Review: You aren’t alone in Fallout 76 but you’ll wish you were
Fallout 76 isn’t the Fallout anybody was expecting. It’s neither Interplay’s original CRPGs nor Bethesda’s usual take on the series, but a poor attempt at chasing after the games-as-a-service trend. If you haven’t guessed it by now, that’s mostly a bad thing, but those open-minded enough might just enjoy it anyway.
Instead of an MMO, they’ve slapped on multiplayer to turn this into an online-only game. While it’s true that fans have been asking for a multiplayer Fallout, I reckon not many would’ve wanted it done in this way.
This isn’t the 76th Fallout game nor an allusion to Soldier 76 from Overwatch. The game is named after Vault 76, one of the earliest to open after the nukes fell. Set in West Virginia, your Vault Dweller is tasked with rebuilding America in one of the series’ biggest maps so far. At 16 square miles its four times larger than Fallout 4, and playing the game it sure felt like it.
Mechanically, this checks all of the Fallout boxes. You explore the sprawling world of Fallout 76 as you please, scavenging and building up your supplies to grow stronger, explore further, and fight bigger irradiated creatures. There are a ton of landmarks conveniently shown on your radar, and mission destinations are automatically marked on the map.
Taking the settlement system from last time, you can now set up a camp pretty much anywhere you choose, provided you have the resources to move your C.A.M.P. terminal. While it’s smaller and more mobile, it’ll still serve as you personal safe haven and supply cache.
On the other hand, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system has gone through an overhaul. You still put points into the seven different stats, and those stats dictate what perks you have. However, Fallout 76 uses perk cards earned from levelling up, and each perk has its own cost.
Let’s say you have the Lone Wanderer perk card, which is grouped under Charisma. You’ll need an unused Charisma slot to equip it and, when fully upgraded, at least 3 points in Charisma to activate it. They barely explain how it all works, and you’ll have to constantly fiddle around with the active perks to tackle different situations.
The V.A.T.S. targeting system no longer slows down time, too. Since everything happens in real-time, the hit percentages are always changing on the fly, making it much harder to use when you’re actually under attack. I find that I’m relying more on snap shots to the torso rather than precise hits to the head. It’s certainly a different take on the same system but I’m divided on whether it’s a good or bad change.
What I do know is bad are the forced animations at crafting stations. Whether you’re making weapons and armor, cooking, or using the chemistry station, all of it is horrendously slow. There’s no way to skip the animation either, so get ready to be bored when crafting multiple items. If you’re away from camp then it becomes an anxious wait.
In fact, accessing menus — whether it’s your Pip-Boy, loot containers, terminals or traders — doesn’t pause anything anymore. You’re always exposed to an attack, enforcing the survival aspect they’ve focused on for Fallout 76. That focus means you’ll need to constantly be on the hunt for food and water too, when it was previously an optional setting.
I initially scoffed at the whole survival mechanic but I’ve come to like it. It makes cooking and eating all the food you find actually useful, instead of simply being environmental decorations. You suffer penalties for ignoring food and water as well, making your life in a hostile world all the more dangerous.
I can see how this can turn off a lot of gamers who aren’t interested in the survival mechanics, but as of writing there are no plans to toggle it off or introduce special servers without it. I don’t think it’s a big negative, but I do wish that Bethesda made radiation treatment easier, especially in the early game.
Without access to radiation-free resources or a ton of caps (currency) to buy RadAway, you’ll quickly build up a ton of radiation from eating and drinking whatever’s available to stay alive. RadAway is also pretty hard to come by early on, so you’ll always be hampered by radiation poisoning as you ration whatever you can find, craft, or eventually buy.
Speaking of buying, those bottle caps aren’t easy to find either. Containers and enemies rarely have caps on them, requiring you to constantly scavenge and trade for what you need. Forget the other common items such as bobby pins, Stimpaks, and Rad X, as they are extremely scarce compared to past instalments.
