Fallout 76 review: Rough draft

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.

Upon creating your character and leaving Vault 76 behind, your main objective is to explore the wasteland and follow in the footsteps of your Overseer. As you do so, you’ll stumble upon both written diary entries and audio logs. Some of these give you new insights into the Overseer’s journey, others are more standalone. It all comes across as very scattershot and passive.

Across the board, this main plotline in Fallout 76 feels like a significant step down from the grand narratives of Fallout games past. Love them or hate them, previous installments in the franchise were memorable. They had moments. They had personality. They had sequences that stuck in your head and told stories with stakes that felt like they mattered. Here, you’ve got none of that.

In Fallout 76, the only memorable quests feel like the ones that bug or outright break on you. And, honestly, that’s really disappointing. After a few weeks playing the game regularly with friends, I can’t tell you about a single resonant story beat or fun questline. But I can tell you about the time the game’s esoteric physics system caused one player’s body to merge with a lawnmower and begin erratically bouncing off the walls. Or the time that me and a few friends chased another player halfway across a desert trying to kill him because he looted one of our bodies after we died.

The sad reality of Fallout 76 at the moment is that Appalachia is a land of ghosts and the only meaningful and memorable stories you’re going to find in it are either your own or those you make with friends. The settlement construction elements in the game - largely recycled from Fallout 4 - are an effort to lubricate this dynamic.

Unfortunately, the interface for base building in Fallout 76 is rarely intuitive, resource intensive and often frustratingly finicky to use. The experience are further hurt by the low-ceiling on how far your construction ambitions can actually reach. This isn’t Minecraft. You can only really build a very basic sort of base and most user-created bases are going to look pretty similar.

You can’t even do the thing that you could in older Fallout games and bring back items you find in the wasteland to put inside your base. Every time you drop an item out of your inventory and back into the world, it reverts to looking like a generic paper bag. Like most aspects of the experience, the base-building in Fallout 76 feels buggy and half-baked.

Coming In Hot

Both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4’s combat systems have always had a cheap and nasty feel to them. Mind you, that middle ground can sometimes be appealing. In fact, it kinda plays into the fantasy. Nothing in the world is new, it’s all old and broken down. Every gun in the world made it through a nuclear apocalypse, no wonder they’re a pain to use.

However, in earlier Fallout games, you always had the VATS system to fall back on if your aim failed you. In Fallout 76, VATS has been radically reworked. Since it wouldn’t make sense to pause time in a multiplayer game, it now acts as a sort of auto-aim.

Unfortunately, like a lot of things in Fallout 76, it’s super buggy. Even in the situations where you’d think you’d be able to rely on it, it just doesn’t work half the time. Combined with Fallout 76’s regular tendency to experience sudden and rapid frame-rate drops, combat in Fallout 76 is a chore at best and a nightmare at worst.

And it’d be one thing if the combat was the only area where the production quality and consistency of the experience fell short. But it isn’t. Fallout 76 pushes the boundaries for just how broken a AAA game can be and still be called ready-for-sale. Launching games, especially online ones and ones of the scope that Bethesda are known for, can be a messy business. I’m conscious and sympathetic to this plight. However, as it stands, Fallout 76 still feels like it's in beta - and I don’t expect that to change for a good while.

Frankly, it’s ludicrous that Bethesda launched the game at full-price in the state it’s in. Bethesda is a games developer with global brand reach and an estimated net worth of over $3 billion. It feels like they easily could have taken the extra few months to make Fallout 76 a game worth playing. They haven’t - and the consequences are laid bare before us.

Quests are regularly broken, the game will kick you out of your server for no apparent reason with regularity. Combat is a nightmare and, graphically, Fallout 76 is a shit-show. Even when it all works, it doesn't look good- it just looks like another Fallout game. Sometimes the game will simply decide to stop loading buildings, enemies and items until you log out and log back into a different server. Knowing that the game is still essentially running on the same engine of previous Fallout installments does imbue the fact that it works at all with a sort of novelty - but little joy. The sum total of these attributes make Fallout 76 a game that's at-times exhausting to play.

And yet, there’s a part of me that wants to stick with this game. There’s a quietly pleasant vibe that comes with wandering around West Virginia that I really dig. Bringing friends into the picture and even the most rote questlines become a lot more tolerable - even if they never quite cross the threshold into fun.  It might be a disaster, but Fallout 76’s world can sometimes be a nice one to inhabit. 

It’s just such a shame there isn’t more to it. Stripped of decision-making, dialogue, factions and a fully-fledged story, Fallout 76 is left hollow. At times, there’s little more here than the mere trappings and symbols of the franchise. And perhaps, in another version of this concept, those shortcomings would be more forgivable. But in this one that you can go out and buy right this second, there’s nothing new really being brought to the table aside from the multiplayer and plenty being taken away.

The Bottom Line

If you have enjoyed previous Fallout games, you will probably find a lot to dislike about Fallout 76. It’s the only Fallout game with multiplayer - but that’s basically all it has going for it. And unless you have friends to play Fallout 76 with, who are all equally-dedicated to seeing the game through to the bitter-end, you’ll probably get tired of exploring West Virginia and navigating the game's clunky interfaces long before you reach it.

Fallout 76 feels like a rough draft for something - but I couldn’t really tell you what that final product is supposed to look like. Bethesda’s vision for a multiplayer Fallout experience is so stunted and shallow that, even if they fixed all the bugs tomorrow, I’d still struggle to recommend it.

In time, Fallout 76 may still become the game it could be. I hope it does. It would be awesome to see this game rise from the rubble and become something worth playing. However, right now, it’s a game that neither respects your time, nor your money. There’s some value to be extracted through social and cooperative play - but little else of worth or merit to be found in these here ruined landscapes of West Virginia.

At least, for now.

Fallout 76 is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4

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Tags falloutFallout 76Bethesda Game Studios

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Fergus Halliday
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