Fallout 76 Review
Recently this reviewer attended PAX: Aus, it was a wonderful experience and had, as a sponsor, Bethesda. Each morning the queue hall was festooned with Fallout 76 related imagery and, as the clock ticked to zero, confetti cannons would fire and Country Road was played loudly and proudly. As it played, fans would join in singing along at the top of their lungs caught up in the hype around its upcoming release. Each day I’d listen in to other gamers talking about the various tactics and strategies they were going to employ. Some were hoping to just explore, find other vaults and just take in all that Appalachia, West Virginia — our setting — had to offer. Others were eagerly looking forward to finding the nukes and laying waste to settlements and other players and partly complaining about the “soft” PvP elements Bethesda had decided to employ. I too was looking forward to this launch and was firmly in the exploring camp.
Now that the game has launched and been out for just over two weeks I sit here wondering what those gamers I queued up with would now be thinking. I’m sure many would have jumped on the bandwagon of hate directed towards Fallout 76, its developers and Bethesda itself. It seems that any game that doesn’t fit into the narrow requirements set by the largest subset of those that buy the game should be disliked without question. On the forums I frequent where discussions around Fallout 76 have arisen, anyone who’s seen as defending it against the tide of hate is given the dreaded label of “Fan Boy.” Now, I’m not here to say the criticisms being levelled at the foot of Fallout 76 and Bethesda aren’t unwarranted nor wrong; what I am going to argue is that Fallout 76 isn’t a bad game, it just isn’t the game that most Fallout fans wanted.
If we were to picture what most Fallout fans were probably after it’d be one full of the usual NPCs roaming the wastelands handing out quests. Alongside them would be the usual Raider factions and other, nuclear-based horrors. It would, hopefully, be one full of consequence whereby your actions would influence the world around you. If you started taking prisoners and trading them around you’d become known as a slaver. Perhaps you and your friends could start a triangle of trade or maybe your own clan in the game? Or maybe you would prefer a more sedate life, one as a trader perhaps?
Unfortunately Fallout 76 doesn’t cater for these fantasies or eventualities. There are no human NPCs, and missions appear as you enter locations or by the robot helpers who survived the war. Others are found in notes or journal entries on terminals and are only found if you explore. What Fallout 76 actually is, is a survival game and, if you think about it, that’s exactly what a multiplayer Fallout game in this setting should be like. As mentioned, our adventure takes place in Appalachia in West Virginia. You were in Vault 76 when the bombs fell which was home to the best and brightest minds the world had to offer. No weird experiments here with the Overseer tasked simply to keep everyone happy until Reclamation Day. At this point everyone was to leave the vault and set forth with the task of repopulating the world.
Unsurprisingly, the world that was found wasn’t quite what everyone was expecting. Vault 76’s Overseer had gone out first and it’s in their footsteps that you follow with many of your first missions being that of finding their holotapes and stashes dotted around the wasteland. Every other human survivor was a dweller in Vault 76 and, by extension, a fellow gamer rather than an NPC. It’s this lack of humans that has drawn plenty of criticism and rightly so. Whilst there’s an argument that there shouldn’t be too many as most of the other vaults won’t have opened yet, there should be plenty of survivors kicking around with stories to tell.
As it is, everything is learned though by reading, and lots of it. We can see where Bethesda were going with this thinking that it would encourage exploration and leave players’ imaginations to fill the gaps and theorise on what could’ve happened. What it actually does is disconnect the players from their environment. None of the robots you meet care about who you are or what you’ve been up to. They are there because the game demands it so that there’s someone kicking around to hand out quests.
There are no settlements to help, no traders to deal with and no consequence to your actions in the world. Sure, there is PvP, but during our playtime we were never shot at by a fellow player. In fact, everytime we met a fellow player we were more likely to go adventuring together than to fight. The result of all of this is a world that is teeming of things that could kill you yet, at the same time, feels bereft of life. Even then, there are issues with the things you meet out there in the wasteland.
