By Terris Harned (NWOrpheus)
On September 30th, 1997, a lesser-known developer of computer games launched the first title in a new franchise. With an introduction narrated by Ron Perlman, easter eggs from across geek fandom, and unique charms, this Post-Nuclear Role Playing Game would engage the hearts and minds of many, though this was long before video games were considered mainstream culture. With each subsequent game, the franchise grew. Fallout 2 had even more references to modern geek culture and more fans. Fallout: Tactics had a niche market, but before Black Isle Studios could create Fallout: Van Buren, Interplay closed the studio down, and some time later sold the rights to the series to Bethesda Game Studios. Yes, there was another Fallout game, but we don’t talk about that one. It’s best we pretend it doesn’t exist.
Fast forward to 2008. Despite some initial resistance to a complete change of format, Fallout 3 was hugely successful. Some complained that Fallout should remain an isometric RPG, but others embraced the change to an open world 3D game and explored the Capital Wasteland as the Lone Wanderer. Fallout 3 garnered huge metacritic scores on all three platforms – Playstation, Xbox and PC – that it was released on, and won Game of the Year from multiple sources. Fallout: New Vegas was next, developed by Obsidian Software under license from Bethesda. New Vegas was a standalone spinoff title set in the Southwest US. Obsidian was formed by many members of the now defunct Interplay, and if you ever want to start a brawl at a geek convention, simply yell, “Fallout 3 was better than New Vegas” or vice versa: violence is sure to ensue.
Fallout 4 is recent enough it needs no introduction, but it bears mention in regards to Fallout 76 because the latter runs on the same engine. Thus it should be no surprise that there is a familiar feel to the game, including the character customization elements. There are many claims that Fallout 76 is merely an “asset grab” from Fallout 4, but most who have actually played the game will tell you this is patently false. While there are similarities, a wide number of things have been changed. Supermutants have new faces, weapons have new textures, other creatures look entirely different, etc. Do ghouls look and move the same? Well, sure. Why wouldn’t they? Does that mean that Fallout 76 is nothing more than multiplayer Fallout 4? I hope that after reading this review you’ll be better able to form your own opinion.
One of the comments that I’ve heard time and time again in regards to Fallout 76 is “There is no story!” I’ve also heard asked, “How can there be a story if there are no NPCs?” I guess these folks have never heard of Myst? The fact of the matter however is that you do encounter NPCs: they just happen to be dead. Despite this, Bethesda has gone to great lengths to give these deceased citizens stories and depth. Perhaps because of the nature of the B.E.T.A., being as it was only up during certain hours on certain days, some people did not take the time to smell the proverbial roses. They were too in a rush to reach some goal or other that they were unable to discover the minutiae and beauty present in the Fallout 76 stories.
Stories such as that of the Overseer, who lived in West Virginia before the bombs dropped, and looks upon the devastation the bombs wrought with eyes that did not see the changes gradually, but as a stark contrast to her memories. She walks through the high school she attended feeling like a ghost, damned to travel the earth while everything she knew in her previous existence is dead or destroyed. Or stories like the young boy whose father told him that the bombs dropping was his fault. The boy whose father then abandoned him to his guilt. The boy who grew into a man, determined to help others, and so joined a group of individuals called The Responders whose mission it was to save the remnants of humanity in the area: a mission they seemingly failed. How and why did they fail this mission? How is this not a story worthy of exploring and delving into?
Maybe the problem is they don’t get this story spoon-fed to them in Fallout 76. It doesn’t even come to them in whole. They don’t stand there interacting with a given NPC clicking dialogue buttons. Fallout 76 isn’t a TV show, it’s a painting. Each little thing you find is an aspect of story, be it a note, a holotape, a corpse laid out in a certain way, a stuffed bear sitting on a shelf with a cigar and a scalpel across its wrist. These things are brush strokes, and to full appreciate the painting you have to take a step back and take in the gestalt. If you ever take a creative writing class, one of the first things you will be told is “Show, don’t tell.” Bethesda has done this masterfully. I worry perhaps this tenet was followed too masterfully. Maybe it is a case of overestimating parts of their fanbase. Whatever the case, the story is there, and its depth is enough to plumb down to the farthest reaches of your soul, if you have one.
