"Fallout 76 might be exactly the multiplayer-driven survival game you were hoping for, but don't expect to have a traditional, story-driven experience."
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the release of Fallout 76. From the moment Bethesda disclosed their plans for the game, fans have been skeptical. The game doesn't have any NPCs? It's multiplayer? Isn't this just Minecraft? Won't the PvP just make it annoying to enjoy the world? Everyone has an opinion on whether or not it will work. As a person who had no previous experience with Fallout games, I was curious. The series has always been sitting in my backlog, and I thought this would be a fun way to experience it with fresh eyes. While my play time has been limited to the beta release, I tried out as many different elements of the game and different play styles as time allowed. What I found is that some of the gameplay and story elements work, while others feel half baked.
Fallout 76 opens with a short video detailing how you found yourself in a bunker in West Virginia, secluded from the nuclear wastelands around you. You've been selected as one of the "best and brightest" who are tasked with waiting until the time is right to find your way back into the world to rebuild after this catastrophic event. After creating your character, you very suddenly find yourself out in the wild. You're tasked with locating the team leader who ventured out shortly before you, but it seems she has gone missing. This is a simple, but effective, way of setting the scene for what is to come. There is a clear overall objective, but, you are also free to explore at will from that moment forward. The opening makes the job of rebuilding seem important to the civilization as a whole, and the world feels appropriately desolate and hollow, making that mission seem even more vital.
However, as the game moves forward, the storytelling falters, at least early on. Since there are no traditional NPCs, the story is told exclusively through the environment, as well as holodecks, audio logs, along with a few robots along the way. This is similar to the storytelling techniques adopted by games like Bioshock, and where Bioshock told a compelling story, Fallout 76 is unfortunately by-the-numbers. According to the different items you uncover, the world is infested with a new threat and the survivors who had been living on the outside are researching a way to stop it. Now everyone is missing. Clearly, this is a mystery we are supposed to be interested in, but the audio logs are poorly voiced, and none of the written material distinguishes Fallout 76 from other similar narratives. From a story perspective, the lack of NPCs makes perfect sense, but it also makes the narrative shortcomings particularly noticeable. Granted, this might improve as the game goes, but based on what I've seen, I was not invested in what happened. Luckily, Fallout 76 is not a game that relies on story.
There are sidequests aplenty, and they come in two different varieties. The first type is what you'd expect from a game like this: find a note or audio log or a robot who gives you a task, perform it, and get rewards. I played through a few, and they were pretty much your standard fetch quests that didn't add anything to the lore. I'm hoping these improve as the game takes the training wheels off. The other type of sidequests are "events" that include any players in the immediate area, regardless if those players are in your party. They usually involve clearing out a group of enemies, and everyone involved gets rewards from the event if it's successful. I really enjoyed these and found myself actively seeking them out. It was fun to team up with other players to take on a zombie horde, and it helps develop the feeling of community that the developers are clearly hoping to cultivate. These were the highlights of my playthrough.
The exploration in the game is fun and satisfying, but sometimes feels a little hollow. For me, the key to good exploration is that there is a sufficient reward for finding new locations. On this front, the game succeeds. In almost every new location, there are new enemies to fight, bosses who give you some premium loot, a little experience bonus for discovering it, and it often becomes a fast travel location. The issue is that because the world is so massive (four times the size of the Fallout 4 world, according to the developers) sometimes it feels like there's not a lot to do between those locations. The environments are absolutely beautiful, but even with the limited time I had with the game, a pretty skyline wasn't enough to keep me from feeling there just wasn't enough to do in this vast world.
I tried the game both on my own, and with others, and the game definitely plays better with other people. When playing solo, I found myself getting quickly overwhelmed when I attempted some of the early quests. Even when I was at a similar level to my enemy, there were just too many of them. There are some stat bonuses when you are on your own, but they simply aren't enough to make doing so worth it. I ran into a few framerate drops during particularly intense combat, which didn't help me stay alive. Hopefully Bethesda gets the framerate issues fixed before the official release.
On the other hand, when I found a few people to team up with, the combat became significantly more manageable. It's easy to team up with anyone with a few button presses, and you can have up to four people on your team at any given time. Quest markers are shared amongst the team, and so are resources. I can see this being a lot of fun for anyone who has a few friends who also own Fallout 76 and want to go out to hunt monsters or collect resources as a team.
If you don't feel like working with your team, you can also participate in PvP combat. To do so, you just start attacking another player. However, until they return fire, you do minimal damage to that player. I thought this was a nice touch to help alleviate any concerns for people who aren't interested in PvP, or who want to choose where and when they want to try it out. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to test this out as the few people I tried to engage didn't reciprocate.
Above all else, Fallout 76 is a game about survival. Survival against the elements, other players, terrifying beasts, and even your own body. Frequent crafting is an essential part of surviving virtually all of these challenges; it keeps you geared with the best weapons and armor, but you also need to craft to feed yourself. If you don't keep yourself sufficiently nourished, it will hinder your ability to run, jump, or even walk. Thus, it's important for you to gather whatever junk you can from dead enemies and the world at large and craft wherever and whenever you can. Early in the game, the developers throw item after item at you, so this isn't too much of a problem. All of this is pretty standard fare for survival games, and how much you enjoy this depends on how much you enjoy managing this sort of thing. I found it a little obtrusive to stop myself and make sure I drank water even when I was at full health, but I recognize this might bother me more than some.
The most convenient place to do craft is usually your CAMP, a mobile shelter where you can also rest up. You can also fast travel to these locations, and they're apparently safe from other players while you are offline. Of course, that also means you need to build them! If you have experience with games like Minecraft, or Dragon Quest Builders, you'll feel right at home here. Even if you don't, CAMP construction is simple enough, and the UI works well. I'm not sure how vital these CAMPS will be in the game at large, but the mechanic is simple enough that I didn't have much trouble.
Ultimately, your experience with Fallout 76 will boil down to what you value in a game. If you're interested in survival games, and hanging out with your friends while you take down monsters and complete quests, this game will work for you. But, if what you are looking for is more akin to a traditional Fallout, or even RPG experience, this game may leave you wanting. The environmental storytelling is brave, and could ultimately work further into the game, but thus far it is littered with cliche and mundane quests. Fallout 76 might be exactly the multiplayer-driven survival game you were hoping for, but don't expect to have a traditional, story-driven experience.