REVIEW: Fallout 76

Jan
02

REVIEW: Fallout 76

Fallout 76 has had an awful reception, but really it’s just a matter of expectations and poor marketing.

Steam: Released
Type: Multi-player
Genre: MMORPG, Survival-Crafting, RPG
Developer: Bethesda
Publisher: Bethesda
Release date: 14 Nov, 2018

Introduction

“So … Fallout 76, eh? Is it as bad as they say?”

“I’ve heard it’s rubbish. What’s wrong with you?”

“Oh no! What did you buy that for?”

I bought Fallout 76 shortly after release, mainly because a friend of mine who got it super cheaply told me that it was far better than I’d heard and he was having a blast. He wanted to play it with me, so eventually I caved and bought it. Since telling some of my friends and colleagues this, I’ve been hearing the above questions and more rather a lot.

This is particularly unusual for me for two reasons: 1) I no longer buy PC games that aren’t on Steam, and 2) I don’t buy new games anymore; I wait for them to be discounted, get bundled, or that sort of thing. So Fallout 76 is the first non-Steam PC game I’ve bought in many years, and it’s also the most expensive game I’ve bought in almost a decade (though since I bought it it’s halved in price again, so now it really is a bargain). Curse you, friend!

Anyway, for anyone who’s only just emerged from the vault, Fallout 76 is the latest AAA mega-buster game from Bethesda and it’s had a pretty rough trot over the past few weeks since its release. You see, it’s a Fallout game, but it’s not like the others. It doesn’t have amusing NPCs telling stories and giving you quests (well, actually it does, just indirectly). It doesn’t have a sprawling open world inhabited by mutated creatures and zany robots (oh, hang on, maybe it has that, too). And it doesn’t have a level-based RPG system complete with characteristics, perquisites, status modifiers, weapons, armour, and the like (except, well, it does).

Hmm. So, how, exactly, is it different? Well, it’s online only and you’re always playing on servers with other people. And there’s not really an “epic RPG scale” single-player campaign, but there is actually a main quest line and various little side quests and events; it’s more a question of scale than of inclusion.

Presentation

As you’d expect from an AAA game these days, and Bethesda in particular, Fallout 76 looks good. Really good. At least in some places, anyway; other parts look surprisingly bland and disappointing.

I think the engine is the same as that used in Fallout 4, with only minor tweaks to the interface, but for some reason it looks better. Maybe it’s just that you start in an area covered with lush trees and foliage, rather than the desolation surrounding Vault 111.

The weather and atmospheric effects are the best I have seen anywhere. Fog and mist look like actual fog and mist: they swirl along the ground between the trees and they obscure your vision naturally, rather than acting like a sort of coarse curtain blocking your view at a distance. Rain looks great, radiation storms are spooky, and lighting is excellent. Couple these atmospheric effects with the fantastic wilderness scenery, and Fallout 76‘s outdoor areas really do look amazing.

Character graphics are nice, but not quite on par with the world graphics. Animations look good, and one good thing about their being no human NPCs to talk to is that you don’t see the somewhat weird facial animations from Fallout 4 (not that they were terrible, but they did creep me out a bit). The character creator seems to be cribbed straight from the previous game; it’s still a bit limited, but can make a range of interesting-looking characters with decidedly unsettling expressions.

The interface is woeful. The Pip Boy skin for the primary menu-style interface is pretty, but sort-of gets in the way. You can remove it and just use the menus in a semi-transparent overlay instead, which I’d recommend. Even then, though, navigating menus and tabs using weird hotkeys that aren’t explained is a bit of a nightmare, even after quite a few hours of play. It’s ever-so-slightly changed from Fallout 4, which was also terrible in this regard, but somehow the changes seem to have been for the worse, as if the developers just added on a couple more tabs and hard-to-find screens and hotkeys. For an AAA game with this pedigree, I’m genuinely surprised it’s so unintuitive.

