Let me lay down my biases up front. I do love fallout; I’ve clocked an irresponsible number of hours in 4 and New Vegas over the last few years. I gel with the art direction, I like the setting and I love a good open world. I, however, also ardently defended Fallout 76 when it was announced. I saw the potential in a multiplayer only fallout and was eagerly anticipating re-entering the wasteland no matter what form that took. Finally, the game drops, and I find myself dumbstruck. I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed.
Fallout 76 is a frustrating game to discuss because I really want to like it, and there are times when I genuinely do. But there are some fundamental flaws with the game, and I worry they may not be fixable in post. Let’s start by looking at the good though–I want to give credit where its due. The game is visually stunning; this is the best a creation engine has ever looked, and it pairs beautifully with the vibrant landscape of atomic West Virginia. The game has a warmer colour palette than previous games, making the landscape very inviting. It makes the experience of just walking around fun, but we’ll come back to that. The great visual design carries over to the player customisation. More players means there needs to be visual diversity in items (especially armour) in order for you to tell each other apart and express yourself. 76 manages to integrate all these new designs pretty seamlessly (I especially like some of the new power armours).
The standard combat mechanics are the best they’ve ever been in a modern Fallout, and this is good since the highlight of the game is encountering and fighting the large array of new and incredibly interesting monster-minibosses. In my time with the game, these encounters were all fun and unique enough to each leave a lasting impression. The design team clearly had a lot of fun with these things and it shows.
But you knew this part was coming from the title. The first and most obvious issue is the optimisation. I don’t care how nice your car is, if you put a broken engine in it it’s not going to get us anywhere. There was a no-clip documentary released about 76’s development which stated that the way the creation engine worked was not only not suited for multiplayer but was basically the diametric opposite of a multiplayer engine. And it shows, this game runs abysmally. But of course it does, they broke the engine so bad to force in multiplayer, it’s honestly incredible it runs at all. This also means the game is buggier than ever, and the classic Bethesda bugs lose their charm in a multiplayer setting where you can’t just idly reload a save when shit fucks up. I could list bugs all day, but one noteworthy one was an audio glitch that caused loud gunshots to go off behind me randomly. In a game with PVP, that is unacceptably bad.
But the problems extend past mere bugs and into design decisions. VATs just don’t work now. Given bullet time simply can’t work in multiplayer, VATs has been re-imagined as an auto-targeting system. This would have been the right decision had it worked; however, without the slow-motion the calculations are erratic, especially with the more frantic monsters, leaving you doomed to miss as a 90% hit rate suddenly drops to 0% as a ghoul walks behind a coffee table.
Unfortunately, the greatest issues with the game are those made by choice. The world may be pretty but there just isn’t much to do. Quest lines are effectively just following post-it notes from one place to another. The stories might be interestingly written, but without actual direct interactions with characters, they’re not engaging, and there is no overarching narrative short of “you must rebuild”. They stripped out the 2 core driving forces of the Fallout franchise, which you can only do if you replace them with equally engaging and substantial features. Player interaction is just not enough in its current form. I do think the idea of a huge map with limited players could have been the right way to do it, but the interactions aren’t meaningful. PVP is really easy to avoid and even if you do die the lack of permadeath removes a lot of the bite and tension a survival game usually has. The survival mechanics themselves are serviceable, but they’re not trying to innovate with them so they’re not espe cially interesting. Very quickly most people will develop a live-and-let-live attitude, at which point other players barely factor in and you’re left with a lukewarm survival game and a pretty but empty landscape to explore.
I really enjoyed my time with Fallout 76 for the first 6 hours or so. Then, due to scheduling, my party had to disband. But I still wanted to play, so I kept on going and very quickly realised that the game wasn’t fun, I was just doing something new with mates I had history with. Any game can be fun with friends so that’s not a valid defence. I enjoyed aliens colonial marines, but that’s only because my 3 mates and I bought it for £3 each so we could riff on it in multiplayer. Sure, it might be fun with a group of fallout enthusiast friends, but the game underneath is hollow and broken. If the base under the multiplayer isn’t a well designed game, then the experience is going to have no longevity. I pray support for this game is good because I want it to one day be great, but at the time of writing it’s just a disappointment. If you were on the fence, hold off for a couple of months and see if Bethesda make good on their claims of heavy patching.