Fallout 76 is a great idea that's let down by niggling flaws
- Giant map to explore
- Great crafting dynamics
- Wealth of quests and locations to enjoy
- Very dull when played solo
- Not enough human players in each world
- Review Price: £69.99
- Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
- Release Date: November 14, 2018
- Developer: Bethesda
- Genre: RPG
Fallout 76 is Fallout 4 with online multiplayer. That’s the matchbox summary. If you missed Fallout 4, this game is an open sandbox, first-person RPG set in a post-nuclear apocalyptic wasteland.
The only difference is that this time you won’t be the only player knocking around. Along the way, you’ll bump into other human controlled survivors that can lend a helping hand or go Mad Max-raider aggro on you. If this is a blessing or curse will depend on your temperament.
Traditionally Fallout has been a single-player, narrative-focused RPG that puts an emphasis on the player’s actions and choices having an impact on the game’s plot and the world you’re inhabiting. With other human players around, this element has been for the large part lost. There is a vague narrative, in the sense that you have story quests, but the dialogue choices and wealth of NPCs that littered past Fallout games are entirely gone.
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This can make playing the game solo a little lonely for a couple of reasons. First, because the map is giant. Set in West Virginia, the game is sprawling and chocker block full of interesting locations to explore. Walking in a straight line you’d probably have to hold the forward button down for the best part of an hour to get from one side to the other.
Second, there’s a limited number of human players populating the game world. This is in part because Bethesda’s set a cap on the number that can enter the world to avoid overpopulation. But it means you can go hours without seeing another human controlled player when playing solo, and when you do, they’ll wave at you and take their clothes off before running off into the distance.
Even exiting Vault 76, a safe haven where all the clever people were sent before the bombs fell, is a lonesome experience – apparently, your character slept in after partying too hard the night before. I walked out of the vault alone and the only human interaction I had was a holotape message from the Vault’s Overseer telling me to follow their path through the wasteland.
Early on this isn’t a huge problem as there’s a wealth of nifty systems and locations to visit. Most of these are the same, or slightly tweaked gameplay mechanics that debuted in Fallout 4. Crafting, for example, works in exactly the same way. As you collect items from the map, you can scrap them at workbenches and use the parts to craft upgrades for weapons and armour you picked up along the way. Or you can use them to craft new equipment entirely. Scrapping weapons that you collect also lets you learn new mods for that weapon, which gives an added incentive to pick up duplicates and lug them to a crafting table.
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The arsenal at hand is as diverse as ever. Starting off you’ll be able to kill the roaming ghouls and mutated creatures with basic clubs, machetes and DIY Pipe guns. Later on, you’ll get advanced lasers, Space Marine-esque power weapons and even mini-nukes.
The guns all have a pleasingly chunky amount of recoil and make combat feel weighty. The same goes for close quarter combat – swinging a combat axe through a horde of marauding ghouls is a particularly satisfying experience that will send limbs flying and create a Jackson Pollock pattern of irradiated blood on nearby walls.
Early on the quests are also fun. Within a few minutes, I found myself ignoring the “find the overseer mission”, wondering from random side quest to random side quests as new interesting looking locations and radio messages flooded my Pip Boy – as with previous Fallout games the wrist-mounted gadget is used to manage your equipment, inventory and tracked quests.
These included event missions – which work the same as Destiny 2 events and activate at random intervals – to escort a robot to a nearby bar so it could deliver a message to the long-dead publican, repair a damaged canned goods factory, or bust up a protest attended by Scorched and Super Mutants.
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The building mechanics add yet another welcome dose of variety early on. These work the same way they did in Fallout 4. Basically, once you put down your camp robot, you’ll open the building menu, which lets you build your own house. Inside you can load it everything from a secure storage box to drop off unneeded items and junk or, to crafting right benches that let you make your own items and equipment.
This sounds boring, but after doing a few quests and becoming overencumbered for the first time, I found it to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. I spent at least an hour building a cabin in the woods worthy of Jason Voorhees to stash my loot and upgrade my machete – it is a serial killer’s weapon of choice after all. I never knew that picking which finish of nuclear-blasted wood I wanted to use would be so hard.
The mechanics are doubly fun as there are also select citadels you can claim and build around. I found this out when I stumbled into a derelict power plant and was told to “claim” the building station. From there I was tasked to secure the area by building defences and killing a pack of rabid dogs. Once finished the plant collected rare materials, like acid, for me as long as it was in my possession, which was occasionally in question as a pack of robots took an interest in the real estate minutes after I left.
