Let me be upfront: I like Fallout 4. I know what implications that has. I know how a vocal portion of the fanbase has come to feel about the game, but I enjoyed it. A lot. And before you say anything, yes, I’ve played Fallout 1 and 2, so I’ve earned the right to my crappy opinion.
That said, I’m leery about multiplayer games, which is exactly how Fallout 76 is positioning itself: Fallout with other people. If it wasn’t for my husband’s enthusiasm, I probably wouldn’t even be giving Fallout 76 much more than an earmark to check it out later, but here I am. The B.E.T.A has just ended, and I jumped in when my schedule allowed it. I’ve put in a… bunch of hours already (15-ish?), and I think I’ve got a good feel of how things are going to go. How do I feel about it? It’s complicated.
I’m something of a digital tourist. The first question I have after an open world game catches my attention is, “how big is the world map?” I value the journey over the destination, which is probably why I have so much difficulty completing the main plot of most Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, even after over 100 hours of playing. The world may be in peril, but that can wait until I’ve bought a house, put together the best outfit, and solved all the petty issues I can get my hands on.
Fallout 76 supposedly has a map that is four times larger than the one in Fallout 4, and having trekked across over more than half of it, I find that somewhat hard to believe. This could come down to the layout, or maybe I’m just a terrible judge of digital distance. Fallout 4 was your typical sardine can world, dominated by a pretty sizeable depiction of Boston. Appalachia is, in contrast, a lot more open. It’s more like if you took Fallout 4’s map, with all its landmarks, and then stretched it out to four times the size. So rather than tripping over a new map icon every five feet, there’s more empty terrain.
I know that empty landscape isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it suits me fine. I always made fun of Bethesda’s maps for being so tightly populated, so being able to enjoy some of the landscape, rather than crisscrossing from point to point to mark up my map is something that I prefer. The change in density is probably to allow building space for people’s camps, which work incredibly similar to the settlement building from Fallout 4, for better or worse.
HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE
It also helps separate you from the other folks on the map. The online is a bit weird. Rather than being in a persistent world with a jillion other people, you exist on little shards where you’re grouped with maybe 30-50 people scattered across the countryside. This means that you’ll go for long periods without bumping into people, which are the best moments for me. During the last B.E.T.A. period, I didn't see another soul, and it was glorious.
There’s constant proximity chat, which I promptly turned off because I don’t like being harassed by people who think screaming into their microphone is the pinnacle of comedy. Other players seem to exist to ignore each other or tie up vendors for a million years while a line forms behind them. There are world events that bring players together, but my experience with them went two ways: either everyone runs around, not really understanding the objective, or I wind up doing the whole event by myself. Which, again, raises the question: what’s the point of other people?
Rarely did I encounter anyone who did anything more threatening than waving a gun in my face (I assume they were also screaming into their microphone). Only once did someone actively try to kill me, and I just passively tried to demonstrate I wasn’t a threat. You take reduced damage until you fight back, and I wasn’t about to tangle with someone 5 levels higher than me. It was just kind of awkward; he and his friend were in my camp, popping off a few shots trying to provoke me. What was I supposed to do? Run and hope he’s more out of shape than my character? Keep wasting stimpacks until he gets bored and leaves?
Eventually, I just shot him in the face and was promptly perforated for my trouble. I found out that the penalty for death is a few caps. Gotta pay the ferryman.
PAY THE FERRYMAN
It’s the compromises that had to be made to get these clowns into your game that gets me. There’s no NPCs out in the world, as though Bethesda expects other players to fill the gap, which I feel is giving them way too much credit.
The lack of other NPCs makes the world feel bizarrely barren. I mean, it’s supposed to be a wasteland, but other Fallout games centered around civilization thriving (or at least surviving) in harsh conditions. Here, everything’s eerily empty. There's a lot of smaller towns, but with no inhabitants, what differentiates one from another? With no NPC’s, quests are given through audio and radio messages. It’s implied the NPC’s still live somewhere out there, but I’ve never seen anything that implies you ever see one in the flesh.
