Doomsday preppers rejoice! The latest installment of the Fallout franchise by Bethesda Game Studios has finally launched, and with it ushers in a new era of multiplayer RPGs for console and PC players alike. As we live under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, it can be a welcome reprieve to immerse ourselves in the fiction of what might be and allow ourselves to play the hero of our own story. With Fallout 76, it’s not that simple, though it is far more realistic.
As I exited the relative safety of Vault 76 at the start of the game, I was greeted with a stunning view of the digital West Virginian woodlands. I was immediately blown away by the amount of color and detail given to the new landscape, especially in comparison to previous installments in the franchise. The luster has since worn off for me, however, for both the graphics and the rest of the game. Though not wholly irredeemable, it’s certainly not what many fans were expecting, and as a whole, has been kind of a let down.
First and foremost, Fallout 76 is a multiplayer game. If you’re looking to explore and dominate the wasteland with your friends, then I can’t recommend it enough on that aspect alone. Many of the traditional mechanics from previous games have been revamped for shared experiences, such as removing slowed-time when using VATS and no longer being able to pause the game by opening your Pip-Boy, and several of the newer features, such as photomode, really encourage the sharing of achievements and experiences with others. The game seems to have been very narrowly focused on this particular playstyle, and while not advertised as a traditional, single-player RPG akin to the rest of Bethesda’s library of titles, many of the franchise’s longtime fans are finding this a hard pill to swallow. I can appreciate what they were trying to do with this title, but outside of interacting with friends, the game doesn’t check enough boxes to be considered a smash hit. If you’re looking for a brand-new single-player experience akin to previous titles, I’d suggest you reconsider.
While the game certainly allows for single-player experiences, much of its appeal and fulfillment comes from playing with other people, because without them, the game is, quite literally, pretty lonely. Outside of the occasional Protectron or Mr. Handy robot, who only have canned responses and serve as traders and quest tools in the game, there are no NPCs (non-player characters). This means that you recieve all of your quests from scattered holotape recordings, notes, terminal entries and automated radio signals. The only other people you’ll run across in the wasteland are other players, and your interactions with them are limited to teaming up or gunning each other down. As I explored I came across a few other players, but none of our interactions felt particularly special or worthwhile. More often than not, we would wave at each other, maybe drop some loot at each other’s feet as an act of good faith, and moved on. Thanks to the enormous map and relatively low player cap for servers, running into people was intentionally uncommon, and I can appreciate the level of realism that Bethesda intended with this specific limitation, but realistically, it only made the game feel more and more like a weird limbo between an MMO and full-title.
This general lack of “human” interaction makes the game feel incredibly empty, not just physically, but also thematically. While this makes narrative sense, given that the world was essentially destroyed when the bombs fell, it doesn’t really give you anything to grasp onto in the game’s present. Without the consequence of NPCs to witness your actions, or faction quests that tie you down to one team or another, the narrative stakes essentially no longer exist. As a free agent in this brand new wasteland, devoid of established human life, it feels like you have no real stake in what happens to the world around you. You follow the stories of those who died before you and piece their tales together as you go, but your character’s motivations for doing so are unclear, and none of the quests seem to carry any sort of lasting effects or plotlines. The implication is that you are following these quests in hopes of finding other life in the wasteland, or just because you are bored, but thanks to the knowledge that there are no NPCs, players really are only questing out of boredom. The only real reason I found myself actually fulfilling any quest was the promise of loot at the end of the dungeon, or experience points that I could use to buy cooler outfits and decorations for my character. This doesn’t make someone like me want to keep coming back, because there isn’t any real sense of accomplishment either, especially in comparison to previous Fallout titles and Bethesda’s overall game style.
All that being said, the game does still carry some appeal. Being the earliest game in the Fallout franchise’s timeline, much of the junk and random items you find throughout the wasteland are still relatively intact, which means a surprising amount of new visual content, like diverse breeds of teddy bears and slightly less mutated wildlife. Overall the game plays and feels like a retexturing of its closest predecessor, Fallout 4, but with a few new assets and enemies. It isn’t wholly alien, and yet it carries enough of its own unique content and style to be a stand-alone game. I also found myself enjoying participation in the various events hosted throughout the game, when I could get to them in time, even if they were almost exclusively “kill-waves-of-enemies” in nature. In all honesty, the only real, genuine fun I had while playing this game was exploring the world with my real-world friends. We always relish in discovering the weird, amusing, creepy and humorous scenes and situations that we know are painstakingly placed by the developers, and being able to witness them at the same time in real time, and take photos of them for posterity, was a real treat. When I was running with my friends, I was able to mostly ignore the painfully frequent glitches and server crashes and push through the uncomfortable survival mechanics. In the game as in real life, facing the end of the world is always easier with friends
In conclusion, I would say that, for all its flaws, Fallout 76 isn’t a bad game. The level of realism integrated into the context of the game was appreciated, if a bit disappointing, and I found enough humorous tablos and detailed world-building elements and easter eggs to remind me that this was an attempt at a classic Bethesda game. It’s got a lot to live up to, and I can respect what Bethesda was going for when they branched out into this experimental field. Being their first genuine attempt at a console MMO (The Elder Scrolls Online being produced by their parent company, Zenimax), I can forgive them for not completely understanding what they were getting into, but where they go from here is anyone’s guess. It’s not what people were expecting, sure, but if you’re looking for a game that lets you explore a post-apocalyptic wasteland with your closest friends, then I can’t think of a better place for it than the rolling hills of West Virginia. Just don’t pay full price for it.
Sarah Nowack is a junior professional writing major who is minoring in graphic design. She works for the MSU Libraries Publishing Services Department as a print and design intern. She enjoys playing video games, eating outrageous foods, and above all, making terrible dad puns. She can be found at @battlerouge on Twitter and @shiverbound on Instagram.