Fallout 76 Review – The Lonely Road

I’ve been a fan of the Bethesda-era Fallout games since their reboot of the franchise with Fallout 3. Despite the casualization of the franchise and the move to make it more of an action-shooter with lite RPG mechanics, I keep coming back to the franchise because of its open world, post-apocalyptic palette that lets me explore while carving my own story. The writing may have been serviceable at times, however, there’s something about the formula they’ve had that keeps me doing random side quests. Their newest entry, Fallout 76, throws all of the single-player story content away in favor of an online-only, multiplayer-focused Fallout game. Does this huge change-up work? Is it worth it? Read on to find out.

Fallout 76
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Platform: Windows PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: November 14th, 2018
Players: 1 – 24
Price: $59.99

Fallout 76 started as an experiment to add multiplayer to Fallout 4, the previous single-player game in the franchise. As such, it makes sense the game looks very similar to its predecessor, although it seems to have received a bump in visuals. The game runs in the same engine as well, which has been supposedly upgraded for the new game.

The textures, environments, objects and foliage all look reminiscent of the previous game, and don’t really impress that much. The sheer size of the map, which is mostly open world just like all the other Fallout games, can cause some performance issues, ranging from randomly floating objects and textures, big framerate drops, full game lock-ups, and now the introduction of latency too.

I’ve put between 50 to 60 hours into the game between the PlayStation 4 and Windows PC versions, of which the PC build seems to be more stable. I haven’t had a full game crash yet, however I have had several full lock-ups, and network latency gets bad occasionally. The game itself runs a bit sluggish at times when you’re in an area with a lot going on as well, but not too often.

The lighting in the game definitely seems like the most improved part of the overall presentation, and at times I was impressed by the environments. I spent the most time with the PC version of the game, with the visual settings all maxed. It definitely seems like this has the most foliage of any Fallout game, which is odd because it takes place soon after the nuclear holocaust.

A lot of fans and friends have asked me how broken or unplayable the game is – the short version is Fallout 76 has usually been a stable and very playable game for me. I’m running the game on a good rig and on gigabit internet, so the occasional framerate dips or choppiness feels like a combination of network latency and the engine itself trying to keep up.

Most of my time with the game has again been on PC. The game has typically run at a steady framerate and I haven’t experienced any really game-breaking performance hits. On PlayStation 4 the game had more framerate dips and choppiness, but overall was still mostly playable. I’ve had friends tell me wildly different experiences, but so far my playthrough has been stable.

Fallout 76 in terms of gameplay is everything you saw in Fallout 4 but as previously mentioned – with no real story or NPCs. The core gameplay loop boils down to: explore, kill, scavenge, scrap, and then modify or build. There really isn’t much more to the game than that, so if you’re not into that, this is absolutely not your game. Multiplayer is there, but it feels arbitrary to be honest.

My issue with multiplayer in the game is that Bethesda is stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of game design. There is no real threat or persistence in the game because the servers are arbitrary, your C.A.M.P. or base disappears when you log off or pack it up. Other survival sandbox games have set, permanent servers where player input or building has permanence.

Furthermore, the lack of urgency from other players or player-versus-player combat removes the multiplayer factor for me. Once I built my base, I only ventured into towns to scavenge and I rarely encountered player-killers, or players for that matter. Also, PVP is discouraged unless both players shoot at each other, so it’s kind of pointless. There should be clear and separate servers.

The reasoning behind the lack of traditional servers is that Bethesda wanted to avoid breaking the immersion. This happens regularly in the game anyway with its archaic menus, or the oddball bugs here and there. Sure, enemies can get wonky physics and go flying, or objects can randomly be un-usable, but I would have preferred being able to just go on a PVP only server instead.

If anything, multiplayer in this game feels as if you can only play cooperatively. Being a dick in this game will literally get you labeled as a player-killer on the map, and you’ll get a bounty too. There were several times strangers and myself would be clearing areas, or instances together. “It’s more fun with friends” is very true here, as you can definitely have fun stomping ghouls together.

As a solo experience, the game can be fun with that aforementioned gameplay loop of just scavenging and upgrading things. I found myself getting wrapped up in the minutiae of tearing apart schools and hospitals for dinner trays to get more aluminum to repair my guns. The problem is this has become most of what the game is about now, and it can get pretty damn lonely.

As this is a survival game, you will have to manage your hunger and thirst. Bethesda didn’t want to discourage more casual players, so these mechanics are largely a cakewalk to manage and it won’t take you long to get your first water purifier. After that, the game is mostly a piece of cake and you’ll mostly be doing sweeps for better gear and better materials.

This is an open-world Bethesda game, so I have to say the game performs better than I thought it would. I haven’t had one server disconnect yet, however, it seems like the performance on consoles is more sketchy. This game is running on arguably the same tech and engine that powered Fallout 4, and with most Bethesda games, the longer you play the more unstable they can get.

For the amount of time I’ve put into the game, I haven’t seen the typical Bethesda goofiness where the game save I have begins to fall apart at the seams. Perhaps this is due to the lack of real player input on the map, the fundamental change in focus on the game being coded with many players in mind, and not just one. There are some problems with latency and AI behavior.

There have been numerous times when creep AI is completely braindead. Regardless of the creature, there were many times I’d be firing my sniper rifle into their head and they’d stand there, staring me down. I think this might play into network latency being an issue here and there, where sometimes my attacks – ranged or melee – would hurt my enemies a few seconds after.

