Fallout 76 Review: Nuke it from orbit

Fallout 76 Review: Nuke it from orbit

After sinking more than 50 hours into Fallout 76, Bethesda’s multiplayer take on their classic franchise, I feel empty. Sure, I completed a number of fetch quests, killed thousands of Feral Ghouls and Rabid Mole Rats, and built up a sizable, defense-heavy base, but those accomplishments feel hollow and meaningless, much like the game itself. While Fallout 76 takes admirable risks, it fumbles the nuclear codes one too many times.

Fallout 76's premise is simple-- hop into a slice of West Virginia wilderness with 23 other players, shoot creatures, build structures, complete quests, and engage in limited PVP. How could a multiplayer game, set in the narrative-driven world of Fallout possibly fail? Move past the initial Vault 76 opening, and the problems start to become obvious.

Quests, the hallmark of the Fallout series, are as lifeless as the irradiated landscape itself. The vast majority are simple fetch quests, escort missions, or "kill certain number of X creatures in y amount of time" tasks. It was only two or three quests in, before I grew bored. Though I trudged on, hoping the assignments would improve and get exciting, they never did. As a result, I found my play style leaning towards exploring, scavenging, and building more than ticking off tedious, multi-step quest lines that did nothing to deepen 76's story or characters. Completing quests in Fallout 76 is simply busy work-- "content" to justify the game's initial $60 retail price.

The problem lies in how the quests are packaged. Most of the time, Bethesda doesn't even bother to create compelling reasons to complete the quests, interesting characters to provide them, or satisfying payoffs upon completion. Instead, it's like a butcher reaching into a meat case, grabbing dirty handfuls of ground beef, and chucking them into your cart as you try to walk away. Who would want to ingest this stuff?

That lack of interesting packaging is the symptom of 76's biggest flaw-- the total lack of personality. In previous Fallout entries, the identity each game came less from the sights and sounds, and more from the memorable interactions with the denizens of the post-apocalyptic landscape. After all, I remember Nick Valentine and Harold as characters more than the quests they gave, which is a testament to their depth.

In Fallout 76, each one of those NPCs has disappeared like a rickety barn in a nuclear blast. Standing in their place are boring robots, short audio recordings, or walls of text on terminals and in notes. As you might imagine, the robots are...well, robotic. Those that attempt to inject humor come across like every other generic, wacky, ironic robot, but somehow even more insincere. The text logs and notes can, at times, be funny and compelling, but they should be nothing more than window dressing on a grand display.

From a story or gameplay perspective, there's little reason why the world can't be populated with NPCs. Though Vault 76 is among the first of the vaults to open, that doesn't mean there were no blast survivors in The Wasteland. Animals had ample time to mutate and propagate, so why not people? Bethesda likely expected fellow players to provide the "story," but considering how infrequently you actually run into others, I can't imagine that being the case. It's a baffling decision that makes me question whether or not Bethesda actually knows what makes Fallout so successful.

I found a modicum of enjoyment in the strong environmental narrative-- the way two lovers clutched each other in anticipation of the nuclear blast, how a banquet of rotten food might have been enjoyed before the world was baked into nothingness, or seeing Jangles the monkey driving golf balls into a river. But those moments, while poignant, are just as much my imagination's story as the developer's.

Then, there are the dozens of ill-conceived game design decisions that ruin the second-to-second gameplay. For example, why is my inventory capacity so low? Why doesn't the stash box hold more?  Why does a tiny rock stop me from transplanting my base? Why is the V.A.T.S. system so stripped down when Max Payne 3 demonstrated that you can implement bullet-time-esque mechanics in a multiplayer game? Why does fast traveling cost so much? Why do in-game resources spawn so slowly and encourage server-hopping? Why can't I craft while in Power Armor? Why is the building system to damn finicky? Why can I occasionally only spawn at Vault 76 after dying? Why does my AP only occasionally drain while running? Why aren't plans and recipes adequately explained at the start of the game? Why are menus so unintuitive and unresponsive? While I did genuinely enjoy some moments, around the next corner lurked a choice that baffled me. How is it that these small, nagging issues were not addressed before launch?

PVP suffers from a number of game-breaking design issues. The fact that it's impossible to kill random survivors without their "permission" seemingly goes against the dog-eat-dog world of the Fallout franchise. Maybe I'm a little psychopathic, but I want to be one of the terrors of The Wasteland that new Vault dwellers face as they emerge from their bunkers. I want to struggle when I first start out, and I want to make others struggle. Survival in a post-apocalyptic landscape, stuffed with mutated nightmares, raiders, and other psychopaths, should be difficult. Fallout 76 is far, far too easy.

On the PS4 and Xbox One, performance is dismal at best, and a total disaster at worst. Playing on an Xbox One X with the latest patch, I experienced heavy fame rate dips. Worse yet, the game would freeze entirely for a few seconds, leaving me in the center of a ghoul gaggle. It was as if the on-screen action had stalled, but everything behind the scenes kept chugging along without a hitch. Elsewhere, the stutters were enough to make me miss shots, fall off cliffs, and accidentally transfer the wrong inventory into my stash. When the game is humming along, it's noticeably worse than its three-year-old predecessor, Fallout 4, which in itself is a pretty low standard.

It's admirable what Bethesda tried to do with 76. The game is chock full of bold ideas and risks, but very few of them coalesce into a game worth playing. Instead, players are left with a stash box full of broken promises and equally broken mechanics. While I have little doubt Bethesda will attempt to improve the game over time, I question whether it will be enough unless they're willing to take a look at the core structure of the game. Like Vault-dwellers waiting for those mechanical doors to slide away, the the world that lies ahead could be a new beginning, or just the start of an unimaginable nightmare.

4.5

In 2013, Brian combined his love of video games and passion for writing to create Games Under Pressure, a gaming website, based in Milwaukee, that focuses on both console and ultra-high-end PC gaming.