Despite all of this, I also do want to direct attention to something that Todd Howard has pointed out and said as early as E3 2018. Fallout 76 isn’t merely about the stories that Bethesda has created. It is about the stories that we, the players, create. Whether those stories are literal, such as my friend and fellow streamer InsanityWelcome, who is creating a YouTube video series about his character from the point of view of the character as he travels through the Wasteland, or if those stories are us telling our friends about our experiences, or sharing those experiences live through streaming. They’re all stories, and Todd Howard has always said those stories as much as anything will be the focus of Fallout 76.
Now I’m going to go on a small tangent before getting into gameplay: Another phrase that I’m really sick and tired of hearing from ‘fans’ of the Fallout series is, “Fallout is…” or “Fallout isn’t…” usually followed by a heavily slanted viewpoint on the subject matter. IE “Fallout is single player,” or “Fallout isn’t a PvP game”. I mean, they’re right. Fallout: A Post-Nuclear Role Playing Game is single player, and it isn’t a PvP game. But “Fallout” isn’t just one game, it’s a franchise. Each game within that franchise has stood on its own two feet as a game with merits of its own. I mentioned earlier the amount of friction that Bethesda created by making Fallout 3 an open world 3D exploration game. I bet we heard a lot of “Fallout is…” and “Fallout isn’t…” back then, too. I have a bit of news that some of you might find shocking: Unless your name is Todd Howard and you work as the Creative Director for Bethesda, you don’t get to say what Fallout is or isn’t. You only get to choose if you want to play the current incarnation of the Fallout universe. Mmkay? Great. Moving on.
Fallout 76 is full of new features, or new versions of familiar features. One of the most obvious is the fact that it is entirely online, and multiplayer. My personal experiences with this have been overall good. The VoIP in game is really clear and works great, with one caveat. There currently is no push-to-talk. Bethesda has promised that this will change in the near future, but why it wasn’t included in the first place does give some credence to people who have voiced an opinion that Bethesda seems to have lost touch with their player base. Push-to-talk exists for a reason, and not even having it as an option was a recipe for disaster.
I understand Bethesda’s posit that they wanted it to be an immersive experience where we hear each other and act like real people when we meet, having a nice little chat. This expectation is so farfetched though it’s humorous. The reality for one of my friends was that in his first 5 minutes of being in game he heard someone yelling racial slurs into the mic during character creation within the vault, the other person who he was hearing was apparently entirely unaware that his mic was hot. In other circumstances while I was streaming, other players heard me narrating my experience to my viewers. This would get terribly annoying to anyone I imagine. So, what ultimately ended up happening is most people seemed to turn their VoIP off entirely, and using Discord if they were grouping with friends. Mind you, this seemed to be more problematic for PC users. Console users typically turn the mic off via the headset itself when they don’t want to be heard. Still, it should have been an included function from the start, and I’m glad it’s being added.
Okay, okay, elephant in the room: PvP. This is a really tough topic for the game right now. In my personal opinion the current system works. If you are attacked in PvP, you take what is referred to as ‘slap damage’. This damage is virtually ignorable unless you’re already severely wounded, you’re outnumbered four vs one, or you allow it to continue for a long time. If for some reason you allow the damage to continue, and the other player manages to kill you, they are tagged with a bounty. Now, here’s where some valid criticism comes into play.
Bethesda, or at least Bethesda mouthpiece Pete Hines, originally said that if you did not engage back, you didn’t lose anything. This is not true. Not only do you drop all of the junk you’re currently carrying, but you also lose a fair number of caps. Caps in Fallout 76 aren’t quite easily obtainable, either, so losing them to someone who followed you around and smacked you 50 times with a baseball bat is adding salt to injury to insult. Coupled with the fact that we were told there would be no loss at all, this is a valid complaint.
On the other hand, Bethesda has always said that part of the responsibility for getting away from griefers is the part of the player. You can block them, fast-travel away, or switch servers. Some people I spoke to who complained of ‘griefers’ seemed to have simply lost at PvP, gone back to attack the person, and lost again, and then said that they were being griefed because they were killed multiple times. That’s… not how this works. That’s not how any of this works. People are going to have to take some responsibility for their own actions.
