Outside of the admittedly strange sensation that comes from seeing other people running around in a Fallout-world. These being real people, taking on the role of digital Vault 76 dwellers emerging from a now discarded location - moving about in the sort of weird online way that only real-people tend to do in large, open digital landscapes. Avoiding pathways, jumping up onto rocks for no reason, punching mid-air, posing – e-moting. A strange sight for a Bethesda Game Studios production. What immediately sets the scene for the vast, sprawling, and sometimes messy adventure that is Fallout 76 though – is not this immediate and notable difference in creative direction. It’s the lush, vibrant, and colourful West Virginia setting.
Naturally, the big question is – does Fallout work as a shared-world online experience? The answer to that is – yes, it most certainly does. Admirably so. But before we delve into why and how, it’s worth noting the visual progression seen in Bethesda’s third Fallout game. New Vegas, of course, was developed by Obsidian Entertainment.
Emerging from Vault 76 the morning after a raucous Reclamation Day party, held to celebrate the fact that you’re one of the chosen few selected to help rebuild society, Fallout 76’s West Virginia is one that immediately inspires awe. With a map size four times the real-estate of Fallout 4’s Commonwealth, and with the added visual upgrades that come from a few extra years of real-world development time – Fallout 76 is the culmination of a look, feel, and design that we’ve seen grow over the past decade across several Bethesda RPGs.
"Naturally, the big question is – does Fallout work as a shared-world online experience? The answer to that is – yes, it most certainly does. "
Also, it doesn’t hurt that the source location itself is filled with truly stunning countryside, mountains, and distinct landmarks.
From a visual standpoint, Fallout 76 represents a new direction for the series – one that although touted as a wasteland devoid of life outside of other real-world players one might encounter, is nothing short of the complete opposite in this regard. Huge forests filled with trees, grass that gently sways from the touch of a cool (and slightly irradiated) breeze, lakes that mirror a wide range of colours, creeks that form at the base of waterfalls, mutated beavers strolling through knee-high foliage, grazing brahmin looking for something to eat, ghouls wandering through the remains of a farmhouse. Also looking for something to eat – you.
With its perpetually green and yellow irradiated haze, the Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 presented a vast open world filled with surprise and discovery – from a supermarket overrun by Raiders to a small town propped up around the site of a dormant but volatile nuclear bomb. But with its uniformly drab look, no corner of the Capital Wasteland felt visually distinct – by design. Fallout 4 introduced much needed colour to the world, whilst condensing the landscape to such a degree that with any journey, no matter how small, one couldn’t help but discover something interesting, a new site, or stumble onto a strange relic. Fallout 76, and its new location of West Virginia feels like a natural extension of the open-world as perfected over the years by Bethesda Game Studios – as seen in Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Fallout 4.
Intricate, detailed, fresh, and full of discovery at every turn.
It’s everything you’d want to see in a new Fallout game, and with the series well-known pick-a-direction-and-go freedom – the prequel setting almost instantly makes you feel like an early explorer or pioneer. Geographically speaking West Virginia borders the Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3, but in the decade between the two titles releases it’s easy to see the stark contrast found in the colourful and detailed world of Fallout 76. This in turn means that its size increase isn’t merely there to ensure a level of variety in exploring its shared world. Or padding to accommodate extra players. The visually distinct zones of Fallout 76 offer new sights, threats, challenges, and experiences for those playing alone, together, or aggressively. Like a blend of Fallout 4’s Boston and the rugged wilderness and snow-capped mountain ranges of Skyrim, Fallout 76 presents a world that backs up its technical breakdown with a location that feels more believable, and alive, than we’ve ever seen in the series.
Certainly, it must have been a design challenge to present a world as rich in detail and scope as those found in Skyrim and Fallout 4 – in an online experience with a single huge map to explore. By choosing to create a multiplayer Fallout experience that doesn’t alter the core sense of exploration and possibility that comes with a large open world filled with discovery – Fallout 76 takes on the aura of something so much more than the sum of its parts.
"Fallout 76, and its new location of West Virginia feels like a natural extension of the open-world as perfected over the years by Bethesda Game Studios."
This revelation, if you want to call it that, came after playing for only three or so hours – where in terms of percentages, our group saw maybe 15% of the total map. If that. The immediate and colourful beauty of West Virginia was certainly a surprise. But just how well the group mechanics and overall setup of Fallout 76’s multiplayer integrated into what you might consider a traditionally single-player, open-world Bethesda RPG – impressed even more. Not merely a compilation to create an image, that whole bit about lakes, grass, trees, forests, farmhouses, and grazing brahmin mentioned earlier – well, that came from those first few minutes of picking a direction in Fallout 76 and simply heading out.
