Fallout 76 is the fourth Bethesda entry in the Fallout franchise, but the first game in the series to be completely online focused. The promise of Fallout 76, which is set in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, is the ability to experience Fallout with friends. This sounds like a decent enough idea on paper, but Bethesda’s overall execution is lacking at best.
The Good Stuff
Before we discuss all of Fallout 76’s faults, let’s flesh out what it gets right. Appalachia is easily the most interesting setting out of all the modern Fallout titles. During your travels, you will wander through irradiated prairies, inhospitable industrial areas, and lush forests. Each area has distinct color palettes and visual elements, which make exploring a new area exciting. The mountainous regions of Appalachia also provide some extraordinary vistas. This is a nice change of pace from the usual drab, flat, and dead environments of previous Fallout games.
Exploration has always been a staple of the Fallout franchise, and this tradition continues in Fallout 76. Bethesda’s knack for environmental storytelling continues to shine brightly. As you explore the ruins of West Virginia, you’ll stumble upon no shortage of Holotapes and notes left behind by its former denizens. Most, if not all, of the exposition and plot in Fallout 76 is delivered to you in this way. My favorite example of this was poor Tumblin’ Joe, whose body can be found at the bottom of a treetop obstacle course. Overall West Virginia provides plenty of fun exploration opportunities and challenges, especially with friends. Unfortunately, this is the only positive thing I have to say about Fallout 76 as a whole.
We’ll start with the lack of NPCs. As varied as exciting as the actual environments of Appalachian Wasteland are, the whole world feels strangely empty. Trudging across West Virginia without friends is an overwhelmingly lonely experience. Every quest is delivered via a Holotape or a robot. Every location feels like it has been long abandoned, or you just missed running into someone before they succumbed to the dangers of the Wasteland. This is a novel idea at first, but the loneliness and lack of meaningful characters will eventually drive anyone mad.
However, since this is an online game you can attempt to alleviate your crippling loneliness by reaching out to any fellow players you happen to cross paths with. I tried my best to establish contact with my fellow humans, with poor results. In their infinite wisdom, Bethesda failed to implement a push-to-talk setting into Fallout 76. This means that voice chat is either always on, or always off. There is no middle ground at this time. Their logic, I assume, is that this would encourage people to talk to each other and team up to conquer the Wasteland.
In my experience, however, it had the opposite effect. I’m not sure what fantasy land Bethesda employees live in, but real life is full of barking dogs, crying babies, and loud televisions. The lack of push-to-talk allows all these noises to bleed into the world of Fallout 76. To counteract this, almost everyone chooses to disable voice chat by default. This only exacerbates the crushing loneliness solo players will experience.
The economy in Fallout 76 is beyond imbalanced. Everything in this game is gated by caps. Want to fast travel? That’ll cost caps. Want to move your camp? Be prepared to pony up. Did you die and want to respawn anywhere besides Vault 76 or your C.A.M.P? Open up that wallet.
All these fees make traveling in Fallout 76 feel like a very expensive theme park. This problem is only exacerbated by the horrendous trade in value of the treasure you’ll find on your journey. Even high-value weapons, like a Missile Launcher, will hardly cover the cost of any fast-travel over any respectable distance. Combine this with the fact that your weight limit will prevent you from carrying very much loot in the first place, and you can see how this problem begins to spiral out of control.
Several of my sessions with Fallout 76 came to an early close because my next quest was across the map and I didn’t have the funds to fast travel. This would force me to make a decision: continue playing only to spend the next twenty minutes walking to my destination, or log off for the night. More often than not, I chose the latter.
If constantly being stressed about your financial well-being just isn’t enough for you, I have good news! On top of being nickel and dimed, you’ll also have to keep up with your health and the condition of your gear. Luckily, keeping yourself well fed and hydrated is easy enough. As you travel the Wasteland, you’ll find plenty of cookable meats and plants. You can combine these into tasty meals and drinks that will provide you with different buffs. More importantly, it will keep your caloric intake and hydration bars at bay. This is a bit of a chore but didn’t bother me much due to the availability of food and water.
The real annoyance comes keeping your armor and weapons fully repaired. Equipment will slowly degrade over time as you use your weapons or take damage. This mechanic was present in both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, but was thankfully not included in Fallout 4. Unfortunately, weapon condition has reared its ugly head yet again in Fallout 76. Get used to carrying a small armory around with you. Nothing feels worse than your weapon breaking in the middle of a firefight.
