Bethesda is notorious for its bugs and engine anomalies. Its dynamic, modular Creation Engine used for Skyrim, Fallout 4 and other titles allows the company to fairly rapidly build huge open worlds, full of detail and reasons to explore. The company has repurposed the systems and assets used for Fallout 4 to build Fallout 76, the core team's first attempt at an asynchronous multiplayer game.
Just a few hours is more than enough to confirm that Fallout 76 is a hot mess, a few dozen is enough to confirm that the game has fundamental, systemic flaws that betray the very idea of a multiplayer game. Staggering frame rate issues I haven't seen from a AAA dev for years. Warped models, poor textures, stuck level-of-detail pop-in, stuttering, poorly implemented mechanics, and server problems. Yet, I kind of love it.
The Good: Addictive, open-world gameplay
Fallout 76 is similar to Destiny in the sense that you share an instanced version of the world with random players. Dynamic events can appear at major locations, allowing you to engage in a combat event for the chance at special loot and equipment. At least when you're playing on a decent FPS on PC or Xbox One X, joining in these events can feel fun and epic, taking down large post-apocalyptic monsters inspired by West Virginia folklore.
Bethesda upset fans when it said that Fallout 76 features no human NPCs, nor the old school dialogue trees the franchise is known for. Instead, players are supposed to make their own story, set against the backdrop of what Bethesda calls a "softcore" survival game. You have to manage your hunger, thirst, as well as cure diseases and heal ailments as you battle your way across the largest open world Bethesda has ever built. In that sense, Fallout 76 still feels like Fallout, with aggressive content density full of reasons to explore, loot, and plunder. That said, if you're a fan of the single-player story experience, Fallout 76 feels like a big step down from Fallout 4, which itself felt like a step down from Fallout New Vegas.
Fallout 76 is light on story and characters, with the only interaction coming via robots or items around the game world. Like many multiplayer games, but there is plenty of lore to uncover if you're willing to look for it, though. Holotapes with recorded audio files, tons of notes and letters, and story quest chains will pull you through the narrative of post-apocalyptic West Virginia, recovering from the nuclear "Great War" that permeates the entire franchise. West Virginia, however, seems to have fared better than other regions in the Fallout universe, with colorful forests and lush rivers (albeit, radioactive rivers).
I've found the environmental narratives Bethesda has woven into the game's rich world to be far more compelling than similar online games, but the lack of branching, guided storytelling is indeed jarring. As such, I'd say playing with a friend is almost a necessity. In that vein, the game almost plays like a first-person Diablo-style title, where loot and upgrades become the focus. There are over 200 ability perk cards to unlock and equip, allowing you to tailor your playstyle from a diverse range of apocalypse survivor archetypes. There's also a huge array of unique, common and craftable weaponry, which only adds to the addictive reward loop. Getting that last adhesive you need to upgrade your gun is still enjoyable if that's your bag.
Fallout 76 still has those elements that make Bethesda's take on the universe addictive and fun, with a vast landscape of hand-crafted areas to explore, throwing in C.A.M.P. personal base building from Fallout 4 for good measure. The most invested players will eventually be able to explore the wastes in suped-up power armor, with crazy sci-fi weaponry, striking out from player-crafted fortresses dotted throughout the game world.
The bad: An open world full of barriers
From a game design standpoint, it really feels as though Bethesda didn't iterate nor test some of its implementations with Fallout 76. A litany of small issues becomes increasingly apparent as you march through the game.
A lot of the problems stem from layering multiplayer systems on top of what is effectively Fallout 4. For example, managing inventories and scrap is annoying enough while playing solo in Fallout 4. Imagine multiplying that by four when playing with friends in Fallout 76, waiting for each friend to finish reducing their carry weight. It can really hinder the flow of play.
Additionally, in a game about loot, the restrictions it places on your ability to actually gather loot becomes a huge source of frustration very early on. You have a persistent stash which affords "400" weight, in addition to your personal carry weight which you can increase via strength stats and other perks. The problem is, the systems that allow you to manage your stuff just aren't good, nor consistent. You can merge piles of items into a "bulk" package, useful for reducing overall weight, but on certain items doing this actually increases the weight, inexplicably.
While you can sort your stash by weight, it can still be frustrating in the beginning trying to figure out which bits of junk are worth keeping and which aren't, as well as figuring out which stockpile is actually causing your inventory to explode, since even bullets have a weight value attached. There's additional frustration layered on top, too, since your stash size is also linked to your budget for creating buildings. If you have a full stash, your item budget can become sorely limited, so don't expect to make large sprawling buildings in Fallout 76.
