In a way, it feels a bit weird to be reviewing Fallout 76 so soon. Before E3 this year, or more specifically, before a teaser trailer dropped at the very end of May, the idea of a modern multiplayer Fallout title felt like a mere fantasy of enthusiastic modders and wishful-thinking gamers. Not only was Fallout 76 fully revealed only six months ago, but it was detailed at the same time and event as highly anticipated future games like Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI.
The fact that Fallout 76 was accompanied by these two megaton announcements, games that likely won't see the light of day for several years, placed Bethesda's newest experiment in a weird position of acting stopgap for the future, even if it wasn't explicitly presented that way. Regardless of the intent, the message behind this experiment felt muddy at best. Bethesda made clear that Fallout 76 isn't the foundation for future titles going forward by explicitly stating support for single-player games with projects like Starfield. So is this merely an experiment meant to occupy time while people wait for what they are actually looking forward to?
In a way, that unclear purpose describes Fallout 76 pretty damn well.
Fallout 76 opens up like any other game in the series might. Your character wakes up on "Reclamation Day", a self-decided holiday of sorts where you're tasked with retaking the nuclear wasteland for yourselves after 25 years of Vault-Tec isolation. Vault 76 is designed as the first bunker to open after the nuclear holocaust with the sole purpose of being humanity's last bastion of hope. There's very little accompanying drama here of rudely interrupted cryosleep or a delivery gone wrong. Instead, you simply get out of bed, walk down a few hallways acting as the game's tutorial, and emerge into the wasteland with the intent to restore everything to its former glory, whatever that means. The key difference this time is that there will be about 20 other players doing the same thing.
From the outset, it's very obvious that Fallout 76 isn't going to give players any clear path to follow. Instead, it merely nudges players in certain directions, hoping that pure curiosity or wanderlust takes hold at some point. You'll find several holotapes of Vault 76's Overseer giving a basic set of objectives, but it really doesn't evolve much beyond "deal with the scorched" and "take control of the missile silos". It's clear that Fallout 76 is very much an open-ended sandbox to play in, and doesn't really pretend to be anything more than that. You'll head down the hill to the Overseer's first campsite, listen to some background exposition, and be on your way to wherever you feel like going.
To be honest, there are about an equal number of reasons to like this overall setup as dislike, but only just barely.
Fallout 76's scope was made pretty clear from the outset, when Bethesda enthusiastically declared that every living human in the world would be a real player. There are no living human survivors of any kind, except for the players from Vault 76. The only real exception to this is the Overseer, who at the outset of the game, worked their way into the wasteland at some unspecified amount of time before everyone else, and whose current whereabouts is intentionally left vague.
This, of course, comes with some straightforward consequences that immediately place Fallout 76 in weird territory compared to other Bethesda Game Studios titles. No human NPCs means no companions, no dialogue options, no speech checks, no pickpocketing, no real opposing factions, and no clear antagonist. While these omissions are admittedly obvious based on the setup, it's still a long list of concessions to stick to a design decision that didn't have to be the case.
This train of thought is exacerbated when it begins to become apparent exactly how much the decision to not have any human NPCs in the world indirectly affects every aspect of the game, and in primarily damaging ways. No human NPCs means that quests are boiled down to a list of tasks in which the player has extremely limited input on their manner of resolution. There's no dodging questions or persuading the peaceful solution when the quest giver is a merely a note on a corpse, or a holotape. Going the other direction, no NPC factions means quests can't involve subterfuge, theft, information gathering, weighing competing interests, or choosing sides.
Since no characters are alive to respond to the outcome of events, there's no lasting impact other than ticking objectives off of your pip-boy. When a holotape tells you to go press a button on a terminal, there's a tangible award in the number of stimpaks that magically appear in your bag. Outside of that, there's very little sense of accomplishment. This is especially true when the game's dynamic or daily events are going to repeat in 30 minutes anyways.
A lot of this is par for the course for an online multiplayer title. Having events or quests on a repeating timer is not new ground, and criticizing the design seems a bit like an unfair jab that has to account for multiple players going multiple directions at different times. However, the key difference here is that while you can compare the Events in Fallout 76 to something like the FATES in Final Fantasy XIV, there's no real accompanying narrative in 76 to pair along with them. Sure, there's a list of quests on your pip-boy titled "Main", but they are reduced to the same mostly meaningless list of chores that involve going to a place, pressing a button, killing a creature, or occasionally crafting a specific item.
While it can be understandable to excuse that level of relative tedium for gameplay components meant to be frequently completed, to have the game's main thrust also be reduced to that degree is very underwhelming.
Fallout 76 does actually have a small smattering of NPCs in the forms of vendors and the occasional friendly Robco robot, but their implementation serves as nothing more than a technicality. Quest-giving Mr. Handys will chirp out objectives if you interact with them, but they only serve as a vehicle to put a fetch quest in your pip-boy. Vendors in other Fallout games served not only as a list of materials that caps could be traded for, but were involved in their own stories, could be stolen from, often had stashes that could be snuck into and rewarded players with lower prices or new materials if the player accomplished certain objectives.
