Fallout 76 Review
Who knew West Virginia was so rocky?
War never changes, but the Fallout series certainly has. Over the lifetime of the series it has shifted from isometric RPG to first-person action RPG to what some would classify simply as a first-person adventure, and now with Fallout 76 the franchise is taking that adventure and putting it online. RPG elements are toned down, action is ramped up, and players will spend far more time looting and shooting than ever before. This bold experiment with both the Fallout series and online multiplayer gameplay could have led to either a refreshing new take on both or a cluster of odd gameplay mechanics that don’t really work well together. Unfortunately it’s much more of the latter.
Fallout 76 opens much like every other Fallout game from the Bethesda era of the franchise. You awake inside of Vault 76, explore a bit, learn the basics of the game, then head out into the world to start your long, epic adventure. What’s different is that this vault wasn’t a part of some weird experiment, and it’s the first to open, leading to a fresh, mostly unexplored world for your adventure to take place in. Oh, and there’s noone around to talk to except for some robots.
It’s odd how jarring this is, even if you knew it was coming long ago. Fallout 76 is an online multiplayer focused title, and so Bethesda opted to not include any living NPCs to chat with. This makes sense, but the consequences are far more severe than anyone could have anticipated. From its very first moments these issues are apparent, with Vault 76 showing all the signs of a massive party with dozens of people present, but when you walk through it feels like a ghost town. That feeling continues as you leave the Vault too, with the usual vault door opening still offering a sense of wonder and intrigue as you look upon the massive, lush world that Bethesda has built within West Virginia.
That wonder and intrigue will quickly dissipate as you explore that seemingly beautiful world though. Yes, the mixture of orange, yellow, red, and green foliage is impressive at first, but as you get closer you can see that this is simply a very light coat of paint over the drab and dull world that is underneath it all. Textures are muddy, objects feature simplistic geometry, and the world never truly comes alive in any significant way. Which might be worth it if the game ran well, but even on a powerful PC it chugs along. Fallout 76 is built atop the same foundation as Fallout 4, New Vegas, 3, and more Bethesda titles than can be listed. That’s not bad by itself, but this engine is really feeling old at this point, with its flaws on display for all to see.
Bethesda intends you to play Fallout 76 one way, but fails to actually deliver on that experience
And that continues beyond the visuals and world design and right to the core of the gameplay. Fallout 76 is ostensibly a loot shooter, where the core of the gameplay is traveling around the world, killing enemies, and grabbing the items they were holding/protecting. Fallout 4 and its predecessors never really had the best shooting mechanics, but VATS and the RPG nature of the experience made up for it. However, that’s not the case with 76, as the poor shooting mechanics remain, but VATS has become something totally different, and mostly useless, and enemies are even dumber than before.
It would be difficult to oversell how bad Fallout 76’s enemy AI is at the moment. When they aren’t glitching, which happens far too often, they are just dumb. Of course, as all enemies are infected or irradiated humans/animals, that’s not surprising, but the Scorched and Super Mutants act like intelligent beings. They duck behind cover, taking shots at you whenever you’re exposed. They just never do this well, and it is both easier and more convenient to just cheese them by waiting until they get stuck somewhere so you can pick them off with headshots from a distance, popping a Stimpak when necessary.
This is both because their AI is bad and also because shooting isn’t a rewarding activity. While other loot shooters have struggled with gameplay elements, they usually feature fun and exciting gunplay. Fallout 76 does not. Bethesda knew that they couldn’t put together solid gunplay way back when they made Fallout 3, which is why VATS was crafted to compensate for that (not that VATS was new, just how it worked in first-person). Here VATS is not helpful at best, and is broken and annoying at worst.
Having to function in real time simply breaks the feature, which now functions by locking your aim on the target, displaying a real time percentage that your shot will hit. Firing this way will get you a few good hits, but you’ll run out of AP fast and then have to re-aim at your target once you are back in control. Even if you have good aim, Fallout 76 features hefty input lag and network latency which often leads to good shots going astray. So the best strategy is to just deal with the poor aiming and take enemies out without VATS, which works just fine since most enemies are so easy to kill that you’ll be dispatching them at a huge level disadvantage, even when playing solo. And if you die, there’s little to no impact, so just respawn, grab your dropped loot if you care about it, and continue as you were.
