Apocalypse #3: Fallout 76: Nuclear Winter

Battle royale after the bomb

This review was originally posted to Twitter on May 8th, 2020.

Initial release: 2019
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Platforms: PC/Playstation 4/XBox One

Note: Nuclear Winter was discontinued September 8th, 2021 after a long period of low player numbers. Nevertheless, I provide this review for your enjoyment, and because I did some research on the popular “battle royale” genre and its history.

Battle Royale was a cult Japanese horror movie released in 2000 that stirred up controversy with its island full of teenagers killing each other. Through a convoluted series of events, Fallout now has its own take on the basic premise. So that’s a thing.

Before we discuss Nuclear Winter, the Battle Royale game mode for Fallout 76, we should probably take some time to trace the history of the popular shooter genre. While Battle Royale is more famous as a mediocre film, it began as a novel by Koushun Takami. Initially it went unpublished for three years, but became a bestseller upon release. The movie, directed by Kinji Fukasu with script by his son Kenta, stirred up a shitstorm of controversy pretty much from day one. Conservatives in the Japanese government condemned it; American distributors wouldn’t touch it for years. But in spite of that, it was hugely popular among edgy young millennials — probably because being forced to murder each other for fame and fortune in the name of national pride just feels a little too on the nose for us.

In both the novel and film, a near-future, fascist Japan deals with an unruly youth population by sending a randomly-selected class of schoolkids to an isolated island, making them kill each other in a nationally-televised event as a twisted form of state terror akin to Stephen King’s disturbing novella The Long Walk. Weapons are scattered around the island and the combatants are advised to stay within an increasingly shrinking safe zone. Leaving the safe zone, or being caught outside of it when it shrinks, results in death. The last kid standing is the winner. If at the end there’s more than one person alive, they all die. It’s honestly a dull film. Aside from the lingering suspicion that real-world fascists would love the idea of the film, it offers very little beyond a rather base “lack of trust destroys people’s ability to come together” and “people fall apart in extreme situations” message.

Still, though, one can’t deny its influence. Aside from inspiring an entire genre of manga and anime, it was also influential in the west (The Hunger Games is an obvious comparison) and the reality TV vibe of the film resonated with an America drenched in shows like Survivor.

Fast forward about 12 years. By this point, Minecraft had taken the world by storm and was influential on a burgeoning genre of survival-focused open-world games, including Survival Games, a Hunger Games-inspired gameplay mod for Minecraft itself. At the same time, DayZ, a mod for the military simulator ARMA 2, was blowing up despite a clunky interface and the need to buy an unrelated (and kinda-expensive) game just to play. Players are dropped into a hostile world of zombies, but often the true threat was other players. DayZ was a runaway success; the survival genre soon became inundated with imitators, from the surrealist RUST to the seemingly ill-fated No Man’s Sky. Steam’s Early Access became a dumping ground for survivocraftemups. Then PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds hit, changing the face of multiplayer shooters.

To give an idea of how incestuous these burgeoning genres were, Dayz soon had a battle royale mod (yes, a mod for a mod.) The developer of the mod, Brendan Greene, would go on to consult on development for another zombie survival game that eventually ditched the zombies: H1Z1. You might know Greene better as the “PlayerUnknown” of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
PUBG (as it’s often called) was the smash hit of 2017, bringing the battle royale genre into full fruition. It’s easy to see why it took off: it allows for a lot of players at once in a large, shifting arena that offers a lot more tension than Quake 3 Arena ever did. PUBG, and its main competition/ripoff Fortnite (itself a zombie survival game that was almost immediately subsumed by a subsequent battle royale mode) are now the premier examples of the battle royale genre, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of imitators from popping up. As can be seen with the horde of zombie games of the mid-2010s and survival games before them, gaming has always had a “flavor of the month” problem (that flavor being whatever tastes the most like money,) but ease of access to tools and release platforms has made that problem orders of magnitude worse.

And so it’s come to this: Fallout 76 has a battle royale mode.

It’s… actually pretty good?

The genre is pretty easily defined at this point — lots of players in a shrinking arena. Fallout’s particular take on this is to split everyone into four-man teams, rather than force everyone to fight on their own. It’s an interesting twist that makes it feel more welcoming.

The story, such as it is, is separate from the main game, having to do with the ill-fated Vault 51 and the search for a new Overseer — it could even be you! As you play, you increase your Overseer ranking, unlocking rewards as well as holotapes that unveil more of the backstory. The gameplay, as you might expect, is vastly different from the main game. The closest analogue would be the main game’s hunter/hunted quest, where a minimum of four players hunt each other across the whole map using a specialized radio station to track their prey. This is a different animal entirely, of course. Most of the game world’s features are disabled; most creatures you normally meet in the wild are gone, as well as any NPCs you might otherwise meet. The arena of course course is also significantly smaller, and ever-shrinking.

You have your choice of arena: Morgantown or Flatwoods, and their respective surrounding areas. (Morgantown, being an especially built-up urban area, usually wins the vote.) The relative urban density of the two towns and the variances in elevation and environment around them make for two fairly different experiences. As the match progresses, a massive ring of fire called the nuclear storm slowly contracts. At first it’s static, but after a few minutes it shrinks, and you must rush to the new, smaller safe zone. While it is possible to survive outside the ring, it’s not easy. The usual loot is of course unavailable; you’ll instead find weapons and ammo and healing items, and occasionally one-time-use plans for a structure that can be built quickly for no resources. Aside from the usual containers, a variety of Vault-Tec cases are strewn about the map.

You do not bring any of your adventure mode equipment with you, only the clothes on your back (or whatever articles you favorited in the atom shop.) Full armor sets can be found as pickups and will automatically remove any outfit you have on (your underarmor remains of course.) Sometimes it’s a pain to find a match — you could be waiting for several minutes before the game finally loads up the vault lobby. The game also doesn’t do a great job of matching players with those of equal skill, so it’s a crapshoot as to how good your competition will be.

And yet it’s still compelling. This is Fallout 76 stripped to its core: pure multiplayer. While some may lament the decreased focus on “deep RPG” elements in this game, that doesn’t mean the franchise shouldn’t branch out into other genres, and battle royale is a perfect fit.

While there is little explanation for how nuclear winter works in-universe with the main game (my theory is that it’s a sim, as the AI that runs vault 51 is clearly tracking your progress) it’s immaterial to the core of the game mode. we’re here to shoot people, not read. And certainly most of us will never see most of the holotapes that reveal the backstory. But who cares? Nuclear Winter, though still in beta, is a logical addition to Fallout 76, an entertaining diversion from the softcore survival sim of the main game.

And the best part is, it’s completely separate. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to play it. If you don’t like Fallout 76, you don’t have to play that either. You control what buttons you push. If you’re still here, though, Nuclear Winter is a great intro to the battle royale genre.

-june❤

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Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [they/she]

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june gloom

june gloom

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Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [they/she]