Most all of that is stripped away here, with only a few instances of shops being at all dynamic with respect to the player's progression, such as being able to access the Enclave armory for doing enough tasks for the computers there.
The lack of human NPCs also hurts the map design and variety. In a more traditionally laid out game, the locations available to the player would be a healthy mix of cities, dungeons, abandoned factories, enemy territory, quaint friendly outposts, and the like. When arriving at a given icon in New Vegas or even Fallout 4, it was never immediately obvious exactly what you had just stumbled upon. Would this be Nipton, a little town with a recruitable companion, or Bonnie Springs -- a husk of a city with nothing left but cazadores?
There's no purpose to asking such questions in 76. Since nobody is left alive, there's nothing to expect at any place on the map except for monsters to kill. Nearly every location in West Virginia is just a small, medium, or large size building or set of buildings with enemies inside. But it didn't have to be this way.
There's nothing absolute about 76's general premise that requires that its world has to be set up like this. Especially when the presence of robot quest givers and vendors act in the sted of traditional characters. Hell, it would've been nice to have any small level of influence on the tasks you're given by robots like Rose the raider, but there isn't. You either do what you're told if you want the experience, caps, and rewards, or you don't if you don't. The quest design leaves absolutely no room for middle ground.
There's even a point in the game's primary questline where a series of holotapes automatically plays to the player in sequence as they go from location to location, giving out orders of objectives that need to be done as soon you do each one. The situation is incredibly contrived to basically act as if the person on the other end is alive, though they are not -- they've simply managed to predict the necessary things to do and the player's capabilities perfectly with the series of recorded audio logs. The game kinda pokes a little bit of fun at this in mildly clever ways, such as the ability to find a poorly practiced recording at the bottom of a trashcan, but it doesn't change that the whole situation comes across incredibly silly. The game sticks to its guns that these characters must be dead and gone at all cost, even if it no longer makes any sense to adhere so absolutely to that on needless principle.
There's a prevailing idea that a lot of the concessions made in this manner were such that the players themselves would be made more meaningful. It's in the marketing itself. The main problem here is that despite the admittedly huge size of the game's map, there are only ever about 20 to 25 players on it at any given time. Unless specifically sought out, it's more likely to go entire play sessions without seeing another soul than expecting any emergent storytelling to arise from auspiciously encountering another person while in the middle of your expedition. Even if you do run into another person, there's a good chance your goals and destinations might not even align.
Even if a certain player currently sharing a server with you is out to murder anyone that crosses their path, the penalties for PVP in 76 are too lax to make it some worth fretting over too much. How PVP works is that any player that attacks another can only do reduced damage unless the attack is reciprocated. This seems like a good idea on paper to prevent ganking or someone with a powerful long-range weapon from camping a specific location, but what it results in is that engaging in PVP often serves little purpose if you find an unwilling participant.
Even when a player dies in PVP, all they end up dropping is their materials and junk items, and they can respawn right away, often at a location only a few feet away. This combination of factors makes an untimely death at the hands of a ruthless player a mere inconvenience for the victim and only a small victory for the aggressor.
This lax penalty for death also carries over into the general game itself. Getting ganked by a high-level Deathclaw or Scorchbeast simply means a run to your corpse to grab your materials and not much else. If you make sure to have a secure allotment of junk and materials safe in your Stash, then even losing some items from an unobtainable corpse ends up being barely a big deal at all.
With the long list of concessions out of the way, it might not be obvious that there is some degree of genuine enjoyment to have underneath the terrible quest design and poor map variety. It's a lot to throw aside, but if you can look past those (incredibly huge) shortcomings, there actually is something here, enough that could be worth saving over time.
The perk system present in Fallout 76 is actually very smartly refined from Fallout 4, and fits the nature of the game very well. Instead of having tiers of perks related to your traditional SPECIAL stats, each stat serves as a point pool in which to attach a number of perk cards assigned to that stat. For instance, 5 points in Strength would allow a player to equip 5 low-level Strength perks, a couple high-level perks, or something in between -- provided they have the cards.
Upon each level up, a player selects a SPECIAL stat to increase, and a perk card to obtain, with more options becoming available the higher rank they are. Every 5 levels past 10, players will also be given a booster pack of random perks. Special stats can only be increased so far though, and players are only ever given so many points to work with -- you won't be able to cap out every stat and become a god of all trades, but you can be a master of one if you desire.
Perks can be adjusted on the fly which actually allows for a surprising degree of variability and theorycrafting. For instance, being able to hack terminals falls under the Intelligence stat, but so does a good number of boosts to power armor, such as one that increases the duration of fusion cores. This means one could hypothetically equip the more useful fusion core buff in most situations, but can swap over to their hacking ability if it becomes necessary. Some weapon types also share SPECIAL allotments, such as both melee weapons and shotguns having their primary perks in the Strength category, allowing players to swap from certain weapon sets with ease.
Certain gear types also have buffs smartly spread out among multiple stat lines so that dumping everything in one place is not automatically the best possible choice. For instance, the perk Skeet Shooter is a shotgun buffing ability found in the Perception line. Gunsmith is a useful Intelligence trait that would be a good idea for any firearms user, from shotguns to handguns to sniper rifles. Special stats also give inherent passive buffs such as the amount of carry weight being tied to your Strength, and Charisma increasing the number of perks you can share with allies. So there''s a lot to think about with each and every level up.
