At the recent Blizzcon show in Los Angeles Blizzard, one of the worlds most successful game developers learned a valuable lesson (we would hope). After rumours of a new Diablo game had been leaked, and indeed teased, the developers stood before a hyped audience of PC gamers and revealed their new Diablo game would, in fact, be coming out on mobile. The backlash was swift and brutal, damaging the good reputation of this darling games developer. Even if this mobile version of Diablo was up to snuff, to most of the dejected audience, this wouldn’t even matter. This is the problem with hype and expectations; if you think you are getting one thing, but end up with something else (no matter how good), convincing fans to be objective is an uphill battle.
So let’s get the obvious out of the way, Fallout 76 (and Bethesda) are in a bit of a pickle. Most fans of this series didn’t want a multiplayer version of a game they’ve already played many times before. They actually wanted a new single-player Fallout game (and a new game engine thank you very much!) that would bring the Fallout universe kicking and screaming into the modern gaming landscape. Bethesda needed to bring Fallout 76 to the table in pristine condition and with killer features that would wow cynics into submission. Unfortunately, this is not the case because Bethesda has made some fairly baffling decisions in the creation process and so as it stands today, Fallout 76 is getting annihilated by fans and critics alike. Does that mean Fallout 76 is a hopeless case and we should just move on? Not necessarily, let’s take a deep look at what makes this game tick.
Having a Fallout with hype
I do believe that a multiplayer Fallout was always going to happen in one form or another. I will freely admit that while playing Fallout 4 I mused with friends how cool it would be to play together. It seems that somebody at Bethesda also had similar thoughts because at some point it was decided that the next game would be a multiplayer experience. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in those first meetings where Fallout 76 was being pitched. How did they make some of the decisions that formed the core design for this game? Who decided to have no human NPCs at all? Was this a real effort to create immersion or a really just a cost-cutting measure? Whatever those initial decisions were, I have no doubt that much of the shit-storm this game is now weathering is because Bethesda went cheap and didn’t fully commit to this project.
Here’s the problem: this game has been revealed, advertised and sold as a AAA game with all the expectations that come with it. Bethesda needed to do a lot more to curb expectations and be more realistic with their pricing model. Even the E3 stage reveal I feel was somewhat vague and misleading when it came to how polished the release version would be. I think if Fallout 76 had been released as an early access project, a work-in-progress and ideally free to play in this period; we would be seeing a very different reaction to this game right now. Unfortunately, many fans feel like they have paid a premium price to play a game that is half-baked and also heavily flawed in many of its core designs. Considering how badly this launch as gone, I think Bethesda needs to do something fairly radical if they wish to save this stricken project. I would start offering refunds immediately, for those fans who really feel like they have been deceived and this would at least show some willingness on the part of Bethesda to make it right. They then need to either bring the whole project offline for a major overhaul/Q&A period or rework it as an early access title offering gamers huge benefits to stay on and test the game. So enough about pickles, let’s have a look at what we actually get with the game today.
The day the world stood still
So on booting the game up, you awake in Vault 76 and are promptly dropped into the character creation screen. There are a decent amount of options, from hairstyle, scars and the like. You can also morph the finer points of your mush with a bit of pushing and pulling. You then awake in a deserted vault and are promptly ushered to the exit (after picking up your Pipboy of course). Various stands await you en route, containing supplies and equipment you will need, like the base building module for example. Very quickly you will emerge, blinking into the bright daylight of Appalachia. This is the setting for Fallout 76 and is based heavily on the State of West Virginia. I will say that this game map (which is four times the size of Fallout 4) is packed with interesting locations to visit and six distinct biospheres. What makes this Fallout feel different from previous games is that many parts of the landscape look almost untouched by the nuclear fire that changed many other places irrevocably.