I think part of this might be intentional. Right from the start the game gives you only enough information to be dangerous, and then leaves you to it. So I wonder whether maybe the developers deliberately chose to not explain the interface, building restrictions, weapon mods, and various other features of the game, leaving players to experiment, or if it is a genuine failing of the game. In either case, I find it hard to use. I think it could be a lot better.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that there’s currently no text-based chat, which has been a staple of multi-player games for as long as I can remember. This seems to have been a conscious decision from Bethesda, with the aim of promoting the “more immersive” built-in voice chat, but it fails for a few reasons. First, unless your voice sounds like you want your character’s to, it’s not very immersive; in fact, it’s downright immersion-breaking hearing people talking to non-playing spouses or children, telling their dogs to stop barking, or just being typically “spammy”, as always happens with voice chat. Second, until recently there’s been no push-to-talk option, so even if you don’t want to be “one of those people” having out-of-game conversations and letting the real world interfere with the game, sometimes you can’t avoid it, and there’s no one-button mute option available to you (but it was added in the latest patch). And last, some people simply don’t like voice chat, or can’t use it for some reason, so the lack of text chat makes communication difficult.

The professional voice acting is arguably good, or terrible. I’ve heard some spoken parts that really don’t do it for me, while others are as good as any other Fallout game. Some of the recorded messages are woefully bad, but others are fine. It’s more variable than it should be, but it’s definitely no reason to boycott the game.

Sound effects are great, with the world filled with a wide range of noises. It’s what you’d expect from an AAA open world game like this, but it’s still worth mentioning; they’ve done a really good job in this regard. With regard to music, Bethesda have largely left it up to the player. There are a number of radio stations available through your Pip Boy and also through the in-game radios that you’ll find scattered around settlements, but you can always turn them off if you don’t like them. They’re well done and fit the theme; I suspect, but I’m not absolutely sure, that they mostly come from Fallout 4 as well.

There have been a few complaints of poor performance, but the game runs fine for me in 1920×1080 with all ‘ultra’ settings on my GTX1070-based laptop. The only performance complaints I have are to do with lag and hitches from my less-than-ideal Internet access, which I can’t really blame on Bethesda.

Gameplay

You start the game in Vault 76, VaultTec’s nuclear bunker reserved for the best and brightest that America had to offer. You’ve spent a good portion of your life in the vault and the game opens with you waking up on the morning of Reclamation Day, surrounded by the discarded remnants of the party of the previous night. The vault is open and its inhabitants are leaving, ready to reclaim America after the nuclear war that befell the world.

Vault 76 is located in Appalachia, an area I know nothing about, but which Wikipedia says “… is a cultural region in the Eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York to northern Alabama and Georgia.” You leave the vault with a handful of goodies left for each resident by the vault’s Overseer, and one of the vault’s robots wishes you all the best in typical Fallout style, before kicking you out and locking the door behind you.

And at that point you’re on your own.

As I alluded to in the introduction, Fallout 76 at first seems very different to previous Fallout games, but I’d argue that it’s not, really. It involves a number of evolutionary changes rather than a revolutionary step, shifting the focus more from epic action RPG grind to resource collection and survival-crafting grind, but really that’s just moving a bit further along the scale from where Fallout 4 previously took the series. It’s a Fallout-flavoured MMO survival-crafting game with a whole lot of action RPG elements, rather than another epic single-player action RPG game with some survival-crafting elements.

One of the big complaints I’ve heard is that “they removed all the NPCs,” or alternatively, “there’s no story”.

The game still has typical RPG-style quests, however, with the main quest line apparently carrying through to the end-game content (I’m not there yet). The plot and story are revealed to you in small information drops, through messages left by NPCs that are dead or have moved on, and you do run into some non-aggressive robot NPCs for small talk and trading, though I agree they’re a bit on the light side, roleplaying wise; narrative hooks are embedded in items and logs, rather than NPCs who stand at attention all day.

