Fall­out 76

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper Bethesda Game Stu­dios Pub­lisher Bethesda Soft­works For­mat PC (tested), PS4, Xbox One Re­lease Out now

PC, PS4, Xbox One

For months they waited. Se­questered in a bunker deep be­neath Ap­palachia, they dreamed of build­ing grand new set­tle­ments, form­ing a so­ci­ety and mak­ing their mark on a land­scape left bar­ren by an atomic blast. The mood was op­ti­mistic. What new pos­si­bil­i­ties awaited top­side? What new friend­ships might be forged out there? And then came Recla­ma­tion Day. The vault doors opened, sun­light flooded in, and in the cold light of day all hope was ex­tin­guished.

The irony of Fall­out 76’ s nar­ra­tive can’t pos­si­bly pass you by as you take those first ten­ta­tive steps into its con­sid­er­able world map. This is a game about dis­as­ter and des­o­la­tion told, quite in­ad­ver­tently, by dis­as­trous de­sign and a des­o­late core game­play loop. Ir­ra­di­ated hounds with rusted bi­cy­cles glitched through their bod­ies as if skew­ered by the force of the bomb blast; build­ing after de­serted build­ing with noth­ing beyond au­dio tape logs or com­puter ter­mi­nals to in­ter­act with; ex­chang­ing emotes with pass­ing strangers be­fore re­turn­ing to the lonely busi­ness of run­ning be­tween quest mark­ers. It’s a mul­ti­player ex­per­i­ment whose own de­vel­op­ers never seemed to­tally con­fi­dent in at its con­fer­ence show­ings, and which re­veals it­self to be fun­da­men­tally flawed after just a few hours of play.

Far from the tra­di­tional solo RPG the se­ries’ name con­jures, this is shared-world sur­vival in Pip-Boy cos­play. Up to 24 play­ers can in­habit one it­er­a­tion of the world map, which is ge­o­graph­i­cally at least as in­ter­est­ing as those of Fall­out 3 and 4. And those play­ers can im­pact the world sig­nif­i­cantly, in the­ory. Arm­ing and launch­ing a nuke kills ev­ery liv­ing be­ing in a large swathe of map space and leaves ra­di­a­tion in the vicin­ity. Build­ing a large set­tle­ment changes the face of a par­tic­u­lar area, and team­ing up to take on a raid al­lows play­ers to com­plete ob­jec­tives that would other­wise be im­pos­si­ble. On pa­per, Bethesda has adapted the Fall­out blue­print into a co­her­ent mul­ti­player sur­vival game.

The re­al­ity, in­evitably, is that you want Fall­out 76 to play like a Fall­out game, and on those terms it fails to sat­isfy. After all, how could you not want that from it? It goes to such great lengths to re­call former glo­ries, invit­ing back the sig­ni­fiers of its es­o­teric 1950s kitsch such as posh English ro­bots, cutesy Pip-Boy minigames, MacGyvered firearms and cosy vault dwellings. Even the VATS sys­tem, wholly in­com­pat­i­ble though it seems with re­al­time mul­ti­player, finds its way into Fall­out 76 as an auto-aim func­tion. But from the sec­ond you wake up in Vault 76 and en­ter a char­ac­ter cre­ator near-iden­ti­cal to its 2015 pre­de­ces­sor’s, you have the un­shake­able sen­sa­tion that you’re play­ing some­one else’s Fall­out game. A save file in which they have com­pleted ev­ery quest and killed ev­ery sin­gle NPC, and never load up any more, be­cause there’s noth­ing left.

And so you wan­der out of the de­serted vault, into an equally bar­ren wilder­ness, tasked with hours of quests that amount to noth­ing more than reach­ing a map lo­ca­tion, lis­ten­ing to an au­dio log and then ei­ther craft­ing or killing some­thing, in al­most com­pletely un­bro­ken si­lence. When you do bump into an­other player the in­ter­ac­tions are al­most al­ways flimsy – an ex­change of ad­mit­tedly well-in­te­grated emotes be­fore go­ing your sep­a­rate ways, or an ig­nored head­set mic salu­ta­tion. Play­ers will of­ten ac­cept in­vi­ta­tions to join a party and sim­ply wan­der off in a to­tally dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion than your in­tended quest marker, and refuse in­vi­ta­tions just as fre­quently. They do this, one feels, be­cause they want to play the solo Fall­out ex­pe­ri­ence on which the se­ries’ name was built, and ev­ery hu­man player spot­ted bursts that bub­ble.

So uni­ver­sal is this re­jec­tion of Fall­out 76’ s most es­sen­tial fea­ture – co-op play – that player-built struc­tures or dwellings are in­cred­i­bly rare. The kind of neon-lit mo­du­lar towns pro­tected by tur­rets you’d ex­pect play­ers to build when they band to­gether are thin on the ground in a way that to­tally sub­verts the sur­vival norm. In Ark or Co­nan Ex­iles you can barely walk 50 paces be­fore stum­bling into a fortress built by a fear­somely well-or­gan­ised guild. In Fall­out 76 the ef­fects of hu­man ac­tiv­ity just aren’t preva­lent enough to make the en­deav­our feel worth­while.

Amid the mess, you find mo­ments of beauty and won­der. The au­dio logs, such as they are, tell a thought­ful, well-paced tale of Vault 76’s first colonists meet­ing a hos­tile land­scape they weren’t pre­pared for, and be­ing torn to shreds by the lo­cal flora and fauna. They’re heart­break­ing to lis­ten to, not least be­cause you long for the com­pany of these ab­sent NPCs after so many hours in Ap­palachia fend­ing for your­self or band­ing to­gether with largely mute hu­man play­ers. The score seems to be vis­it­ing from a dif­fer­ent, bet­ter game in which there are mo­ments of scripted drama to utilise the moody strings ar­range­ments. A re­vamped perk sys­tem, in which you un­lock cards and spend them in your char­ac­ter stat cat­e­gories, of­fers a stream­lined way to roll spe­cialised builds, and is held back only by the in­her­ent clum­si­ness of Fall­out 76’ s non-paus­ing menus.

There are mo­ments of un­de­ni­able uni­fied en­joy­ment when a gag­gle of hu­man sur­vival­ists take on a raid against high-level en­e­mies and pre­vail, too – these are rare re­al­i­sa­tions of the kind of co-op fan­tasy every­one has had when play­ing a solo Bethesda RPG, but they rep­re­sent only a small pro­por­tion of the whole. Given that Fall­out 76 is con­structed so brazenly from the com­po­nent parts of Fall­out 4, there’ll be loud and an­gry voices who’ll have it that this is Bethesda sim­ply hitch­ing it­self to the game-as-ser­vice band­wagon with­out any dis­cernible cre­ative or artis­tic im­per­a­tive to match that com­mer­cial am­bi­tion. Out there in the miles of lonely waste­land, there’s barely a dis­sent­ing voice to be found.

The ef­fects of hu­man ac­tiv­ity just aren’t preva­lent enough to make the en­deav­our feel worth­while

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