It’s been a bumpy road for Bethesda over the last few weeks. And when their latest game, Fallout 76 launched to a litany of reactionary backlash, I wanted to wait. Why? Because first impressions aren’t always everything, and yes they do matter.
I wanted to give the game a chance, I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt and I wanted to believe that this might be an interesting evolution for the franchise. So I waited until the first patch was released to see what would be fixed and how the game could either rise from the ashes or at least show greater glimpses for a new dawn for the franchise.
So let’s get into it. Fallout has always been one of the most enjoyable open-world role-playing video games. Narratives filled with engaging and compelling characters to meet; emergent stories that unfold; the freedom to walk away and cut one’s own path through the wasteland.
In its latest game, Fallout 76, we find ourselves in a prequel to the entire Fallout franchise. The character you create – which can be anything, as you can tweak facial features, hair, body size and gender – is ushered into daylight in 2102, roughly 20 years after nuclear warheads ravaged the world in the Great War.
The starting of the game is the same as most Fallout games, as you awaken in the depths of the Vault, in this case Vault 76, you are guided towards the exit and outside world by Mr. Handy robots, which offer gadgets, tools and anti-rad to support your fumbling first foray outside.
The nice and shiny surfaces of the Vault are soon replaced by an almost peaceful autumnal region known as The Forest. Beyond The Forest are five other regions: The Savage Divide; The Mire; Toxic Valley; Ash Heap; and the Cranberry Bog.
It wouldn’t be a Fallout title without post-apocalyptic imagery, and Fallout 76 continues the trend of making some bad things look hauntingly beautiful. Cliffs that overlook toxic lakes, crashed wreckages of planes, and abandoned stores and towns are just some of what you’ll see in the game, and while things do feel empty, they always look great. The photo mode that’s included in the game (cleverly implanted through the use of an actual camera that players can use) is also a great tool and gives players some extra incentives to check out areas that they might not have otherwise in an effort to discover what their next beautiful snapshot might be.
The game’s narrative is dependent on ‘Holotapes’ and hand-written notes, as we witness the lives people led by retracing their steps.
As ever in Fallout there’s a lot of stuff to collect to build a stash for crafting and selling. It’s all this detritus and breaking down already modded armour that allows for gear upgrades – but there were plenty of times we would have swapped it all for some food and water.
After around 30 hours so far, I’ve found myself at times completely forgetting that I’m playing an online-enabled Fallout. Bethesda has taken a look at the game’s base-building mechanics, offering an improvement in the more mobile C.A.M.P system, rather than a set location for construction. Fallout 76 still carries forward some of the issues with weight and inventory management that I had with Fallout 4. But when you’re in a sub-basement shooting at ghouls, reading computer terminals, and taking everything that’s not nailed down, those neurons forged in modern Fallout start firing.
Something I found to be a fantastic new addition, is how stats and levelling up are now handled as Perk Cards. Instead of the normal skill points that you can dump into your character, players are allowed to choose one of seven categories (Luck, Intelligence, Strength, etc etc) and are given booster packs that feature cards. Different cards contain different perks, and by mixing and matching cards, you’re allowed to tweak your character to exactly the kind of scavenger you’d like to be. Cards can be merged to level up to, so a card that may only give you a 20% buff can be leveled up to something much better if you keep finding it. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to focus on a skill, like stealth, then you can put in cards that increase your Perception and Agility.
As noted above, there are tons of things that Fallout 76 manages to get right, and gameplay is even one of them, for a bit. Unfortunately, things do start to fall apart once you get deeper into the game. For one, the in-game shops that exist all seem connected (albeit by various factions) and so the gear you can find and buy isn’t as deep as you’d hope. Players that sell stuff to in-game shops can have their wares bought by other players, which is a great concept, but falls apart when you factor in just how high the prices are across the game.
In Fallout 76, VATS has been radically reworked. Since it wouldn’t make sense to pause time in a multiplayer game, it now acts as a sort of auto-aim. Unfortunately, like a lot of things in Fallout 76, it’s super buggy. Even in the situations where you’d think you’d be able to rely on it, it just doesn’t work half the time. Combined with Fallout 76’s regular tendency to experience sudden and rapid frame-rate drops, combat in Fallout 76 is sometimes a chore and a nightmare at worst.
The player-versus-player (PVP) lacks any kind of the intensity of survival games like DayZ or Rust, but that could have been changed by removing the players pings from the map and using the ham radios to communicate with each other or to hunt each other down.
We were left feeling that PVP adds very little to the gameplay. One player shoots another and then the other shoots back to agree. Only then they will deal normal damage.
Finally, sometimes the game will simply decide to stop loading buildings, enemies and items until you log out and log back into a different server. Knowing that the game is still essentially running on the same engine of previous Fallout installments does imbue the fact that it works at all with a sort of novelty – but little joy. In terms of balance changes, the Fallout 76 patch makes bosses drop 2-4 items per boss (depending on difficulty and level), while weapon damage has been increased by 20 percent “across the board,” so it sounds like you’ll feel more powerful right away with this update.
As for the bug fixes which launched with the Dec 4th patch, on console Bethesda has fixed an issue that could lead to an infinite loading screen when players signed out of their console while playing the game. And on Xbox One specifically, the patch addresses a crash scenario for a specific situation related to team invites. There are UI, Survival, and Perk changes, too, included in this update. You can see the full patch notes on the Bethesda website. The December 4 update for Fallout 76 won’t be the last, as Bethesda is planning another one for December 11.
There’s a part of me that wants to stick with this game. There’s a quietly pleasant vibe that comes with wandering around West Virginia that I really dig. Bringing friends into the picture and even the most questlines become a lot more tolerable – even if they never quite cross the threshold of amazing of previous Fallout games. It might be a disaster, but Fallout 76’s world can sometimes be a nice one to inhabit. Fallout 76 shows some refinement to older systems that make playing alongside friends a really good time – such as trading for better gear and shelters – but it’s at the cost of a balanced single-player experience.
So the sum total of these good and bad points make Fallout 76 a game that’s at-times exhausting to play and at others as engaging as the previous single player Fallout games.
Fallout 76 is available now for PS4, Xbox One and PC.