So while it’s true you never get to meet any real RPG-style NPCs, I think it’s disingenuous to say this is a failing of the game. Like the original System Shock, there’s a story to be found, you just receive it at one remove. Yes, I agree, it’s much less detailed than other Fallout game quests, but the world’s not empty; it’s just not populated with quite what most people expected based on other Fallout games.

People have complained, too about microtransactions, which do suck in a PC game, but are for the the most part (entirely?) aesthetic, so there’s not really a valid complaint here either. Don’t like them? Don’t buy them! It won’t affect your gameplay or abilities.

Other complaints have been directed at the server stability, which for me has been excellent — though there are a few other issues that really need fixing, and the PVP system, which deserves further discussion. You see, Fallout 76 is always online and always PVP, except it’s sort of not.

Once you reach level 5 you can engage in PVP. If another player attacks you and you attack back, the two of you can then kill each other as much as you like. But if you ignore the other player you can continue on your merry way and pretend the game isn’t PVP after all. Almost. Or you can “seamlessly” change servers. On the other hand, if you’re keen on PVP then you can find other people to engage with that pastime with you, except when you can’t, and then you’ll probably be wishing for another game.

It seems to me that Bethesda have tried really hard to please everyone with this system, which is quite creative, but ended up pleasing no one. If you want to play PVE or even single player then you’re out of luck; while griefers can’t really hurt you easily, they can still be a pain in the arse, and server transitions aren’t as seamless as they could be (though that should be changing in a future update that addresses some CAMP issues). And if you want to play PVP then chances are you’ll have a hard time finding others who want to do so, too.

So while I think the effort put into the system to reduce griefing options is great, I think most players would probably prefer traditional separate PVE and PVP servers instead. Remove all of this complicated PVP guff from the PVE servers, and not let players hurt each other, and remove all of the same guff from the PVP servers, but let players go to town.

I touched on this already, but I think for me the single-most disappointing aspect to the game has barely been mentioned in most of the bad reviews I’ve read of it: the obscure interface! It seems even worse than in Fallout 4.

I’m a fan of epic RPGs and survival crafting games. Playing Fallout 76 should be second nature to me. But even after a dozen hours of play I find myself lost in the many screens and tabs of the user interface, forgetting obscure (and undocumented, in some cases!) key presses and key holds, and wondering just how they could have made it so hard to use!

Now, maybe I missed something, but as an example, here’s part of a conversation I had with one of my colleagues, explaining the problems I had with the interface:

“Take the quick-bar thing for example. Rather than just having a horizontal bar with numbers from 1-0 for quick access items, like almost every other game, they have a wheel menu that pops up when you spin the mouse wheel. That’d be okay, but then when you select a weapon from it, nothing visibly happens. Did it work? Did it do anything? Who knows! You only find out when you attack or press ‘r’, and then your character wields the weapon. But ‘r’ is supposed to be ‘reload’, so WTF relevance does that have for readying a melee weapon from the quick select bar!? And then to put your weapon away … I couldn’t work it out. Someone had to tell me. You hold ‘r’ for a couple of seconds. Sheesh!

There appears to be no way to move items on the quick select menu either. You have to go into your inventory and add a favourite toggle on or off (‘c’ — WTF does ‘c’ have to do with making something a favourite!? And why change it from the previous game?). But you can’t set the order; I think it must just add them to the wheel in the order you make them favourites. So to move something from quick item 7 to quick item 1 you have to ‘unfavourite’ at least six items, then re-favourite them again in the order you want them.”

It’s a mess.

Inventory management is an issue, too, though a recent patch has at least added some ‘stash’ size (for objects you want in storage). I don’t really understand why there’s a stash limit at all. Other survival-crafting games don’t have one. Once you have items in storage, the server shouldn’t need to track them until you access your storage again. Surely it’s just entries in a database table!? Oh, and don’t get me started on the restrictive building limits, either! I’m used to Conan: Exiles and 7 Days to Die, where I haven’t managed to hit the building limit, if there even is one. In Fallout 76 you can build a tiny shack with a few bits of furniture and that’s about it. There’s also a good chance you’ll have to build it again next time you log in, too, since there’s a long-standing bug with server logins and CAMPs disappearing.

