Fallout 76 Review – Don’t Cry Virginia Wolff

You know what, I think I’ve figured out a decent metaphor for the gaming world.

It’s a pack of Carlos Mencia fanboys and fangirls who are all out telling the same jokes to each other, oblivious with uproarious laughter. What’s the joke though? Well, no one truly knows what it means or who told it in the first place, giving it zero context. All they know is that when they tell the joke, they’re the best thing in the world to their two-faced patrons for all of five minutes, and that is all that matter to these faceless husks with no identities. Enter Fallout 76.

This is the 76th mainline title in the Fallout series, with the other 71 titles being mods that Bethesda have DMCA’d or taken for profit. Bethesda should need no introduction at this point, as they own two of the world’s biggest franchises in the gaming industry: Fallout and Elder Scrolls. Their publishing repertoire is an entirely different ball game. However, you’re not here for a history lesson, are you?

A Fallout 76 player character poses next to his Nuka-Cola themed Power Armour.

The story of Fallout 76 is a breadcrumb trail with no real end. You play as an extension of yourself, who was staying in Vault 76, situated in West Virginia. After the bombs drop and 20 years pass, Vault Tec’s automated system gives 76 the “all-clear” signal and every vault resident is ordered to go out there and repopulate West Virginia with the finest and brightest minds around. Who are the other Vault residents? Well, that’s everyone playing Fallout 76.

I already know what you’re expecting. A lambasting of Bethesda and their shitty company decisions, the hurling of abuse towards everyone involved, a threat to Pete Hines and Todd Howard and blah, blah, blah. Seems to be the only acceptable thing to do because from what I’ve heard, this was going to be the worst experience since the last title released with an unnecessary amount of hype. The hype built up by people who were going to hate on the game the moment it came out and would never play it, but knew it would be bad “Because their good friend at Eurogamer or their best friend Jim Sterling would over-exaggerate the problems with the game.” The truth?

Fallout 76 isn’t that bad. What was worse, however, was trying to install this damn thing.

A player surveys the dusty sky while he awaits orders for his quest.

Quick diversion, but do you understand how hard it was to try and get this game installed? I ordered the game on a Saturday, it comes on Monday, and my Xbox One wouldn’t register the disc. Aggravated, I go to my friend’s house to use his Xbox One and install the game onto an External Hard Drive before trying to get the disc to register still. What a pain in the ass, a pain that Fallout 76 actually didn’t turn out to equal. 

So yes, Fallout 76 isn’t actually that bad. In fact, it’s better than Fallout 4, a game so devoid of challenge or original Fallout life that it’s easy to mistake it for a generic Rust clone. Before we air the dirty laundry out, we need to check if there’s anything that’s already clean. The combat, for example (while it suffers from a fair bit of lag due to it being all online now), is punchy, cathartic, and so grimy and gritty, that any gun in your hands feels great. 

The sound design is top notch; even all of the 50s licensed tracks that continue to repopulate the radio stations. Old favorites and classics like “The Same Ink Spots Songs But Under Different Titles” and “Civilization” return, but some of the new stuff equally slaps as hard. Obviously, “West Virginia” is one of those new songs that feel great with this atmosphere, as does songs like “Sixteen Tons” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” by Tennessee Ernie Ford and Blind Willie Johnson, respectively.

Several Power Armour-wielding soldiers pose for a photograph together.

Mechanically, Fallout 76 is consistent and works exceptionally well to provide a fair risk/reward management. It doesn’t completely bombard you with the fucking awful pipe weapons as it begins to give something with a bit more kick sooner than what Fallout 4 did. As for survival management, there’s a hunger/thirst meter that requires you to pay attention to how you eat and drink, along with diseases that enemies and improper self-care can bring. It all works fine, which is something not to be taken lightly here. Don’t worry about supplies possibly running out permanently either, as there’s always a chance that loot will respawn in the same areas after a while, along with daily public events. 

They’ve also completely reworked the perk system, streamlining the options and turning it into a true test of optimizing your characters. Instead of upgrading several specific skills like Big Guns, Lockpick, and Medicine, you’ll be upgrading your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. every time you level up, with a perk card relating to one of the several letters being allowed to be placed there. There’s a lot of different perks (some of them useless) but since you’re not wholeheartedly reliant on these perks, you are free to mix and match with some degree of ease. 

Fallout 76 also houses a community dedicated to making sure that you have the least painful experience possible with your game unless you’re me griefing level 1 players. We all know the state that this game is in, and to be honest, a little help with supplies, saving money, and combat goes a long way, and we’re all there for you, so long as you’re not Wanted.

A character wielding an unscoped hunting rifle surveys the murky and muddy landscape.

The atmosphere of Fallout 76 is also executed much better when compared to the saccharine shithole that was Fallout 4’s Boston. Disregarding NPCs for a brief moment, which is something we’ll get to later, the depraved wastes of West Virginia are fun to explore throughout, and Bethesda’s team have done their usual attention to detail within the world, providing small tidbits of life and scenery throughout. It suffers the most from problems relating to the narrative, but once again, in due time. 

