpar features come together to confuse and frustrate the player.
Putting all the bugs aside, Fallout 76 feels uninspired and soulless. It takes a step backward in the areas that Bethesda was an expert at, and at the same time, tries its hand at too many others. Clashing ideas and features create an identity crisis for the game: Is it an RPG or an FPS? A social or narrative-driven game? The online component only adds to the complexity, leaving the game as a barebones, jumbled mess. Although future mod support from the community may salvage the game from its initial disastrous state, Fallout 76 has already done enough damage to tarnish the reputation of a 20-year-old franchise.