Apocalypse #1: Fallout 76
The hit post-bomb RPG series goes online — and more socially conscious than ever
Initial release: 2018
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Platforms: PC/PlayStation 4/XBox One
Note: This review is based on about two months of heavy play coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the game’s release in 2019, released between the Nuclear Winter update and Wastelanders. At the time the review was written in early December 2019 I had not done any of the end-game content nor the (now-defunct) Vault raids or played any Nuclear Winter. The game has changed significantly in the intervening years — in some ways, for the worse — and much of this review is outdated. Nevertheless, I present it mostly unedited because my discussion of the story themes remains relevant.
Few games in the last several years has been as divisive as Fallout 76, and yet, for all its flaws and shady business practices, Bethesda’s attempt at a multiplayer Fallout game has some serious merit.
The idea of a multiplayer Fallout is not new. Fallout Tactics had a multiplayer mode; so did the execrable Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel. The canceled Fallout Online was Interplay’s attempt at an MMO until it died in a legal battle, and the idea remained moribund until Bethesda launched their own spin on it. Much like Bethesda’s other MMO, The Elder Scrolls Online, Fallout 76 is set well before any of the other games in the franchise, a mere 25 years after the bombs fell (for reference, Fallout 1 is set in 2161, 84 years after the bombs dropped.) This gives Bethesda quite a bit of breathing room in terms of what kind of storylines they want to do; it also alters the tone of the game in subtle ways relative to the other games, as the war is still well within living memory and its effects are more immediately seen and felt.
The setting is Appalachia, West Virginia, in a massive region that stretches from Point Pleasant on the Ohio River, to Charleston, over the mountains, to the Harper’s Ferry region and what in the real world would be Watoga State Park. It’s a huge gameworld; while I can’t say whether Todd Howard’s claim of it being four times the size of Fallout 4 is true or not, it certainly feels much larger, and there’s quite a lot to do and see. And all without having to talk to anybody! That’s right: there are no human NPCs. The wasteland is populated only by robots, feral ghouls (the franchise’s equivalent of zombies), super mutants, mutated animals, the occasional cryptid, and a mysterious new breed of ghoul called the Scorched. All this only adds to the spooky, depressing tone.
You are a resident of Vault 76, one of the few “control” vaults in Vault-Tec’s twisted experiment, containing only the best and brightest of society. The Vault was intended to open after 25 years to help re-establish society... until the day finally comes, and you find Appalachia devoid of people.
It becomes clear that a nuclear apocalypse wasn’t enough to kill everyone; it took what amounted to a zombie apocalypse to finish the job. Appalachia is overrun by the “Scorched” plague, which turns its victims into semi-intelligent zombies connected by a hive mind of giant bats. (Yes, it sounds silly, but such is the nature of Fallout, which makes even the silly seem terrifying. You might laugh at giant roaches until you run into one the size of a car trying to eat you.) The end result is that everyone is dead or fled, but thanks to a culture of automation, both pre-war and post-war, Appalachia keeps on humming along, run entirely by robots and a few AI mainframes, some of which were set up in the post-war period to run shops and the like. The culture of automation seemed to permeate Appalachia at every level; in several cases, long-dead characters post-humously give you quests through programs and recordings they set up that monitor your progress. It’s a bit unsettling in this regard, and as someone who’s often wished for an open-ended exploration game with no people, this is as close as it’s going to get. Not everyone really likes it that way, though, hence the upcoming Wastelanders update next year.
In this regard, Fallout 76 is not just an unusual Fallout game, it’s an unusual MMO. There’s no dialogue window, only non-dialogue lines from the robots/AIs (and the occasional friendly neighborhood monster merchant.) Quests are typically “self-given” (such as investigating places that you hear about or get close to) or, especially in the main questline, part of a chain of clues and recordings left behind that tell you where to go next. Quest rewards are typically given instantly without having to interact with anyone; aside from a smattering of supplies such as health items or ammo you’ll occasionally be bestowed with a unique weapon or other fancy item. It’s a little nonsensical, but hey, that’s MMOs for you. You’ll sometimes get “legendary” items — these have a star or three next to their name. Some are random, others are truly unique, but as of an update earlier this year, all can be sold for “scrip” which can be used to buy a random legendary item at a unique vendor.
