Developers: Bethesda Game Studios, Bethesda Game Studios Austin
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release date: November 14, 2018
Available on: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
The Fallout series has changed over the years, most notably between the second and third entry. But it has been a primarily solo experience, where the player is a lone traveler making his/her way across the desolate landscape that once was the United States following a nuclear war. Now with Fallout 76, Bethesda dives into MMO territory, where players can meet others as they trek through Appalachia (the game’s representation of West Virginia), or journey with up to three friends. If you’re part of a party, the journey can become a group effort as you try to survive and follow the footsteps of the Overseer from the fabled Vault 76. Traveling solo is a much more perilous and often lonely affair, with groups of ghouls, super mutants, robots, and mutated beasts that are just looking to kill you. There are no NPCs in the towns to engage and hook up with, instead relying on you to make contact with other players.
So how does Fallout 76 stack up?
At launch, it’s a mixed bag. Not much changed between my time with the B.E.T.A. and the full version of the game, though it was a nice thing that my character and progress carried over. Visually the game looks pretty enough, with plenty of nice details in the environment and some nice lighting effects like shafts of sunlight shining down through the trees. There are a lot of colors in this version of the apocalypse, as it’s autumn in Appalachia when you emerge from the Vault. The character creator is fairly robust, on par with past Bethesda titles, and it does have the inclusion of a decent photo mode, though this being an online game time does not pause while you’re setting up that perfect shot. As a result, you can get ambushed while in both the photo mode as well as in your Pip-Boy.
The Pip-Boy can be set to occupy the full screen, or be a more transparent display and appear to the left. I recommend the more transparent display, as you get some better warning when you have unwelcome company. Feral ghouls tend to be the biggest annoyances, along with mole rats, but any thing can intrude while you’re sorting out inventory or even leveling up. The SPECIAL perks system is tweaked, having you open a deck of cards which can be stacked under each of your attributes. How many cards you can stack depends on the amount of points you have per attribute. Like cards can be combined to create a higher level perk, but will then need the requisite amount of points in the attribute to equip. It’s a fairly neat system to help tailor your character to your own style of gameplay, whether you want one bulked up on Strength or wish for a more rounded character.
Items and weapons can be assigned to a favorites wheel, brought up by the upper directional button. The right direction button is used for quick access to stimpacks to heal you, the left direction button allows you to quickly swap between two weapons, and the down direction button brings up your emotes to communicate with other players. The emotes can work on a very basic level, but aren’t always as effective when trying to communicate with strangers. Playing with friends using a microphone and headset works far better, and helps to have on even for encounters with other players that you meet in game. There is a way to mute other players’ mikes, if they have one on an icon next to their gamer tag lets you know this, but because encounters with only players can be rare, it’s not much of an issue to do so. Since most of my time was spent playing solo, I never had my own mic on, but I encountered others who did.
The wheel works well enough when you’re not under pressure, but feels clumsy when you’re trying to access a different weapon or healing item quickly. The weapon swap button often switched me between to useless weapons that were both out of ammo, and when swarmed with an enemy group the result was more often than not a cheap death. Your weapons and armor will degrade over time, so you need to check on their condition from time to time and swap them out for ones in better shape. You need to go to your Pip-Boy for that information, which while in combat is very cumbersome and often fatal, since the game does not pause for you as it did with the single player campaigns of past titles. Broken weapons can be broken down for resources at crafting benches which are scattered throughout the game.
You can also build the crafting benches in your C.A.M.P., should you have the necessary plans and materials. Plans to outfit your C.A.M.P., as well as recipes for food and healing items, need to be found and then learned through your Pip-Boy. If you like your design, you can make a blueprint of your C.A.M.P. and store them for an easy rebuild when you need to create a base on your journey. While you can relocate your C.A.M.P., be aware that you needs caps, the game’s currency, to do so, even over very short distances. To pick up your C.A.M.P. and move it inside a structure, you need to switch to the modify screen and highlight what you wish to relocate. Building a base requires an open area, as the game prevents you from building too close to existing structures. Coming across the resources to build can be a chore, and can be very inconsistent. Collecting wood, which is needed for both building and cooking (you’ll need wood to make a recipe, even though the visual for the cooking craft bench shows a burning fire), can be irksome at times. Logs that look similar won’t always permit you to get wood chips, and you seem to have to point at a certain variable spot on the log to collect wood scraps. How many scraps of wood can vary wildly, and it can be a real guessing game as to whether you can collect a resource or not.
