"Fallout 76," the long awaited bold new title in Bethesda Softworks long running "Fallout" franchise is a game best summarized by the fact that I could not play it for a week after its release. When the game dropped on November 14, I eagerly came back from classes, loaded up the game, and was met by a black screen. As soon as I launched the game, it stopped responding, and I had to shut it down, made especially jarring by the fact that the beta worked fine. I had to wait until the game’s first patch to redownload both it and the Bethesda launcher to get it to work, and even then it took a solid couple hours fiddling with permissions and DirectX shenanigans. Once the game launched I enjoyed a wonderful half hour of gameplay before I lost connection with the server and lost about fifteen minutes of that gameplay. And, honestly, that's probably the best way to introduce "76," by way of its technical issues, because in the end it won't be the radroaches, radiation, super mutants, or the harsh wasteland that will prove your greatest challenge; it will be server side latency.
As anyone who’s walked into my room to see the giant Brotherhood of Steel flag can tell you, I'm a pretty big Fallout fan. I have over 700 hours logged into “Fallout 4” and well over a dozen DLC-included playthroughs of “New Vegas,” which is not only my favorite “Fallout” but also one of my favorite games overall. And it's a shame because within “76” lies a pretty darn good layout of a new “Fallout” world. I don’t know about the console versions of the game, but I can say with absolute certainty that the PC port of the game is almost “Arkham Knight” levels of unplayable. You can’t count on the servers to hold you in the game for more than an hour before you are inevitably booted out. There is constant lag and frame jumping when just walking around, and don’t be surprised if you start rubber banding all over the place. To say the least, Bethesda clearly does not know what they are doing when making a server, this being their first real multiplayer game from a team previously committed almost exclusively to strong single player titles. To build on that, the PC version is not on - and will likely never be coming to - Steam. Rather, you will have to download the Bethesda launcher from their site, and it is, to say the least, unoptimized. Remember how this is a multiplayer game? Good luck using Bethesda.net to organize a group together. There is absolutely no convenient or reliable way of connecting directly to a server with a friend. Ultimately, it’s the technical issues that spell the demise of “76.” I will put that flatly right now, although there is certainly some promise in there, when you do get the odd clear patch where textures aren’t disappearing and you haven’t unlocked the ability to teleport at random intervals, there is a pretty good game to be had.
In terms of the actual game, however little of it you will be allowed to experience, let's start with the world. Rather being the “Capitol Wasteland” or “Mojave Wasteland” like in previous titles, the overworld of “76” is just called “Appalachia,” and not without reason. This is probably the least wasteland-y “Fallout” environment yet, and I honestly say that in the best way possible. There are some truly beautiful and colorful environment to explore. When you first make your way out of Vault 76 at the beginning of the game, you are greeted by a gorgeous landscape of rolling hills and auburn trees, taking you to the place where you belong. Overall there is much, much more actual foliage and scenery in just the starting area than in every single other piece of “Fallout” related content to date combined; which doesn’t make much sense considering this is set 175 years before every other “Fallout” game, and only 25 years after atomic bombs have been dropped on the landscape. The only reasonable explanation is that West Virginia was pretty low on the Chinese bombing list, which would make sense. That's not to say there are not the traditional highly radioactive, bombed out landscapes that are a staple of the franchise, although in keeping in some tradition those tend to be the more hostile, higher level areas. Actually, there is a great diversity of locations and biomes present in the game, from swampy mires to industrial waste sites covered in white ash. All of the biomes lend to their own unique charm and feel, and each is actually rather well lain out, with interesting and unique set pieces and individually designed locations to explore. Unfortunately, there isn't always going to be something interesting lying around in them. Because this is multiplayer, Bethesda can’t just shove super powerful unique weapons and armor into all the cool looking set pieces for fear of breaking the game balance. And also because this is multiplayer, when you do decide it's a good idea to climb that giant ruined bridge in the distance, chances are someone else also thought that was a good idea and has laid down like 50 frag mines on the country roads winding their way up to the top.
Ah, the player vs player (PvP). And believe it or not, this is actually one of the better parts of the game. If you are not yet in combat with someone, attacks that hit you or vice-versa will only do a fraction of the damage, once the other party attacks back, PvP is initiated and attacks do full damage. When you die at all in “76,” you drop all the “junk” crafting items you were carrying, and if you kill someone or vice-versa in PvP, that dropped junk may be picked up by the other person. In addition, you will get some amount of caps for killing other players in PvP, unless you “murder” them. Murdering someone is when you use those partial damage attacks, before the other person has attacked back, to kill someone. Becoming a murderer alerts nearby players to your presence and puts a bounty on your head, thereby discouraging unwilling griefing while not removing it entirely for the more cold-hearted. Not losing your weapons or armor while in PvP also helps encourage the traditional RPG elements of the game’s system, while the junk drop still adds reward for killing, lending more to survival games. Overall, it’s a nice blend of the two that works pretty well. You can also store your junk in a “personal cache” anytime, which you can place at a workbench or find in set locations around the world. The personal cache is universal and stuff transfers between them, and stuff in it cannot be touched by any other players. You will find a couple of them pretty early on, including one by a campsite you visit right after leaving the vault, so I highly recommend dumping your stuff in there. You will not unlock the ability to PvP until level 5 so don't worry about getting spawn camped, and you may turn on pacifist mode to stop stray bullets from initiating PvP.
