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