After the first few hours, the limitations begin to become apparent, however. For starters, while the side quests are initially fun, they very quickly become formulaic when being played single player. Within my first six hours, the same “escort the robot” quest had appeared half a dozen times. Even the new ones I found generally followed a standard format: wander into an area, pick up a rogue radio signal, get a quest alert, go to the location, kill some stuff or pull some switches then go back. This meant the quests rapidly felt like the dire infinite loop Minutemen quests of Fallout 4.
To make matters worse, the smidgen of quests I found that broke the format were clearly built with multiplayer in mind. During one that tasked me to restart a nuclear power plant, the game challenged me to repair broken equipment within a time limit that I felt was quite frankly impossible flying solo.
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The fact non-event quests also have a tendency to repeat further breaks the illusion that your actions having any impact on the world around you. For example, on one quest I was tasked to either kill or help a house full of cannibals throw a Halloween party – don’t ask how this happened, it’s weird. After helping them throw the party I walked away happy with my decision, only to find the quest had reset an hour later.
House building also has a pretty short life cycle when playing single player. This is mainly because, when there’s no one else to admire your swish abode, you don’t really feel any incentive to make it anything but functional. Even if you do, there’s also a “budget” tab that puts a cap on how big you can make it. If you’re looking to make an ARK: Survival Evolved-level city complex/fortress Fallout 76 isn’t for you.
It’s when the monotony kicks in that you realise the game is using the same engine as past Fallout games and looks seriously dated as a result.
Thankfully things pick up when you start playing with other humans. Recruiting a friend to my team the wasteland took on new life. First, because the number of monsters increases to make for an even more epic challenge. Second because when you’re playing with someone else the game suddenly feels strategic.
Running through the wasteland with a partner in crime made it possible for me to venture further into the wasteland than ever before. Within minutes of starting, we’d already entered new territory that was prohibitively difficult when flying solo and found all manner of great buildings to explore. Quests that were previously impossible suddenly became logistical exercises where we had to pre-plan who was doing what and communicate throughout to ensure success. (Ed- we also got mauled by a giant wolf, but together)
The strategic element also made me finally take advantage of Fallout 76’s reworked SPECIAL levelling-up system. As before the game lets you add a point to one of your SPECIAL (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck) stats. Off that bat these do the same thing as Fallout 4, putting points into strength increases how much you can carry, for example. What makes it interesting is the new card system.
Every time you level up you get to pick one card to invest in. Each card has a specific skill or benefit to it. In intelligence, you can invest to improve your hacking, or boost the effectiveness of Stimpacks (the game’s equivalent of first aid kits). At incremental levels, you also get a booster pack which contains a random selection of cards. You can then use any duplicates you have to improve the power of each card. Get two of the same and you can combine them to make a more powerful level 2 ability.
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To make matters more interesting, cards can be stacked. How many you can stack depends on the number of points you have invested in each attribute. If you have six points in strength you can stack six level one cards, three-level twos, or two level threes, for example. This makes it easy to design a specialist character that fits a specific role in a party.
Playing with my friend, we split up the roles so he was the lock-picking melee specialist who could craft second level weapons at workbenches. I became the long-range supporting hacker with a focus on crafting meds and food supplies when back at base. To make things even more interesting the cards aren’t locked, so if you find yourself struggling in one situation you can stack different cards onto each attribute to create a better build for the task at hand.
Sound awesome? It is. However, even with these additions the game still has a few imperfections. It’s buggy as an anthill to start. Numerous missions have game-ending bugs that make completing them impossible – unreactive core items you need to interact with are a common problem.
The low volume of human players is also an issue. The game markets itself as having a PVE element, and there are numerous quests that try and push this. But to date, I’m yet to find a player willing to go full on raider. On the odd occasion, I’ve run into a random human player they’ve been nothing but courteous and gone out of their way to be helpful. This is fine when wandering the wasteland, but annoying when you’re trying to play a quest that has clearly been designed for competitive play. Every time I’ve found one there haven’t been enough humans to fill the pre-game lobby and I’ve and ended up competing against generic computer-controlled enemies.
Even with a human teammate running alongside you these annoyances begin to add up and ruin the already fragile sense of immersion the game needs to remain fun long-term.
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Fallout 76 is one of the most interesting entries to the series since Fallout 3. The addition of multiplayer elements to the apocalyptic wasteland should on paper make for a wonderfully immersive, tense experience, and for a good while it does. Playing with buddies looting collapsed shopping centres and derelict towns is a blast and the robust crafting and character development mechanics are excellent.
However, quests’ repetitive nature and a lack of human players filling the vast world can make Fallout 76 feel a little sterile and hampers its long-term appeal, especially if you don’t have friends to accompany you on your journey through the wasteland. This makes Fallout 76 a good, not great, entry into the iconic franchise.