The Pitch

First impressions aren’t always everything, but they do matter.

Gaming isn’t particularly unique in this respect but, in these days of Twitch streamers and influencers, it doesn’t take a lot for a bad first impression to become common knowledge. Cultural shorthand. An inside-joke. A meme.

And, honestly, that kinda sucks.

Games development isn’t easy. Teams of dozens to hundreds to thousands put in the work (and then some) to make it happen. Short-changing their labor into a punchline feels like an unnecessarily cruel part of internet culture we could probably do with less of.

So, when Bethesda’s Fallout 76 launched to a litany of reactionary backlash, I wanted to wait.

I wanted to give it a chance, I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt and I wanted to believe that this might be an interesting evolution for the franchise and not a doomed mutation. Because if the dev team at Bethesda want to take a thing that everyone loves and do something different with it, I want to encourage that. If anything, making something different is probably the right play after Fallout 4 was dragged for being too similar to Fallout 3.

Nevertheless, following on from initial complaints by B.E.T.A. players that Fallout 76 was shaping up to be a bug-ridden mess as frustrating as it is confounding, the final product is more-or-less exactly that.

Even after a few weeks of regular play with friends, Fallout 76 is a game that’s difficult to recommend to even diehard fans of the franchise. It’s shambolic in its failures and uneven in its rare successes.

It’s a Fallout game with multiplayer but little else.

Picking Up The Pieces

As with previous installments in the once-isometric-now-first-person franchise, Fallout 76 is a roleplaying game where you emerge from the bunker-like Vault 76 following a total nuclear apocalypse and are tasked building a new life amid the ruins of the old world.

If you’ve played a Fallout game before, that premise probably sounds familiar but where previous Fallout installments have takes place in moderately-urbanised environs like Washington DC, Nevada and Boston, Fallout 76 takes place in a large-scale recreation of rural West Virginia.

Of course, this is far from the only difference between 76 and the other games. Previous Fallout games have been exclusively single-player romps. Fallout 76 is the first installment to feature fully-fledged multiplayer. For the first time, you can experience the nuclear post-apocalypse with your friends – plus a dozen or so randoms.

As with previous games, the core loop in Fallout 76 involves exploration, environment traversal, scavenging for resources and combat. And when played online, Fallout 76’s servers support up to 24 players. Since the game’s map is so large, this means you’ll be running into other players from time to time but Appalachia’s overgrown forests and desolate wastelands will never really feel anywhere close to crowded.

Unfortunately, while multiplayer is a significant addition, it’s come at the cost of several other trademark elements of the Fallout experience. Firstly, there are no other people or NPCs in Appalachia – which means there’s no dialogue and no dialogue trees. Aside from other players, hostile enemies and a few neutral robots, the world of Fallout 76 is an empty one

This, in turn, makes every quest in Fallout 76 feel like a return to the fetch quests of early mass-market MMORPGs like Everquest and World of Warcraft. Go to X and bring back Y. Kill Z number of enemies. It’s all very samey and there’s all too much of it.

Too often, most of the quests in Fallout 76 feel like filler. It didn’t take the quest log on the side of my screen to fill up with a seemingly-never-ending list of bits and pieces I needed to do but after over thirty hours playing this game I don’t know if I could recall the details of even a single scripted adventure in Fallout 76. The game wears the aesthetics of the franchise with natural ease but never leverages them into anything of substance. Things are let further down by the fact that so many of these quests – even early on – are often bugged to the point where you can’t complete them.

I’d find quests that wouldn’t complete and ones that the game wouldn’t let me complete with alarming regularity. If nothing else, my experiences with Fallout 76 have me regretting not being more critical about the buggy state of Fallout 4’s launch. If Bethesda can strip the storytelling, characters, factions and dialogue choices out of their engine and still can’t ship something that feels like a finished product that meets reasonable standards for polish and playability here, what hope do they have for Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI?

Of course, all this isn’t to say there’s no story in Fallout 76. There’s just no real characters, plot, themes, dialogue or decision-making.

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