Visually, it’s a bit of an eyesore due to it being so bright during the day and so unbelievably dark during the night, but it manages to provide some absolutely wonderful vistas and areas to both look at and explore. Going back to the attention to detail comment, seeing some of the frozen-in-time moments to when the bomb dropped( along with some of the mostly-crap audio logs detailing people who used to live here), truly provide moments of melancholy, sadness, and wonder.

Finally, as much of a meme as it is to say this, Fallout 76 is truly fun with friends. Grab a couple of your buddies and go out into this wilderness together, and you’ll have a blast of a time, with combat and proceeding public events being much more fun to take part in. That, or antagonize the rest of the lobby by continuously shooting them until they retaliate and kill them for daring to step up to the plate, in what is honestly one of the most unintentionally funny experiences in a video game all year.

With that out of the way, let’s get onto the nitty-gritty.

Fallout 76 is an adventure into the world of people who are infinitely more interesting than you. You’re not even the hero of the story. You’re just some guy or gal who is piecing together the last remains of West Virginia’s hopefuls, including Vault 76’s Overseer, a woman who is better than you in every way, shape, and form.

She’s fit, she’s active, and she’s a fan of everything West Virginia made and did before nuclear warfare touched it, despite the fact that there are fucking feral ghouls everywhere. I’m getting off topic, but my beef is that for Fallout 76 to be about what you do in the presence of more interesting people who’s at the center of the story, as opposed to being THE center of the story, is bullshit.

To be fair though, the Overseers story arc is really well written, and it taps into some possibly hidden potential for a narrative adventure in the Fallout universe. The chronicles of a human who comes out of the Vault to see everything he loved, built and explored… gone. Evaporated by the gears, the greed, the gross intentions of man and war. Instead, we’re supposed to care because we’re the player character, and we’re the only ones with sentient thought.

A player inspects one of Fallout 76's various weapons, specifically a primitive one-shot weapon, nicknamed "The Dragon".

This is also a problem with Fallout 4. In Fallout 3, we have direct ties to saving the Captial Wasteland from its ruin and disease or cleansing it for a more morbid, but brighter future. In New Vegas, we had a hand in bringing a new face of the Vegas Strip together, from one of several factions. But in Fallout 4 and 76, we’re just some prick who lucked out by knowing the right people or being in the right place at the right time.

Why the fuck should I care about what happens to Boston and West Virginia when I have no instrumental connection to the plot, other than “well, you’re the main character, so I dunno, pull the trigger”? Forget that. Add context to your story, stop this stupid “you make your own story” gimmick when you’ve given us half a world to explore, with no one to take these consequences for me.

By now, you’ve probably already heard about the fact that Fallout 76 houses no NPCs. None at all. Well, okay, there are friendly Protectrons and Mr. Handy’s dotted around the map, acting as vendors, and there’s one friendly Super Mutant. As far as human life goes you have no one to actually talk to, and in broader terms, it’s the most accurate representation of a nuclear wasteland in a Fallout game.

A player watches as somebody walks across the skeleton of a plane.

Come on, you honestly think that there’s supposed to be life in America, twenty years after the biggest war the world has ever seen? Bit of a stretch, no? Then again, this is Fallout we’re talking about, and despite the lack of actual human life populating West Virginia adding to an atmosphere and tone of isolation and horror, it does tend to weigh you down, and not in a good way. 

I know why they completely omitted all NPCs, in order to stop some Johnny Dick with the username “XXXLilPeepXXX” from griefing the entire lobby by killing all of the vendors and quest handlers, but there was one simple solution to this: hub areas. Put quest handlers and vendors in a cobbled together city or stronghold and remove the privilege to draw your weapons while they’re there. You did this in Elder Scrolls Online, so what’s changed?

Bethesda’s excuse for there being no NPCs is that everybody died just before the vault opened for the first time. For some reason, somebody genuinely went around war-torn West Virginia and told every person who was going to be in the game to describe what they were doing in their life as if they anticipated that they were about to die due to some unknown force. It’s a really odd way of doing things, and the execution of it could’ve been better or not done at all because it leaves a void within the world-building that some poor designers are attempting to do.

A player inspects the corpse of another player, equipped with Power Armor and a Tesla Rifle.

As for the narrative, while there are bright sparks hidden throughout, with characters we hear about but never really see, the fact that we never actually interact with these people is what causes it to stumble. The quests don’t really help it much, which can be boiled down to two things: “Go get a thing for the robot NPC,” or “Go finish the work they were doing before they died.” There is no in-between and it’s the usual formula coming from previous Fallout games.

There are also public events, which is where you’ll be getting most of your rewards and gear from. From fixing a power plant before it enters a nuclear meltdown, to stopping a bunch of Scorched from destroying something nearby, a lot of them are high-tense situations that the game actually can’t handle. The frame rate will dip down into the single digit territory due to it being so full of action and on online servers.

Now this leaves you with the worst fucking part of the game, Base Building, which is something I’m not interested in. I didn’t bother building a proper “C.A.M.P.”, because I don’t play a Fallout game for a Minecraft experience, I play Fallout for a Fallout experience, i.e., exploring the wastelands and seeing what the world has to offer me. Just know that it works as it did in Fallout 4.