V.A.T.S. is basically totally unreliable now because it functions in real time, while mainline Fallout games would pause the game when you initiated the feature. This removes the last real tactical part of the franchise that remained, because enemies moving in real time make the reliability of V.A.T.S. haphazard at best. I only use it to quickly spot enemies in thick foliage.

I wanted to have a section in this review for some of the questionable business decisions made in Fallout 76. For one, the game has a micro-transaction store called the Atomic Shop. This shop currently only sells cosmetic items, which you can purchase with “Atoms,” which can be earned in game or – you guessed it, bought with real life money. I didn’t even know it existed, to be honest.

The game massively underplays the Atomic Shop and I had to see people talking about it on social media before I went looking for it. Since the game uses the same engine as Fallout 4, it naturally has recycled assets from that game too. There are assets in the C.A.M.P. creation suite that are literally copy-pasted from Fallout 4and that is unacceptable. Would all new assets be that hard?

With the limited number of changes to the game and the blatant reusing of assets from Fallout 4, I sometimes felt like this could have easily just been presented as a spinoff and there would be a lot less backlash. In many respects, this feels more like a cash grab, an experiment to see how a core audience that prefers single-player RPGs responds to such a drastic change in gameplay.

The changing of perks to these new perk cards has me worried they will be eventually rolled into the Atomic Shop. It makes no sense to have changed a system that wasn’t broken, to purely focus on a gacha-style system, where you’re not guaranteed to get that perk you really want at a certain level. Bethesda has promised they won’t let you buy cards with money, but I think it’s possible.

There really isn’t an overarching story in Fallout 76 nor are there decent side-quests. The supposed main story has you following the path of the Vault 76 Overseer after she left before you woke up. Sadly, this is made up of finding old holotapes and listening to her rattle off about her life. The only NPCs in the game are robots and Mr. Handy robots that yell silly things or give quests.

The only quests you can get are mostly fetch quests or investigation quests, and there are lots of times you’re led on to think you might actually meet an NPC – only to find it’s another dead body, or a robot. The quests are serviceable, but mostly boring and soulless. I don’t know, we’ve been doing boring fetch quests for Bethesda before, however back then we had a voiced NPC with a story.

I think Bethesda could have at least tried something of a middle ground, have the map be largely open and sandbox-y for players to mess around in, but have hub towns and cities here and there with real NPCs that string together long quest chains. I get why they went for a pure multiplayer experience, but that decision killed any appeal this game will have for many longtime fans.

Since there’s no overarching story, there’s no true end game to Fallout 76. The closest you can get currently is launching the nuke and summoning a high-level creature that sort of acts as a raid boss. After the boss is killed you rinse and repeat in another location. This game is all about scavenging and scrapping loop, as the quests you can do are mostly throwaway stories.

The music in Fallout 76, as composed by series mainstay Inon Zur, is quite fantastic. The instrumental pieces that would fade in and out while I explored had a really nice balance of mystery, wonder, and most importantly – a somber, brooding, lonely feeling that mirrored the same experience you get while playing. It just fits the game so well and I genuinely enjoyed it.

The few voices you do hear, from holotapes and the occasional robot here and there, are done well. My only gripe here is there was all this effort made for voice work on these holotapes when all of this could have been used toward actual NPCs. Having an actual character with emotive body language, wants, and needs, would help make the game feel a bit livelier.

Sound effects are typically pretty great, most especially the various weapons you can dish out pain with in the wasteland. I’ve been pretty impressed with the sound design in modern Bethesda games, and while they might sound similar – or maybe are the same – as before, they still sound great here. Environment ambience definitely seems to have been improved though.

All in all, Fallout 76 comes off as the core gameplay experience you’d find in Fallout 4, only with multiplayer sort of tacked on somehow. There’s no real overarching story and no NPCs to really speak of, and yet there’s a giant map to explore and collect things while just getting stronger. It’s the modern Bethesda Fallout experience, distilled to that core gameplay loop.

You can joke by saying Bethesda finally listened to fans complaining about their story writing by removing the story altogether, however now it kind of feels devoid of legitimate direction. I can dig the monotony of scavenging and scrapping, but eventually there’s nowhere left to explore. I’m unsure how much I can recommend it, especially with mod support being limited.

I’ve enjoyed my time with Fallout 76 and I’ll keep coming back to the game but I’m not sure how much longevity the game will have after the initial buyers and interest dies down – it may boil down to players doing their own thing. As a solitary experience, you can get some fun out of it but don’t expect a great story or anything – the game is literally what you make of it.

Fallout 76 was reviewed on Windows PC and PlayStation 4 using review copies purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 6.5

The Good:

  • Core gameplay loop can be addicting
  • New world with lots of areas to explore
  • Visuals seem to be an improvement over Fallout 4
  • Haunting and fitting soundtrack
  • Preston Garvey isn’t born yet, so he can’t annoy you every three seconds

The Bad:

  • Unreliable performance at times, framerate dips, hard-locks, etc
  • No real NPCs or motivation to play aside from exploration
  • Available quests are boring and lifeless, typically fetch quests
  • Multiplayer feels arbitrary
  • Poor server organization/lack of persistence, player structures disappear between sessions/servers
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Owner and Publisher at Niche Gamer and Nicchiban. Outlaw fighting for a better game industry.

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