Almost Hell, West Virginia
HIGH Solid variety in the environments.
LOW Combat in the Creation Engine, without V.A.T.S., and with constant stuttering and lag.
WTF Charging $60 for what feels like alpha access.
Multiplayer survival games have long dominated the Steam charts, but it’s telling that so few have ever managed to make it out of Early Access. One might guess that a triple-A studio could succeed where so many indies have failed, but it seems highly unlikely that Bethesda – a company notorious for shipping broken games – might be the one to succeed at this challenge.
Fallout 76 being a disaster is a conclusion so foregone that Bethesda itself issued a statement a month ago warning of “spectacular issues” and asked prospective players for their help in tracking down the countless bugs, balance issues, and performance problems. So we’re playtesters and this is an alpha? Cool. Nothing wrong with that. Out of curiosity, though, why is this blatantly unfinished game being sold on store shelves for the same price as Red Dead Redemption 2?
Fallout 76 takes this traditionally single-player franchise and attempts to rework it to fit the multiplayer survival model of hits like Rust and Ark: Survival Evolved. The narrative thrust and quest structure of the series has been cranked down several notches, as Bethesda hopes that multiplayer encounters and randomly-spawning events make for an environment in which players can set out to find their own amusement. Fallout 4‘s crafting system returns, herein used to upgrade and repair equipment with materials collected about the post-nuclear wasteland, and players are expected to sate the usual hunger and thirst meters, all while avoiding diseases and radiation poisoning.
It would be unfair, of course, to suggest that Fallout 76 is exactly on par with the awfulness of titles like DayZ or Ark. Bethesda at least has the resources to render massive worlds without reusing the same handful of store-bought assets over and over. There’s a sense of geography to its depiction of West Virginia, from the dried-up lakes in the north to the smoky mines down south. I imagine most players won’t have the wherewithal to venture all the way down to the bottom-right corner of the map, but Fallout 76’s most sprawling metropolitan area is tucked away down there, and it’s a visual treat for anyone who bothers to explore thoroughly.
However, Bethesda’s worlds only truly come alive when they’re populated with convincing details and personal stories, and this version of Appalachia feels uncharacteristically empty. Fallout 76 is positioned as a prequel of sorts by chronicling the exploits of some of the first people to venture out of the Vaults after an apocalypse, but this means we’re exploring a land in which very little has actually happened yet.
The closest thing we get to an overarching plot is found by following the adventures of the Overseer, the former head of Vault 76 who ventured into the wasteland before us. Her story sounds a lot more exciting than ours, but we experience it exclusively through audio logs. The rest of the worldbuilding is equally distant – we only glimpse human stories through DOS interfaces on old CRT monitors, while the quest-givers themselves are all AIs and robots, often fitted with exuberant personalities to hide their lack of depth or personal stake in anything.
Fallout 76, however, isn’t a failure because it eschews what typically makes Fallout work, that being story and character. No, it’s a failure because it tosses those elements aside in favor of multiplayer features which fail to add anything of substance.
Prior to release, many fans were voicing concern that griefers would hamper their ability to seek out the traditional Fallout experience. While that’s a non-issue – there is no traditional Fallout experience here – Bethesda attempted to address those worries with a “wanted” system that slaps a bounty on anyone who’s acting aggressively toward other players. Given that, the vast majority of people I’ve come across are well-behaved, but believe it or not, I think that’s a mistake.
If the devs were going to gut Fallout in the name of multiplayer functionality, then why not go all the way and make my interactions with other players interesting and exciting? Since almost everyone in Fallout 76 is simply minding their own business, the greatest contribution of other players is currently the possibility that the atmosphere might be shattered by a nearby player coughing into his mic.
Even worse, for as much as Bethesda has boasted about Fallout 76’s size – four times bigger than Fallout 4, supposedly – such scale turns out to be detrimental when the servers are limited to 24 players. Since everyone starts from the same location, encounters in the opening region are pretty frequent. But once I began exploring more distant areas of the map, players became so thinly spread out that I’d often go hours without bumping into anyone, turning Fallout 76 into a single-player game with an always-online requirement. And to put it diplomatically, server stability has been lacking thus far, booting me from the game in its worst moments and hamstringing the combat with dreadful hitches and lag during its best.