Very quickly, your main quest will have you hot on the heels of Vault 76’s Overseer, which will also initially guide you into some light tutorials. However, from the moment you leave the vault you are free to wander in whichever direction takes your fancy. The lack of human NPC’ has been one of the biggest criticisms of the game world, but that certainly doesn’t mean there is nothing to do. As you move into new areas the game will present you with many different opportunities. Some will come via radio stations, robot NPCs or working computer terminal. There are also many holotapes lying around and I found these to be well presented. I remember listening to the brave efforts of the Responders in the first village you come across and in the coming days, I would find the sad fate of many of these souls. Public events will now begin around you and it is up to you whether to get involved or not. Some of these are simple escort quests and some have a bit more meat to them. Many times I thought these were a missed opportunity to show how your actions (or inaction) could change the map. For example, in one event you must try and save a nuclear power plant from going into meltdown. I would have loved it if by failing the whole area gets destroyed by a nuclear explosion and then the option to rebuild is there for players to get involved in. Guild Wars 2 introduced an idea like this, where events could shift back and forth on a sliding scale.
In past Fallout games, one of my favourite activities was exploring and finding visual stories that present themselves like elaborate dioramas. A skeleton sat on a chair where he enjoyed his last meal, a couple holding hands in bed and many more. Fallout 76 does have many of these same situations to happen across and this is an enjoyable activity in itself. These visual breadcrumbs can also lead to hidden treasures, maybe someone has arranged some pencils into an arrow on a table or you found a map with a geographical drawing? It is strange that while spelling out all the negative aspects of this game, many critics so far have failed to mention this aspect of Fallout is still present and correct.
The first thing I noticed about Appalachia is that overall it looks great, from a certain perspective at least. There’s no denying that the beautiful red and ochre colour pallet of the West Virginia landscape can look gorgeous, especially when the game is running on its highest settings and the fading sun is flickering through the tree line. Weather systems can also now been seen moving across the landscape in realtime which is something that adds plenty of atmosphere and Radstorms look spectacular. Bizarrely, the game can also look shockingly bad, depending on which area you are in and the time of day. When looking around my own house, the wood textures look so poor I assumed at first they had not loaded in properly. The more desert-like areas of the game map also look washy and very last generation. This shift between visually pleasing and fuck ugly is constant when playing Fallout 76, but for the most part, I really like how this game looks. I just wish they would turn off the awful blurring affecting anything at a distance because after a while it makes my eyes hurt.
One way the game world draws you in is with colour and lighting. Often you will enter a building that is in almost total darkness, with the only light emanating from an old alarm clock or powered Jukebox. Some gamers won’t even acknowledge these visually striking scenes, but for me, they add so much atmosphere and make the process of exploring ruins even more intriguing. Speaking of exploring, this is by far one of my favourite past times in Fallout games, especially the fourth game which gave a material value to every single nut and bolt. It didn’t take long for my old hoarding ways to kick back in, which led me to what I think is the game biggest problem right now. Upon building a base you can place a stash box, which safely holds all of your items. Unlike Fallout 4, this is the only container you can store items in and unfortunately, it has a limit of 400 pounds. Most players hit this ceiling in the beta, never mind after a few days of live play. In the last two days, I have had to discard so many items which I would rather have kept, like power armour for later levels. This problem is also compounded by the fact that vendors have a very limited cash float, which only replenishes every day. This limit on stash has left me not even wanting to log into the game because I know I’ll spend half of my time fighting with the clunky menus and ridiculously constricted storage space. My theory is that console architecture is so limited that object tracking had to be scaled back in order for PS4 and XBOX to handle the gameworld. In a title centred around scavenging loot, this is an absurd situation and one I hope is remedied soon.
Nukes, Knives and Sharp Sticks
With some fairly substantial elements missing from your standard Fallout game, I feel like combat has been used to fill in some of these gaps. Expect to be doing a lot of shooting whenever you go anywhere in Fallout 76. For the most part, I actually think the fighting holds up in this new game and can be a lot of fun. The enemy AI has been called ‘dumb’ but I think many of these comments come down to awful pathfinding. In actual fact, the AI has surprised me a little (when it works). I like how Scotched will often dynamically find cover and fire pot shots at you from a distance, this is a small step up from previous games. Also, Mole-Rats and Rad-Scorpions will burrow into the ground, re-emerging like badly animated Graboids (you’ve not seen Tremors?!). One clever touch I also noticed is that when you pitch a grenade at a mob of enemies, they will scatter in all directions in a bid to keep their limbs intact.
