At this past E3, Bethesda Softworks announced the multiplayer-only Fallout 76to a markedly skeptical crowd. During the keynote, game director Todd Howard expressed that he understood fans’ apprehension, but reminded us of Fallout 3’s success after the studio took the risk of turning Fallout games into shooters, and this sentiment stuck with me. It’s easy to fear change, but nothing can improve without trying something new. This was reason enough to be onboard with Fallout 76’s bold new direction for the series– at least until I played it, because the steps this game took were either not bold enough or in the wrong direction entirely.
The alarms started going off as soon as I arrived in this new land of Appalachia and thought “This series’ engine is not aging well.” Fallout 76 is the official point where we can no longer ignore how rough around the edges these games are. Beyond the dull colors and low resolution, the world of Appalachia is cluttered and sloppy to the point of being overwhelming. So much of the background narrative that drives Fallout games is hidden in the environmental details, but these are hard to appreciate when the world is drowning in literal garbage. I understand the apocalypse just happened, but let’s tidy the place up a bit.
This obstruction of 76’s environmental narrative is even more poignant now that the series’ character-driven stories have been replaced with a generic mission path, mainly delivered through audio logs and text dumps rather than meaningful conversations with interesting NPCs. Instead of absorbing the story, my attention was free to contemplate something more disheartening. Looking at all the destruction and mutated monsters around me, I realized how incongruous the series’ overarching narrative has become.
I’m not the kind of gamer to go lore-spelunking, but I can put two and two together. Fallout 76 is set just 25 years after its world’s Great War, and yet its level of nature reclamation and architectural degradation is identical to what’s found in Fallout 3 and 4, which take place over 150 years later. Moreover, the ghouls, deathclaws, and other mutated beasts that roam the landscape also seem unfazed by the passage of time. So these hideous creatures all morphed into their current states in the short 25 years since the war, and then stopped evolving for the next 150? The way these games connect to one another causes a disconnect in the grander tale they tell.
On the topic of Fallout 4, Fallout 76’s map was sold as being four times bigger than that of its predecessor, but there is no amount of evidence you could show me that could make me believe that. It is a good-sized map, but I’d be hesitant to say it’s twice the size of the previous game, let alone four times. It may take four times longer to trek it, as the entire map is split by an obnoxiously large mountain range, but the game’s generous fast travel system means you don’t have to deal with it too much.
Measuring sticks aside, the areas in which Fallout 76 outright copies Fallout 4are where the adventure is strongest. There is something indescribably addictive about rummaging through shacks and ruined buildings for duct tape, screws, and whatever else, and then bringing all that precious material back to your meticulously constructed camp to craft whatever gear you’ve craved the longest. Managing survival meters like hunger and radiation, while a little unforgiving, also bring back Fallout 4’s satisfying tension and subsequent relief when you find an abundance of a resource that balances you out. And fortunately, these tasks are basically constant throughout the experience.
Fallout 76’s similarities to Fallout 4 are where it excels, while its differences are where things being to fall apart. This new adventure is built as an open-world multiplayer game, which isn’t a problem in of itself, but it does create new problems. Most notably, using the game’s VATS auto-targeting function no longer freezes time, nor does going into one’s inventory.
VATS is (or used to be) Fallout players’ primary means of killing by stopping time and picking the most advantageous part of an enemy to blow off with the highest chance of success. Without the crutch of freezing time, enemies can run anywhere while you’re lining up your shot, making the chance of a successful hit jump up, down, and sideways. Even if VATS shots weren’t constantly wasted by enemies dipping behind objects at the last millisecond, the new version’s technical deficiencies make it unreliable regardless.
Now comparatively worthless, VATS can at least be avoided, but the same cannot be said for the inventory. Effectively managing your weapons, armor, and Aid items is crucial for any fight, yet doing so without stopping time simply doesn’t work, and the incomprehensible radial menu does little to help. Trying to eat? To remove items to no longer be over encumbered? Or just get to a weapon that’s not broken? Doesn’t matter. If you need your inventory in a fight, chances are you’ll be tanking some unavoidable damage.
This demand for speed in VATS and inventory management doesn’t gel with the spirit of Fallout. Recent Fallout games were shooters at their core, but their systems supported a pace that rewarded strategy and preparation over precise aim. The removal of the pause mechanism destroys this pacing that ultimately suited the games much more than this approach.
The unreliability of both VATS and the inventory system are only the start of Fallout 76’s gameplay missteps. I don’t remember if real-time shooting was this awkward and stiff in previous Fallout games, but if so, I was too busy using VATS to notice. Now we’re stuck with it, and similar to the graphics engine, this is another area of Fallout long surpassed by other games and badly in need of some evolution.
