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Fallout 76 review: Nuke the whales (who microtransact)
With so many bugs and rough edges, you can forget about ever reclaiming the promised land advertised by Vault-Tec.
With the highest of hopes, I emerged from Vault 76 eager to embrace the bold MMO future of my beloved Fallout series. Sadly, about a kilometre outside in this post-apocalyptic West Virginia, my game critic Geiger counter began to chirp. I ignored it as "teething issues" for a time, but bad design, iffy visuals and legacy bugs continued to radiate back at me. As the hours rolled on, the chirp grew to a white noise roar.
Fallout 76, for those of you who haven't been paying attention, is the online-only game nobody ever really asked for, though it's still drawn in the curious and optimistic alike. Heck, I was more excited than most, having witnessed the full potential of the game in optimal conditions at a preview event. What I sampled was a packed server full of like-minded fans working and levelling together in ways that nullified Fallout 76's most controversial design decision: a lack of NPCs and dialogue options. Fallout 76 worked for me then, but in real-world conditions, I have to acknowledge it's only going to work for a very dedicated, very patient minority.
And "work" is going to be a relative term. What we have here is effectively an online mod of another game – 2015's Fallout 4 – a title that had, and continues to have, a bunch of technical problems. Like a mob of radroaches, same said bugs have simply migrated across and mutated into larger problems in 76, thanks to the added complexity of new netcode, not to mention lag issues and griefers who exploit these imperfections. I'll give you a list of specific bugs I ran afoul of in a minute, but for now, let's get newcomers up to speed with what a Fallout game entails.
If you've never played this franchise, 76 is a poor place to begin. Stop reading this and go pick up Fallout 4 on the cheap, or better yet, Fallout New Vegas because those particular RPGs deliver great storytelling in a post-nuke world gone bizarre. Through snappy in-game dialogue choices, you can reshape the world in monumental ways and your avatar can be anything you desire, both in appearance or abilities via a S.P.E.C.I.A.L. progression system (think: Strength. Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck). Better yet, you get deliciously violent combat that is your choice of real-time combat or a turn-based hybrid. Fallout 4 even introduces the ability to build cubby houses so you can white picket fence your own piece of the apocalypse.
That said, it's widely known that the Fallout series has always been rough around the edges despite still being incredibly entertaining and replayable. Its rabid fan base basically turns a blind eye to a plethora of shortcomings because the world-building and scripts are so rich and Bethesda encourages modding. Essentially, thousands of tech-savvy diehard fans can correct and enhance the vanilla game well beyond its shaggy basic state. This leads to the first problem with Fallout 76. Being an online game-as-a-service model, it does not allow mods at the time of writing. What you're buying is what you're stuck with.
And what a rusty beast you'll be investing your caps into. In terms of visuals, 76 is no doubt marginally prettier than Fallout 4, but it uses the same creaking Creation engine that should have been put out to pasture years ago. This "God ray" drenched West Virginia is definitely more verdant than the Commonwealth, but it's a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde production that delights and disgusts from one minute to the next. It's home to just about every graphical eyesore imaginable – animation oddities, hilarious model deformations, pop in, tardy texture and shadows and level assets placed metres above the ground are all here. Come in fresh from any other AAA 2018 title and the lack of polish on display will boggle your mind.
Sadly, the rough edges continue in the mechanics and core gameplay loop. The "story" of 76 is now chasing a bunch of ghosts via a series of well-acted (yet incredibly long-winded) holotape recordings. The main quest thread to chase down your Vault overseer can be boiled down to hours and hours of "fetch a thing" or "kill a thing". Your only interactions will be with brainless robot traders or players on your server who you'll have to mute to protect your sanity (there's no push to talk comms, just 20 odd open mics nattering about nothing).
Speaking of your fellow unfortunates, 76 offers a series of public events that requires everybody to muck in. They're ok, but the new gameplay thread of supposedly needing to be on your guard against belligerent players just isn't implemented well. Aggressors have their damage neutered to bugger all and there's almost no incentive to be predatory in the first place. That, and the combat system has changed VATS to be a real-time solution that feels like an auto-aim "win button". There's little skill involved in any PvP encounter.
The experience of buddying up with mates is often a shamozzle
You'll soon realise that it's just a pain to respond to jerks trying to start crap with you. If killed, they'll promptly respawn close by and have another go until you run out of precious resources defending yourself. At best, the whole system feels like a convoluted way to teach people an old axiom: never wrestle with a pig – you'll get dirty and the pig likes it. The canon of this game insists Vault 76 housed the best and brightest in America. I contend it was a dumping ground for loud and obnoxious idiots.
Sadly, the experience of buddying up with mates is often a shamozzle for different reasons. First off, you need to find an incredibly like-minded co-op pal – somebody who is happy to explore and discover at the exact same pace. Because the environmental storytelling here is so subtle and filled with terminals to hack and notes to pore over, it's fair to assume many players will want to sip at Fallout 76 (bad news if anybody in your four-player party is a power-leveller chugger).
I was lucky enough to play with somebody in sync with my goals but we still managed to tread on each other's toes again and again. For some reason, only one player can use vendors and craft stations at a time. And if one of you wanders into a public event, the resulting audio trigger will kill the three-minute holotape you've been listening to. You'll have to replay it all from scratch. Marvellous.
In the end, playing 76 as intended in co-op just becomes a means to collectively share a litany of fun-wrecking bugs and a frustrating lack of loot space. You'll watch bemusedly as a party member becomes trapped in geometry, falls through the ground, has their meticulously built C.A.M.P. vanish for no reason or gets stuck in a main quest because an item or enemy objective refuses to spawn.
My personal "favourites" include progress-thwarting mishaps due to arbitrary server disconnections or being hard crashed to system menu. I counted half a dozen of the latter, one of which screwed me out of loot rewards for a high-level public event that I had no business winning. You probably heard my shriek from your house.
All that being said, Fallout 76 is memorable for all the wrong reasons and attaching microtransactions to something this ropey was an insult to injury. Much like the vault dwellers depicted, this has been shoved out into the world far too soon, without the prep and support needed to compete or even survive. I love this franchise dearly but the usual fantasy of struggling against unfair odds to succeed in an eerily empty and toxic wasteland is far too real this time around.
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