A player surveys the landscape of Fallout 76, equipped with a Nuka-Cola themed Pip-Boy, and a beer hat.

The species you’ll face the most throughout your adventure here are the Scorched, which are basically Feral Ghouls that learned how to use guns. They don’t really show any smart AI tactics, they merely run to a spot and take shots at you until you blast their brains out with buckshot. There’s also Super Mutants and actual Feral Ghouls– Oh yeah, that’s right, Bethesda has retconned an entire beloved story, all in the name of making a quickly-cobbled together multiplayer game!

Some of the other new enemies just react the same as everything else you’ve faced prior to Fallout 76. Mutated animals, Nascent Scallywags, the Grafton Monster; if you know how to fight Mole Rats, Yao Guais and Deathclaws, then you already know how to fight some of the new threats that 76 houses. Just don’t shoot them too hard though, otherwise, the game will crash.

This may come as a shock, I know, but Fallout 76 is buggy.

One of Fallout 76's various bugs, specifically one where a player has clipped into a bed.

Now, I don’t usually have a problem with Bethesda games, when it comes to the technical issues. I usually have some of the more comfortable experiences with titles like Oblivion and Skyrim, and when booting up Fallout 76, I honestly expected more of the same. But alas, I was wrong… If there’s anything to take away from the overblown recollections of this game, know that the talk of bugs is mostly true.

Frame rate dips. T-posing. Broken physics, lag, clipping through walls, falling through walls, server disconnects, body models expanding and shrinking, more specific incidents like accidental god mode, and our old favorites: complete game crashes. Game crashes will be your most common occurrence, as doing literally anything runs a risk of kicking you out of the game entirely. It’s honestly completely fair to consider releasing a game in this state as a fucking scam, but in all actuality, this was expected.

Look, this is a game using an engine that’s been in use for more than a decade, from a company that is widely known for not giving the slightest ounce of a shit when it comes to the functioning viability of their games. It’s also from an industry built on making sure that you give up all of your money as fast as humanly possible before the working world ends in an orgy of blood, violence, and fire. If you defend this, shame on you, but if you act like revealing this information about Fallout 76 being a glitchy broken game is something you should be proud of for repeating it endlessly within groups, shame on you also.

One of Fallout 76's various glitches, specifically a missing rock texture.

I’m not excusing these bugs, but I’m not downright despising Bethesda for seemingly not caring at this point. This is a first for them, a multiplayer experience in a world which sure as shit cannot handle this kind of action and formula. Calling “Betrayal!” at this because it doesn’t provide a completely smooth experience, from a bunch of guys who promise you that “it just works” is simply stupid.

There are a few other issues that relate to the design of the game. Inventory stashes are admittedly broken at the moment, with there being no way to get more than 400 lbs of storage, which is going to be weak-sauce when you truly start getting into the groove of things. Power Armor now being a rare gift for the player is a great thing, but it takes way too long to get a decent set of armor attached to it. There’s a few things here that Bethesda either overlooked or didn’t bother to remember.

That being said, despite everything working against Fallout 76, be it due to a crowd that loves to talk shit for temporary clout, or companies not giving a single shit about the integrity of their products, this was honestly one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a AAA game this year. At the heart of this muddy mess of narrative and technical issues is an objectively good game; A good game that needed a year or so to stew properly.

Finally, is Fallout 76 worth 60 dollars? Hell no, it’s barely even worth half that. It’s a well-designed version of Fallout 4 that’s also a multiplayer mod and that description alone should tell you that this isn’t worth the RRP of 60 bucks. Maybe 30 if you really want to stretch it– hell, that’s what the game’s already going for on Amazon, in a move that makes me want to slam my knee into every worker at Bethesda’s marketing division, but that’s something I can’t necessarily put against the game.

One of Fallout 76's various glitches, specifically one where the player character model has stretched to a grotesque proportion.

Fallout 76 is a game built upon two lies. One of them being the accusations that this was going to be the worst game ever made, from people who were looking to decry the game before it even showed an ounce of gameplay. The other lie comes from Bethesda and Co., who hold a heavier burden for not only ruining a well-written world with their crap retcons, but for also releasing a game in this state, especially when a year left to bake would’ve worked wonders.

I mean, honestly, why release the game in this state, especially when the past two months have been chock-a-block with other AAA releases? Look, I know you’re Bethesda, the studio allowed to re-release Skyrim on everything from Alexa to toasters, but you honestly think that you can face up against a Call of Duty game, a Battlefield game, and Red Dead Redemption 2 within such a short time frame? Fortune favors the bold, I guess.

In the end, beneath a mountain of bugs and lack of care for the construction of a convincing world, is a game with admittedly tight design, and a map that’s actually worth exploring. Subjectively, it’s much better than the complete non-Fallout that was Fallout 4, and objectively, there’s a good game hidden underneath this glitchfest that’s not hard to find. For the love of God, do not get it at full price though. Wait until it’s half price, or 20 bucks, because paying RRP for a multiplayer mod is daft.

I miss Three Dog.

This review of Fallout 76 is based on the Xbox One version of the game.


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