Some people are calling for PvP/PvE/RP servers as a solution to some of these issues. While this is nice in theory, as it stands, it’s simply not a viable option. PvP has been incorporated into some of the core mechanics of the game, such as workshops. Not to be confused with workstations, which you can build at your C.A.M.P. or find in various locations, Workshops are almost like small claimable settlements, usually with vital resources that can be collected from them. For example there are at least two different power plants where you can manufacture fusion cores for power armor. The entire idea behind these sites was that another player could potentially contest them and take them from you. If PvP was taken entirely away from some servers it would create a whole new issue, as these workshops could be claimed indefinitely.
I don’t have all the answers. I also haven’t had any of the problems that other people have had with PvP. I’ve participated in it some voluntarily with my group. I can understand some people’s frustrations, but I think that they are easily enough avoided if some accountability is taken. Maybe Bethesda will find a way to make the game more enjoyable for everyone. Some people say they want the game to be more like Rust, while others say that it’s too much like Rust (though if you ask them, those people say they’ve never actually played Rust). I think Bethesda is either going to have to accept that they’re going to please pretty much nobody with their PvP setup, or find a way to get rid of it entirely, including changing the way workshops work. Which is sad, because like I said, I think it’s fine as it is. It’s not perfect, but it’s functional.
On to the C.A.M.P. system. The Construction and Assembly Mobile Platform, or C.A.M.P., allows players to stake their claim on a little slice of West Virginia real estate. Where you can build is relatively open, with limitations, but not the “almost anywhere” that was originally claimed by Pete Hines. Not only can you not build too near other settlements, you cannot build very close to established buildings. While this makes complete sense, it’s another example of less than accurate disclosure of things on the part of Bethesda that has garnered some frustrated consumers.
The area that you can build is also not all that expansive. More I should say, you’re fairly heavily restricted in your “build budget”. This is a bar that fills as you place items within your C.A.M.P.’s claim radius. When it fills, which it seems to do all too rapidly, you’re done building. At least until next time – you can always pick up your C.A.M.P. and place it somewhere new for a few caps. It definitely seems like these claimed regions are meant to be more small camp-like outposts than any major dwelling. Their most vital role is probably in giving you a place to build your own workstations and a stash, as well as giving you a free destination to fast-travel. You can also fast-travel to the C.A.M.P. of your team mates, so clever placement of your team’s C.A.M.P.’s can save you a significant amount of cash.
If there’s one thing that has caused as much controversy as PvP, if not likely more, it’s the stash system. The stash is a container you can craft for your C.A.M.P. and also find in various locations around the game, such as train stations and Red Rocket diners. The stash is a seemingly magical vortex container, allowing you to place items within it and recover them at any other stash within the game. This is immensely useful, as inventory is limited by weight. One faction of the player base however says that the current 400 weight limit isn’t near enough, and are crying for an unlimited stash, as was available in Fallout 4. I’m not going to get into the myriad reasons of why I think this is a bad idea, but suffice to say, Bethesda has assured us they have their reasons for a limited stash.
I am, by nature, a hoarder in video games. In Fallout 4 I broke down and/or collected pretty much everything I could find, then put it in my workshop/settlements. So I get it. I understand and share that mindset and playstyle. I also recognize however that this is Fallout 76, not Fallout 4, and that some things are going to be different. I might like a slightly larger stash, but I’m not sure what exactly I might consider sufficient. Perhaps 600 weight? Ultimately though it comes down to accountability on the part of the player once again. We’re just going to have to learn to manage our inventories, and decide what is crucial to keep, and what is not. What can be sold, and what must be squirreled away for a rainy day. Some folks theorize that Bethesda will sell expanded inventory in the Atom shop. Frankly, I’d be okay with that, as you can earn Atoms in game indefinitely thanks to daily, weekly, and even monthly quests.
Playing the game itself is, to me, a joy. The controls for PC feel fantastic. The V.A.T.S. system took a tiny bit of getting used to as it’s now in real-time. Always before, Fallout has been turn-based, or V.A.T.S. froze or slowed down time. Unfortunately in 76, that’s simply not an option. Instead when you hit the button it places a numerical representation of your percentage chance to hit next to your target. As you move closer or farther away from the target, that chance increases or decreases. The accuracy of your weapon as well as modifications to it, perk cards, and your perception score will also affect this chance, just like in other Fallout titles. More than one person I’ve spoken to has said that after a few encounters’ adjustment, they actually prefer the new real-time V.A.T.S. This is likely because you can move to increase your chance of hitting while it’s active, rather than having to cancel, move to a new position, and try again.
