Poor old Fallout 76. In the weeks since its release, reviewers have piled on it like a pack of football hooligans who’ve just seen the opposing side’s mascot waddle desperately past their pub. By the time I picked it up, it felt unsporting – cruel, even – to run in and deliver a sharp kick to a man already dying inside a foam owl costume.
But mercy should be reserved for those who ask for it – and Fallout 76 does not. This game isn’t a noble vision gone awry, or a gleefully reckless creative overstretch – it’s a stolid failure to innovate, resting imperiously on the laurels of a 20-year-old RPG. This crunched-up mascot has beckoned me to street level with a mauled finger, put my ear to its blood-dampened beak, and called me a wanker. And so, alas, the kicking must begin.
But before the first savage whoomph of leather on foam, a quick idea of what the game’s about. It’s set in an alternate timeline, where the culture and aesthetics of 1950s Americana have persisted right up to a cataclysmic nuclear war in 2077. You and a group of other survivors have been huddled in the underground shelter of Vault 76 for a quarter of a century, enjoying jaunty propaganda films and shredding on acoustic guitars. Now, however, it’s Reclamation Day, and you’re all being kicked out into the wilderness of Appalachia with a mandate to rebuild America.
You never really get to do much rebuilding, though. As soon as you set out, you’re sent on the trail of the vault overseer, who left ahead of you and discovered grim business afoot in Appalachia. Swarms of diseased rage-lads have wiped out all pockets of decent civilisation, leaving only robots and ghouls, and so you’re swiftly commandeered (by… yourself, I suppose? You never meet the overseer, so you’re essentially being ordered around by audio logs) to deal with the situation.
This involves travelling around a vast open map, sweeping the brutes from key areas, then looting them for better kit while listening to your latest audio log marching orders. The plot ropes in various factions and characters, but they’re all long-dead.
I’m pretty sure the denouement involves massive bats, but I can’t be sure: I couldn’t muster the patience to reach it, due to the sheer frustration and boredom involved. In talking to players who have gotten there, I’m satisfied that I didn’t miss much by taking an early bath. Whatever lurks at the end of Fallout 76’s muddily-textured rainbow, there’s no way it’s transcendentally brilliant enough to justify the dour monotony of the mid-game.
I had set off determined to make the most of things, in defiance of expectations. It was fun generating a sort of emaciated, red-nosed Stalin-alike called Big Mike Lunchtime, and the moment when he left the vault and took his first digital lungful of Appalachian air was a real thrill. I could hear the wind rippling through the autumnal woodland spread out before me, and the land seemed to thrum with the promise of freedom. Sure, the landscape looked a little rough around the edges compared with, say, Horizon Zero Dawn or the Cowboy Game, but the lighting was gorgeous, and Appalachia felt like the epitome of the American wasteland. I spent a good while just poring over the subtleties of the environment, and taking silly shots of Big Mike using the game’s excellent photo mode.
Then I had a fight. I was exploring a cluster of cabins, piecing together their past from the clues left in Bethesda’s trademark set-dressing, when I heard what sounded like a bloke coughing up an egg behind me. Turning around, I found a bunch of ghouls coming straight at me like seagulls going for chips. I began firing my pistol, but it seemed to do next to nothing, so I fumbled out a machete and began flailing away with that instead. After an arbitrary amount of swinging, the ghouls went down, but the incident had been more irritating than tense.
The texture of combat, for lack of a better word, can make a game – from the foamy crunch of bouncing off a boss in Sonic 2, to the meaty, inertia-laden thumps of body blows in a Rockstar title. Fallout 76 has none of this: gunfire feels like you’re throwing packing peanuts at Jason Momoa, even when it’s doing damage, while melee feels like punching in a dream, or trying to knock down origami dogs by swinging a paperclip on a bit of string. Visceral, it ain’t.
Add to this a roster of enemies that behave almost identically – wandering their spawn area before beelining you as soon as you’re in sight – and an endless list of areas to clear them from, and you’re in for one heck of a grind. And if you misjudge your odds and get swamped by gits? Then you can enjoy the fun of navigating the abstracted, cartoonish map to the site of your death, before fishing around for the grubby paper bag, perfectly camouflaged against the wasteland muck, containing your loot.
This, then, was the rest of my game: fights I didn’t really want to have, against enemies with little variation, for the vaguest of causes. The overseer’s missions often felt arbitrary and poorly explained, to the point where I rarely knew what I was after, or why it would advance the story. I’d just zone out, like a man in a dead end job, listening to music as I groped around the mazelike interiors of abandoned hospitals, mines and factories.
Sooner or later, I’d find the rusted computer terminal containing the next MP3 soliloquy standing in as a cipher for progression, and move on to the next set of ruins. Sometimes I’d trigger other quests along the way, and get confused as to which objectives belonged to which. It all blurred into one long, muddled task, like a Christmas eve shopping marathon undertaken by a weary dad.
