When something looks familiar and seems familiar yet is slightly and significantly different, it can really break your stride and cause you to stumble. Going through the first week of Fallout 76 felt like this to me — I was stumbling all over the place, frustrated with a game that looked quite similar to previous Fallout titles yet operated under a different set of rules.
On the surface, Fallout 76 is the game that I, an MMO fan, have desired: an online Fallout with an ongoing, persistent world that offers unparalleled exploration and achievement. I also have to applaud a studio stepping outside of its comfort zone with this franchise and taking interesting risks. But the problem is that, at least initially, none of these risks seems to pay off and we’re left with a half-and-half experience that seems to be throwing everyone — MMO player, solo player, Fallout player — off of their respective games.
Late to the party
Fallout 76’s start may be one of the cheeriest that the series has ever seen. Gone is the grim wasteland and the harrowing escape to the vault; here is a happy celebration followed by survivors racing out into a gorgeous mountain countryside to repopulate the world. The player character wakes up, somehow being left behind the rush of the group, and staggers out of the vault to find others, explore the world, and occasionally follow the main Overseer storyline.
My first problem is that in the desire to get players out in the same game space, Fallout 76 rushes the whole starting experience. The character creation is still staggeringly difficult to work with and make anything but horrible abominations. There are scant tutorials as you’re running through the vault on the way out (I botched my first perk card pick because I had no idea what was going on). And the initial thought that I had when I got outside was, “OK, so, what now?” I wasn’t tied to any strong narrative — heck, I didn’t even have a weapon.
I’ll admit that my second thought was that this might well be one of the most visually inviting Fallout worlds to date. That may be a good or a bad thing, depending on how grim and post-apocalypticy you like these kinds of games, but West Virginia in the fall is a great idea that takes us away from settings we’ve seen plenty of times before. I could envision spending hundreds of hours poking my way through the brush and between golden-leafed trees to discover what else lay in these woods.
Unfortunately, getting a handle on the core gameplay loop proved to be more problematic than in prior games. For starters, the menus are just trash for the PC user. Everything takes a step longer than it should, and there is no way that a game in 2018 should require me to hit “M” then “Z” then select another option just to exit the game. That’s right: The two-“Esc” standard isn’t present here.
And while navigating, exploring, and looting are pretty much the same fun that they were in Fallout 4, combat is a whole different ballgame. You see, the last three Fallout games featured a slowed down or stopped action when you activated your VATS in a fight. This allowed for a breather as you decided on moves, accessed healing items, and aimed for specific body parts. But since that can’t exist in a multiplayer environment, now everything is real-time and VATS only sort-of works as an auto-aiming system.
I found that sometimes there was so much visual information with the environment and clutter that singling out enemies and dealing with moving targets was taxing and not nearly as enjoyable as it was in other games. Perhaps if you’re more used to twitch-based gaming and shooters, it’s no big deal, but I was dying to super mutants because I couldn’t pause to use my stimpacks and slow down time to aim for headshots with my hunting rifle.
The human factor
Again, let me reiterate that I am a supporter of the idea of a massively multiplayer — or even persistently multiplayer — Fallout game. I think it’s a really good step for the series. But I’m shaking my head at this careless implementation that’s going on here. The human factor of having other people running around with you isn’t nearly the draw or the appeal that it should be.
For whatever reason — perhaps to shift the focus more on PvP — Bethesda eschewed any sort of zone or world text chat. Players from the start feel isolated from others because they are isolated, physically and socially. While they can see others on the map moving around (your PvPer’s target chart), players have to be in close proximity to engage in either emotes or (shudder) voice chat. Voice chat. Again, it’s like Bethesda only thinks with its consoles and remembers PCs as an afterthought.
This doesn’t work for so many reasons. There is no easy system to bring players together or facilitate conversation and coordination over long distances. There’s no community bonding going on unless you’re right up in someone’s face. There are people who hate, have no access to, or decline voice chat. And online structures like guilds are conspicuously absent here.
So — and excuse the all-caps text that is incoming here — WHY HAVE OTHER PLAYERS AT ALL? Especially when you’ve ditched human NPCs in favor of focusing on the human factor? As an MMO player, I feel like I have my hands tied behind my back when it comes to dealing with others. On the first day, I didn’t see anyone. On the second, a few of us ended up bumping to each other at a camp and we kind of stared each other down with our harrowing lumpy faces while one guy made the most awkward voice introduction that I’ve ever heard. All this made me want to do was run away from people, especially knowing that one might decide to gank me for my wood chips and flowers.
While I see the muddled focus of the game as its primary issue, there are plenty of other problems plaguing Fallout 76. The inventory system is (thanks to the console format) abysmal to work with — and work with it you shall because you’ll be doing so much inventory maintenance in this game your eyes will cross.
The CAMP housing/base system is functional but very awkward and fiddly to build. I eventually gave up making any sort of shack and just put functional items around a campfire and called it a day. And that’s coming from someone who loves his player housing.
Then there’s the myriad of server and client issues — bugs, lag, crashes, the usual Bethesda parade of follies — that suggest this title needed a lot more time in the oven.
Hope emerges from the ruins
However, I do want to be fair here because I think it’s far too easy to bag on Fallout 76 and not acknowledge its virtues. And yes, it has some, and they do give me hope that there’s something worth salvaging here.
Bethesda is quite good at making virtual worlds that you want to explore, and with all of the territory that this game covers, I’m delighted to think of how many hours I can put into exploring every nook and cranny without growing bored. When I’m out simply exploring and looting and sight-seeing, the aforementioned problems often melt away and I’m left with a pretty fun experience.
I also think that a survival game route was a good course to take with Fallout 76. As a friend said, once you think of this title in the vein of ARK or H1Z1 (the MMO), it starts to click. A post-apocalyptic setting is perfect for challenging players to survive in harsh conditions.
The perk system — which now uses swappable cards — is vastly better than the terrible screen that Fallout 4 used. The retro-futuristic set pieces, the dark humor, the strange weapons, and the mutated enemies continue to be a delight. Add to that another fantastic score by Inon Zur, and it is hard to fault Fallout 76 for its environment.
A key question
I think that the key question for Fallout 76 is: Who was the target audience for this game? Is it for the console player or the PC gamer? Is it for the MMO fan or the survival aficionado? Is it for the PvPer or the base builder? Is it for the follower of the franchise or the fan of the online gaming genre?
The answer to all of these is about the same: I guess? Yes? Sort of? It’s indicative of the confusion that the studio has had to deal with ever since Fallout 76’s initial announcement earlier this year. If Bethesda couldn’t easily wrap up the game in an easy-to-understand soundbite, then chances are that it didn’t even fully understand what it wanted to do with this game and to whom it wanted to target.
At least that confusion seems to bind all us players together. No matter what you’re looking for in this game, chances are that some of it befuddles you while other parts amuse you. Fallout 76 is an explorer’s dream, with a game map that boggles the mind in its scope. It also mixes in more elements of survival games (with food and water as necessities), player housing (with the portable C.A.M.P.s), MMOs (with other players roaming about the world), PvP titles (with sort-of-but-not-completely-optional conflict and nuclear launches), and so on. But while I’m all for a diverse array of options and design elements, it doesn’t quite congeal in the way that I think Bethesda was hoping.
It very well may turn into an excellent game, given more development and attention. I think that it could, should the studio choose, be transformed into a fun MMO. But as it stands, Fallout 76 may be a little too off-putting to keep a mass crowd engaged for the long haul.