'Fallout 76': Little life in the post-apocalyptic landscape
Waking up in Vault 76 is a lonely experience.
You start Bethesda Softworks’ “Fallout 76” by stepping out of an underground vault 20 years after a nuclear war. The vault was packed with the best and the brightest among Vault Tec’s employees — a crew intended to be the first to step onto the blasted landscape and start rebuilding civilization.
But apparently, you had a little too much to drink during the vault’s final party and were the last to leave the facility. You’re left with a few scraps of gear and a meager set of instructions as you pass beyond the great metal door and enter a post-apocalyptic West Virginia.
It’s a scenario that’s not too far removed from beginnings of other games in the franchise. However, “Fallout 76” represents a major departure from the rest of Bethesda’s entries in the series.
Earlier games allowed a single player to explore the devastated wastelands around Washington, Las Vegas and Boston, either bringing some degree of civilization or dealing destruction to the scattered settlements of survivors.
Nonplayer characters — humans, super mutants and radiation-scarred ghouls — are at the core of each game. They present quest opportunities, buy and sell goods, provide companionship and — of course — represent that game’s biggest villains.
But in “Fallout 76,” only a few robotic quest-givers and merchants dot the map. Most humans have been eliminated from the hills and hollows of West Virginia — many quite recently.
It’s almost unimaginable to have a “Fallout” game without scores of bedraggled settlers, vicious raiders, deluded cultists, single-minded crusaders and mad scientists. But with “Fallout 76,” you’ll not only have to imagine that world but you’ll have to step into it.
To compensate for the lack of NPC interaction, the game provides quests and quite a bit of lore in the computer’s entries, tapes and journals of the fallen. However, this simply adds to the bleak atmosphere. It’s common to receive a quest to speak with someone only to find that person’s recently shattered body at the end of your journey.
The game is designed to let online players be the catalysts for much of the action. Each game instance hosts about two dozen players at a time, and these gamers can cooperate to tackle quests or attack everyone in range or pretty much ignore each other. So far, most players choose to do the latter — in effect creating two dozen single-player games on the same map.
It’s not hard to find other players since they are marked on the map. But unless you’re teaming up with a friend or joining others in a public event, interactions are usually limited and unrewarding — a simple wave, a potshot or a brief conversation over the mic.
When the game was announced, many feared the game would devolve into a variation of “DayZ,” in which players do nothing more than hunt others down, kill them and steal their hard-earned gear. However, Bethesda instituted a number of safeguards to reduce that possibility. For example, damage to unwilling players is limited so they can choose flight if they don’t want to fight. Damage reaches normal levels only when a target returns fire and a traditional shootout ensues. When someone manages to kill an unwilling player, they are marked as a wanted murderer on the map and a bounty is placed on their head. Finally, if someone becomes a pest, you can block them from view and from interactions.
Much of the gameplay will be very familiar to “Fallout” fans. Nearly everything wants to kill you, so you’ll need trusty weapons and sturdy armor to keep death at bay. Weapons ranging from primitive pipe guns to miniature nukes are available. The wrist-mounted Pip Boy still helps you manage your gear and upgrade your stats, as well as find a good radio station. You still need to search blasted buildings for weapons, ammo and materials that can be used to craft and repair your items. And like “Fallout 4,” you can build your own buildings.
However, many of these things have been altered and new mechanics have been added, presumably to make the game more interesting in its new online format.
A few examples:
Many areas offer public events — missions that involved cooperative fighting, searching and escorting — to encourage interaction among players. This is a popular activity in the game “Destiny” and translates pretty well when several players are in the same area. Unfortunately, players tend to spread out in “Fallout 76,” so many of these end up as solo missions.
When you level up, you can gain or upgrade abilities by selecting cards from randomly selected packs. This randomness introduces a level of uncertainty into the character progression process that I don’t find very appealing.
You’re provided with a portable campsite. You can pack up your gear and all of the buildings you’ve constructed and move them anywhere on the map.
You’ll need to keep yourself fed and hydrated, which can be tricky when most food and water is irradiated. As a result, you’ll need to maintain a stash of Rad-Away to stay healthy. But in the end, food and water seems to be relatively plentiful, so this feels more like busywork than an actual challenge.
* The VATS aiming system has been streamlined to make it compatible with the unpausable reality of online multiplayer gameplay. Instead of halting the action so you can decide whether to shoot a super mutant in the head or in the leg, the new system gives you targeting data that updates in real time as you and your target move. As a result, you might be able to lock onto your target, but you have only a split second to pull the trigger.
* Weapons and armor degrade with use, which means you’ll need to repair them periodically to keep them in working order. This isn’t actually new to the series, but it returns after a hiatus.
* The mechanics for building a base are much more fluid and refined than they were in “Fallout 4.” This permits more efficient building, but a limited construction budget prevents true creativity.
* You can store and retrieve your gear at your campsite or any gas station or train station, which is incredibly handy. Unfortunately, total storage is limited to 400 pounds. This quickly fills, and you’re left making some very tricky decisions on what to keep and what to discard. Since crafting and repairing armor and weapons are frequent activities, you need to store an awful lot of material. As a result, this limit gets annoying only a few hours into the game and only gets worse as you progress.
* New types of mutants make an appearance, including giant bat-like scorch beasts and several creatures based on West Virginia legends. You can battle the Flatwoods Monster, Beast of Grafton and — of course — Mothman.
* As an incentive to team up, bits of nuclear launch code are scattered across the map. If a team finds the code, they can launch a nuke, then wade into the radiation cloud to battle whatever emerges to pick up superior gear and experience.
The game’s technical aspects don’t present any great leaps forward.
The graphics are basically the same as “Fallout 4.” And it’s not uncommon to see visual glitches — dead ghouls twerking, items floating in mid-air and such.
Aside from streamlining the VATS targeting system, the combat mechanics don’t seem to have evolved. That’s not good. Player vs. player fighting requires smooth movement and combat controls and you won’t find them here. However, everyone suffers under the same mechanics, so it’s a level playing field.
The game earns a mature rating for violence and gore.
In the end, “Fallout 76” can be interesting and even entertaining, but it still feels a bit hollow. It lacks a true story and is devoid of real characters. In their place, it offers the possibility of online interactions and content that I normally would consider filler between my adventures. As a result, the game is never truly engaging.
While I have enjoyed my time in West Virginia, I can’t help but think it would have been much better with nonplayer characters and better-developed stories. Other online games — including Bethesda’s own “Elder Scrolls Online” — manage to deliver these as well as robust multiplayer action.
I hold out hope that Bethesda will revise its course and bring more life to the game.
Bottom line: C “Fallout” fans have always thought it might be fun to explore the wasteland with a friend. Now they get the opportunity, for better or for worse.Online: fallout.bethesda.netPlatforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Bethesda provided a copy of the game for review purposes.