Other than the multiplayer aspect and the lack of NPCs (which often seem to go together as players have formed their own communities) the game otherwise plays like other Bethesda Fallout games. You have a huge open world to explore with lots of things to see, do and kill. There are six distinct regions to explore, each with their own themes, vibes and storylines, as well as each having an overall suggested level so you don’t wind up in Bat Country before you’re really ready. The main quest will have you visiting each one in turn. (Fun fact: the Mire region, a massive, swampy hell, with whole settlements sinking into the ground, and mirelurks absolutely everywhere, was created when a GECK exploded, which was also the plot of the cancelled Fallout Tactics 2. Glad to see that idea getting use.) Aside from the scattering of mines, buildings and other interiors to explore (there aren’t many compared to previous games) there is also the occasional leveled dungeon. Most of these are optional, though the Charleston Capital Building is part of the main quest. These are best done in groups, though some can be soloed.
The character system has seen another complete overhaul from previous games. This time, perks are cards tied to a specific stat in Fallout’s long-running SPECIAL system, and how many cards a stat can have equipped is dependent on how many points you have in that stat. Most perk cards count for one stat point; as you level them up, they cost more points. The good news is that you can collect multiple copies of the same card, allowing you to use a lower level perk to give your other cards a bit more room. Cards are also interchangeable, so you can swap things out on the fly. So it’s a good idea to swap out cards you use occasionally, such as for crafting purposes, for combat-oriented cards you’re going to be using all the time. I only wish you could bind card loadouts to a key. [Note: card loadouts and how players can handle/edit them have been massively overhauled since this was written.] You start off with 1 point in each stat; as you level up, you get a point for you to spend however you wish. while there is no hard level cap, you stop getting new stat points at level 50. After that, you can continue getting perk cards, or spend a level to move a stat point.
When Fallout New Vegas introduced its hardcore mode, which required regular maintenance of food and water, it was optional. Same for Fallout 4. It’s no longer optional in fallout 76, as players must now find food and water. Crafting will go a long way towards making survival easy. [Survival elements have been massively nerfed since this was written: now, instead of debuffs and health drain when you’re starving or thirsty, you get buffs when full.]
Unlike previous games, fast travel costs caps… except to your camp, or those of people you’re on a team with. But you can also turn camps into storefronts: vending machines allow you to sell off some of your excess items. Some people make big money off this!
The successful settlement building mechanic from Fallout 4 returns as the “C.A.M.P.” system, though with no NPCs around you’re pretty much building for yourself and other players. The budget is much tighter this time around, and everything is tied to “plans” that must be found. This has the general effect of drastically limiting what kind of camps you can build early on. Most players are going to be relegated to little shacks in the woods until they can accumulate the plans (and building materials) to build ever fancier dwellings. As you level up, your build budget gradually gets bigger, and the more you play the more plans you find — either laying around, as quest rewards, or even just given to you by other players. But, true to life, not everyone can be trusted…
The multiplayer aspect is probably the single biggest draw of the game. Players can work together, either in quests, or in terms of forming their own communities (there’s even groups of people who roleplay quite convincingly —I’ve seen people running a health clinic!) They can also work against each other. There’s always going to be some dogfucker who’s out to kill you and take all your shit. The game compensates for this with an ability to opt-out of PVP. It turns off friendly fire for you but anyone who kills you faces consequences. In fact there’s a whole game mechanic around hunting down bad apples who kill other players (assuming they don’t fire back, otherwise it’s a legal kill.) Murderers are visible on the map to everyone, they can’t see anyone else on the map, and there’s a bounty on their heads.