Anyway, you’ll spend a lot of time carting inventory around between stash boxes, crafting stations, your CAMP, and the world at large, but that should be normal for anyone used to survival-crafting games, or epic RPGs for that matter! Just bear in mind that if you’re used to playing other survival-crafting games, you’re likely to find Fallout 76‘s resource and particularly building limits fairly restrictive.

The last big complaint I’ve seen levelled at the game is that it’s “a multiplayer Fallout 4, but without the story”. I’ve already mentioned the complaints about no story and no NPCs, and I simply disagree with them. They’re there; they’re just different.

The Fallout 4 comparison is definitely valid, though. I’ve already compared a few aspects of the games and I think it’s reasonable to say that Fallout 76 is basically a multiplayer Fallout 4, with the building and crafting DLC included. Sure, it has it’s differences — some good, some bad — but it’s really a very similar game. But what I don’t agree with is the implied criticism; that somehow this is a bad thing!

I haven’t played much Fallout 4, but what I have seen I really enjoy. The complaint that I saw most often about that game was that “it’s not Fallout”. *sigh* Who’s to say what is Fallout and what isn’t? Surely Bethesda are in the best position for that? Games evolve. Some fans like it, others don’t. Some leave and some new ones enjoy the game. I loved the original Fallout — I only recently divested myself of my original boxed version of it — but that doesn’t mean I can’t also like Fallout 4.

Look, I’m a Grand Theft Auto Fan. I’ve played every Grand Theft Auto game, I think. I liked some more than others, of course, but is it really reasonable for me to argue that GTA 2 “isn’t GTA” because the story and setting were different? Or that GTA III and above “aren’t GTA” because they’re full 3D instead of top-down? Or that Chinatown Wars isn’t GTA because it’s not on PC? Or that GTA V Online “isn’t GTA” because it’s multiplayer PVP, has microtransactions, and is online only?

I don’t think so, but your opinion may differ, of course. For me all of those games “are GTA“, just as Fallout 76 “is Fallout”. Using “it’s not Fallout” as a basis for giving the game a bad review is basically just saying, “It’s not what I wanted it to be because it’s not what I wanted it to be.” And I don’t think tautologies are very useful in game reviews.

Fallout 4 seems to me to be a great game and engine to use as a basis for Fallout 76 — except for that terrible interface! — so, really, I can’t understand how “a multiplayer Fallout 4” is a bad thing.

So, this review is really dragging on. I’m sorry about that; it’s what happens when you get me started on an off-Steam review and I’m not restricted to 7900 characters or whatever it is. So I’ll just say one more thing before I (finally) get to the verdict.

I love Conan: Exiles. It’s one of my two games of the year for 2018. I find Fallout 76‘s gameplay loop very similar to Conan’s. The main enjoyment for me is in exploring the large and varied world and in building cool stuff from what I find. To me that’s the joy of most survival-crafting games; the action-RPG stuff is the icing on the cake.

Fallout 76 is a lot like Conan: a survival-crafting game with action-RPG elements, but set in the Fallout game world. If you don’t like survival-crafting games, you probably won’t like Fallout 76. But that doesn’t make it a bad game.

Verdict

So, after all of that, what’s the verdict? Is it really that bad?

No, of course not.

If you’re a fan of survival-crafting games and the always-online aspect doesn’t worry you, then it’s definitely worth a look. I don’t find it as compelling or feature-rich as Conan: Exiles or 7 Days to Die, but the world is large, beautiful, and interesting to explore, nonetheless, and there’s some fun stuff to make. And that’s basically what I want from a survival-crafting game.

If you were expecting another epic action RPG (Fallout 5?) and a survival-crafting game doesn’t interest you, even one with as many action RPG features as this one, then you should probably stay away. Otherwise, give it a shot! You might actually like it.

About Genkipro

I've been playing computer games for over 30 years. I like most game genres and I'm happy to give anything a chance.

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