You could argue that the limits are, in part, to encourage trade between players, but since there are no long-range in-game chat channels, text-based or otherwise, interacting with other strangers tends towards fleeting, anonymous moments. Even trade to an NPC vendor is a pain since they have a persistent limit of 200 caps per day.
Despite all of this, none of the minor annoyances are what I'd necessarily call a deal breaker, particularly since Bethesda has announced plans to address a lot of these in the near future. But there are some systemic issues that hold me back from giving this game a recommendation, even to Fallout and survival game die-hards.
The Ugly: A hot, radioactive mess
The meme of Bethesda's bugs almost parodies itself in Fallout 76, with what I can safely say is the company's least launch-polished title yet. It was perhaps to be expected, given the studio's inexperience with this format, echoed by their own letters to its fans throughout the launch window. For a fully-priced title from a huge studio, though, the lack of quality is pretty unforgivable.
Even after updates, the game is barely playable on the Xbox One S, which is where most Xbox players will likely be. With anywhere around ten or more creatures or players on-screen, the game slows to a painful crawl, below 15 frames per second. This can, and will get you killed unless you have support from a friend on an Xbox One X, where the game performs far better. Both platforms, and even higher-end PCs, however, suffer from stuttering, which feels like it has something to do with the game's asynchronous online phasing. When players load into your area, the game seems to freeze for a split second to load them in. It's annoying, if infrequent.
Xbox One @ 1080p (left) | Xbox One X @ 4K (right)
Beyond the issues with the connectivity, the game just feels generally unpolished and unresponsive across the board. Interacting with NPC vendors or terminals, firing guns or engaging in melee combat, feels somehow tied to your server latency. Considering that Fallout 76 is virtually identical to Fallout 4, the added lag just makes it feel like Fallout 4, but worse.
Additionally, the game just looks ugly in 2018, especially so on the Xbox One S. The textures are aggressively compressed, and the game uses aggressive "out of focus" blurring on the background to reduce the draw distance, which cannot be disabled. Even on the Xbox One X, when not hiding behind the game's generous lighting and weather effects, textures look barely passable. Even some of the newer monsters and creatures, which you might think would have more detailed models than those ripped out of 2015's Fallout 4, look pretty bad.
As you turn, you can see the level of detail stutter up from pixelated blocks to something more presentable, but sometimes, it feels like objects just get stuck in their lowest detail setting. Out of the platforms we've tested, the place to play Fallout 76 is on a higher-end PC or Xbox One X. You'll want to avoid this on the Xbox One S until after several optimization patches.
Fallout 76: The Bottom Line
Despite all the negativity surrounding Fallout 76, I've still found a lot of reasons to enjoy the game, and be excited about its future. Exploring a Fallout-style world with a friend or three is as fun as it is in any game of this type, albeit with a genre-defyingly dense open world. Typical survival games that preceded Fallout 76 tend to be barren sandboxes, leaning heavily on player interaction as the basis of play. Bethesda seems to be attempting to bridge the gap between its single-player RPGs the studio is known for, with some of the dynamism that only comes via multiplayer.
If you've ever enjoyed online survival games like No Man's Sky or Conan Exiles, you'll find a lot to love about Fallout 76 right out of the gate. The C.A.M.P. base building system is fun, albeit a bit restrictive compared to some other games. Its monetization layer is purely cosmetic and, frankly, barely relevant, since you earn plenty of "Atoms" in-game from playing. The PvP systems are light and optional, allowing players who don't want to engage in fighting to easily escape, while the "Hunted vs. Hunter" radio station grants some PvP opportunities for those who are that way inclined. Bethesda also announced plans to bring faction-based PvP to the game in the near future, alongside a commitment to address all sorts of other feedback points, including improving its lackluster end-game.
- Rich, detailed Fallout-style open world.
- Great environmental storytelling.
- Fun with friends.
- Ungodly amount of bugs.
- Many systems just feel clunky.
- When not hidden by lighting, it's pretty ugly.
If you enjoy multiplayer games of this type and are willing to overlook the engine anomalies, you may find yourself rapidly addicted to the game's exploration density and loot systems. If you're easily frustrated by bugs and issues, you may want to sit tight a bit to see what Bethesda does to polish things up, cus oh boy, it could use a bit right now. If you're a fan of the single player, branching narrative the series is known for, you'll want to wait for Fallout 5.
In the meanwhile, I'm finding plenty of enjoyment suffering through the radioactive mess that is Fallout 76, but you may want to wait for several updates before taking the plunge.