Enemies are a mixture of fantastic looking, right down to plain awful. The dogs and Brahmin (cows) look like they are floating around on the ground with no consideration as to what level of incline they are walking on. However, enemies like the little spider droids are really well animated and look awesome (cursing in a French accent of course). This makes me suspect that assets have just been copied over from previous games with little work to improve them. Some of the bigger foes, like the Grafton Monster or the intimidating Scorch-beasts, actually look really good, despite the latter clearly being a re-skinned dragon from Skyrim. It is a shame that you can cheese many of the fights with bigger monsters by simply standing on a roof or hiding through a small doorframe. All enemies have a satisfying ragdoll effect when dying including recoiling back when shot and then slumping like a sack of spuds. I also love popping ghouls heads off with my .308 rifle and seeing a satisfying fountain of claret erupting skyward.
There is a wide range of weapons for you to choose from in Fallout 76, from pistols, shotguns, rifles and so on. Each of these can be repaired and modified at the right crafting station. This game is lacking in many areas and so I would have hoped that there had been more fuss made of the loot, giving players a decent incentive to carry on playing once the main story has been exhausted. One weapon that has been well received is the ability to actually find launch codes and fire your own nuke into the game map. This new area then spawns high-level enemies with bigger rewards. There is no denying that this is one of the coolest mechanisms of Fallout 76, even if firing three nukes simultaneously will crash the server you are on.
I have seen plenty of console footage and the netcode does seem to be far better in the PC version, maybe this is because the PC can handle large-scale physics better? While combat is not Fallout 76s greatest strength, it does handle itself well in this version of the Fallout universe. Melee combat is more problematic, it works but it feels more like I’m an extra in the three stooges. V.A.T.S has been an integral part of the Fallout experience since the very first games but here it just doesn’t gel. Obviously the time slowing mechanic can now no longer be used, so you are left with this elaborate auto target system which only serves to remind us that it is redundant in this game world. I just wish they had found a clever way to implement it into an always-online game, rather than just saying fuck it and put it in anyway.
Me, myself and Irene5000
On the stage reveal for Fallout 76 Tod Howard was talking about the characters that inhabit previous Fallout games. Then he said this, “there is one big difference with this game, it’s that each of those characters is a real person”. This is a great line, a very cool concept and one which initially had gamers intrigued. The unfortunate reality is that the way Bethesda has fused other players into the game space has made them sacrifice some of the greatest strengths of the series. An NPC can be a source of meaningful dialogue or the centrepiece to an epic storyline. NPC’s can offer you twists and turns, giving players an incentive to care about the choices they make. To think they could replace this with a real player who can offer little more than a few emotes and the obligatory jumping tradition is just bobbins.
To promote strangers communicating, your mic is always open, unless you mute local chat entirely. This is very frustrating and has already had me listening to domestic arguments, noisy children and a whole manner of other sounds emanating from that player's gaming room. This is not conducive of an atmospheric meeting between two real survivors of a nuclear wasteland. You can also see where all the other players are on the game map, at all times. I really don’t like this and feel like my every move is being watched. It also allows groups of less social gamers to see people playing solo and grief them. I would far rather have a situation that acts almost like a radar. When gunfire or high activity is happening it sends out pulses on the map letting players something is happening at that location. Then, when you wish to have a bit of quiet exploring you will be invisible on the map. Again, I can see that Bethesda is trying to promote people interacting but in practice, this just doesn’t work.
Killing other players is possible but the system for doing this is so badly designed I thought a friend was joking when he explained the rules of engagement. If you shoot another player, you will do a minuscule amount of damage, but you have then initiated the first stage of a duel. The player you attacked could just ignore you, fast travel or just log off. If they return fire then you are both flagged for PvP and can damage each other fully. The kicker is that the first damage from the defending player is at full power, so equipping a high powered shotgun with buffs will all but one shot the attacking player. There are also basically no penalties for dying in PVP, you just respawn and off you go. I honestly cannot fathom how Bethesda thought this was a workable system, but alas, this is how PvP works in Fallout 76. I would far rather have a system that gave you the option of PVP on or off when you logged in. If you opted for PVP off, then you would join a server with other players and use the rules as they are now. However, if you joined a PVP server then you could attack any other player at any time. My personal preference would always be for the latter because it would add so much tension when meeting another player. Will they be friendly? Will they attack or will they pretend to help me and then betray me at the last minute? This kind of dynamic is what makes this type of game fun to play, but the system as it stands feels toothless and like Bethesda just played it safe. There is a wanted system which I do like, it highlights a player who has been pilfering from other players bases or attacking people. These wanted players are fair game until they are killed.