Even if the aiming didn’t make it feel like your gun has a personal grudge against you, hitboxes are wildly inconsistent, which makes fighting close-quarters enemies particularly frustrating. These melee enemies also come with what might be the game’s worst intentional design choice: When hit, the player is frozen in place for about a second. Not only is this infuriating beyond my ability to articulate, it also makes no logical sense. If I’m backpedaling and an enemy hits me in the same direction I’m moving, the momentum—if anything—should accelerate me, not stop me dead. Come on, Bethesda.
Now, if you think we’ve passed the worst of Fallout 76, don’t relax just yet. The word “unplayable” is rather hyperbolic and overused in my opinion, so while I won’t say Fallout 76 is unplayable, I will say it’s unfinished. The game’s countless graphical and AI glitches were initially annoying, but they have since taken a backseat to the glitches that regularly crash the game and even prevent missions from being completed. The mission glitch in question has since been remedied in an update, but it’s more than likely that other similar hitches lurk in the shadows. Less serious but far more common are the perpetual frame drops and freezes that can make the game’s already unwieldy gun combat damn near impossible. In its current state, it’s just a mess.
All of these changes and technical sacrifices were made for the sake of Fallout 76’s new multiplayer focus, so what does it offer in return? Up to 24 players can tour Appalachia in one game, and players can group up into teams of four to tackle objectives. The objective variety is generally what you’d expect– defend this, fetch that– but randomly occurring event missions are a welcome supplementary distraction.
All considered, the mission content isn’t much to write home about, though there is something to be said about exploring the world with friends at your side. Fallout experiences tend to have deep metagames when it comes to learning when, where, and how to optimize one’s journey with the insane number of available systems. Now, instead of asking your friend survival tips at work the next day, you can both uncover the game’s secrets and strategies together.
These discoveries will certainly include the game’s player-activated nukes, which—once enough code fragments are picked up randomly around the map—are launched from heavily defended silos. Players can target nearly any location on the map with a nuke, destroying all player-created structures in the area and creating a high-level radiation zone with powerful threats and sweet loot inside. Nuke drops are currently few and far between, but will likely pick up in frequency as more players get their bearings. And nukes are reasonably badass endgame goals as far as endgame goals go.
Should confrontational players not have nukes at their disposal, they can always resort to shooting each other, but Fallout 76’s PvP dynamic feels a bit stilted. To fight, one player must damage another, and the second must agree to the fight by returning fire before either can deal full damage. Even when one dies, the only notable loss is whatever Junk was being carried. This design is in place to prevent griefing, and while that’s admirable, it means that fighting other players is neither interesting nor really worth the trouble.
Shying away from true PvP is a prime example of Fallout 76’s refusal to commit to certain staples of multiplayer, while letting other staples undermine what it could do right. A max of 24 players is not nearly enough to precipitate regular, spontaneous interactions on a map of this size, and when they do happen, the cooperative and competitive content isn’t quite alluring enough to hold attention. But on the other hand, the multiplayer framework still forces players to suffer changes like the lack of pausing in VATS, a woefully limited inventory space, and the inability to autosave which deters experimentation. Fallout 76either needed a greater multiplayer resolve, ideally through systemic changes like a new combat engine and more engaging mission content, or it needed to stick to the single-player adventures the series has mastered.
But it’s this pedigree of adventures that makes Fallout 76 such a blow, and maybe even seem worse than it is. Bethesda concocted a recipe for single-player RPG shooters that hooked us like few games ever had, so when asked to trust Fallout 76, we had no reason not to. The developer’s mastery of this RPG craft can be persistently felt in 76, but it’s suffocated by issues and misguided changes that come off as the result of overconfidence. Fallout 76 has a solid concept that could have subverted our skepticism, but for a series held in such high esteem, its reputation will pay dearly for an execution as crude as the wasteland itself.
Many of the issues Fallout 76 currently faces could eventually be fixed, which is why this mess is such a pity. The potential is clear, but a reluctance to commit to one direction or another leaves the game in an awkward and broken void.
Bethesda Game Studios
M - Mature
|Fallout 76 is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Bethesda Softworks for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Nick didn’t start gaming until mid-2006. Once his parents finally allowed a console into the house, it was all uphill from there. Starting out with a PS2, he grew an affinity for Sony consoles and moved on to the PS3, and now the PS4. He keeps his gaming palette wide, but, gun to his head, he’d have to say shooters are his genre of choice.