Admittedly, it’s not like the combat would be engaging even if Fallout 76 ran flawlessly. V.A.T.S. was one of the many casualties of the move to a multiplayer environment, since slowing time to a crawl for pinpoint shooting doesn’t work when other players are involved. So, V.A.T.S. is now just a clunky, generic auto-targeting system that runs on what is essentially a stamina meter. At most, it occasionally gives players one or two free shots, but the ability to target specific limbs – the original purpose of V.A.T.S., dating back to the series’ turn-based roots – is hidden away as a random unlockable perk.
So, with the strategic element of combat stripped out, players are largely forced to approach Fallout 76 as a traditional shooter. Yet the game is still running on the old Skyrim engine, and who the hell wants to get into competitive gunfights in the Skyrim engine? The stiff aiming controls, unreliable hit detection and laughable AI were already showing their age in games where success was determined more by numbers than reflexes. In a fully real-time environment in 2018, this engine is excruciatingly dated.
Apart from the combat, Fallout 76 hinges on collecting loot and crafting. The systems are robust as these things go, and I’d do a happy little squeal anytime I found a roll of duct tape – still the wasteland’s most valuable resource – but these activities aren’t enough to act as the central draw. A fetch quest-heavy loot fest like Fallout 76 only works if I’m invested, and the promise of an extra three accuracy points for one of the game’s god-awful weapons just isn’t enough to keep me going.
To be fair, anytime Bethesda gives me an objective more complicated than “go to the place and get the thing,” they bungle it with 100% consistency. When I attempted an escort mission, the Mr. Handy robot I was protecting got stuck on a guardrail. When a later quest ordered me to kill a “character” – one who’d turned to a ghoul, and thus became indistinguishable from the billion other ghouls in the wasteland – I couldn’t complete the objective because another player had already killed him and I couldn’t get credit for it. I had to reload seven times before I found a version of Appalachia in which my target was still alive.
There are, in fact, so many things wrong with Fallout 76 that I had to take notes as I played, for fear I’d forget something. For example, power armor is laughably exploitable because it always spawns in the same spots, and the player’s fusion core is fully recharged whenever the game is reloaded. Fast travel is costly, and walking is the only other option for people who can’t pay. If a player attacks me and I retaliate, and my attack connects first, I’m the one who becomes wanted. “Event” or “daily” quests don’t carry over from one session to the next, which is frustrating when I make progress in one, only to have it wiped away and reset thanks to being randomly booted from a server.
The most positive thing I can say about Fallout 76 is that a train wreck of this magnitude might finally yank Bethesda – a company that gets away with too much – back to reality. Maybe it’s finally time to update that engine. Maybe it’s not a good idea to slap the Fallout name onto a game that isn’t fit for release and expect it to go over well. Perhaps in a couple of years, the handful of people still playing Fallout 76 will try to convince us that it’s really good now, guys, honestly! And the rest of us can all share a chuckle over that one time Icarus flew too close to the mushroom cloud.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Bethesda Softworks. It is currently available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the PlayStation 4. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the multiplayer mode, with the main missions up to (but not including) “I Am Become Death” completed. There is no single-player mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains Blood and Gore, Drug References, Intense Violence and Strong Language. The violence isn’t as perversely presented here as in the last few Fallout games due to the lack of slow-motion, but it’s still just as grisly in nature, exploding headshots and all. There’s a lot of drug use and alcohol consumption by the player, and I picked up a few F-bombs in the dialog throughout.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available and players will be able to glean most plot-important information through them, though the subtitles don’t show up when players are browsing menus, even as dialog continues to play. The opening cinematic is also not subtitled. The game’s compass highlights hostile enemies and a visual indicator informs players as to which direction they’re taking damage from, but I’ve noticed that sound is extremely important in locating threats before combat erupts.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.