Fallout 76 is crippled by pervasive technical issues and fundamental flaws at the core of the experience.
Taking Fallout, a franchise that is as deeply rooted in single player experiences as it possibly could be, and turning it into a multiplayer experience must surely have been a long and complicated process- but it feels like halfway through that process, Bethesda decided they had done enough, and just released the game in whatever state it was in at the time. It is riddled with all kinds of issues, and while some of these are the kinds of problems that Bethesda can try and iron out with patches, many of these issues lie at the very core of what the game is, and as such, present a much more worrisome problem for both, the developer, as well as the people who’ve bought the game (or are planning on doing so).
"Taking Fallout, a franchise that is as deeply rooted in single player experiences as it possibly could be, and turning it into a multiplayer experience must surely have been a long and complicated process- but it feels like halfway through that process, Bethesda decided they had done enough, and just released the game in whatever state it was in at the time."
Let’s start with the basics- the UI. Fallout 76 uses the same menus that Fallout 4 used in 2015, and while they were decidedly cumbersome even back then, their flaws were easy to forgive. Because in its single player form, Fallout is a slow and methodical experience that lets you stand still and take a pause. Fallout 76 is an always-online game, which means it can’t be paused. Menus are divided into broad categorizations that almost seem like they’ve been designed to give players a hard time, and a lot of time is spent scrolling through long lists to find the stuff you’re looking for. If ever you find yourself in need of going into the menus to replenish one of the several bars you have to manage or to equip a weapon that you hadn’t previously set as one of your favourites, while you’re in the middle of a tense encounter, you’re pretty much screwed.
A slightly increased emphasis on survival mechanics also means that you have to go into menus more often than before- but those survival mechanics aren’t implemented well either. You have to manage your hunger and thirst meters, which boils down to taking a drink or eating a meal every now and again, and make sure you don’t have any debilitating diseases, which doesn’t happen all that often. It feels like a needlessly tacked on mechanic that doesn’t serve much of a purpose, and ends up feeling like a chore more than anything else. Other aspects of survival are done much better, and instances when you’re in the wasteland and are running dangerously low on supplies or ammunition can be genuinely tense, as you hurriedly scrounge for supplies or look for someone or something to trade with. But then there’s the fact that going to your camp – where all that stuff is easily accessible – is just the click of a button away, which lessens the stakes here as well.
Then there’s the shooting, which amounts for a large portion of the experience, and fails in the most fundamental ways. A byproduct of Fallout 76’s online nature is that, as far as combat is concerned, it is straight up a first person shooter- but it’s a first person shooter with clunky, inaccurate shooting. Guns have no weight to them, and aiming, which the series has never really been good at, is often hampered by frequent frame rate drops. The enemy AI is also laughably bad- often you’ll find enemies simply frozen in place, before they finally come to their senses a handful of seconds later, at which point their actions are still limited and rudimentary. Pathfinding is also a huge issue with enemy AI, and shootouts often boil down to finding a spot the enemy can’t get to and taking shots at them from a safe distance until their bullet-spongey health bars are depleted, while they constantly keep trying and failing to get closer to you – which, as we know, is the definition of insanity.
"Fallout 76’s highly publicized lack of human NPCs is a crippling flaw, and one that harms the game in more ways than one."
Shooting in previous Fallout games wasn’t ever really good either, so this is not a new criticism. However, Fallout 3, New Vegas, and 4 made up for their shoddy shooting mechanics with the excellent VATS mechanic- which, too, has been neutered. What was once a system that could pause the action and allow you to aim at individual body parts of enemies and fire shots in glorious slow motion is now little more than an auto-targeting system. While you shoot in VATS, you don’t have to aim, which means you can be looking in one direction and successfully firing in another, even at enemies that are clearly behind cover- which, as you can imagine, looks incredibly goofy. Enemies also often zig-zag around quite a bit, which completely throws VATS’ percentages out of whack, which means that more often than not, it’s just best to ignore VATS completely and aim manually.