If I am being fair I have to mention that working in a group with my friends has been fun. I have had no problems with the server recognising what my party members have done something, like open a door or shoot a mob. Yet again, it seems like everything this game gets right had a downside just waiting to jump out and ruin the experience. With most of the games quest narrative delivered on terminals and holotapes, being on voice coms with other gamers just doesn’t work very well. I’ve actually had situations where I’ve logged off Discord for a few minutes to listen to a key story arc. Little touches, like being able to fast forward through holotapes would have been good game design here but alas, you must listen to the whole thing again.
The Creation Engine has come under a great deal of fire this week and is being blamed for many of this games technical problems. I am not a coder and so will have to defer to better-qualified folks than myself. What I can gather is that this engine, while being heavily tweaked and retrofitted, is now showing it’s age. I think if you asked a hundred Bethesda fans what they would like in the future, most would ask that Bethesda ditch this antique and invest in a brand new engine.
It is unfortunate then, seeing the news this week that both Elder Scrolls 6 and Starfield will likely be using a version of the creation engine. In fact, I would say this is the breaking point for many long-term supporters of Bethesda games. Tod Howard has stated that they continue to use the Creation engine because they know it so well and it lets them create content at speed. I would argue that while these are all valid points, the issues that come with it are becoming a far greater problem. I can only hope that the Fallout (I’m not even sorry) from this latest title will spur Bethesda to invest in the future and finally put the Creation Engine to rest.
One new feature I love about Fallout 76 is the perk card system because it is fun and simple to use. As you level up you must decide which of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L attributes to invest in, each one increases a certain characteristic and its related stats. Every few levels you also get a new card pack that will have randomly chosen perk cards (and a stick of gum). These cards contain many of the old perks but also a few new ones to boot. If you have three points in strength then you can put three perk cards in this Special slot and so on, most cards of the same type can also be fused together. I am also happy to see there have been some perks added that buff your group, one of the few tangible benefits from working with other players. You can even temporarily share perk cards which can be handy in a pinch.
As already mentioned, players in Fallout 76 now have a mobile campsite to throw down. Key locations are off-limits (which is reasonable) but other than that you can set up shop where you please. I have to say UI is like every other menu system in this game, unwieldy and unintuitive. However, once you’ve fought to learn the controls I found this base building to be actually pretty enjoyable. There are obvious things like foundations, walls, doors, roofs etc. Then on top of that, you can have all the crafting stations, a bed to sleep in and of course the infamous stash box. You can also add generators, lay down power lines and light up your house like a Christmas tree. I made some pretty amazing houses in Fallout 4 but of course, nobody ever saw them. Happening across someone’s campsite (and attached buildings) is a fun part of Fallout 76 that would only be possible in an online game. We have had some good fun in my group of friends, checking out (and mocking) each other’s home building skills.
There are of course bugs and design flaws galore. If you log onto a server where someone has already occupied your space, your entire camp is auto-packed up and placing it back down can be a nightmare. I would like to see a warning when you join a server and your camp location is already occupied, with the option to find another server. All considered, the camp is a fun addition to this game and I hope they expand on it in the future.
Is it PC?
As powerful as modern consoles are, they still struggle in with certain game types. The PS4 can produce some truly amazing visuals, like in Horizon Zero Dawn and Red Dead Redemption 2. However, this is because the developers worked to draw every last inch of power from the ageing architecture with sleek engine magic and custom tools. I remember when Skyrim was released on PS3, it was a disaster and just would not run properly. The internet is awash with gameplay footage that shows Fallout 76 in a very bad light, both in terms of gameplay bugs and graphical ugly spots. I will say that many of these problems do seem to be predominantly on console, but this doesn’t mean the PC version is without its issues.
