The Wasteland was always lonely, but it wasn’t meant to be this lonely.
More than anything, Fallout 76 is an experiment. What if you took the vast wasteland of Fallout 4, added in other human players, and removed all the human NPCs? What would you end up with? Like with all experiments though, the results can be unknown. Risks have been taken with this game there’s no doubt – three years after Fallout 4 was released Bethesda could have released a Fallout 5, or Fallout: New Vegas style offshoot, but instead of a deep single-player campaign Bethesda has decided to focus more on shared experiences and emergent gameplay. Instead of unique player narrative choice, they have leaned heavily into the setting and providing a backdrop for you to try and make your own fun. Fallout, but multiplayer sounds simple, but, as Fallout 76 shows, it actually raises far more questions around mechanics, storytelling and gameplay than Fallout 76 attempts to answer.
And with AAA game development costing tens millions of dollars the downsides of risks can be enormous. Not only to profit margins, but to the lives and incomes of hundreds of developers. And with the current state of Fallout 76, those livelihoods do seem at risk.
Fallout 76 starts with your character (whom you can customise to your heart’s desire) waking up on “Reclamation Day” in Vault 76. This is the first vault to open after apocalyptic thermonuclear war, and introduces you to a humongous open world set only 25 years into the post-apocalypse. There, you follow in the footsteps of the vault’s Overseer, always one step behind her as she comes to terms with what the world’s become, and a new scourge that threatens to destroy the few survivors of the first war. There are, of course, a myriad of other quests, but the biggest change in Fallout 76 is that there are no human NPCs in the world to give you those quests – only robots left over. There are signs of humans everywhere, who have seemingly just left or been killed minutes before you showed up, but this “just missed it” tic gets old fast and is unsustainable over the entire game’s narrative. While the writing in the game is generally pretty good, the lack of conversations with human NPCs, and especially the branching narrative choices that have so far defined Fallout feels like an unnecessary step backwards. Even though there are other real-life players jumping around the map with you, it still manages to feel more distant, and more lonely, than it feels it should be.
Commensurate with the decreasing importance of the story is the increase in combat. Shooting is improved, and the best that has ever been in a 3D Fallout game. That said, it doesn’t compare to almost any other first person shooter out there, and melee combat is the same unsatisfying flailing around that it has been since at least Elder Scrolls IV. There’s a new quick-switch radial menu for your weapons, which is a good start (as combat now can’t be paused) but still felt a bit fiddly when trying to switch between weapons in the middle of a firefight. VACS too, is now realtime and works more like an aimbot than a semi-turn-based alternative combat mode. It’s fine, but feels less unique than in previous 3D Fallout games.
Graphically, Fallout 76 is a slight upgrade to what we are familiar within Fallout 4. At its core the Creation Engine still powers the game, and brings along with it all the benefits and downsides that you can expect. For example lighting was one of Fallout 4’s redeeming graphical features, and it makes a huge, gorgeous return here. But only in outdoor areas – indoor lighting appears straight-up broken, giving everything a slick, oily sheen to it.
Vegetation density too has been turned up to 11, with increased variety and vibrancy of trees and plants. It results in a strange aesthetic, though not unwelcome, giving the game a halfway-house feel somewhere in the middle of Skyrim and a traditional Fallout. It certainly manages to stand out from other games in the series but compared to its contemporary AAA releases like Horizon Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey it looks like something from last generation.
Unfortunately that aesthetic is combined with innumerate glitches, bugs and unexpected behaviour. In just one small example I sat down at a terminal computer to read some line of dialogue that would send me onto the next part of the quest – something that happens hundreds of times throughout the story – only for the game to completely lock up, not loading the computer screen or giving me any control over my character or even Xbox at all. My only saving grace was that a nearby enemy killed me, allowing me to respawn and give it another go.
Other small annoyances permeate the game too. Your stash size, for example is only a maximum of 400, far too small when you’re carrying everything you need with you at all times. Yes, there’s a stash box but its finicky to use and access. Fortunately, Bethesda have said that they are increasing the size from 400 to 600 and potentially even more, so this specific issue should be addressed, but its emblematic of a bizarre lack of understanding and foresight of how the game systems and players would actually interact.
And that’s nothing to say of the game’s performance. Tested on both the Xbox One S and the Xbox One X – the current gen’s most powerful console, performance was dire on the latter and simply atrocious on the former. Firefights in particular were horrendous, with frames routinely dropping into what felt like the single digits. Texture pop-in was rampant, animation delays and broken geometry prevalent across the entire game world, and on the Xbox One S the low resolution topped by seemingly-temporal anti-aliasing, resulting in a smeary mess that makes it hard to discern the brown enemies from the brown environment. It’s truly Early Access level of quality, and is so bad on Microsoft’s cheaper console that it’s hard to recommend at all on that machine.
I could go on, but it’s fair to say that not all experiments are a success, and during the experiment you often realise that what you’re trying to do isn’t what you thought it would be. This is the experience of playing Fallout 76, an experiment gone wrong, with a huge amount of additional self-inflicted woes. Some of the game’s issues are fundamental to the idea of a multiplayer Fallout, but there are so many other issues that should have been addressed, or better thought out before the game shipped. And that’s nothing to say of the bugs, glitches and performance issues that belie the game’s supposed AAA status.
Still, still, this is a Fallout world, and there isn’t anything else quite like it out there. Perhaps it is nostalgia for Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas keeping me going, the familiarity of a super mutant or red rocket, but Fallout 76 retains some of the atmosphere of its better antecedent games. That may be enough for some, but it can’t power the hundreds of hours in the game Bethesda perhaps expected. Who knows? Fallout 76 may be the new No Man’s Sky or Destiny, with a poor start yet be brilliant in one, two or three years. Those games though, had some compelling core mechanic that kept a faithful few around. I can’t say the same for this latest, worst, Fallout.
Released: November 2018
Platforms: Xbox One