Fallout has always been preoccupied with one principle; consequence. Its entire premise is based on the what if scenario of the Americans and Russians choosing mutually assured destruction, and the consequences the world faces in the decades following the launch of nuclear warheads that scorched the very earth itself. Settlements are built up with the fringes of humanity seeking to hold on, while the privileged few lucky enough to dwell in sophisticated vaults must maneuver around a strange and unfamiliar world.
Fallout 3 charged you with unravelling the consequences of your father’s actions, and what knock-on effect you had to the American Capitol should you have chosen not to continue his work. New Vegas juggled ideas of tribalism and choosing the lesser of two evils on a derelict and iconic strip in a desolate wasteland. Even Fallout 4, with its less impactful main story, contained alluring character stories that reacted to the choices you made around its world, and who you chose to align yourself with during its tenure.
Fallout 76’s greatest misstep is its reluctance to acknowledge any of this. It strips out consequence from the equation, boiling Fallout’s aging mechanics down to their cores and putting far too much responsibility on their shoulders. It attempts to pivot these carefully managed narrative idiosyncrasies to its players, hoping that dynamic stories and largely random instances of play make up for its own lifeless narrative misgivings. It’s a strategy that not only doesn’t work, but ends up making Fallout 76 drab, uninteresting and a chore to play.
In Fallout 76 you play as a citizen of Vault 76, located in the forest-dense and autumn auburn region of Appalachia, West Virginia. With the vault doors opening well ahead of many you’ve encountered in previous entries, the goal of your character is different – examine what has become of the surface, and start preparing it for settlers from other vaults. At least, that’s the window dressing provided. There’s little in both Fallout 76’s story and its quest structures that makes you feel like your progressing towards that goal. Instead, you mostly hear from settlers before you, take in stories from those unlucky enough to have space in a vault themselves, and reminisce on unsolved stories from what feels like a different time. Fallout 76 wants you to feel like you’re contributing to a future, but its story never unshackles itself from the past.
That might have been an interesting space to explore, but Fallout 76’s quests squander their chances. Their objectives are one-note and boring from the start, never progressing past a transparent fetch and return structure. Ideas feel so thin at the beginning that the game makes a big deal out of making you fetch water and boiling it or collecting blood samples from enemies just to be told that yes, they’re pretty messed up. Most of Fallout 76’s quests have you listening to recordings of the past and following a breadcrumb trail to the next one – conveniently marked for you so that you can feel like you’re just bouncing from one end of the map to the next. None of it feels engaging, and it’s mostly down to its disconnect from the world itself.
Fallout 76 doesn’t have traditional NPCs, instead letting its world be populated by mostly monotone robots and the unpredictable ramblings of other players. For quests, this entirely removes any sense of emotional gravitas from your actions. You’re often just chasing shadows, eventually stumbling upon the corpses of the people whose recordings you’ve had on repeat and being directed to yet another faceless robot for your next quest. You’re never making choices about how to resolve disputes or putting yourself in the center of smaller personal tales because they simply aren’t there. Your actions in Fallout 76 don’t resonate beyond the reward you get for completion, which is usually a handful of caps and a bunch of ammunition to make the journey to the next waypoint a little easier.
Having other players in the world doesn’t alleviate this at all, primarily because there’s not enough breadth to Fallout 76’s multiplayer to allow for dynamic storytelling. When you’re partied up with friends Fallout 76 is certainly more entertaining, but that’s only because it feels tuned more towards that style of play. Hordes of enemies are easier to cut through and random world events (which are hardly ever more than just defending against waves of enemies) are easier to deal with.
There aren’t frameworks in place that let other players fill the roles of missing NPCs though, which makes the game’s reliance on them to fill the gap feel misguided. When you want to purchase something, you’ll rarely find reason to try and barter with another player when a nearby robot operated stand can just serve the same purpose. You’re not incentivised to hunt for scraps with other players because everyone has their own stash and moving items between them is arduous and time consuming. The only real incentive to travel with other players is to get a taste of some party exclusive abilities, which help you level up faster thanks to useful XP boosts contained within.
But questing with others is a chore, given that each individual player needs to complete the same objectives individually. When quests throw mundane objectives your way like picking up ten bottles of beer or requiring you to interact with a terminal, needing to wait around for every player to complete each task instead of them being tallied up collectively is painful.
Bethesda’s desire to avoid the toxic trappings of other survival focused multiplayer games (like this year’s Rust) has inadvertently neutered Fallout 76’s PvP aspect entirely. If you engage another player in combat, they will take negligible damage until they choose to fire back, at which point its fair game. But like most aspects of the overall product, there’s no incentive to even engage in the first place. Killing an opponent will reward you with a minuscule number of currency bottle caps, while dying will only inconvenience you with a short respawn and a quick trip back to your death site (since you can spawn practically anywhere that’s marked on the map).