One other feature of gameplay that is vastly different in Fallout 76 compared to previous titles is you don’t actually choose your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats at level 1. Instead, you gain 1 S.P.E.C.I.A.L. point each time you level up. Additionally, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. point you gain will depend on the perk card you choose from that level. So if you choose a strength perk card, you’ll gain a point of strength. This currently makes the choices of perk cards very important. Thankfully you can trade perk cards with other players, though finding others to trade with is difficult with the current lack of push-to-talk and people’s tendency to turn off comms. Many of the perk cards have familiar names and faces, from the Mysterious Stranger to Action Boy. There’s also a few new ones to discover. The system is easy to use and pretty intuitive. You can see what a perk will do at minimum and maximum levels before you take it. All in all, it’s a system I like.
Crafting is another thing with which some people seem to be having difficulties. In Fallout 4 in order to craft some of the more S.P.E.C.I.A.L.ized or high powered mods for a gun, for example, you would simply need the Gun Nut perk. In Fallout 76 however you not only need the perk, but you also need to discover the recipe. This can be done one of two ways: you can either find a plan for the recipe while out looting and scavenging, or you can dismantle items of a similar type. So, for example, if I dismantle a pipe pistol, I have a chance of learning a modification for pipe pistols. As far as I can tell these mods you learn are entirely random. They don’t seem to follow a particular sequence of any sort. I like this system as well, and find it to be quite rewarding, especially since selling items to vendors doesn’t net you much. You get all of 2 caps for a pipe pistol, which only makes sense given how common they are from enemies.
“Wait wait wait” you might be saying, “where are they getting guns if there are no human NPCs?” Well, supermutants for one. Another would be brand-new enemies: The Scorched. The Scorched are humanoid creatures who you find out were once humans. Unlike ghouls their transformation wasn’t brought about by radiation. I won’t spoil the reveal on where they come from, as that’s part of the “non-existent” story of Fallout 76. These aggressive humanoids have lost most of their humanity, but do retain enough intelligence for short outbursts of words and the ability to use firearms. Thankfully most of them have rudimentary weapons like pipe pistols, thought you will occasionally run across one with a hunting rifle or shotgun. This just keeps things interesting. There are a variety of other charming new creatures in Fallout 76 such as the Chinese Interceptor bots, but for the most part I’ll leave you to discover these on your own if you haven’t already heard of them or seen them in other media.
I could pretty much talk about this game forever, I think, but we’re almost done, I promise. Bethesda has promised new DLC in the future, as well as suggested that there are changes coming. They have straight out told us that there are plans for faction-based PvP in the future, and they’re looking into the stash situation. They’ve also said they’re making plans to allow players to respec. The only thing I can figure this to mean is allowing S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats to be changed, as pretty much every other aspect is changeable already, including your appearance.
It seems it’s popular to hate on Fallout 76, so I’m going to do something unpopular. I’m going to say I love it. I think it’s a fantastic game. It’s not without flaws, as I’ve said, but it’s the first iteration of a multiplayer Fallout game, and that’s something that we’ve been asking Bethesda to deliver on for a long time. Well, here it is! If your impulse is to gnash your teeth, and wail, and scream, “But I’m a single player person! Bethesda is screwing me over!” (that’s an exact quote, I’m not going to cite, but trust me, it is) then, well, get over yourself. There are five other single-player Bethesda titles. They’re not screwing you over, it’s just that not everything is about you.
Nobody is saying you have to like this game. You’re entitled to offer criticism. Just please do so in an informed manner, based on fact, and not just on some YouTube video or reddit post. Watch people play the game on Twitch and ask questions of the streamer. Do your research, but most of all, don’t believe everything you hear, even from me, without verifying the legitimacy of what’s being said. There’s so much misinformation out there about Fallout 76, so just make sure to double-check. When you’re judging the story, try looking at each little story as part of a puzzle: one small piece of a much bigger picture. Then try to pull your view back to see the grandiose design.
For me? I give the game 4.5 out of 5. It’s great. See you in West Virginia.