Fallout 76 wasn’t really made for people to play solo, and yet that seems to be how most are getting through it. For one, the PC social features are broken. At this time I have a friend request that cannot be accepted due to it being bugged. Finding and joining other players in-game does work well thankfully, so if you luck upon like-minded players, or you’re on consoles, playing with friends will work better. The game just doesn’t require it, and without that incentive to team up, few will take the extra effort. PvP likewise is half-baked, featuring little reward for the time and energy it requires, and little consequence for those who ignore it entirely. Once you do get into the real multiplayer meat of the game, playing cooperatively with a group of friends, it improves significantly, but only enough to not be truly unpleasant.
Adventuring together, completing missions, taking over workshops, defending against other players. All of this works better than the standard experience players get out of Fallout 76. These things build up later in the game though, and it feels like most players will abandon the game before ever reaching these more enjoyable parts. If you’re able to trudge through the level grind, and have some friends to play with, Fallout 76 can open up into something of what was promised, but that’s a big if.
A lot of this is par for the course when it comes to Bethesda games. They’ve had an old engine for awhile, and that has resulted in players expecting buggy experiences. The world, atmosphere, and story made up for it, but Fallout 76 removes most of this. The world is lifeless and dull, there’s little atmosphere beyond “West Virginia in the Fall”, and the story is broken by the design constraints of an always online multiplayer game.
You aren’t the grand savior here, you mostly follow in other people’s footsteps, listening to their very convenient recordings of what they did and what they need you to do. The whole main quest feels similar to those opening moments in Vault 76. Something interesting happened here awhile back, and now you are just wandering around by yourself through the remnants of that seemingly more interesting event. Robots bring some life to the world, especially one you meet fairly early in the main quest, but unless you enjoy reading text entries and listening to tons of holotapes you likely won’t get out of the story what Bethesda intended.
At the end of the day Fallout 76 does deliver somewhat on the promise made by Bethesda.
This feels like the fatal flaw of Fallout 76. Bethesda intends you to play one way, but fails to actually deliver on that experience. The core gameplay outside of shooting seems to be focused on exploring, looting, and building. Hard limits on your carry weight and Stash make looting a chore though. A huge amount of your time with the game will simply be wrestling with the inventory. Even the simple act of exploring the world can be annoying due to the survival mechanics. You can no longer spend endless hours wandering and collecting loot unless you plan ahead and bring plenty of food and water, otherwise you have to break away from what you want to do to hunt or scavenge. This would be fine if the survival mechanics added something to the experience, but they’re pretty much just a way to keep you actively grinding for the requisite items.
And there are many other odd or bad design choices mixed throughout the game. Why do you have to cycle through your inventory to read plans? Why don’t they automatically get added to your character upon picking them up? Why is the Pip-Boy interface not modified for faster access? When it paused the whole world, it was fine navigating its clumsy but thematic interface, but it’s a different story when Super Mutants can bash your skull in as you do it. Why is weight so odd? A handful of bobby pins should not weigh a full pound. Why are so many buildings empty or boarded up?
At the end of the day Fallout 76 does deliver somewhat on the promise made by Bethesda. It’s an always online, multiplayer followup to Fallout 4 and its predecessors. Of course, to make that work they had to remove most of the story content, and all feeling of interactivity with other characters within the world. It is still somewhat of an RPG, with your character leveling up via Perks. These are cumbersome and confusing however, marking a definite downgrade from the leveling systems of the past. The looting and building mechanics are all still there though, and if that’s what you played Fallout for, and you can ignore the unfinished feel of the game, then you’ll have a good time with 76. Unfortunately, that’s not what a lot of players enjoyed about FO4, leaving them with the feeling that Fallout 76 is all the bad stuff from that game, with much less of the good.
Fallout 76 is a bold experiment with one of gaming’s biggest and most beloved franchises. Unfortunately the experiment seems like a failure so far. Bugs and glitches are everywhere, but worse is that the core principles of design just don’t function the way they seem like they should. Concessions had to be made in all facets of the experience to make multiplayer work, and sadly the benefits do not outweigh the costs. If you have a good group of dedicated players that will help you dig into the deeper, higher level parts of the game then it starts to grow into something unique and fun. Without that though, most players will abandon the game long before the more interesting elements develop.
- Available On: PS4, Xbox One, PC
- Published By: Bethesda
- Developed By: Bethesda Game Studios
- Genre: Action RPG
- US Release Date: November 14th, 2018
- Reviewed On: PC
- Quote: "Fallout 76 is a bold experiment with one of gaming's biggest and most beloved franchises. Unfortunately the experiment seems like a failure so far."