I really don’t understand why Bethesda chose this approach. There are no raiders, no active settlements, and the only stores appear to be roaming supermutants. Are they really expecting players to establish these things on their own? Like someone is going to open a store at the side of the road to trade with players? That a group of like-minded people are going to work together and establish a permanent settlement or raider camp? To what end? If you encounter a group of people playing as raiders, what are you supposed to do aside from get raided? Rally the local populace?
I have no doubt that some people are going to do this, but are you going to discover them? Like I mentioned previously, everyone exists in their own little parallel dimension, so there’s no continuity. A player-run civilization that’s there one day, won’t likely be there the next.
This would probably work better if they went with the method that other survival games, like Minecraft and Ark, have done it. Using dedicated, persistent, and possibly player run servers of 100 or so players might have worked better. That way, when a group of players want to create a raider camp and go to war with the local civilization, it’ll always be there. Maybe in its own pocket dimension, but the fact is, it’ll be a continuous fixture somewhere.
SET THE WORLD ON FIRE
So, you ignore the rest of humanity’s last, best hope, and set out on your own or, like me, with your husband, and, well, there’s more annoyances to be found.
I don’t understand how questing with groups is supposed to work. You likely start off in your camp, waiting for everyone to get their crafting done, their outfits together, and their make-up on. Then you set out for your destination and hope that no one gets distracted. Then, when you arrive, what happens? There’s looting to be done, emails to be read, and enemies to be killed. How do you coordinate that? How do you get a group of players to stand still for five minutes while you read flavour text off a computer screen?
What makes it worse is that the world doesn’t even feel dangerous enough to warrant a group of players. I’ve yet to encounter a single threat that I couldn’t handle by myself, which isn’t to say there isn’t one out there, it’s just doesn't feel like it. I guess that helps make up for the lack of quicksave button, but it does make things a little dull. I recall hunting through some ruins, just itching for a fight, finding only some bugs and ghouls. I was actually bored during an active mission, and that’s incredibly troubling.
I DON’T NEED YOUR COMPANY
Then there’s the baffling decision to have level requirements for equipment. I found an unfinished suit of T-45 power armor, and discovered that, while I could pilot the frame, I couldn’t equip the armor pieces until I was level 25. Well, that really takes the wind out of my sails. To its credit, older Fallout games required you to get training before you could step into power armor, so maybe this isn’t that far off, but what a bummer.
More aggravating was when I stumbled across a .44 revolver at a low level, only to find I couldn’t equip it until I hit level 5. Why? I can use makeshift pipe weapons that fire the same caliber, but somehow I don’t know how to operate a mass produced pistol?
This feels pretty lazy. Instead of going through and balancing the stats of the various weapons, we have to reach the legal age to wield something we looted fair and square. And this is going to create balance? The guy who assaulted me when he was 5 levels above me had access to equipment I couldn’t even equip yet, so how does that help me?
The whole system seems so poorly thought out. I can think of a dozen reasons for why they did it this way, but they all just indicate that maybe they’re trying to cram a multiplayer experience into a pre-existing game where it doesn’t work.
MAYBE YOU’LL SIT AND SIGH
I don’t mean to sit here and do nothing but gripe about the game, but I truly feel like Fallout 76 is a concept that needed a bit more thought. As it is, it seems more confused than I’ve witnessed in any other game. It can’t decide if it wants to be a Fallout game, an MMO game, or a player-driven crafting/survival game. Instead, it just bashes everything together, and it doesn’t work out. Regardless of what you're looking for in the game, you probably won't find it without compromises.
There’s potential here, but it’s going to take more than the week before launch to get there. A lot of it needs to be taken back to the drawing board, and a unified, focused overhaul needs to take place. Right now, it feels like an experiment to try and bring multi-player into Fallout 4, and while that could work, Fallout 76 first needs to answer the question: how do other players enhance the experience?
That’s not to say it’s completely unenjoyable, it’s just impossible to do so without tripping over some of its problems. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the exploration I’ve done, and the visual storytelling is spot on. As much as I complain, it is nice to bring my hubby along for a trip to the wasteland, I just wish the wasteland could throw more at us than a bunch of hyperactive fruitcakes. I’m certain I’ll be able to scrounge some enjoyment out in the mountains of West Virginia, but there are a lot of mutations that are getting in the way.