Fallout 76 isn't faring too well with critics or fans, mostly due to its emphasis on online multiplayer over a deep single-player story. I said as much in my review of the game, that Bethesda's choice to deliver the story solely through Holotapes and text is a weak point. Even so, there is an actual plot driving Fallout 76. For those who are curious but don't want to drop precious holiday money on a copy, here's what happens.
The history of Vault 76 is delivered by the game's only cutscene. Vault-Tec built the bunker in 2076 to celebrate America's Tricentennial. The mission given to the hand-picked residents of 76 is to go out into West Virginia after nuclear war destroys it and rebuild. It's been 25 years since the bombs dropped, and the day to leave is here. It just so happens that you partied a little too hard the night before, and wake up after everybody else left.
Vault 76's Overseer left a message requesting you find her camp. There, you find the first of many Overseer Holotapes, where she explains that Vault-Tec gave secret orders to find any remaining nuclear missile silos. She asks you to follow her journey so that you can learn to survive in the new world.
She directs you to the Responders, a group that dedicated themselves to helping survivors of the bombs. What you find are their corpses, but the information they left behind still teaches you how to get clean food and water. By this point, you've also encountered plenty of Scorched, a new type of enemy to Fallout.
A New Enemy: The Scorched
The Scorched look like humans that are burning from the inside. They are aggressive and zombielike, but they still possess the presence of mind to use advanced weapons like guns. It was them that pushed the Responders into hiding in the Morgantown airport, where you find the last remains of the group. You discover that the Scorched were created by a giant bat creature known as a Scorchbeast. Its breath turns people into Scorched.
With that revelation, your mission becomes finding a way to cure the Scorched plague and destroy the Scorchbeasts so humanity can be free to rebuild Appalachia. Luckily, you find that Dr. Hudson of the Responders was working on a vaccine. After gathering samples from local mutated beasts that are resistant to the Scorched plague, you create a vaccine. Doing so triggers an audio log from the doctor, who implores you to find an anti-Scorched team called the Fire Breathers.
An Overseer’s log at the Fire Breathers' base tells how West Virginia was becoming automated before the war. The Fire Breathers used this automation to make training programs. She decided to follow it, and says you should too. The Fire Breathers' terminals give you a series of tests, culminating with a descent into a Scorched-infested mine wearing Power Armor.
After becoming a Fire Breather, you follow their trail to The Top Of The World, a tall rusty tower. There you meet Rose, a robot that was reprogrammed by Raiders. She keeps the corpse of Madigan, the Fire Breather you followed there. Rose sends you on several quests, all to help her find an old Raider stash. After you do, she shares Madigan's belongings with you. It turns out he had a device that can detect Scorched, but it was broken by the Raiders.
On Rose's advice, you go to the bunker of a scientist named Abbie. Abbie was part of the Free States, a group of people who created the Scorched detector. Her automated, post-death recording tells of how Abbie and her associates set up a whole Scorched detection system all around the land, but its sensors were damaged by the swampland humidity. Your task becomes to repair it. You also have to hack a Senator's terminal to gain access to the government's network. Once you do that, you can link all the newly-repaired sensors to one another.
Nuking The Scorched
Now that you can detect Scorched, Abbie says, you have to fight them. Only the Brotherhood of Steel has that kind of firepower. They apparently made their last stand at Fort Defiance. Again, you find nothing but corpses and records. The Brotherhood’s records tell of a final mission by Paladin Taggerdy. You follow his coordinates into a Scorchbeast lair. It turns out the crew found a lab, which implies the Scorchbeasts might have been manmade. The Brotherhood also concluded that the only surefire way to get rid of the Scorchbeasts is a nuclear strike. With that grave idea in your head, you look into the Senator you hacked before to get his government access codes. What you find is a whole Congressional bunker called Whitespring.
At Whitespring, and AI called MODUS takes an interest in you. MODUS is part of the Enclave, a group that once controlled America from the shadows. The Enclave humans killed one another in the post-nuclear chaos, so now Modus needs you to do its dirty work. Essentially, your task is to hack some government networks and grant MODUS the ability to see all of Appalachia.
Once MODUS can see everything, it notices the Scorched invasion. It agrees with the nuclear option, but lacks the ability to use it. It turns out the human Enclave members wisely locked the AI out of the base's military functions. Your only option is to take on Enclave missions to gain rank within the organization. Once you've reached the rank of General, you will gain automatic access to the necessary facilities.
Launching a nuke requires a keycard and a launch code, both of which result in a series of quests. You intercept robot convoys, hack into a factory, and track down the remains of government officials. Along the way, you discover that the Overseer went on a personal mission. She left her fiancée behind to go into the vault, and regretted the decision. When she finds him again, he's a Scorched. She asks you to end his misery, her final request.
With everything done, you can launch a nuclear missile. It hits the map in real time, and will kill other players who get caught in the fallout. If you’d like, you can even wander into the blast zone. Naturally, you'll die without Power Armor on. A nuclear explosion triggers the arrival of the Scorchbeast Queen, a level 95 enemy. She acts as a final boss of sorts, and a challenge that a single player probably can’t defeat alone. There's no story associated with her, no cutscene after launching the nuke, but that's pretty much the end of Fallout 76's main plot.