It’s this same level of detail in the world, in the freedom, in the discovery, coupled with the ability to play with others that makes Fallout 76 look and feel unlike anything else. Even though Fallout 4 players will feel right at home with both the controls, UI, and Pip Boy character management. The charming and often janky character animation, the weird environment glitches, and the ability to pick up and drop almost any item or piece of junk you see.
Of course, there are some concessions that may feel like a step too far from the solitary – the lack of meaningful in-game conversations with NPCs being one. That’s not to say that they’re entirely absent, as in our travels we came across a travelling salesman in the form of a rather chatty Super Mutant. Plus, the abundance of recordings, notes, terminals, and environmental touches add a definite coat of meaning to the world.
Coming across an abandoned shack only to find a tea set adorning a table with three chairs – one with a skeleton, the other two, teddy bears, offered a fun – and dark – moment to pause and wonder what it meant. As did discovering a house in the middle of the woods only to hear distant screams and then get freaked out when an earthquake shook the entire location. Then there’s the abundance of RobCo scraps of metal you can both fight and talk to.
Quests emerge as either timed combat events, location-based missions, or as part of a main narrative in Fallout 76. Well, at least in the time we spent in West Virginia. It’s clear that the delivery of Quests and activities have been tweaked or altered to encourage group play, mainly co-op, by offering team-based rewards, and notifications for all within a certain region along the lines of ‘hey, head over here for a thing’. Surprisingly this side of the game doesn’t overwhelm or otherwise detract from the core experience - exploration, crafting, and combat.
"By choosing to create a multiplayer Fallout experience that doesn’t alter the core sense of exploration and possibility that comes with a large open world filled with discovery – Fallout 76 takes on the aura of something so much more than the sum of its parts."
Fallout 76 smartly doesn’t bombard you, at least early on, like other online experiences might - with perpetual goals, quests, icons, tasks, or busywork. Reward exist for, say, scrapping your first gun or cooking your first vegetable-based stew – but Fallout 76 is content with you playing it how you want to play it. Focusing on crafting or the new streamlined Camp-Site building aspect – which ditches the rigid settlement aspect of Fallout to replace it with a more robust and friendly pack-it-up and set-it-up wherever you please approach - showcases just how well Fallout 76 handles this side of the experience. Workstations can be found almost anywhere, and although having to eat, sleep, and drink might add a serious survival element to the traditional Fallout experience – Fallout 76 rarely permanently punishes the player. You get the sense that its keenly aware that it offers a massive world in which you can explore and adventure in, so even when it gets tough – it should still be fun.
Another sentiment thrown around by several multiplayer-focused titles – playing Fallout 76 solo, works. Spending a chunk doing just that it’s easy to see why Fallout 76, at its core, is Fallout game about survival, living the life of someone chosen to help rebuild the world. And presenting a world in which you can choose how you want to do that. If at all. By introducing other real-world players, it makes these choices ones that can be tackled alone, with a friend, with a group of friends, or with total strangers. Everything about Fallout 76’s mechanics reinforces this approach. The intuitive way gathering materials, scrapping for parts, and crafting works. How the perk-card system allows you to customise a fine-tune a specific build – one focused on combat perhaps, only to be able to switch it out for something different anytime you want.
Combat that thanks to the redesigned VATS system, can be treated as an action-RPG auto-target button press affair or a twitch-based run and gun and jump shoot-out. An underlying mystery that can be investigated as a group, pointing out discoveries along the way, in a way that feels natural. Perhaps this aspect of Fallout 76 is what stood out the most to us with our time spent in West Virginia. Fallout works exceptionally well as a multiplayer game, a co-operative experience that excels thanks to its evocative world and that freedom you get to go anywhere and explore. Split up. Group up. Fight each other. Cook some food. Spend a night. Clear out an infested farm. Uncover a mystery or two. Discover an abandoned carnival and proceed to take out some ghouls with the mallet from Whack A Commie.
And if you’re lucky, bask in the glow of a recent explosion. Together.
We'll be bringing you more on Fallout 76 this week, including an in-depth interview with Bethesda's Pete Hines plus a detailed breakdown on how it all works.