The rest of the game mechanics tend to be very traditionally RPG-esqe, feeling very similar to how gunplay worked in “Fallout 4.” Enemies scale in level, and so does the gear you find. There are a few new things however, namely the perk system. Unlike in “Fallout 4” with the big list of perks, every time you level up you can upgrade one of your SPECIAL (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, and Luck) stats by one point, as for the first time you start with 1 point in every stat. Each point in a stat allows you one perk slot in that stat, and perk slots allow you to place one perk card in that slot. Perk cards are earned every two levels up to level ten, and then from every level onward from card packs. Card packs give four random perk cards. As a piece of advice, the first time you get a card pack immediately slot every single one of them, as from the get-go you can have one card of each stat type slotted. Because of the random nature that cards are given out, the power of your character can oftentimes boil down to luck of the draw and can lead to some early game exploits. For instance, at level four I immediately got a card that gave me twice as much from harvesting plants, which meant I was rolling in free food and healing items from then on and little could touch me. I can also see this system allowing for some crazy buff-stacking if you place your perk slots correctly.
There is also the added mechanic of mutations, for once standing around in radiation too long will actually have some effects on your DNA. Standing around in radiation or other contaminated areas or sources for too long may yield a random mutation, of which you may only have one at a time. Each mutation provides some benefit and some detriment, with the exception of the chameleon perk which provides no negative effects. You can get rid of a mutation by either exposing yourself until its swapped with a new mutation, or until you take enough Radaways to get rid of it. It’s actually a really cool system that allows you to do some fun stuff, and gives a lot more reactivity to the world and its environments. In addition to the new perks systems, “76” also introduces a ton of new weapons, armor, grenades, and even power armor. Almost if not all of them are really well designed - I love them - and many of the new weapons have a much less over-the-top impractical design like some of the old weapons, like the assault rifle from “4.” There are also a ton of new enemies, the vast majority of which have really good designs and are a lot of fun to fight, especially some of the later game enemies. Base building is also something that returns from “4,” with the introduction of the “CAMP.” The CAMP is basically a mobile workshop that you can use to transport a workbench, alongside crafting stations, storage, and the likeness, around with you everywhere. It is actually a really seamless integration of previous game mechanics into the new survival game formula, and works pretty darn well. There is, however, one big change that I point to in the negative for gameplay. If you couldn't figure it out, the VATS system of previous games just does not work in real-time multiplayer. It now neither stops nor slows down time, but rather just simply replaces your ability to aim and fire with a straight percent to hit. Its janky, the percent jumps from 95% to 0% in milliseconds, and, overall, you have much better chances just aiming and shooting it yourself. Also weapon and armor degradation is back, and the food and water meters are now permanent, but it's a survival game now so it makes sense.
With “76” taking the game from an open-world FPS-RPG to a survival game, the greatest difference between this installment and its predecessors is the storytelling. For previous “Fallout” games, storytelling was the backbone holding everything together. But with “76,” a lot of that is missing. There is still definitely some storytelling, even quite good storytelling, told in creative and clever ways. But I will throw out a fairly big spoiler now, albeit one you should definitely hear before going in: the only NPC’s you will encounter will be robots or computers. You will never find a human NPC, nor any settlements with NPC’s in them. I don’t know why they couldn't add them to “safe zones” like in “Unturned,” considering how much the PvP is already de-emphasized, but they didn't. And lack of NPC’s means there are no new colorful characters to enjoy, which is perhaps the biggest blow to “76.” There is still storytelling, good storytelling, done through audio logs, holotapes, notes, and other clues left in now-hostile territory, which has been some of the best storytelling previous “Fallout” games have done, such as exploring the old vaults in “3” and “New Vegas.” But now there is no overarching story that you are a part of. You can’t influence the world like in previous games, nor makes choices that affect its outcomes. The quests no longer have that variety and decision making to them and are all basically fetch quests now. You can’t interact with characters like Fawkes, Nick Valentine, Caesar, Set, or Frank Horrigan, which just sucks so much of the life and personality that these characters brought to previous “Fallout” games.
That is the ultimate caveat, though: this isn't one of the mainseries “Fallout” entries, it's a survival game set in the “Fallout” universe. A pretty solid survival game, if not for all the technical issues, but its not going to be the powerhouse storytellers that “Fallout” games of the mainseries are supposed to be. Many of the elements taken from the series and put into the survival game formula, like the RPG mechanics or base building from “Fallout 4,” work, while others like VATS, don’t. But the storytelling, mainly in regards to an active story that you are a part of, is just not going to be there. But for what it is, a survival game built around an integration of RPG mechanics, choice PvP, and PvE survival and looting, it works well. Certainly not perfect, and perhaps a bit slow at the start, but the “Fallout” game world allows for a unique experience in the sense of survival games that provides it a significant edge. It’s probably best exemplified by late game when you get to walk around the open world in a suit of T-51B power armor with a Fat Man nuclear bomb launcher over your shoulder that really starts to shine through. That’s why there are so many survival game mods that add “Fallout” stuff. The killing blow to “76” is in its technical issues. In the state it's in right now, "76" is virtually unplayable. The result is what you’d expect of a predominantly single-player focused company: lots of focus put into making and refining the gameplay aspects with very little focus being put towards the multiplayer aspects. Bethesda just does not have developers experienced enough in online game hosting to have this kind of thing. With future changes and patches, this may change but for the time being it remains in a sodden state.
Final Score: 3/10, there is a lot “76” has to offer as a solid and unique survival game twist, but if you can’t even play the thing reliably, it’s just not worth it.
Image courtesy of Bethesda Game Studios