These, however, are things that Bethesda can conceivably fix with patches and larger updates, and it’s entirely possible that some of these criticisms won’t stand the test of time. But then there are issues in Fallout 76 that are imbued into its very DNA, that define the sort of experience that it is at its core, that can’t simply be patched away. Fallout games have always been about conveying a sense of loneliness and desolation, and I’m all for that- when it’s done right. Fallout 76’s highly publicized lack of human NPCs is a crippling flaw, and one that harms the game in more ways than one. The world feels emptier than Fallout worlds ever have, but while previous Fallout worlds felt meaningfully desolate, 76 feels hollow.
I don’t want to be overly critical of Fallout 76’s world, because admittedly, exploring it can be a lot of fun. Bethesda’s typically strong world design and their ability to litter a large map with tons of interesting sites to see and locations to explore is very much present here, and chancing upon a creepy looking mine or a mysterious crashed space station is as fun as you’d expect from a Fallout title. These locations are also elevated thanks to solid environmental storytelling, which Bethesda has a knack for. But these moments of delightful exploration serve as the exception in Fallout 76, not the rule. Because other than those moments, there’s nothing else to pull you in, nothing to make you want to keep coming back. The game’s quests, for instance, often tell you to go meet a person at place X or location Y- but you know that that person is already dead. It takes away the experience’s heart and soul.
"Without actual characters to invest in, there’s nothing to care about, which means the quests feel tedious and boring. It doesn’t help that the way they’re designed is something that isn’t even acceptable in side quests in most games these days."
Which serves as a segue into another one of Fallout 76’s biggest issues- its quests. Without actual characters to invest in, there’s nothing to care about, which means the quests feel tedious and boring. It doesn’t help that the way they’re designed is something that isn’t even acceptable in side quests in most games these days. A vast majority of them are, functionally speaking, fetch quests, with objectives that are uninteresting and dull, and setups that lack any sort of stakes and completely fail to engage you. Go boil water, go collect blood samples, go investigate this area (which more often than not means “go check the terminal over there”). It’s mind numbing to the highest degree.
While previous Fallout games could often mask occasionally boring quests with interesting characters or character interactions (which are completely missing here) and with interesting short stories and storytelling, Fallout 76 sheds all of that. The vast majority of storytelling is done through holotapes and reading documents on terminals- neither of them is an effective method in the slightest. Holotapes drone on and on endlessly, which seems completely at odds with a game where you always need to keep moving, and stopping to listen to a ten minute long tape about the most mundane things ever isn’t really an option. When you do stop to listen to them, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to hear them entirely, because the game often randomly cuts them off mid-sentence. What do you do then? Scroll through the clunky menus, peruse the list of holotapes in your possession, find the one you want, and listen through all of it once again- because they can’t be fast forwarded either.
So much of this could have been sidestepped if Bethesda hadn’t been so adamant on not having NPCs in their game. Fine, you want the world to feel even emptier and more desolate than previous games in the series- at least give us a hub area where there are a few NPCs, or anything that makes us care about the world, the quests, the story, and the game in general. Fallout 76’s solution to that problem is that you and other players play the role of NPCs. Every person you meet in the game is another player. That sounds like a fascinating concept on paper, and if it were executed properly, it could have opened the door to a plethora of engaging and immersive role playing activities and player interactions. But it’s not executed properly. The number of players in any given server is not very high, and these players are scattered across the entirety of the game’s vast map- which means the chances of running into other players are slim.
"Of the many crippling flaws that plague Fallout 76, one of the most prevalent has to be its technical deficiencies. I won’t mince words here- Fallout 76 is a mess."