All the interlocking systems within the game's perk system makes lining up and stats, perks, and gear into a cohesive unit over the course of the game through crafting and looting a fairly rewarding long-term experience. The only thing really missing from this setup though to push the system even further would be the ability to save loadouts on the fly.
The core gameplay loop of explore, kill, loot, craft, regear is similarly engaging. While the game's questing system doesn't really provide a compelling reason to go to any one area in any narrative respect, there's still a sort of internalized motivation to find a good source of the one material you've been short on, hopefully find some enemies using the same weapon types as you so you can restock on ammo, stumble into a holy grail of scrap to restock the springs you need to craft those power armor components you're missing, or simply get enough exp to equip that one useful looking perk card you've been sitting on a while.
The one nagging issue with respect to the core gameplay is the common bugbear of Bethesda titles -- encumbrance. While I don't have a strong issue with the mechanic in the studio's single-player games, given that you can fast travel to your favorite storage spot free of charge and with no limitation, things work differently in Fallout 76. Not only are you limited by your stats in how much you can hold on your person, the online nature of the game means that the amount of materials able to be stored away is similarly limited. When ammo, materials, medication, and scrap all contribute to your limit, its incredibly easy to find yourself at the cap, even if you only sit on one weapon and no extra gear at all.
While there are individual perks available to limit the weight of specific items such as armor, scrap, and chems, equipping these abilities to ease the burden of that system doesn't come with nearly the same feeling of using the game's other available perks. Easing up on such limitations at the opportunity cost of equipping a more interesting perk never feels like a victory. While I believe the systems and limits could be tweaked to find a better balance, right now a thorough exploration of any given place will almost always result in reaching the encumbrance limit after a point, resulting in slowly meandering around looking desperately for a workbench or vendor to scrap or sell materials. Luckily it seems like Bethesda does plan to address this in some form, but the amount of frustration its caused thus far can't really be understated.
Additionally, the long-term progression outside of this build-crafting component seems a bit lacking. After following enough 'Main' quests in your pip-boy, the player is eventually tasked with launching a nuke from one of the game's three missile silos. Unfortunately, what this means is a long, tedious, material-draining expedition into some of the games most difficult dungeons, confronted by several enemies that respawn endlessly until the final launch sequence is pressed.
My first time into one of these silos ended up resulting in failure due to going in with a lack of supplies and ammo necessary to complete the objective. With the knowledge learned from failing, I was able to go back in better prepared the next day and succeed, but the trade-off with the amount of time it takes for a smattering of rewards from a resulting blast zone makes me wonder if many players will even bother launching more than one nuke unless the requirements, rewards, or both are tweaked.
Surprisingly enough, I did not encounter a severe number of stability or performance related bugs playing through the PC version of the game. While I did experience bugs in-game with quest objectives and animations, I only crashed once, and constantly played above 60 frames per second, though there is still seemingly an unresolved issue with stuttering. Another highly distracting component is the incredibly limited draw distance of shadows. While I don't have a huge issue with how the game looks overall, seeing trees not cast any shadows until I made my way halfway to them never ceased to be an eyesore. The lack of options built in-game at the moment was also mildly frustrating, and I was very glad to see some workarounds options to eliminate depth of field and lens flare effects, and I happily implemented them as soon as I could. Not discounting that performance issues exist though, especially on the console front.
While Bethesda is seemingly taking some of the game's initial criticisms to heart and has promised a field of view slider among push to talk and other options before the end of the year, the lack of basic toggles at launch is difficult to take seriously.
All told, while there's seemingly a prevailing consensus that Fallout 76 is an incredibly buggy game not ready for launch, my reaction after dumping some significant time into it is that the issues are much more deeply rooted than that. The inherent limitations to Fallout 76's eventual potential are held back by some truly baffling design decisions rather than anything related to technical prowess, though obviously these two aspects can't be completely decoupled.
A perfectly polished and stable alternate reality version of Fallout 76 would still be a chore to play if the quest design remained entirely void of interesting objectives. A landmark graphical showcase would still wear out its welcome if every location in the game ends up just being another den for super mutants. It's incredibly difficult (though not impossible) to tell engaging sub stories when every found holotape or abandoned note leads to a corpse and ends up telling the same generally sad story because every character mentioned each time must have ended up at the same fate. There are pockets of strong environmental storytelling to be found, but they don't manage to stand on their own.
At this point, it's relatively easy to conceive hypothetical scenarios where Fallout 76 either languishes into irrelevancy or turns around into an interesting, engaging experience. Bethesda's initial response is somewhat promising, but it's clear that the road ahead is a long one. Some of the core mechanics like the new perk system and pure gameplay loop are actually an okay foundation to build from, but they're mired in questionable design decisions made worse with several technical shortcomings that could take a significant amount of time to fix. Until that happens though, Fallout 76 is a difficult game to recommend to anyone except for maybe the most ardent fans of post-apocalyptic playgrounds.
Versions tested: PC
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided to RPG Site by the publisher.