Fallout 76, an irradiated odyssey part 2: PvE, a look and see
Does Fallout 76 deliver the same rich and rewarding RPG experience as its offline forebears? Read our hands-on to find out.
Let me be brutally honest with you here. I'm a 21-year fan of this franchise – from the isometric Interplay times to the 3D Bethesda days – but when Fallout 76 was revealed, my scepticism stat rose. It certainly wasn't because I dislike a good massively multiplayer online game. I'm known to MMO until the point of marital jeopardy. It's just that whenever I zip into a jumpsuit and open a Vault-Tec door, it's with the intention of leaving this toxic reality behind for a better irradiated one on-screen.
Basically, I like my dystopian escapisms devoid of life. Offline, and chock full of freaks driven by AI, please. Not always-online and brimming with actual idiots.
In this way, I was not sold on the concept of 76, an odd offshoot which began life internally as a PvP expansion for 2015's Fallout 4. We never saw that come to fruition back then because Bethesda Softworks realised very early on that a complete rethink and rewrite of key systems would need to occur.
Cue the hiring of MMO veteran Chris Mayer (Ultima Online, Star Wars: Galaxies), the injection of a bit of Quake III online code, and now we have this standalone game. Despite Mayer's pedigree, I was still immune to 76's charms at first. But, due to the strange radioactive power of this series, mere minutes of exposure was all it took to make me warm to this game. In an hour, I was positively bubbling to it.
Before we go any further, it's important to note that this article is one part of a quadrilogy. My hands on with Fallout 76 represented quite a large chunk of time and content (made possible by flights and accommodation paid by Bethesda). The sheer amount of info I collected warranted four articles. So if you're after my raw, unfiltered opinions on a specific facet of this game, I recommend you jump directly to the relevant chapter.
Despite my initial reservations, 76 is now under my skin for better or worse. And the "worse" of the experience rears its ugly head the second you exit Vault 76 into West Virginia proper. In the contained, short-view distances of the tutorial bunker, everything is fine – you'll zip about, catch up with your three team members and grab some starter gear. You'll need to grab the usual stuff: stimpacks, rad medicine, food and water. Sustenance is a big deal in 76 as this game's basically like playing Hardcore mode in Fallout New Vegas.
There's also unusual stuff to take in and scoop up. You'll get acquainted with a photo mode (a first for the series) and you're issued a C.A.M.P. More on that in a second, but the short explanation is it's like a Masterton Kit Home crossed with Mary Poppins's bottomless bag.
Anyway, once you get outside, you'll be struck by two things. One, as far as Fallout settings go, "Appalachia" is insanely lush and vibrant – a foliage overload – when compared to the rusty city corpses we've picked through in Fallout 3 and 4. And two, the Creation Engine can have a tough time handling the sizeable increase in geometry and draw distance.
I'll let the embedded video do most of the talking on this front. Essentially, hiccups crop up all the time. One could cut Bethesda some slack here as we're pre-beta or the more cynical among you could remember this developer's usual modus operandi. The studio has a penchant for releasing its games a little ropey and then a series of patches will invariably create a post-launch masterpiece you'll happily play for triple-digit hours.
Many rough edges aside, the systems at play and the fundamental game-play loop is solid and familiar here. I was doing much what I always do in a Fallout title, only this time with three mates in backup. Unlike The Elder Scrolls Online – a MMO spin-off that was a culture shock to many Skyrim fans – 76 feels immediately consistent with the scavenging and shooting of this franchise.
Containers, loot and incidental items litter an overworld that bears the eerie atmosphere of Fallout 4, but is four times the size of it. Familiar mutie denizens and short-circuiting robots explode into bits when you pummel or perforate them with your old tried-and-true combat tactics. Mind you, this time the V.A.T.S. targeting system occurs in real-time. It's great for locking onto enemies obscured by vegetation and can target limbs (once you earn the right to do so). I think it's still a touch jittery and a bit of a win button in PvP. I'm not completely sold on its current design.
I had another major concern going in, too: a lack of quest-giving NPCs with lengthy dialogue and decision trees. It's true that 76 has pared all that right back, but I weirdly found myself not missing it – mostly because the "post-apocalypse pioneer" setting explained away the absence of fellow human survivors. That said, there were unfortunates trying to scratch out an existence between the times when the bombs fell and when our vault opens. You get a sense that you've just missed huge faction fights that were finally resolved by lethal radiation sickness. So expect 76 to be lore-rich in other ways, be it via text logs or well-voiced audio logs for the main quests.
76 is also brimming with those little incidental visual stories that Fallout fans love to piece together on their own. Environmental clues to sordid events long since played out. For example, I stumbled across a dog kennel with a periodic chart and some test tubes pulled inside, plus an equation that would've stumped Good Will Hunting was chalked on the floor. Current theory: Fido mutated into Professor Pupper.
In another instance, a mate of mine wandered into a small village where very localised earthquakes began to shake his screen apart as disembodied shrieks filled the air. It scared the absolute crap out of him, so he hightailed it out of there before he could get any concrete answers. When we mentioned it later to one of the devs, his eyes lit up in utter excitement. "Do you want me to tell you the twist?" he beamed. We declined. It's mentally bookmarked for a beta revisit.
Mysterious moments like these make me think 76 is certainly viable as a solo experience. Mind you, my own story through West Virginia was greatly enriched by simply having the right crew around me. Cool discoveries and burdens were shared (the latter by a simple trading system), and this in turn allowed us to build sweet, defensible and easily removable cubbyhouses with our C.A.M.P.s. Also, separating from one another and fast-travelling back again was a cinch and with minimal load times. It's going to be the best way to divide and conquer this world.
Are there idiots about trying to make your post-apocalyptic life (extra) miserable? You betcha. I found evil to exist both inside and outside of my group. I'll cover the implications of this in the next article in this series, but for now all you need to know is this game is no PUBG or Fortnite. The killing of an unwilling player (known as Murder) is tough to achieve as your damage on an "unengaged player" is scaled incredibly low. You can chip them down to death but there's little incentive to do so. Murderers become server-wide pariahs who will invariably end up losing a load of their own wealth for the price of their actions. So that's nice.
One thing I will say: when it did come time to kill one another, the energy from the 25 or so attendees in my session electrified the room. Though I had headphones on and could only communicate with my pod of three comrades, many was the time when I could still hear a rival group shrieking with delight as their jagged alliances broke down into savagery and in-fighting. Honestly, it's the best response Bethesda could have hoped for.
Read more in Fallout 76 part 3 - PvP, murder death troll
Pre-order Fallout 76 from Amazon AU
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