For as long as I’ve been into MMORPGs, I’ve wanted a Fallout Online. I’d been a big fan of the franchise since the first CRPG back in the ’90s and was crossing my fingers that Interplay would make this MMO a reality (spoiler: It didn’t). Then there was Fallen Earth, which was a very acceptable brand substitute — but it wasn’t quite Fallout.
And so when Bethesda announced to the world that it was bringing the Fallout franchise online with a sort of hybrid MMO-survival game, it was one of the more exciting days of my gaming career. While Fallout 76 hasn’t lived up to my expectations of what an MMO version of this wasteland could be, it’s truly blossomed into a robust and highly enjoyable experience in its own right.
The worst of launches
Let’s rewind the calendar to November 2018. After talking Fallout 76 up quite a bit, Bethesda released this latest iteration into the world. And it was an unmitigated disaster.
I mean, Bethesda is Bethesda, and “releasing quality polished titles” has never been its forté. But Fallout 76 seemed to be on a completely new level of incompetence, with highly publicized bugs, crashes, and performance issues that made the entire game a joke. As the studio was slow to respond to these issues, the criticisms and bad scores racked up — and many quickly ditched this game for other holiday releases. It got so bad that the studio started throwing free copies at people just a month or two after its release, bundling it with Xboxes.
If you want a good overview of how incredibly bad it was, Internet Historian put out a documentary about this crash-and-burn:
A confusing world
It wasn’t unplayable, mind you, and I was still psyched to play Fallout 76 that year. After all, this was an online Fallout game, a partial answer to my years-long plea. So I couldn’t resist.
Bugs and glitches aside, that initial experience left me confused and wanting. The developers took a very strange approach to F76 to bring it to the multiplayer space, and I’m not speaking to the fact that the game was based on a heavily modified Fallout 4 engine that wasn’t built for online play.
First of all, this would become the first Fallout game where there were no NPCs outside of robots. The wasteland felt far more empty and strange due to this, with players encountering numerous voice logs and automatons that was weirdly artificial. But the idea here was to populate the game world with people doing survival-ish stuff — building bases and the like. It might’ve worked, except that any given map was designed to hold only two dozen people. Period.
What’s always puzzled me is how Bethesda straddled a strange line in making a multiplayer world where there were few other people who couldn’t easily communicate with each other. There was no zone-wide text chat or guilds, a glaring omission that’s still not been rectified in the half-decade since launch. The studio honestly expected that everyone would either use proximity voice chat or deploy a simple array of emotes for 100% of communication.
Being online with other people that you often don’t see and can’t talk to continues to be one of the strangest feelings. People have come up with ways around this, typically setting up private worlds and using third-party chat, but the studio’s always acted like this isn’t anything that needs fixing. I know, because I point-blank asked them during an interview and the devs responded as if this was not needed at all.
Turning the apocalypse bus around
Even with so many flaws in the code and game design, Fallout 76 didn’t give up. Bethesda, for all its faults, committed to this title and poured in a lot of work to do what it could to turn the situation around. Bugs, glitches, and exploits were fixed — not all, but many — and the game’s survival elements were toned down in favor of promoting more of a traditional RPG.
Big, meaty updates started arriving to shore up the weak spots and start expanding upon the potential of this post-nuclear West Virginia. Easily the most important of these was April 2020’s Wastelanders update. This was a top-down overhaul of the game that finally added human (and ghoul) NPCs, tons of new questlines, two major factions, allies, and so much more. For the first time, Fallout 76 felt like it should’ve from the very start.
From this point on, the game stopped being an easy joke and started garnering some actual respect. The calendar started to fill up with regular and annual events, and seasonal reward tracks were added in June 2020. (As an aside, Fallout 76 has some of the coolest reward track artwork with its giant SCOREboards. The art team goes above and beyond with these.) And people kept playing, with a total of 13.5 million by the end of 2022.
Take me home, country roads
Fallout 76 is a game that I gladly return to every so often. There’s a highly engaging gameplay loop of exploring, scavenging, fighting, and crafting/decorating to be had here, and the world’s really grown in the past five years. Over the past month, I’ve been taking a new character through West Virginia in her cardboard robot armor and combat shotgun. It’s been a blast.
Yet worry is starting to creep in around the edges of my general enthusiasm. It really feels like Bethesda’s scaled back on its formerly ambitious updates in 2023, giving us a couple of small-to-middlish patches, additional seasons, and the regurgitation of all of these events. It’s not quite maintenance mode, but I’m concerned we might be heading that way. Then again, Bethesda committed to a five-year content plan starting in 2022, so maybe these concerns are premature.
In any case, I’ll be glad to continue adventuring in this zeerust setting with its unique blend of technology, pop culture, and mythos. There’s really nothing quite like Fallout 76 out there, and so there’s nothing that gives me a fix like this game does when I want to grab a trusty gun and head out to hunt mutants while dodging nuclear blasts.
Happy birthday, Fallout 76! You’ve grown up so much — here’s to another five years of even more maturing.