Fallout 76’s massive change in direction has been a hot topic of discussion ever since the game was first announced at E3 2018. Eschewing the series’ single player nature from its inception up until now and placing more of a focus on things such as survival, crafting, and multiplayer than on the scripted questing and narrative engagement fans of the series are used to, Fallout 76 is decidedly different from its predecessors. It retains the Fallout DNA, but changes it considerably, and though a lot of it works, there’s plenty that doesn’t.
Fallout 76’s beta recently launched on Xbox One, and the four hours I have spent with it have left me both curious to dive deeper into the game, and concerned about some of the shortcomings that have been apparent in its opening hours. Fallout 76 begins much like Fallout 4 (or any other Fallout game, for that matter). You create your character, you spend a few minutes in a Vault, and then out you step into the desolate wasteland. These things haven’t really changed, and the instant dose of familiarity will definitely help players feel more at home with these new, unfamiliar surroundings. After you set out into the world of Appalachia, though, it’s quite a different ride.
"The four hours I have spent with Fallout 76 have left me both curious to dive deeper into the game, and concerned about some of the shortcomings that have been apparent in its opening hours."
The thing that has struck me most about Fallout 76 thus far, both in a positive and negative sense, is how desolate the world feels. It’s struck me positively because from a narrative standpoint, it makes a lot of sense- Fallout 76 is set only twenty five years after the nuclear holocaust, and you’re among the very first survivors to have stepped out from the Vaults back into the world. Everywhere you go, you’re greeted with corpses and twisted remains of a forgotten way of life. The environments in Fallout 76 portray destruction and devastation that is much more recent, and as such, much more twisted, than other Fallout games, and from what I’ve played so far, it looks like Bethesda have done a great job of creating a world that is much closer to an apocalyptic event than their other Fallout titles, which are usually set hundreds of years after the fateful war.
There’s a lot of environmental storytelling going on here, and it’s all very effective. Often, I came across corpses that had notes or journals on them, which described their final moments in life, and I found these to be much more interesting than I’d imagined they would be. Other means of storytelling, such as logs and records on terminals scattered throughout the world, also proved to be more engaging and effective than expected, providing plenty of interesting lore, and stories about the apocalypse that are often widely different than the post-post-apocalyptic nature of stories other Fallout games, where a new world order has very much settled down. This is a world that is still very much recovering from recent devastating events, and even the earliest hints of civilization are still in their burgeoning state right now.
In these ways, then, Fallout 76’s desolate and sombre world proves to be very effective. It’s a double edged sword though, because it also feels empty. Lifeless. Sure, narratively that makes sense, but from a gameplay perspective, that amounts to lots of long stretches of nothingness, where you’re simply walking along for minutes on end with not a lot of interesting events to spice things up. The total lack of human NPCs adds to the game’s isolated and lonely atmosphere, but it also means that things such as dialog options, engaging shorter stories, and characters to interact with are all gone. A feeling of hollowness pervades much of the game, and quests just seem to lack personality. Since actual people or characters are no longer involved in quests, you receive these through various other means, and they’re set up through either audio logs or simple text instructions- as such, I’m finding it a little hard to care about any of it.
"Fallout 76’s desolate and sombre world proves to be very effective. It’s a double edged sword though, because it also feels empty."
There is an upside, though. The fact that there are no human NPCs in Fallout 76 means that every human you run into is another player. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does happen, it feels like an exciting event. On one occasion, I was exploring the ruins of a house, when I was attacked by a group of mutated rodents – not exactly problematic enemies, but the sound of my gunshots attracted another player in the vicinity, who promptly joined in to help me finish the creatures off. Both off us looted the corpses, gave each other a thumbs up through Fallout 76’s surprisingly effective emote wheel, and then went on our merry ways. This is, of course, just one example, and there were a few other delightful and exciting occasions when I ran into other players- all of it was enough to clue me into the fact that Fallout 76’s multiplayer aspects are probably going to be – much to my surprise – its strongest suit.
And really, that’s been my biggest takeaway from my four hours with Fallout 76 so far. For all of Bethesda’s promises that this is a game that can be experienced solo entirely- while that is technically true, based on my time with it till now, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s easy for me to see already that, played with a group of friends, Fallout 76 is probably going to be a ton of fun. But trying to play it solo might be a different story. It’s lifelessness can wear on you, and monotony can set in quickly. Running into fascinating mutated monsters or tackling quests with other players in your group is clearly the way this is meant to be played, and though it isn’t the only way to play Fallout 76, the alternative seems like a significantly more muted experience. Exploration will, of course, be a major draw even if you play solo- Bethesda have a knack for creating beautiful, large, and varied worlds that inherently encourage exploration, and predictably enough, it’s clear that they’ve done that yet again with Fallout 76. But the pervading sense of isolation – which is only amplified by the fact that the map is even larger, with no actual characters to inhabit it – means that all those activities will probably require companions to be enjoyed properly.
