Fallout 76, Bethesda’s new MMO game, has its issues, but I’m greatly enjoying exploring this post-apocalyptic wasteland. Fallout 76 hits many of the right notes for me. The engine and gameplay are familiar (since I put many hours into Fallout 4, a game with many more flaws than Fallout 76 IMO). Plus, Fallout 76 brings enough new things to the table to entertain me, with interesting ways in which the game can be expanded in the future.
I’ve pulled together some of my thoughts below. This is not really a review. I can say that if you got any enjoyment out of Fallout 4, you’ll probably like Fallout 76. I also encourage fans of open worlds that encourage you to make your own way and create your own stories to give the game a try.
Strangely, this wrecked world is beautiful
Setting the game in rural West Virginia allowed the developers to break from regular Fallout convention and give us a world where the clichés of post-apocalypse design (ruined buildings, green radioactive clouds, broken concrete, piles of trash, etc.) are augmented by verdant nature and intact structures. In the game’s lore, WV escaped much of the nuclear fallout, so it still possesses lush forests and recognizable settlements. This is a nice break from the rather monotonous gray palette of Fallout 4 and its setting of wrecked urban Boston. There’s enough rusting metal in Fallout 76 to still give the impression of destruction and decay, but it’s possible to find beautiful places the bombs never touched.
The zones of the world are distinctive and very well done. Even the decimated areas hold some beauty. Generally, environmental effects and audio are utilized well. “The Forest” is dense with nature that appears familiar, but hides much. “The Mire”, on the other hand, contains nature warped by nuclear mutation, and is an atmospheric, shadowy land where footfalls are muffled, darkness contains dangerous creatures, and you can barely see several feet in front of you. The designers achieved something special in this area. The “Ash Heap” is a blackened zone of ecological disaster where you can feel the poisoned air and heat. Easy to miss (and fall into) gullies zigzag through the “Cranberry Bog”, evoking the trenches of WWI in a place where you fight waves of mutated enemies. The map is large, and feels large. For someone like me who loves to just wander and explore, it is a interesting game world to adventure in.
The design helps you create your own stories
Some players balked at Bethesda’s decision not to include any human NPC’s in Fallout 76. In most games, human NPC’s are the quest givers and facilitators, often standing around in place ready to drop some exposition or give a reward for player assistance. Sometimes they may have a scripted life that allows them to move between locations depending on time of day, work schedule, etc. In Fallout 76, however, when you emerge from the vault, every other human is dead. The game encourages you to try and figure out what went wrong (besides the nuclear holocaust). That is the mystery at the heart of the game’s main plot (such as it is).
Since the designers encourage players to explore at their own pace and in any direction (which I love), they have used the buildings, props, and landscape to offer hints of narratives. While wandering out in the wilderness, I might come across a staged scene. For example, while wandering through the forest I found a few walls, a podium, and chairs in a clearing. Every skeleton near the chairs clutched a bottle, and the walls were covered with strange, mystical symbols. I could find no documentation here, but this place had all the narrative trappings of a doomsday cult, a mini-Jonestown out in the middle of the woods that reacted to nuclear annihilation by choosing suicide.
As with everything in this world, I was too late. The action and the stories had already occurred by the time I arrived. All I could see were echos for me to interpret. (As a side note, as an archaeologist, this is what I’m trained to do so I love this aspect of Fallout 76.) The game has many examples of this sort of thing- suggestions of narrative- which makes exploring the world a treat.
Depth is there for players (like me) who enjoy it
Sometimes, game design is taken to an absurd level to compensate for not having human NPC’s to provide exposition and direction. There’s a heavy reliance upon “notes left behind” that you can find, including recorded messages. More than once, a computer who has become sentient functions as a quest-giving NPC. A core quest involves multiple silly examples of “if you’re hearing this recording I made before I died, that means you accomplished the task I gave you in my last recording- good job!- and now here’s your next step” design cliché. The developers of Fallout 76 did not implement grand redesigns when faced with the reality of “no human NPCs”, but rather doubled down on standard systems already used to deliver directions, exposition, and narrative thrust to games like this.
But the thing is, I enjoy experiencing those systems, even if I can recognize their (sometimes over-) use. I like reading all the backstories present on working terminals and left behind as “ephemeral” notes and recordings. It helps that for the most part the voice-acting is top notch. Sometimes the emotion of a NPC on a recording I discover is a bit too-real, especially when they’re narrating their imminent death. I’m reminded that my character is going through a world filled with recent death and pain. I’d much rather read the diary of someone I’ll never meet than charge out and try and kill more deathclaws for fat loot because in games I’m more drawn to the narrative. Action has its place in a game like this, but the nicer moments for me involve quietly learning backstory that evokes an emotion.
The absence of human NPC’s also, conveniently, solves one of the biggest missteps of Fallout 4: playing factions off each other. The faction system in Fallout 4 was a core component of its narrative, but in practice was poorly implemented, unrealistic, and silly. Basically (no spoilers), the endgame of Fallout 4 involved choosing one of a handful of factions to champion, a decision that would please, anger, or destroy numerous other factions. However, the choices were unrealistic and artificial, the factions looked cartoonish in their morality, and the decisions closed off quest avenues that seemed arbitrary. Even further use of one specific companion became impossible if the player chose to champion one of the factions, without warning or logic. There are factions in Fallout 76 (including some recognizable from earlier Fallout games), but they are not at odds. The player is also not in a clichéd savior narrative, tasked with choosing between allies. In fact, the overdone and overwrought “you are the chosen one” story structure is jettisoned for a welcome emphasis on the player belonging to the Vault 76 collective. I’m not destined to save the wasteland, merely survive in it.
