One of the defining traits of the gaming community as it exists in 2018 is the idea of a “party line” when it comes to certain games. There’s a sizable portion of the hardcore gaming set that has their mind made up about a particular title and will respond with derision and harassment if one dares to deviate from that point. Just as a few examples, one isn’t allowed to like Final Fantasy VIII, Dark Souls II, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War or pretty much anything in the Call of Duty series outside of the first Modern Warfare, for instance.
As is often the case online, there’s not much room for nuance here, especially because there’s no shortage of people seeking to milk fame and fortune from gamer outrage, and we see this same sentiment affecting Fallout 76, the new multiplayer-focused take on Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic Fallout franchise.
You and your compatriots hid in a Vault long ago to stay safe from an incoming nuclear war. You survived and now it’s Reclamation Day! It’s time to emerge from the Vault, explore the surrounding lands of Appalachia and rebuild America to the best of your abilities. If you’re familiar with Fallout, though, you’ll know that this is definitely easier said than done, and Appalachia isn’t the friendly mountain landscape it used to be. In particular, a new threat is posed by the zombie-like Scorched, victims of a plague that turns people into fanatical psychopaths out for blood.
As mentioned, this is a multiplayer-focused take on the concept, meaning you’re cohabiting the classic Bethsda open world with other players. Fallout 76 takes this idea to a different level, though, by nearly depopulating the world when it comes to NPCs. There’s the odd vendor here and there, but for the most part when it comes to other humans you’re going to be dealing with other players. The story, then, is told almost entirely through audiologs and environmental clues. This is definitely a love-it or hate-it idea and your mileage is bound to vary, though personally I found myself intrigued; it reminds me somewhat of the first couple System Shock titles. There’s even questing to do, though it largely takes the form of going through the motions presented to you by long-forgotten survivors. Rewards just seem to appear if you do things correctly. Much like magnets, who knows how that works?
Gameplay-wise, 76 owes a lot to Fallout 4, which owed a lot to Fallout 3 before it. You’ll explore, collect goodies, level up, add stats to your SPECIAL set, unlock perks and so on. There’s a few key differences here, though. First, you don’t establish a set of SPECIAL stats right from the start. Instead, you begin with 1s all the way down the line and add to this baseline as you level up. Your SPECIAL stats have direct affects on your performance, but also serve as a sort of equipment capacity for perks, which are now hot-swappable. If you have 5 Strength, for instance, you can equip up to 5 points’ worth of Strength perks.
It’s an interesting idea that allows for a fair amount of versatility while making some of the less exciting stats a little more interesting – Charisma, for instance, is a much more valuable option if you’re playing with others, since you can provide “free” perks to your party members.
The other significant change is that Fallout 76 runs entirely in real time. There’s no pausing, which includes VATS’ traditional psuedo-turn-based attacks. Here, VATS acts as more of an auto-aim functionality. I didn’t find it especially useful with that in mind, instead playing the game as a more traditional shooter. Again, your mileage may vary here, and if you were a big VATS aficionado or a more tactical player in previous Fallouts there’s a fair chance you’re going to hate the change.
Generally speaking, though, this is Fallout 4 with multiplayer and without the dialogue trees. There’s still a big focus on exploration, looting and crafting; if that’s why you played these games before you’re going to enjoy 76 almost without question. There’s a nod toward base-building as well, but as a largely solo player I didn’t find it necessary to build anything too elaborate outside of a portable set of crafting stations and storage.
In fact, as someone who wasn’t impressed with the story beats in any of the post-Fallout 2 titles, I didn’t exactly mourn the loss of NPC chatter. If you played these games to follow the little mini-vignettes presented by Wasteland questing and chatting up other inhabitants, you’re going to want to think twice about this one, and the main quest, such as it is, is largely just a reason to go new places, explore and loot them.
This also applies to 76’s presentation, which is basically More Fallout 4. Don’t come in expecting any sweeping changes because there really aren’t any, though as a former resident of West Virginia I did appreciate the Appalachia setting. 76 ran just fine on an RTX 2080, but that’s not saying much and I’d kind of expect it. The usual Bethesda bugs are present and accounted for, as well, and it’s much more difficult to deal with them because you can’t mod an online-only game, so keep that in mind before purchasing as well.
Fallout 76 isn’t a perfect game by any means, but it’s certainly better than the cesspit it’s been made out to be; the Internet thrives on hyperbole, so you wouldn’t be surprised to hear this is status quo for most vilified games these days. If you play Fallout as a post-apocalyptic kleptomania simulator, well, you’ll get that here and it works just fine. If that sounds good to you, you’re not going to regret giving this one a shot, especially as it rapidly drops in price over time. Likewise, if you’re after a more story-focused experience or don’t like the idea of other players running around being goofballs, maybe take a pass.