When you do run into other players, it can be occasionally, mildly interesting. Trading with each other, haggling prices, or reluctantly overpaying for things you desperately need are moments that stand out, if simply because of how much more interactive they are than anything else in the game, while on the rare occasions that you come across another player being attacked by enemies, it’s fun to come to their aid, finish off the threat together, give each other a thumbs up, and then part ways once again. But beyond that, there’s really no reason to bother with anyone else you run into. That’s because Fallout 76 overcompensates for the possibility of griefing, and in the process becomes absolutely toothless, as far as PvP is concerned. There’s minimal punishment for dying – you only drop your junk – which means there’s minimal reward and incentive for killing another player as well – because that’s all they drop too.
If, by chance, the two of you trigger the in-game revenge mechanics, there’s a high possibility that you’ll find yourself in a pointless and repetitive cycle of dying, respawing not far from where you died, finding the person who killed you, killing them, and repeating the process over and over again. After a point, you’ll just decide to ignore PvP entirely. Beyond PvP, playing with your friends and other players is certainly fun. But it’s better in the way literally everything in this world is better with friends. The game’s glaring flaws are still very much present, you’re just more willing to tolerate them because you and your friends are being baffled by them together, and can at least get a laugh out of it.
Of the many crippling flaws that plague Fallout 76, one of the most prevalent has to be its technical deficiencies. I won’t mince words here- Fallout 76 is a mess. The visuals themselves look about as good as Fallout 4, if not worse, and Fallout 4 was a game with outdated visuals even three years ago. The art style, which is much more vibrant and varied in 76 than it ever has been in the series, deserves praise for sure, while the lighting engine used in the game is also quite effective, but everything else is just a complete mess. Frame rate drops are frequent and highly intrusive, often freezing the action in the middle of combat (or even outside of it) for several seconds at a time. Texture pop ins are a dime a dozen, and instantly noticeable- and not just for objects that are far off and distant, but sometimes even right in front of you as well.
"Fallout 76 looks like a ten year old game, and performs like one that should be either in beta or in early access. Except it’s a $60 game developed by one of the leading studios in the world."
The textures themselves look completely muddy and lacking in definition. The game suffers from ridiculously long loading times, which are quite frequent, because you’re faced with a loading screen while entering and exiting a lot of the buildings. Then there’s the bugs that you’d expect from any Bethesda game- enemies often stand around, completely frozen, and it’s not uncommon to find them standing in t-poses. Objects and debris can often be found floating in the air. Animations look janky and jittery. All of which is to say that Fallout 76 looks like a ten year old game, and performs like one that should be either in beta or in early access. Except it’s a $60 game developed by one of the leading studios in the world.
Fallout 76 is not a completely broken game. It’s not absolutely devoid of enjoyment, and every once in a while, it can live up to the franchise name it bears. The problem is that that enjoyment is buried under a mountainous pile of long stretches of boredom and emptiness, tedious and mind-numbing quests, baffling design choices, unbelievably bad technical issues, and a host of other problems that turn this into an experience that, frankly, has no business being out on shelves as a full-priced AAA game in its current state. What’s concerning is that even if the issues that can be fixed through patches and updates are ironed out, the core fundamentals of the game are deeply flawed.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Exploration is a lot of fun; Solid environmental storytelling can be occasionally effective; Strong art design; Trading with other players is well implemented; Can be fun when played with friends.
Navigating messy menus is a cumbersome process; Needlessly tacked on survival mechanics; Bad AI, pathfinding issues; Clunky combat; VATS is now little more than a glorified auto-targeting system, and doesn't always work very well; World feels hollow and empty due to lack of human NPCs, while running into other players also isn't a very common occurrence; Boring, tedious quest design; Hard to care about the plot or the quests in the absence of NPCs; Ineffective storytelling that is overly reliant on holotapes and terminal documents; Weirdly structured PvP is best left ignored, due to a lack of meaningful rewards or punishments; Ugly visuals that have no place in a 2018 game; Frequent and significant frame rate drops; A bucketload of highly intrusive technical issues;
While you can occasionally make your own fun in Fallout 76, this is still a game that is deeply flawed on multiple levels. While a lot of these issues can be ironed out by Bethesda in the coming months and years, there are some that are part of the game's DNA, and worryingly enough, define the entirety of the experience.