Factions, guilds, or groups within a society have all been a staple of the Bethesda Game Studios role-playing experience since well
forever. Whether it’s the Mages Guild in Skyrim or the Brotherhood of Steel in Fallout 4, it all adds colour and meaning to the underlying systems and mechanics. In a strange turn Fallout 76, the multiplayer focused entry in the post-apocalyptic series, eschews factions for a world in a state of chaos and despair. In that you can comes across Raiders, elements of the Brotherhood, the new fascinating Responders faction, and several others – moments, days, weeks, or months after they’ve all died.
Or, as one optimist might hope, have simply been forced to leave the Appalachia setting for the greener pastures (see: nuclear haze) of Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland.
Narratively it’s an interesting choice, to present a seemingly dire world to explore and discover new locations and threats. But in execution, works against what one might hope to find in an online shared-world Fallout experience. Any notion of society or structure a couple of decades after the bombs fell - is lost. It also ties into the new and menacing Scorched virus, plague, or threat, in a way that is both bleak and builds tension. This is weird because the idea of factions, picking a side, towns, hubs of activity, storefronts, safe zones, and so forth are what one might immediately associate with an online RPG. Or expect to find, even if their underlying function is to simply serve as a communal place to meet and greet other players.
In keeping server populations to roughly 24 people roaming the lush wasteland of West Virginia, Fallout 76 is in many ways a lonely experience – and very different style of online game. Where being in a group amounts to not much more than an amplification of the companion system seen in earlier Fallout titles. It’s the best version of this concept, because your companion in Fallout 76 can be someone you know. Sharing ammunition, weapons, helping craft supplies or even a new C.A.M.P. – Fallout 76’s more streamlined and better version of Fallout 4’s settlement system – is all here. And in many ways feels like the first step in the realisation of the Online Fallout dream. Except that for the most part co-op lets you share the loneliness.
There’s a Tony Montana ‘the world is mine’ or ‘the world is ours’ quality to playing Fallout 76.
Interesting locations in the impressively large map are everywhere, in an open-world that is well designed and can sit alongside any environment found in Bethesda’s most recent efforts. But discovery and exploration, one of the joys of Fallout, loses the element of total surprise without anyone else to meet. The lack of factions means no NPCs or AI controlled groups to converse with outside of the odd robot.
There are exceptions of course, and Fallout 76 has flashes of NPC-free brilliance. From solving the mystery of a missing child after coming across a Nanny Bot in the ruins of a genuinely cool water park, to uncovering a secret society of homegrown superheroes created by the voice and star of comic and radio character the Mistress of Mystery - in a secret bunker underneath her estate no less. Without conversation or dialogue, digging into each of these stories via terminals and Holo Tape recordings reveals a world as rich and full of satire, heart, and character as anything found in either Fallout 3 or Fallout 4. Except through the visage of lore, and not the sort of traditional storytelling that ultimately would service each of these tales far better. Taking on the role of archaeological observer in these instances simply makes you yearn for human interaction. Seeing an interesting structure on the horizon slowly loses its sense of wonder when you realise that it won’t house any life outside of creatures and threats.
Wanting one thing whilst being oblivious to what’s in front of you, is an easy takeaway or reaction to have after playing Fallout 76 for a few hours. Although it features quests, objectives, events, and other activities that can and do act like not-that-interesting story-driven mini-adventures with checklists to work-through – it’s all in service of the one thing Fallout 76 does well. And that is how it intrinsically ties progression to exploration. And that’s true exploration, in a large world where you can move from location to location, setup a campsite, and wonder what exactly is over that hill or mountain or behind that group of high-level Super Mutants.
It’s not perfect, in that leveling can feel slow and plans for new equipment and settlement upgrades are far too scarce. But the new card-driven perk and skill system showcases depth and nuance more so than most RPGs – online or not. It’s different but versatile and the ability to change up a build depending on what you find feels right. Keeping on top of repairs as well as hunger and thirst also serve as drivers to leave your campsite for each new expedition. Where, hopefully you’ll return stronger and with that T51b Power Armour Right Leg piece you’ve been wanting for a few days.
So then, is Fallout 76 a survival game? Not really. Which is a shame. Without permanence or punishment for dying or venturing out without the right tools or equipment, the loop or reason to keep going lacks weight. Enemy respawns happen so often and so frequently the world has a Groundhog Day-like feel every few minutes. That’s not to say that the experience is no fun, as scavenging to find better equipment and components to craft new guns and ammo is rewarding. Especially, or primarily, as part of a group. But, in terms of things to do and reasons to play - this is just about all Fallout 76 has to offer.
Alone or in a group, due to the core explore, loot, and build experience, playing Fallout 76 ends up leading to a string of what if questions and scenarios. Ideas and thoughts often tied to the sheer size of the explorable world and the promise each new location or discovery could hold. What if, even without NPCs, players were able to form a faction and contribute to a town or hub. Take on a defined in-game role. Rebuild the world as opposed to becoming the Lone Wanderer + 1. What if I could become a Raider or Responder, instead of simply cosplaying in a role that other players might not even notice. What if that Raider camp had Raiders in it. In a world with permanence or consequence, setting off a nuke would feel monumental.
Change can be good, but one gets the feeling that all the above could have easily existed in Fallout 76 if the approach was a more traditional co-op Fallout 3 or 4. Which, again, is just another what if scenario. If the goal was a shared world with the threat of player danger, then Fallout 76 needs more than few updates. PvP as it stands, is a failure and fundamentally broken. Without reward or danger or even any real structure outside being a distraction, most players avoid hostile encounters entirely. A PvP server, with permadeath, and a focus on harsh survival would be fascinating to experience. Again though, what if.
Setting aside one’s perceived ideal version of multiplayer Fallout, what’s available in Fallout 76 is still lacking and a step backwards for the series. As great and on-point the idea of a mobile C.A.M.P. or settlement is, not being able to arrange items you find in your travels or put weapons and other objects on display means that something like, say, a Fallout 4 Museum
- isn’t possible in Fallout 76. The one time that the concept makes the most sense too.
Right, so somehow, we’ve gotten this far without talking about bugs, glitches, and server instability in any sort of detail. All stuff that is important when talking about Fallout 76 – mainly because playing the game as it stands today mostly is akin to an Early Access release. Its overall performance needs to be addressed as soon as possible by Bethesda. On console, specifically the Xbox One X, performance is terrible. In that when you need a stable frame-rate, and a few moments without hangs, stutters, or N64 levels of judder, Fallout 76 fails. Walking around open areas, sure, it runs well. The more serious the threat level, the more enemies you need to contend with, that’s when the engine all but packs it in. Three years after Fallout 4 it’s a little concerning that 76 performs as poorly as it does. One hopes that a large portion of the problem lies with the network-side and not the core engine.
Regardless of the root cause, making the issue worse is the long list of enemies that act and behave in a way that works against the notion of real-time Fallout combat. Without a true pause-to-target VATS system, hordes that charge and attack your feet or strafe side to side making enemies harder to hit the closer they get. It puts Fallout 76’s combat-feel
well behind even the most rudimentary or average online shooter. In a way that when combined with Fallout 76’s poor performance, impacts enjoyment.
And it’s that last word that needs to be amplified just a little bit, enjoyment. Fallout 76 is fun to play; the simple loop of scavenging and exploration and crafting and progression works well when you’re in a group. Alone, it gets pretty old pretty fast - especially when dealing with bugs and glitches and performance woes. Ultimately it’s disappointing that the size and scope of the multiplayer doesn’t match the impressive West Virginia you get to explore.