I didn’t manage to play much of the Fallout 76 PC beta. I could say it was due to schedule conflicts, but that would be a lie. No, I was one of the many unfortunate souls still staring at the install screen because of the friendly little launcher bug yesterday. I only got around two hours of beta time in, but I did manage to get a good first impression of the game. My thoughts? It’s Fallout. Surprise! But damn, did it feel crowded.
Fallout 76 still has all the trappings expected of the franchise. You start in a vault, you make your character, you fumble about in the wilds following a quest marker to begin a set of tutorial missions. The buildings are inspired by the nuclear 1940s. And the radio still spouts the same thematic, old-timey music that strikes an amusing dichotomy as you get ravaged by radioactive dogs to the tune of Nat King Cole. In fact, I recognized a few songs from Fallout 4, but I wasn’t sure if it made me feel a little nostalgic, or worried.
Get Your Party Hat On
The character creation tool for Fallout 76 is similar to its predecessor. Like in Fallout 4, you get a full-on view of your chosen vault dweller as you pinch and pull various facial features. Like a god working with clay, you are tasked with creating the Hero of the Wasteland. Fearless. Peerless. A shining deity among mortals, aiming to bring his or her boot onto the neck of the land and tame it like the wild beast it is.
Or, you can just make a Jebb.
Jebb is a nice fella, he just falls down a lot. With my character in tow, I grabbed my party hat and burst through the vault doors, eager to plant my flag in this fresh, untamed soil. I was on the path to destiny, and there was little time to spare (thanks to the damn launcher bug). I needed to experience as much as I could. But Jebb got distracted by a jaw harp in a nearby watchtower and sat on his happy ass for way too long making amusing boing-boing noises.
Three’s A Crowd, Four Is…More
The nearby town might as well be called Tutorial Burg (actually called Flatwoods). I didn’t see any player there higher than level four, and each one was scrambling around accomplishing their goals. Or, I should say, the same goals. I traveled between a church and diner with other players, many of whom stood about faceplanting their own Pip-Boys. The tutorials at the start are simple and teach you how to survive in the wild. You learn how to boil water and cook food. And you search through supply drops, providing you a cache of parts to craft into weapons and armor.
And everyone was trying to do it at the same time. People crowded around computer terminals to listen to holotapes, which have effectively replaced NPCs. Downed bodies were swarmed by players, all trying to grab loot. One of them was dressed like Uncle Sam with a giant Vault Boy head. He didn’t want to be friends. But then, no one else did either. Despite one player trying to talk with a garbled, dollar store microphone, the town was silent. There’s no way to talk by typing, which is an unusual omission for a massive online game. This made a town with mostly mute people in the same clothes squirrelling about in an empty town all the more eerie.
The busy silence felt so isolating, yet crowded at the same time. I couldn’t help but to recall my short time playing Elder Scrolls Online. In that game, you would talk to a quest giver as they stammered on about how you were the only one who could do this. And then you turn around to see a crowd of people jumping, emoting, all waiting for their chance to become the chosen one. Fallout 76 has a similar vibe. Of course, I could chalk this up as something expected when first going through the tutorial. With 24 players, and on a map that’s four times the size of Fallout 4, the crowds should disperse once they figure out how to make an iguana-on-a-stick.
Mr. And Mrs. Holotape
Don’t expect any earthly comfort from NPCs. Fallout 76 doesn’t have any, as pointed out by Todd Howard some time ago. At first, I didn’t think much of the news. But as I played Fallout 76, I couldn’t help but to feel like an important element was missing. For years now, Fallout has been a series populated by characters rich with personality and fascinating backgrounds. In the last game, I traveled the world with a synthetic film noir detective. And even though many of use were annoyed by Preston (we know about the settlements, damn it!), he did bring us together in some sort of exasperated kinship.
So, if there’s no one to talk to (outside of Uncle Vault Boy), where do we get quests? From NPCs, of course! Or, more accurately, from holotapes left behind by the supposed settlers before our sorry asses appeared. You can find them on computer terminals, or salvaged from their dead bodies. It’s a…rather impersonal method of quest giving. In the beta, I followed some directions given by a terminal to find a lost Volunteer (an organization you join early on). I stumbled onto her corpse, and the holotape found on her body gave me my instructions.
While this, however, was a very Fallout thing, I couldn’t help but to feel disillusioned by it all. The clacking of a computer monitor and rambling holotapes in lieu of interesting characters does remove some of the old Fallout magic. To be fair, I did meet one NPC who was wandering around Flatwoods. It was a mutant named Grahm who was selling wares. He didn’t have much to say.
On The Road Again
I was running out of beta time, so I decided to hoof it to Morgantown Airport, wherein lay my next quest. As I traveled the broken highway, at last I felt some relief. Away from the crowds, I breathed in the winds of freedom. A lone wanderer by trade, I enjoy a little solitude now and again.
But it didn’t last, as I was assaulted by a marching band of enemies called “the scorched” walking in single file. Scorched are like feral ghouls. Actually, scratch that, they are feral ghouls, just red. They go down easy, thankfully, and they provide a freaking embarrassment of loot. Each one held some kind of weapon, either in the melee variety or a damaged gun. And they all had plenty of ammo. Getting guns and ammunition in Fallout 76 doesn’t appear to be a challenge.
The fight did offer me a chance to check out the new VATS. Since Fallout 76 is always online (checking your Pip-Boy doesn’t mean you’re safe), VATS no long slows down time. Instead, it now sharpens your aim, making it almost impossible to miss your shot. Well, I missed. Apparently, if you’re fighting something fast, like the wild mongrels, they can dodge your shot. So, VATS is basically useless unless you’re fighting and enemy that’s standing still. At least, maybe it is early on. You can equip a perk that allows you to aim at body parts, but I ended up not using it after my first fight.
End Of The Line, For Now
I wound up at Morgantown just as the beta was about to end. My experience with the Fallout 76 beta was bittersweet. While I did manage to find some enjoyment, I couldn’t help feeling some disappointment as well. I don’t care for the new VATS, and getting quests from pixelated computer screens is unrewarding. I also shouldn’t leave out the survivor elements. You do get hungry and dehydrated, which affect your action points. But food and drink are easy to come by, so the likelihood of dying of starvation is slim. What should have been a gameplay feature tying you to the world becomes just brief, nagging concern.
Still, while I experienced a lot, I only played for a couple hours — thanks again, launcher bug! I have yet to experience traveling with a group, participating in PvP, or, honestly, doing much of anything. We’ll have more time this upcoming Thursday, which will allow us to experience the beta for nine hours. I know we’ll all have more to say when that day arrives.