Imagine the best parts of a Bethesda game. For many, that's huge worlds a player can get lost in and the almost endless hours of content. Now, take those things and add other players to the mix. Does that sound like the recipe for the perfect game? If it does, then Fallout 76 was made for you. If it doesn't, then you're probably already lamenting what Bethesda has done to one of its flagship titles.
Yet for as much as the internet has already decided to hate it, Fallout 76 is not a tragic abomination. It is, however, a rather dull game.
Fallout 76 opens as many Fallout games do: you create your player character, hear how "war never changes," and then wake up in a vault. You're unceremoniously thrown out to explore the wasteland of Bethesda's choice, this time West Virginia, and find post-nuclear remnants of humanity that are now claimed by all sorts of horrific mutated creatures. The difference this time is that there is another set of horrible creatures out there: other human beings.
Fallout 76 is an online multiplayer game. Not an MMO, because Bethesda wanted to ensure the purity of the setting. This is the post-apocalypse, so it makes no sense to have the land teeming with players all wearing silly hats and riding a menagerie of cool mounts. Only a handful of players actually populate a world. During my sessions, I would never see more than two or three people nearby on my map.
We kill a pack of mole rats together, but without talking.
My earlier quip about horrible humans is actually untrue in Fallout 76. People honestly tend to avoid one another. It's almost as if every player secretly agreed to let one another enjoy 76 like a single-player Fallout game. So we wait patiently while someone else uses a terminal to complete a quest. We kill a pack of mole rats together, but without talking. We don't even really pick up the things others drop. The one time people come together is during the game's flash Event Quests. Players in an area get suddenly challenged to destroy a flock of Scorched, escort a robot to a terminal, etc. When these happen, players gather to complete the objective. Then it's back to our lone exploration of West Virginia.
This is where the flaw in its premise immediately shows. Some major sacrifices were made to accommodate the shift to online multiplayer. The setting is the most obvious one. West Virginia is apparently painstakingly recreated here. At least that's what West Virginians are saying online. The geography, particularly those country roads, are rendered accurately as we've come to expect from Fallout. The local legends and history of the land are incorporated creatively as well. However, these little touches are mere dots on an empty map.
There are no NPCs in Fallout 76. There are plenty of robots to trade with and escort as part of quests, but the world is void of humans that aren't players. That's to be expected. This game takes place hundreds of years before the others, not too long after the bombs drop and wipe out most of humanity. You're actually the first group of humans to step out of a vault, so of course people haven't had a chance to build makeshift cities or form distinct factions. It makes sense, lore-wise, but it still makes for an uninspired game world.
Right from the start, the game makes it apparent how it plans to handle this lack of characters. You're following after the Overseer of your vault. Her instructions are given via Holotape, a recording where she monologues at you. You follow her directions to find a person who can teach you certain skills or give you access to the next area. You end up finding that person's corpse, along with a Holotape that conveniently lays out their final thoughts and your new orders. Which leads to another Overseer Holotape. Which leads to another corpse with a Holotape. You get the idea. The story plays out almost entirely through Holotape. Gone are the dialogue choices and relationships of previous Fallouts. In place of that are other players, which as I mentioned are often content to do their own thing.
Another trade-off for the online experience is the signature Fallout gameplay. That's not to say that Fallout 76 is a gross departure from the franchise. It's actually quite the opposite. It plays a lot like Fallout 4. That sentence already has some readers groaning. Yet the success of the game, and Skyrim for that matter, proves that many players want that formula. I, for one, am a sucker for that endless cycle of sidequests, exploring, destroying, looting, and maybe getting to a main quest every once in a while. Fallout 76 brings that cycle, just in much simpler fashion.
The thing about the endless loot cycle in previous games is that the story and characters tied it all together, provided context and motivation. Without true NPCs, Fallout 76 can feel like a glorified to-do list. There's enjoyment in shooting and looting, but the depth behind it is noticeably absent.
The weapons and armor are pretty much exactly those of Fallout 4. The V.A.T.S. system feels somehow watered down, probably because it doesn't zoom in the way it did before. It's basically a free shot now, not the tactical view it was before. The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system of leveling up has also been simplified, reduced to packs of cards that give you perks. It all boils down to what feels like playing some sort of easy mode Fallout 4.
All this said, Fallout 76 is not 2018's worst game. Some glitchy, ill-advised Steam game will get that title. Fallout 76 is basically a Power Armor chassis without the armor. Effective, but very in need of improvement. Its West Virginia is vast, but there's little story to fill all that space. Only a handful of other players who will probably act as though you're not there. Exploring is as enjoyable as ever, but then plenty of recently-released games can say the same, and better. As sad as it is to say, you may want to avoid these country roads.
A PS4 copy of the game was purchased by The Gamer for this review. Fallout 76 is available for PC, Xbox, and PS4.
3 out of 5 stars.