Throughout its history, the Fallout series has more or less always been a single-player experience. As a role-playing franchise famous for its vast open worlds and a bewildering number of quests, this makes sense. Yet, things have changed with Fallout 76. Bethesda has switched up the standard formula.
Now, the entire focus is on online multiplayer. Unlike previous Fallout games, Fallout 76 puts the emphasis on working with or against other players. Although you can play it on your own, doing so is not encouraged or fun.
A Stripped Back Experience
Understanding exactly why Bethesda thought Fallout 76 was a good idea is difficult. After all, the Fallout series has a large and dedicated set of fans. Each new game sells millions of copies and becomes a huge hit. But one of the most important things about them is that they are single-player experiences. Having players go on a solo adventure means that they can explore the world at their pace. Meanwhile, isolating users allows the developers to include choices that truly alter the world. Without having to worry about the effects of other players, decisions can influence the in-game environment meaningfully.
To make Fallout 76 a multiplayer experience, the studio has stripped back much of what makes the franchise so great. Perhaps the biggest example of this is the lack of NPCs. Instead, recordings, journals, or robotic machines give out quests. Without human characters to interact with, the world feels bland and lifeless. All your actions lose impact as you are not really affecting the world. It would be fairer to say that you are performing cleanup more than anything else. Players end up being like a hazmat team sent to sort out the mess left behind after a disaster, only able to see the remnants of the people who once lived here.
Some Things Never Change
Like every other Fallout game, this one starts with you leaving a Vault following a nuclear apocalypse. Only this time, you enter back into society far earlier than ever before. The basic gameplay is also very familiar. It is much the same as you would expect to find in any other Fallout game from recent times.
VATS (the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) also makes a return, although it somehow feels clunkier and less effective than before. Fallout 76 even borrows the base-building mechanic from Fallout 4. Unfortunately, it’s a watered-down version. You are only able to build very small structures that likely won’t last long before others tear them down.
The multiplayer offerings do not make up for the lack of single-player elements, such as a deep rich story, either. The competitive elements do not work well, as you can only start duels with the consent of both players. A proper battle will only begin if both parties shoot at each other. Otherwise, the amount of damage you can do to another player is practically zero. This removes any tension or feeling of spontaneity from exploring the world, as you know you are always safe.
Meanwhile, nothing in Fallout 76 really requires co-operative play. The basic underlying mechanics are the same as in other Fallout games. Adding more players just means there are more guns in battles, reducing enemy health a bit quicker. Teaming up is not made enticing enough to bother with most of the time. Of course, everyone being forced to essentially play in the same manner only exacerbates this. Without the ability to specialize in roles, there is no need for extra players in your squad.
Another, albeit unwelcome, thing that has also made its way to Fallout 76 is a wide array of bugs. Bethesda’s large open-world games are notorious for glitches and this game is no different. You are likely to encounter problems with swapping items, quest markers not showing correctly, and enemies who will behave strangely. Sometimes this might mean that you cannot complete a task or you will lose a valuable piece of gear. Although there have been a lot of updates since the game’s original release, bugs still persist.
Outside of the performance-based issues, Fallout 76 looks and sounds pretty good. Even though Bethesda’s RPGs never strive to be the best in terms of visuals, they have a distinctive style. That crosses over into this game, which faithfully recreates the atmosphere and tone of West Virginia. The small amount of music present is usually pleasant enough. Meanwhile, the sound design and voice acting are generally high quality.
Even with all the issues described in this review, the most glaring is a separate problem. It’s that Bethesda does not seem to have designed Fallout 76 for anyone in particular. Longtime fans will feel alienated by the multiplayer components and lack of story or world-building. However, the online offerings are not sophisticated enough to make the game enjoyable to play with others.
There is just very little fun to be had in this game. Whereas developers can sometimes make significant changes to save a game post-release, this is likely impossible with Fallout 76. The core gameplay is not interesting enough and would need drastic changes that are not possible after launch. We will see when the free Wastelanders expansion comes out on April 7, 2020.