Those who have played or know of the previous Fallout games will likely be familiar with its history or canon. Fallout 76, however, has decided that some parts of its canon needed to be changed and, to be fair to Bethesda, they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. To many the super mutants that roam Appalachia shouldn’t be there and whilst the Forced Evolutionary Virus (FEV) that created them existed at this time it wasn’t until a year later that “The Master” had begun creating an army in his image. Similarly, the Brotherhood of Steel wasn’t really in operation but their appearance here, along with the super mutants have been rather neatly explained. Had they not been included, however, plenty of gamers unfamiliar with their history would have been equally upset by their omission.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the look and feel of Fallout 76 as it continues to use Bethesda’s own Creation Engine. Whilst it has been reworked a touch allowing it to accommodate multiplayer as well as better draw distances, localised weather and new lighting models it still looks and plays like Fallout 4 and has many of its bugs along with it. While it’s an impossibility to expect a bug free game, numerous issues that have plagued Fallout 76’s launch have ranged from the weird to downright game-breaking. Some of the more severe instances were being unable to unequip power armour, having your limbs grown to Slenderman proportions, and one player’s character becoming invincible and thus unable to die.
Whilst not being able to die sounds great, it takes away Fallout 76’s core element which is survival. As you walk around the wasteland you need to keep an eye on your hunger and thirst very similar to survival mode in Fallout 4. You can also contract diseases if you sleep on mattresses or sleeping bags causing negative effects on your character for their duration. You can, of course, choose perk cards to put against your S.P.E.C.I.A.L (an acronym for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck) stats to help out. These perks take the form trading cards, each with assigned points. For example if you have five Strength points you can choose cards to that value. Cards can stack giving you great bonuses but taking up more points at the same time. The maximum amount of points you can have is fifty and forces you to think about your character and what build you’re looking for. In a yet-to-be-released patch you’ll be able to reassign points but at the moment once you’ve allocated all your points that’s it and that kind of explains Fallout 76 rather neatly — a work in progress.
The point that probably grates most with the majority of fans and players is the nagging feeling there we’re all a cog in a machine. Fallout 76 isn’t the first to feel like this nor is it the first to have a negative and disastrous opening. No Man’s Sky is probably the biggest of these in recent memory and, after many patches and updates, is a rather fun and enjoyable game to play. Whether or not Fallout 76 manages the same feat remains to be seen but this trend of releasing games that feels incomplete only to watch the developers release patch after patch — we’ve already had two forty-plus gigabyte patches for Fallout 76 — to get things to a playable state needs to stop.
That’s not to say that every game that receives patches is incomplete. Most of the time patches are there to resolve bugs, balance things out in online games if something’s become too overpowered, or sometimes to add in support for things like VR. What games like Fallout 76 do is take this to the extreme and when you have pre-orders, collectors editions and so forth setting back gamers well over £100 then it’s not unfair to expect that game to be complete with patches to perhaps balance things out and squash a few bugs with future DLC for new content. What we got at launch was a game that has bugs that have existed throughout the lifetime of Fallout 4, server crashes, exploits allowing gamers to level way faster than they should be and players finding their C.A.M.P — your base that you can construct using the same tools that debuted in Fallout 4 — has disappeared after logging off.
If you look hard enough you can see what Bethesda was going for and why they took some of the decisions around the gameplay. The lack of human NPCs, whilst a mistake in our eyes, was perhaps to encourage players to trawl every terminal and scrap of paper to piece together what happened after the bombs fell. Bringing in the supermutants and the Brotherhood of Steel was always going to happen as for many it’s not Fallout without them. Even turning the VATS targeting system into a slow-motion affair makes sense given the real-time setting it must now exist in. They were going for a survival game and, given the setting and the scenario, this all makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is releasing a broken, buggy mess of a game that will take many more patches to rectify. It’s going to take more than a few doses of Rad-Away to flush the toxicity surrounding Fallout 76 but perhaps, if they try hard enough, they may just end up with the game that everyone thought they were getting — just don’t mention the canvas bag.
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