The lack of a FOV (field of view) slider has left many players unable to play because this limited view can induce motion sickness. The frame rate had also initially been linked to the physics engine, so speed hacking pretty much came packaged with the game. As a fix, the frame rate has been capped at 63 fps, which just isn’t what you want to hear when you’ve just bought at £3000 rig. A lack of support for wide angle monitors was also a baffling omission but the worst of all was the VOIP issue. On launching the game your mic would be left wide open, with no notification that with was the case. As I’ve already touched on, in the beta and now the live game, many peoples privacy has been infringed on by having their private conversations being poured into the ears of complete strangers. While this has led to some humorous exchanges between players, this also raises a real security issue that Bethesda seems to have been oblivious to. There have also been unsettling reports that the game is so open to hackers that people IP’s could be visible and a player could even be bumped offline if a hacker so wished. These issues are only compounded by a litany of pathfinding issues, broken quest triggers, enemies glitching out and many more. The game not being available on Steam has also been a bone of contention for many and of course, it gets Bethesda out of that obligatory refund policy.
The PC version of Fallout 76 does feel like a low effort port, that doesn’t take into consideration any of the platform's strengths. One of my biggest gripes about Fallout 4 was the overly clunky menus and item management. A well-designed interface that took advantage of a mouse and keyboard really isn’t too much to ask for, yet here we are in 2018 with the exact same design issues. For a long time now Bethesda has been getting away with this in single player games, but when in frantic fights and no VATS to fall back it can get messy. I have now started to adapt to the base building controls but this is another small piece of evidence that the game was just dragged and dropped onto the PC.
Nobody, at least nobody who is decent, wants a game to fail. Even when companies make poor choices and or seem to put profit before their customers, other people get caught up in the backlash (like hard working testers/coders/artists etc). For all the jokes about broken games, Bethesda has brought us a lot of wonderful and inspirational game worlds. There is no denying that they have dropped the ball with Fallout 76, but I do believe that with some smart choices moving forward this could become a worthy entree in the Fallout stable. I have been keeping tabs on how content creators/reviewers have received this game and there has been a lot of heat for Bethesda. Much of this has been justified but there are many good aspects to the game that don’t seem to be getting the same coverage. I love how many diehard fans for Fallout have been actually acting as NPCs in the game to welcome new players into the Wasteland. They shouldn’t have to I can hear you all shout and I wouldn’t disagree: but it’s still indicative of how awesome Fallout fans are.
The bottom line is that this game was no ready for release, not even close and having a beta two weeks before launch was about as useful as a chocolate teapot. I’ve had to cover a lot of problems in this review, but the weird thing is I am still really enjoying my time in Fallout 76. It has helped tremendously that I have a good set of friends who are also enjoying the game and plan to stick with it for the foreseeable future. It also gives me hope that Bethesda has pledged to fix many of the biggest technical issues before Christmas. Moving forward they would be imbeciles of the highest order, not to use new vault openings to add some much-needed NPCs.
I just wish that when this idea was first being considered, Bethesda had shown some commitment and gone all in. Instead of trying to shoehorn game systems/assets already created into an online game, make new systems that actually fit with what you are trying to achieve. How cool would it have been to actually play any role you wanted in a fallout city, maybe a bounty hunter, a local farmer or weapons vendor? To be actually living out a role in a Fallout world that has both real players and engaging NPCs? This would have been a massive (and expensive) project sure, but it would have also have shown that Bethesda was as passionate about Fallout as their amazing fan base. I cannot, with good conscience, recommend that you buy Fallout 76 unless you really are a diehard Fallout fan. I hope in the future Bethesda will not have run for the hills but instead taken inspiration from their incredible fans and made Fallout 76 everything it could be.
I hope you enjoyed reading my review of Fallout 76 on PC. I would like to thank the UK office of Bethesda for providing a review copy. If you enjoy my reviews and content please consider following me on Twitter @riggedforepic where I post all my latest work.