Breaking into other player settlements lets you use their workbenches for free, while your stash will magically be teleported to any stash crate you happen upon. There’s no need to build fortifications because other players can’t influence your game. That completely removes griefing, but also leaves no reason for PvP to exist either. Aside from capturing and contesting limited resource stockpiles around the map, which is only required for a late-game grind towards server affecting nukes, there’s little reason beyond mitigating Fallout 76’s quest design to engage with other players.
Without a cohesive and compelling story to drive progression or meaningful player interactions to wander upon, most of Fallout 76’s enjoyment hinges on its core combat and exploration. The latter is surprisingly captivating – almost the sole part of Fallout’s identity that hasn’t been lost in this transformation. Exploring Appalachia is engrossing, despite the few interesting items it has scattered around for you to find. It’s still fascinating to explore a completely desolate world, piecing together parts of separate lives extinguished by the conflicts of years past. Fallout has always had a strong sense of place and setting, and that doesn’t change in West Virginia’s varied landscapes and abandoned cities.
In contrast, combat feels worse than it has ever been in a Fallout title, which is surprising given that it isn’t far removed from what Fallout 4 presented. Without interesting quests to get sucked into or characters driving you forward, Fallout 76’s combat reveals how repetitive and shallow it really is. Shooting lacks a distinct punch to it, while also feeling woefully inaccurate and dissatisfying to repeat for hours on end. Enemy variety doesn’t spice things up either, especially since you’ll only be briefly flirting with Super Mutants and irradiated monstrosities after extended bouts with new Scorched Ghouls (for all intents and purposes, humans with guns that are just not called humans).
VATS, Fallout’s strategic limb-targeting system, is no longer that useful either, given that you can’t pause a game that is being constantly networked. Instead everything just happens in real-time, making the interface more counter-intuitive and the outcome less effective than just aiming yourself. Nothing about Fallout 76’s combat feels exciting anymore, and it hasn’t for a long time. But 76’s stripping away of engaging elements around it just makes that more apparent.
Survival is also a key concern in Fallout 76, and you’ll need to watch hunger and hydration meters as much as your ammo counter in this wasteland expedition. Finding resources for food and water are easy enough, but the speed at which these meters drain is incredibly fast. You’ll be topping up on squirrel bits and boiled water frequently if you want to have enough energy to sprint around, which means you need to always keep cooking stations close by. That’s where Fallout 76’s CAMP comes into play, letting you carry around an assortment of structures that you can deploy in the small spaces between marked areas on the map (which can be surprisingly difficult). The game encourages you to build an elaborate homestead, filled with defenses, crops and workstations that truly make it feel like home. But none of it feels worth the effort, especially when your entire camp is packed up and moved into storage if another player decides to build over your space while you’re not around.
Hours of work crafting your perfect home can be undone in seconds, so I never felt inclined to stick to the bare minimum of a bed, somewhere to cook, a stash for the piles of resources I had and some stations to turn them into something. Building up a base is no less cumbersome than it was in Fallout 4, but crafting has been streamlined to make it easier to craft important armour and weapons. It’s still a chore to look for specific crafting materials when some feature in abundance and others are inexplicably rare, but thankfully neither the CAMP or its crafting is really required if you explore Fallout 76’s world enough.
What isn’t impossible to avoid is Fallout 76’s lacklustre presentation. Despite some inviting and warm lighting during the day which plays off the vibrant colours of autumn, Fallout suffers from flat, unappealing textures and numerous visual hiccups that disconnect you from its world. Buildings will regularly not have their textures load in, and sometimes not load in at all given the circumstances. Technical issues are abundant in performance too, with regular stutters and lock-ups making simple exploration frustrating. Enemies will sometimes not react to your fire, while other times respawning immediately after death. That’s if you don’t come across them in default “T-Pose” stances as Fallout 76 rushes to try and activate them, stripping out any semblance that you’re exploring a living world. Bethesda is known for its rocky relationship with technically polished RPGs, but Fallout 76 feels borderline broken most of the time.
It might have been easy to overlook if the content underneath these issues was compelling to seek out, but Fallout 76’s chief issue is that nothing about it attempts to hook your interest for that long. Its story and quests are mundane to follow, its lack of characterisation a big blow to the ability of its setting to tell a story. There’s still fun to be had poking around its desolate world, and it’s certainly easier to do with a few friends in tow. But there’s little incentive to spend a lot of time in Appalachia, and even less in its framework to suggest that there’s hope for radical change soon. Fallout 76 isn’t just a disappointing multiplayer game, it’s a tragically boring Fallout entry that doesn’t require your attention.
Last Updated: November 21, 2018