It doesn’t feel like a typical MMO, and that’s okay
I suspect a lot of the negativity surrounding Fallout 76 is how it handles player vs. player combat (PVP) and other multiplayer aspects. Bethesda did not have deep multiplayer tools implemented in the game from the start, but I expect some of them to be deployed in the near future.
Almost every MMO and MMORPG I’ve ever played and enjoyed (Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, Elder Scrolls Online, Asheron’s Call), I played solo. I never spoke to anyone. Other players existed in the world, but apart from participating alongside them in anonymous group events, I forged my own path. Sometimes content was blocked because I could not do it on my own (it’s been 6 years and I’ve still not completed the final Guild Wars 2 quest because it can’t be done solo). I generally ignored “dungeon” content that forced grouping. I had no interest in trying to measure myself against other players in combat (and have always viewed PVP suspiciously because I suspect it’s has toxic roots and attracts noxious gameplay).
In MMO’s I do not seek to pair with random strangers for a multi-player experience. I learned long ago that, to paraphrase Sartre, the worst part of an MMO game is other people. A few times, I’ve been on the receiving end of random player kindness. A passing player has stopped to revive me if I go down in a fight. I even once was given a great weapon for free by someone I didn’t know before they disappeared into the ether. But the negative experiences, as in real life, always wreck the gaming experience, and the systems present in most MMO games often facilitate the negative. They provide a stage for the worst actors to perform.
Because Bethesda inexplicably shipped Fallout 76 without a push-to-talk button and voice chat defaulted to “on”, my first steps into the game were accompanied by some random guy’s racist and anti-gay screed that I could hear at full volume as I created my character. Many people, especially those with no skin on the line, might shrug and say, weakly, that such talk is to be expected online. I reject that I must accept a threat to my own humanity just so I can play a game. I immediately opened the settings menu and turned off all voice chat. I’ve reached level 65 now without turning it back on (although push-to-talk has now been implemented in the game).
The PVP mechanics of Fallout 76 mostly thwart the trolls (something I also think has produced critical pushback of the game). You can’t gank and “one-shot” another player, and PVP combat has to be mutually agreed upon. For me, this works just fine. I even have “pacifist mode” turned on so in the heat of public group events, there’s no issue if I happen to accidentally hit another player while I’m aiming at a monster. Playing solo allows me to experience the wasteland at my speed and become self-sufficient.
I can live with the game’s group content
I find the group events in Fallout 76 a mixed bag. They are similar to the group events in games like Guild Wars 2. They occur randomly (although in Fallout 76 they seem to heavily rely on a player entering an area to trigger, which can make fast travel a bit annoying). Anyone can join in and receive a reward. Many can be done solo at high level, although there seems to be less scaling of difficulty based on number of participants as in Guild Wars 2. Even the end-game events like the launching of nuclear missiles at parts of the map are technically well executed and impressive, if morally suspect as a game mechanic.
I appreciate the anonymous nature of these group events. They’re not dungeon runs with strangers where party roles must be adhered to and strategies must be employed (usually impossible to learn before hand and where inexperience is rarely tolerated). They are dip-in, dip-out events. I’ve only had one experience in Fallout 76 so far where I joined in an event and had a bad experience. Two clearly partnered players were already present in the designated area and tried to intimidate me by pushing against and standing close to my character, presumably only to harass since the event’s rewards would be individually distributed. Most times, other players simply do their own thing, sometimes giving a “thumbs up” emote after we successfully complete the event. That’s a pleasant default level of interaction.
I can (mostly) ignore the survival mechanic
I’m not a fan of survival mechanics in games, where you have to keep topping up food and water. It’s supposed to be a stab at realism (in a game where you fight 9-foot-tall mutant crustaceans), but it’s really just a game system designed to force resource use and impose artificial limits. It’s annoying when I have to pause in whatever quest or activity I’m doing to go forage for berries and vegetables, and I would much prefer a version of the game without survival mechanics (neither Fallout 3 or 4 had this mechanic, although mods could add it). I’m willing to tolerate it because thematically it fits the game. We are meant to be scavenging for resources, even if I always find the implementation of this system annoying. Plus, we have the ability to grow limited crops at our base which can be used in an emergency. I can live with it.
I’m happy enough with character creation
I’ve written before how important flexible and deep character creation is to me. Mercifully, I can craft a character in Fallout 76 the way I want free of a pre-set narrative. I no longer have to endure (and care about) a protagonist searching for his dad or his son, or mourning his wife. I have an ongoing story for my character in my head, which evolves as I play based on my actions and experiences alone. My avatar can come to the game world unencumbered by a narrative fashioned by Bethesda writers (who I suspect are nothing like me). I can be truly S.P.E.C.I.A.L.
I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that at some future date, Bethesda will allow modding in Fallout 76, which would open up further avenues of appearance customization.
These are some of the concrete ways I’m enjoying playing Fallout 76. No game is perfect, but I like where this game seems to be going. Time will tell. In the online games I’ve played, my best moments have come along when the game systems have given me freedom to play how I want. I currently see a lot of that freedom in Fallout 76, along with an engaging world.