No video game this year dares to ruffle feathers as much as Fallout 76. It’s a bold, purposeful departure from the formula Bethesda has built for years. Thanks to this significant change, fans are understandably upset. Fallout is forcing our industry to ask a few tough questions. Is change always good? Does “bold” mean “better?” What creates a solid story? The answers aren’t always pleasing.
Fallout 76 is so outrageously talked about that I won’t dive into a multi-paragraph explanation of its mechanics. But the gist is this: imagine a prettier Fallout 4 set in West Virginia. Imagine that there were no dialogue options, and no story choices, simply a linear tale told through a disembodied voice with smaller sidequests shooting off. Imagine an emphasis on base-building, item-crafting, and hunger/thirst mechanics. Combine all of that with an online aspect, where you and three pals roam the wasteland, get into shenanigans with random internet strangers, and explore every corner of a digitized Appalachia.
In writing, Fallout 76 sounds brilliant, and that’s what I’ve believed for months now. But early impressions, betas, and even written word convey something much different than a final product. I assumed the adjusted method of storytelling wouldn’t impact the enjoyment of my adventure. I figured I’d love rote exploration and base-building, like a rural Minecraft. I hoped the multiplayer aspects would save this drastically different experience from itself, allowing my journey to lightly brush against that of others and provide emergent adventures.
I was wrong.
Man of Constant Sorrow
After a press event, beta playtime, and quite a few hours sunken into post-launch Fallout 76 on two consoles, I’ve yet to truly want to return to its world. Which sucks since, as I’ve mentioned time and again, I grew up near the game’s setting. Abandoned by humanity and civilization, 76 could’ve been a meditative experience in nature. It could’ve explored the humanity of the region, the bitter sadness of a people scorned by the world around them. But in all its rustic splendor, this Appalachia is dead.
Telling a story through a series of robots and voice clips turns out to be a hollow, passive way to converse with players. The notes and tapes left behind by West Virginia’s long-gone citizens do begin to scratch the surface of the plot I’d love to see. But without any actors or characters to carry out the thought, every narrative feels like a loose thread. There are heart-wrenching notes left about the land, detailing the lives of lovers, children, and other brave souls.
They don’t matter. They’re all dead, and their stories never intersect with yours. You’re the all-important overseer of your own story, which coincidentally involves a lot of toiling about in half-built fortresses with friends. This setup was deliberate: 76 is the earliest point in the timeline, before civilization rebuilt itself, but also after civilization died. That said, it’s easy to ask, “Should this story have been told? Especially in this manner?”
It’s frustrating to never have any other reason to venture into the world. Not for story, not for interesting sidequests and communities, but rather for your own gain—to find more wood, or some cool leg armor.
Multiplayer shows promise, as it’s genuinely fun to emote and fight alongside other people. Certain quests and areas suddenly become much easier, and the world feels just a bit less lonely. Although, as of my trek through Fallout 76, strangers hardly ever play with each other. Player-vs-Player combat exists, but it is so heavily discouraged that it never happens. If you’re downed in combat, you could call for help, though players are usually so spread out that no one can reach you before you die. The only time Vault Dwellers naturally interact is during timed events, which reward crafting supplies before everyone parts ways.
There’s an “inherent goodness” you’ve got to seek in the souls of fellow players in order to believe this online world would work as promised. It’d be almost naive to believe that players would want to interact with total strangers, form parties with them, help each other out, or even stab one another in the back. In reality, Fallout 76 is reduced to a co-op experience with your regular gaming buddies, while other players are simply background noise.
Though if there’s one thing Fallout 76 truly sells me on, it’s cooperative play in a Bethesda title. Gaming is the main way I stay in touch with my friends from school. Cheap laughs and screw-overs are the main opportunities we look for in every experience. 76 may be short on many tiny details, but it’s not short on good times with close pals. It’ll never not be fun to leave one guy to a mob of Ghouls, or dare each other to hop off the New River Gorge Bridge.
Similarly, I’m sold on the idea of West Virginia being in a video game. The region has a lot of untapped potential and beauty. Fallout 76 just barely nicks the surface of that wonder, and when it does, I have to commend it. There’s something calming about playing a banjo in the middle of an autumnal wood, stumbling down old train tracks, or waltzing into the parking lot of Camden Park.
There are times when Fallout 76 seems to flaunt its setting as more of a flashy outfit or an amusement park ride, showing only highlights without including the mundane nothingness that provides its charm. But even then, that’s must more spotlight than Appalachia normally gets from the gaming industry. It’s not fair to expect 76 to convey every facet of small-town life in one go.
I want to love Fallout 76, namely for its addition of co-op play and the representation of a region dear to my heart. I simply can’t. I wouldn’t say the latest Fallout title is abysmal or even bad, just very middling. It removes many of the series’ strong suits and attempts to make up for it by adding in new mechanics or strengthening lesser ones. That move creates interesting situations, but they don’t always pay off for the player. The story falters, the crafting and building doesn’t fulfill, and the exploration means next to nothing. Fallout 76 is just barely good at best, when you’re jaunting around with your friends. But at its worst, it’s vapid, basic, and boring, meaning I’d rather see co-op and the wild and wonderful West Virginia in any other adventure.
Fallout 76 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro. Beta and PC gameplay were also used in overall impression determinations. For more information on scoring, please see our Review Policy.