Any loot you gather in the wilderness needs to be scrapped for resources or stored in a chest at your C.A.M.P.. Storing loot is the easiest way to make sure it stays safely in your possession, since if you are killed, you’ll need to return to that spot to recover your loot. That too can be cumbersome, as you need to take each item separately instead of with one button press to grab the whole lot. I’ve also had my loot prevent me from picking it back up, and even vanish entirely. That can be very frustrating, especially if you had a number of stimpacks among your loot. Respawning can be done wherever you choose, if you have the caps. Respawning at a base or very close to your place of death is usually free, but respawning too close can put you in the way of enemies again. Moving down the road to the nearest discovered landmark or town might be a safer bet, but if you don’t have the caps on hand, you’ll be stuck. You have to watch your weight limit as well, since if you become over-encumbered you won’t be able to fast travel or move quickly.
The VATS system returns in a tweaked form, and can be used as a quick targeting device as long as you have enough AP. You can eventually learn to target specific parts, but there is no pause, and as a result lag may cause the VATS to not lock on properly. It can also be inconsistent in enemy damage delivered, as I’ve had solid shots deal no damage, and those I thought missed deliver a fatal blow. Aiming manually can require a decent amount of dexterity. Those skilled at FPS multiplayer games like Battlefield or Call of Duty should have little problem with manual aim, while those more used to solo campaigns on more forgiving difficulty levels may find themselves struggling or dying more often, especially if going alone.
The story line for the game is fairly thin, as it has you merely tracing the steps of the Overseer from Vault 76. Along the way, different side missions open, given by robots (the only NPCs you’ll encounter). The map is very large, four times that of the one in Fallout 4, and missions can sometimes require you to traverse over long distances. Solo this makes things very lonely, as you won’t encounter any settlements or towns occupied by survivors. Other players serving in place of NPCs may be a novel idea, but in practice it feels very lacking, especially when compared to the living, breathing game worlds of other recent games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or Red Dead Redemption 2. Even the enemy types seem far and few in between, and lacking in variety. This being an ongoing online game may see that change over time or as you reach different points on the map, but at launch the world seems more lifeless overall, with packs of enemies crowded around quest points. While the exploring and discovering new places, as well as the deep crafting system, is good enough to keep you coming back, there is no real strong story to keep you engaged. For some, that will be an experience killer.
Also a bit on the annoying side is the survival aspect, where you constantly need to eat and drink. Getting recipes and learning them can expand your menu, but you’ll need wood for everything at your cooking station. Fresh water can be extremely problematic to come upon in spots, and even drinking boiled water will hit you with extra radiation. Fruits for some reason don’t provide any water benefit along with food, but soups do. The other thing you need to be mindful of is catching diseases. Parasites can take your food intake down, and dysentery can affect your water level. Finding or making disease cures can alleviate this, though it can be a chore finding the resources to do so. Diseases run their course over time, so it’s up to you if you just want to ignore them. You can also mutate through exposure to ill effects, like swimming through an irradiated river, but they too cure themselves with time or Radaway. Using any stimulants affects your hunger and thirst, so you need to be mindful of that if your food and water items are in shorter supply.
The host of technical problems, from screen tearing to frame rate slowdown, can be rampant at times. When the game runs smoothly, it works like a charm. When it doesn’t, it can lead to glitches that can be very frustrating and cause cheap deaths. Some glitches can be more amusing, such as watching a Scorched slide across the ground as if on ice or having your character in third person reduced to a floating head. I’ve been booted out of the servers twice. It is worth noting, however, that not all players will encounter these issues and experiences that do can vary in frequency. My daughter is playing the game on the same PS4 as I am, and she’s had a smoother time of it, while I’ve encountered a lot of issues. None of this is game breaking so far, but it will end your game play session sooner than you may have intended.
At launch, Fallout 76 can be a technical mess. While it’s fun enough to play to keep me coming back for daily game sessions of around 2-3 hours, it’s not enough to hook me to keep playing as to the exclusion of other games. Other players can be few and far between, and unless you have a group of dedicated friends to play with, the game can be a very lonely experience. Survivor diaries and holotapes offer some fill in to the story and in creating the game lore, but they’re not enough to make you forget the lack of NPCs or the fact that the world feels lifeless. While I can recommend playing the game, at launch it’s not a must play, and purchasing may depend more on the size of your wallet or if you’re a die hard fan of the series. It does have the potential for becoming a great game down the road, so keep n mind the score at the bottom of this review only reflects how the game is at launch. But games have launched poorly before, only to reach their true potential six months to a year later (No Man’s Sky is a great example of this). Keeping that in mind, this is worthy trek through the apocalypse, despite its issues. Just take a friend along to talk to. Feral ghouls make for lousy conversation partners.