Let’s talk story: I realize this is a controversial statement to make, but while Bethesda has a reputation for being uneven with their writing, the folks who wrote this game have done a surprisingly good job with the themes of automation, worker’s rights, environmental destruction, and the importance of cooperation. The signs of capitalism’s destructive, coercive nature are everywhere, and as we get more and more glimpses into pre-war Appalachia’s social ills a clear picture seems to emerge. “I’m no commie but I get where they’re coming from!” on a miner protest sign really seems to encapsulate the overall message, as jobs are lost to robots, companies get seized by the military for the war effort, the environment gets destroyed, and there’s even nuclear fracking. Fallout has never been shy about what kind of hellhole the future United States was like prior to the war, but it’s never been more apparent — or relevant to the real world — than in Fallout 76. Appalachia has become a test bed for all kinds of new technologies with profit in mind, not people. Even the secessionist Free States aren’t just another stereotype of redneck paranoiacs (though they have those too.) One of their leaders is an African-American senator. Their symbol? A blue and black star, the colors of individualist anarchism. Not a Confederate flag in sight. You might argue that this is unrealistic, but it’s important to remember that Fallout is the logical conclusion of the kind of world my mom once wished would return. Imagine an America run by a government full of kleptomaniac Joe McCarthys. I’d want to secede too.
Even the emergent theme of cooperation — all the various factions died because they didn’t cooperate — ties into the multiplayer. You’re *supposed* to work with other people. Some of these quests can’t be done any other way, not without a lot of work anyway.
I’ve gushed a lot about the game but there’s still some lingering issues. Performance drops a lot, especially in busy places like the automated city of Watoga. Having to find building/crafting plans is a nice idea until it becomes apparent that some essential plans and recipes are insanely rare. [It took me two years but I did finally get the plans for a witch costume!!] Some of the pop-up “event” quests are just garbage, especially “Mr. Messenger,” which I just can’t seem to get away from. The pathing AI often gets confused, and sometimes just outright stops, breaking the quest. And others are nearly impossible to do, even with a group. There’s also some serious balancing issues. Many of the boss-level enemies are just a nightmare to deal with, even with a group, as they’ve got gobs of HP, high defense, and are heavy hitters. This is an issue endemic to the franchise going back to Fallout 3 with the overpowered top-tier enemies introduced in the Broken Steel DLC, but it’s annoying to see it here.
Non-legendary quest rewards also tend to be kind of shit. It’s generally a crapshoot as to what you’ll get; sometimes it’s a grab-bag of things like rad-away and purified water, sometimes you get hefty missile ammo that you probably won’t be using. [There’s now an ammo converter you can place in your CAMP to get rid of some of that stuff, at least.]
Communication between players is also kind of limited. While there is voice chat, there is no text chat, which is frustrating for hearing impaired people, people without mics, and folks who’d rather protect their privacy. Your only other option is emotes.
While the score is very beautiful, it has the fatal flaw of being frustratingly limited. You’ll be hearing a lot of the same ambient tracks over and over, especially since a few of them play across all regions. The radio soundtrack has a good selection but there’s some tracks that are quite dusty, mostly hold-overs from Fallout 3 and 4. There’s no DJ, either — not even a robot one. [There is now, actually.] I would love to have seen Bethesda officially adopt the popular CONELRAD radio mod, but no such luck.
A lot of the skins and nicer camp items are confined to the atom shop, the in-game store. While you can earn atoms in-game, it’s much faster to spend the money. Not everything is worth buying, either, for example the grill just reuses the stove animation, which looks weird. [This was fixed.] Not everything is available for sale all the time, either, as Bethesda rotates things in to trick you into buying stuff before it gets taken off the shelf. However, they do do the courtesy of selling bundles that are cheaper than buying everything individually. They also undermined the “it’s all cosmetic/camp stuff” claim when they started selling repair and resource kits. Most in-game stores are pretty predatory, and this is no different… and I’m not just saying that because I’ve spent a scary amount of money on it!
Making matters worse is the “Fallout 1st” subscription system. Other people have gone into this in greater detail, but here’s the gist: for about $14 a month, or $100 a year, you get some bonuses not available to the plebs, including access to the long-promised private servers. This has the effect of splitting the playerbase between the haves and the have-nots, and given what gamers are like, this has resulted in an enormous round of bullying and elitism. Full disclosure: I have a subscription, and it’s because I wanted to play privately with friends.
All that being said… while Bethesda’s business practices have been decidedly shady with this game, and not everything is as it should be, there is still a very good game under the surface. While successive updates have had their setbacks, it’s overall a huge improvement from its state at launch.
The thing to remember is that this game is an experiment. While time will tell if it’s ultimately successful, and there’s much to be concerned about with how Bethesda treats the game and its players, I don’t regret my time with this game at all, and I look forward to Wastelanders.