Caps are stingily doled out after completing missions, though they are more reliable than trying to loot random containers. That means you’ll want to do quests as much as you can, which pretty much kills the spirit of exploration. Why bother exploring new areas when you get better rewards from quests? It’s not until much later, after hours upon hours of playing, that you’ll be comfortably stocked up to go exploring.
As Todd Howard promised, there are no friendly NPCs in the game. All you meet are feral ghouls, irradiated monsters, or robots. No humans, though there are dead bodies littered everywhere. What this means is that nearly every quest is found through logs, tapes, or written notes left behind. It’s pretty weird.
I’ll now have to talk about multiplayer. I’d hoped otherwise but, after hours playing the game, I’m convinced that the online aspects intrude into what is an otherwise solid game. Fallout 76’s worlds are instanced, each populated by 23 other players who share the same map as you. There is no way to play solo or with just your friends on a private server, which is a major oversight on Bethesda’s part.
The shared map means you might be stuck exploring a new area with no loot, and this is when resources are already scarce. The respawning enemies also means you can get caught by surprise, when a previously empty area isn’t as safe as you thought. It’s downright unfair sometimes, especially when they appear near doors and entrances.
Of course, the biggest worry is the always-on PVP. Hostile players deal light amounts of damage when you don’t retaliate, griefing you by lowering your health just enough for monsters to finish the job. Fight back and full damage values are imposed on both, which is probably what the griefer wants in the first place.
Sure, Bethesda does have safeguards to prevent ganking. Those who kill innocent players suffer numerous penalties: they don’t see other players on the map, earn a bounty on their heads (with the reward coming out of their pockets), and get no experience, rewards, or caps.
The endgame in Fallout 76 is mostly launching nukes to create irradiated areas, spawning some of the game’s most powerful baddies. Nukes take a lot of time and effort to launch, as you’ll need to gather the various code parts, decipher them, and then find a functional nuclear missile silo. It’s pretty much geared for groups instead of solo players, and the closest MMO analogy would be a user-spawned raid.
Personally, I only saw a nuke once and that was in the Xbox One beta. Even if you didn’t launch it yourself, the rest of the players will know due to massive after-effects.. Honestly, it’s one of the best ideas implemented in the game, and seems like a pretty solid endgame option.
Yet the biggest downside of fully online play is the potential lag, and in Singapore that’s been pretty much a guarantee. I don’t know where the servers are hosted (the game doesn’t tell you or let you choose) but the lag is bad enough to be noticeable. Enemies will sometimes teleport or rubber-band , shots go wild, and melee weapons are useless without V.A.T.S. Even dropping items or selecting options in terminals take a moment or two to register.
There are also constant slowdowns in nearly all of the areas I’m in (played on a PS4 Pro). The framerate drops can be sudden and massive, which makes even simply looking around a hassle. Aiming, which is already laggy at the best of times, becomes an exercise in frustration when you can’t track your targets smoothly. If it weren’t for V.A.T.S. the game would be nigh unplayable at times.
It’s strange. The game doesn’t look that much different or any more demanding than Fallout 4. It looks remarkably similar, with a ton of reused assets and the same graphical issues. Of course, this being a Bethesda game it’s simply rife with bugs.
I’ve had quest markers leading to nowhere, enemies clipping into the scenery, floating objects, and more. The AI is no exception, getting stuck behind doors or simply not reacting to my presence until I’m right beside them. But the worst of them all are the constant crashes, giving me only two to three hours of playtime at a go. And that’s when I’m lucky.
Tried and tested, yet unfamiliar at the same time, Fallout 76 would’ve served better as a new IP. It shares many of the similarities of the Bethesda-developed games, but the differences are so massive that it would’ve been better to distance it from the fan-beloved series.
Even with all of its Fallout trappings, the game’s many issues and online-only restriction are a major strike against what is, underneath the mess, a fun game. Perhaps it’ll improve with time, as Elder Scrolls Online did, but for now it’s definitely an acquired taste.
Fallout 76 is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Developed by Bethesda Game Studios. Published by Bethesda Softworks.
A digital copy was provided for review.
Fallout 76 (PS4)
was reviewed on the Samsung QLED Q7FN 65-inch TV.