Luckily, there are usually weapon and armor crafting stations littered around the environment. Unfortunately, repairs are a huge drain on your resources. More often than not, you’ll be scrapping every weapon you can carry in order to keep up with your repair bills. This leaves you little room to sell anything, which contributes to the income problem I mentioned earlier.
Free To Play Future?
Normally I would chalk all these issues as poor design choices or just plain ol’ mistakes. However, the existence of the Atom Shop makes all this feel a bit more intentional. Bethesda has promised before that the Atom Shop will be for “cosmetic items only” but it seems a little too convenient to me that I’m constantly running out of money and materials in the game, and there’s a real money shop just a few key clicks away. With the news of worryingly low sales, I won’t be surprised if Fallout 76 goes free to play and the Atom Shop is expanded to include things like “XP Boosters”. Obviously, this is all just speculation and has no bearing on my final score.
I’ve already covered things like graphical fidelity and performance in my technical review, but there is one issue I really want to drive home: server desync. If you’ve spent any time in the access survival game genre, those two words probably just sent a shiver up your spine. For the uninitiated, all multiplayer games must be hosted somewhere. This gives all players a central location to connect to and pass information through. Most modern games are hosted on servers owned by the game developer that all players can connect to. Ideally, this allows one central server to keep track of players and their actions and keep everybody in sync.
For whatever reason, Fallout 76 has problems with keeping everything synced up properly. I constantly ran into desync issues in combat against NPCs, allowing enemies to damage me with melee attacks from over ten feet away. It’s beyond frustrating, as there is nothing the player can do to avoid this damage. If this only occurred a couple times, I wouldn’t be as bothered. Unfortunately, I encountered this issue in all of my play sessions at least once. Hopefully, this is remedied sooner rather than later, as it is incredibly annoying and immersion breaking.
My final complaint about Fallout 76 is the overall lack of purpose. All of the available quests usually boil down to talking to a robot, then killing a creature or two or interacting with a computer. The Overseer quests are no better. Your hunt for your former Overseer feels like a wild goose chase. Players will find holotapes she left behind all over the map, usually followed by a short quest. These have little to no coherent story thread or even hints on where to go next.
The only carrot left on my proverbial stick was the promise of dropping a nuke. Bethesda touted this as the main draw to the end game, and I wanted to experience it for myself before this writing this review. Despite acquiring some nuke codes, I didn’t make enough progress to call down the nuke myself. However, I was lucky enough to be around when someone else did. A red “danger zone” was highlighted on the map and players were told to seek shelter. I perched myself up on one of Appalachia’s many hills just outside the blast zone and watched the timer tick down. What happened next made me question what Fallout 76 is even about…
As the dust settled around the blast zone, players started stampeding towards ground zero. Many lower level players perished almost immediately from the extremely high levels of radiation produced by the bomb. Even my set of Power Armor was barely protecting me from the highly lethal atomic bombardment. Luckily I had a large stash of Radaway and Rad-X to keep me alive, if only barely.
Unfortunately, outside of the initial shock and awe, I can’t say my time spent in the blast zone was very interesting. The blast area was inhabited by high-level versions of monsters I’ve already been fighting, like Glowing Ones. After fighting off the Glowing Ones, a Diseased Grafton Monster appeared. This was pretty much the same as a normal Grafton Monster, terrible A.I. and all! The big, scary Grafton Monster got stuck under a bridge and was promptly filled full of lead and plasma, dying shortly after.
Everyone ran up to get their share of the loot and quickly dispersed to go sell or scrap their findings. I made off with a few high-level weapons that I sold off to help bolster my coffers, and that was about it. I was really expecting more from the nuke. It was kind of interesting to see most of the server in one area, but overall I’m unimpressed. I was expecting some new monsters at the very least.
This leaves me with the burning question of “What is all this for?” The only reason to play Fallout 76 once you’re done exploring West Virginia is to constantly raise a set of arbitrary numbers. The loot isn’t interesting, almost every item I found was available in previous Fallout games. There’s not even a coherent story or interesting characters that are worth devoting your time to seeing.
Even the online component of the game fails. Due to the lack of proper voice controls, the world of Fallout 76 is inhabited by a bunch of silent psychopaths. On top of that, a poor networking implementation means laggy servers will constantly plague on your experience. In my opinion, the only fun to be had in Fallout 76 is with a group of friends. However, with Fallout 76’s $60 entry fee, I think there are better options. If you absolutely can’t shake the call of West Virginia, I’d strongly suggest you at least wait for a sale.