Another major talking point about Fallout 76 has been VATS. Ever since its introduction in Fallout 3, the iconic VATS system has become a mainstay of the Fallout franchise, and though it’s very much included in 76 as well, it’s been changed considerably. VATS no longer pauses the action to let you target individual body parts of enemies- considering this is an always online game that can’t really be paused, that makes sense. VATS are, as such, used in real time now- but they don’t really work too well. Without the ability to pause time, they feel neutered, and thanks to finicky camera angles while they are being used, they’re not even quite as effective. I suspect I will be using VATS very rarely when I dive deeper into Fallout 76, which is something I never though I’d say about a Fallout game.
"Fallout 76’s multiplayer aspects are probably going to be – much to my surprise – its strongest suit."
Another way Fallout 76 is quite different from other Fallout titles is how much of an emphasis it places on survival aspects. Thanks to its very setting, survival isn’t something that’s entirely new to the series, but other than the exception of Fallout 4’s survival mode, these elements have been more ancillary in nature than anything else, especially in recent years. In Fallout 76 though, they’re very much part of the core experience. Resources and materials are in short supply, and as such, much of your time is likely going to be spent on scavenging, crafting, and hoarding. There are other things to keep an eye on as well, such as making sure you don’t go hungry or parched. There are meters for both, hunger and thirst that you need to manage (which play nicely with the series’ familiar radiation mechanics as well), which is quite crucial.
Lower hunger and thirst amount to lower AP, while if those two ever hit zero, you gradually start losing your health. You also need to be careful you don’t contract diseases. Survival elements mostly work very well, and add to the constant sense of tension. One thing Bethesda hopefully fixes before the final release, though, is the UI, which seems to be at odds with these mechanics. Menus are still unwieldy and messy, and having to navigate them to manually sort through items (which still don’t seem to be divided by category as much as they should be), especially during busy moments of combat or when you urgently need medicine or food, can be a tedious experience. It’s not quick or easy, as it ideally should be. The fact that you have to do quite a bit of these things makes the poor UI even more of an annoyance.
As for the game’s performance and technical aspects, it really wouldn’t be fair of me to pass much of a judgement right now- this is a beta, after all, and the very purpose of a beta is to pinpoint and subsequently iron out these very issues. And there are issues. There are occasional frame rate drops, muddy textures, weird clipping animations, long loading times, and there were also a few instances where the game simply froze for a handful of seconds. There weren’t too many instances of each individual issue, but collectively, they were pretty frequent, as you can probably imagine. That said, things definitely seem like they’ve been improved quite significantly from the recent round of hands-on impressions, so I’m hopeful that the final product will be more polished. The visuals also look good (even though there’s definitely room for improvement), especially since Bethesda’s strong and varied art is on full display in the world.
"In Fallout 76, survival mechanics are very much part of the core experience. Resources and materials are in short supply, and as such, much of your time is likely going to be spent on scavenging, crafting, and hoarding."
If it sounds like I’m too down on Fallout 76, I should tell you in all fairness that from the get-go, I wasn’t really a huge fan of the new approach the series is taking. I’m not against Bethesda (or any other developer) trying new things, and from a distance I’ve been able to appreciate some of their ideas in Fallout 76. However, single player games and narrative driven experiences are what I enjoy the most, and Fallout 76 is not those things. The little I have played so far has driven that point home, that this is a game that you should ideally be playing with other players. Things that have been front and centre in previous Fallout games have been de-emphasized, while mechanics such as crafting, survival, and multiplayer gameplay have moved to the forefront. But I can’t fault the game for its very nature- on the contrary, as I’ve mentioned, its multiplayer aspects are what I’ve enjoyed most. I’m curious to see how the final product will turn out, and I’m certainly going to put more time into the game- four hours is hardly enough for me to properly experience everything this game has to offer, and there’s much that I either haven’t dived deep enough into, or haven’t even touched. At the same time, though, my four hours with the game have also made me a bit apprehensive about a few things.
I’m not exactly excited for Fallout 76, but I’m definitely intrigued by it. There are things that I like, and things I don’t, and right now, it could really go either way for me.
This game was previewed on the Xbox One.