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Fallout 76 Review

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I can’t play anymore Fallout 76—not like this, anyway. I don’t think I’ve “beaten” Bethesda’s multiplayer experiment, but I’m certainly done with it after so many stressful, bug-filled hours. I do not like this game on just about any level. Although I do enjoy it, superficially and fleetingly, from time to time. But those tiny moments aren’t enough to save a misguided, incomplete, and truly broken game.

That’s what everyone says about Bethesda games, right? At least the broken part. From Fallout 4 to Skyrim, the studios’ massive RPGs suffer from extensive glitches. Sometimes they’re just silly (like T-posed enemies shooting through floors). Sometimes they’re much more serious. Fallout 76 has quite a lot more of the latter.

The game has frozen on me during fast travel, climbing into power armor, and just opening the map. It crashed when I completed a major quest—deleting several steps’ worth of progress and key items from my inventory. Enemies see, and attempt to shoot me through walls, while clipping through solid matter instead. The game is ostensibly about building CAMPs—player-constructed bases—but mine sporadically disappears whenever I log off.

Fallout 76 Review

A Hollow Earth

I’m not sure if that last one is a bug or intentional. Many of Fallout 76’s finer points are unclear. There are basically zero friendly NPCs, which, besides making the game feel utterly lifeless, leaves few agents for tutorials. The instructions you do get mostly come from walls of text and audio logs. Of course, a number of those diaries seem broken, too. They only play the scratchy “low-fi 50s audio” filter whenever I try to listen.

Even when they work, what a tremendous bore. Fallout 76 takes place just 20 years after the post-apocalyptic series’ bombs fell. You are a Vault Dweller: someone who ducked the nukes by hiding in a bunker. But unlike the many more interesting vaults in Fallout games, yours wasn’t a thinly veiled social experiment. Vault 76 was a “control vault.” Its inhabitants were left un-screwed-with and charged by the evil Vault-Tec corporation to recolonize North America.

That means there are no strange, post-war societies to explore. There’s no commentary on the power structures that might evolve out of this irradiated world—save the imperialist satire that Vault-Tec represents. Except the satire has been completely drained. Bethesda wants to play up the fantasy of retaking a hostile Earth. The apocalypse is a convenient calamity to cleanse the country of all previous landowners; rather than the dirty, inevitable consequence of warmongering. The first Fallout famously opens with U.S. soldiers happily executing a POW after invading Canada for its resources, for crying out loud.

Fallout 76 Review

Forgotten Lessons

So Fallout 76 just kind of… forgets that its colonist fantasy is a small-scale version of the manifest destiny that blew up the planet. That’s exceptionally silly, since every player represents a hand-picked crony of the old world order. Of course they’d carry part of that shitty world with them.

Previous Fallout games directly confronted this idea—that there’s no such thing as a clean slate. Societies repeat the mistakes of the past, rebuild themselves as a reaction to those mistakes, or try to bury them. Exploring those new cultures is half the fun. Yet there’s nobody else in this bombed-out version of West Virginia to confront the player’s preconceptions. You’re not the bad guy. The nuclear cockroaches and bat monsters are.

Without voices, we’re left to assume our avatars agree. Fallout 76 features no conversation system of any kind. That’s unless you count positional audio that lets you talk to other players, of course. That’s a big omission to me, personally, since I typically play these game as a smooth talker. I suppose it makes sense, though. There’s not much need for debate when there’s no world to charm your way through.

Fallout 76 Review

Master of None

“Violence is the only answer” isn’t very Fallout, though. I’m actually hard-pressed to find anything Fallout 76 does that might appeal to any sort of Fallout fan. There are no companions to recruit (interesting or otherwise). The base-building, clearly brought up from Fallout 4, is transient. And the shooting has never been this series’ strong suit… Who is this for?

Even as a survival game, Fallout 76 hits major snags. Forget the fact that bases disappear. They barely serve a function. The world is chock full of crafting stations to break down random junk into crafting materials anyway. Yet I filled up on supposedly important resources so fast that I’ve spent the last dozen hours over-encumbered. Besides draining your stamina, that status disables fast travel. So getting around the massive world is a massive pain.

I dumped as much junk as I could at my portable CAMP, but the storage limit is low and can’t be upgraded. So I tried to blow materials on repairs, crafting, and modifications. Two problems: creating new gear requires semi-random skills and schematics and I never have enough adhesives or aluminum to fix my existing stuff.

Fallout 76 Review

Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

So playing Fallout 76 for any length of time is a constant battle against your own inventory. Should I keep my nice, custom-built shotgun, even though I can’t use it until I maybe find some glue? Or should I free up space by trashing it? Meanwhile, I’m lugging 350 pounds of steel scrap I can’t use or store, but don’t want to drop. Fallout 4’s crafting somewhat worked by providing a use for all the random litter you pick up in Bethesda games. Conversely, Fallout 76 encourages you to pick up the trash, but doesn’t provide an outlet for it.

Despite it all—the insipid storytelling, the maddening management, the unacceptable bugs—there is something here. It’s just mostly a holdover from earlier, better Fallout games.

Sure the shooting is bad. I’ve lined up so many perfect headshots that just… didn’t count. But the crunch of a feral ghoul falling apart under fire is superficially satisfying. As is the “cha-ching!” of leveling up (even though the perks you get are all boring stat bumps). Every once in a while, there’s even a shred of classic Fallout storytelling squirreled away in a computer terminal somewhere. Not to mention West Virginia is a rich setting.

It’s just not worth it. Fallout 76 has already had several massive patches. Not one has fixed my most significant issues. Maybe Bethesda will eventually address the basics , but no simple patch could fix the hollow, tone deaf narrative. It’s going to take a lot more than just making the game serviceable to make me give it a second chance.

In the meantime, I’m logging out. I just can’t play anymore.

Fallout 76

4.5

Fallout 76 feels like a prototype that wasn't meant to see the light of day. It proves that Bethesda can make a multiplayer game, but makes no compelling arguments as to why. Bugs and awful controls make the mediocre result hard to even play.

Pros
  • Some satisfying sound design, held over from previous games
  • A few interesting sub-plots in diaries
  • Some fun Appalachian environments and monster design
Cons
  • Infuriating inventory management
  • Insipid story that ignores the series' past
  • Endless crashes, freezes, quest breaks, plus other minor bugs
  • Meaningless base building
  • Bad, sometimes seemingly broken shooting
  • Convoluted, unnatural controls
Steven Strom
An obsessive writer broadcasting to you live from the middle of nowhere. Thinks cute things are good, actually.

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