Even the setting, which had been so vibrant at first, started feeling as sloppy as the plot. With debris absolutely everywhere, in dozens of colours, and all caked in grime, the overall effect wasn’t unlike the classic ‘everything’ cocktail made in the dying hours of a student party: an off-putting brown disaster that’s not as fun as it sounds on paper. And for every bit of superb environmental storytelling, there was an ugly, blocky building clad in obviously repeating textures. Every so often, as I rummaged through foetid apartments for medicine and bullets, surrounded by cardboard boxes and corrugated iron, I had the distinct feeling of being in a game of Plunkbat.
For all the chat about nuclear cataclysm, this was a world packed to the rafters with signs of recent habitation, from filthy mattresses to coolers full of meat – it felt like someone had left a music festival running for a decade or so, and everyone had just popped to the loo. Crumbled skeletons shared buildings with fresh bodies and bloodied carcasses, leaving my sense of time befuddled: when were these people meant to have died? What’s powering these lights? Can ghouls change lightbulbs?
It’s all very well to say that this sort of thing doesn’t matter – that Fallout is a cartoonish, larger-than-life setting, rather than a harrowingly accurate portrayal of post-nuclear suffering. And frankly, I’d be happy to accept that, if only the game itself could make up its mind. Instead, the tone oscillated wildly, between long, bleak monologues about survival under a nuclear winter, and knockabout pulpy fun with ray guns and cows with two heads. It was like finding Goofy wandering amiably into a scene from Threads.
Then there were the game’s technical issues, which wouldn’t have been issues at all if the system they plagued was actually fun: the meaningless inclusion of Fallout 4’s VATS system without the slow-mo function that made it good; the inexplicable framerate slowdowns; the loading times; the weird control bindings; the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it summaries of vital mechanics, and the assumption that players are already fluent in Fallout 4. All of this chipped away at my patience.
Like someone in a doomed relationship, I kept telling myself I was coming round to Fallout 76 – usually in the moments between fights. So many little touches in its environments – strange notes left on tables, Jetsons-esque furniture, the swelling hum of cicadas – gave evidence of the wealth of talent behind the game. Often, I’d be overtaken by a profound sense of a place’s atmosphere, and wonder if the review I was writing wasn’t a bit insulting to the army of artists behind the curtain.
But that’s the saddest thing about Fallout 76: there’s no shortage of talent on display, but it’s all been wrapped around design choices so ugly as to make it meaningless. You can set ten thousand master sculptors to carve a mountain, but if you ask them to make a big sculpture of a chimp’s bollocks, that’s what you’re going to get.
If only it had stuck with its opening premise – a game where you and a load of other randos are chucked into a chaotic wilderness, and told to build a nation. You’ll notice I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning 76’s multiplayer functionality, and that’s because it’s almost irrelevant to the game. Players need to group up to take on larger bosses and public events, but for the most part, the fact that play revolves around reading and listening to the words of dead NPCs, means it’s quite awkward to accomplish while chatting to someone.
But the multiplayer is where the magic is. The best fun I had in Fallout 76 was when I got chatting with an affable German man called Marcel, after we met during a confounding public duel against farming robots. Neither he nor I had any real idea what we were meant to be doing in the game at large, so we just hung out and built a shed – using the game’s buggy but splendid construction system – while talking about the weather near Berlin. After a while we felt guilty for not doing the work assigned to us by the game, and so we wandered off to begin grimly seeking audio logs again.
Later that session while exploring a town, I met a wily man who’d been hiding in the shadows, deciding whether to attack me or not. I coaxed him out from the inside of a diner and we had a fun, weird chat. Later still, a hulking figure in high-level power armour crashed through the door of the hovel I was investigating, and threw love heart emotes at me before gifting me with a load of survival gear. He posed for a photo. Even the man who looked like a vampire from a JRPG, who came out of the night swishing a golf club at me, was a treat to encounter.
After these meetings, I began longing for a version of the game where this was my focus – chancing upon weird strangers, and developing working relationships with them. How refreshing it would be, I thought, to leave behind all the quests, XP levels, loot drops, and difficulty-graded map areas, in favour of a massive PvE disaster zone on which the server’s small population could impose its own weird flavour of order.
Of course, the idea of a truly social, post-apocalyptic multiplayer sandbox would be a daunting prospect from a design point of view – how would you handle meaningful change on the landscape over time? How would you provide an endgame? How to handle PVP? Surely it would be easier just to make a cookie cutter single player RPG, and bung it online?
As a result, Fallout 76 feels like an atavistic reprisal of a late-2000s MMO. Worse yet, with its low server populations and absence of human NPCs, it’s as if it’s designed to feel like a dying late-2000s MMO. The whole play experience seems set up to make you feel as if you’ve arrived just after the fun is over. Indeed, the game’s opening, where you wake up having missed the start of Reclamation Day, and must trudge to the vault’s exit alone through drifts of spent confetti, couldn’t set the tone more succinctly. The party’s over before it’s even started.
Listen, I know this is a PC site but some weird stuff happened that meant Nate ended up having to review this on PS4 rather than PC — sorry, won’t happen again. You can check out the Fallout 76 guides and videos, which are all on PC.