“Every character you see is a real person,” said Todd Howard at E3, explaining the lack of traditional NPCs in Fallout 76. But I’m not so sure. Does Howard really expect me to believe that ‘CocktimusPrime’ isn’t waiting to greet everyone outside their vault? He’s there as I step into the light, his big, dumb name floating in front of a horizon that’s meant to elicit awe. And there’s no reason it shouldn’t. That sea of autumnal trees and distant storm clouds are lovely. Having winced at the wonky footage of the Xbox One beta last week I’m genuinely surprised at how pretty West Virginia is. Well, the bits of it that aren’t CocktimusPrime.
Credit where it’s due, my first few minutes outside in the Fallout 76 beta do accurately depict a bewildered community emerging into a strange, new world. As people work out key bindings or faff with Pip-Boys they end up standing outside the front door, blinking in the sun. One guy starts playing a banjo by accident and immediately stops. Then I press the wrong key and start playing the discarded banjo. I like the idea of people so frazzled by their years underground that they can’t remember if they like to play a banjo or not. CocktimusPrime watches our aborted skiffle and runs off into a forest. I guess this is what humanity is now.
Other people are the weirdest bit of Fallout 76. West Virginia is a world of ghost towns, but right now they’re full of people as no one’s had the time to roam further than Flatwood. I enter discarded trailers and find three dudes exactly like me - jumpsuit and party hat - looting the same body. It reminds me that bit at the end of a Super Meat Boy level where you see the ghosts of all the previous Meat Boys. Only here I’m following in the footsteps of future party-men. Any enemy dumb enough to spawn near us is murdered in a burst of communal fire. At this rate the world will be reclaimed by teatime.
It definitely suffers from the otherworldliness of having many lone wolves all completing the same entry quest line. We all gather at the same computer to download the same recipe, then find the same body on the riverbank. We’re meant to be fighting for our lives in an unforgiving world, but it looks like a crowd waiting for their turn at a hands-on exhibit at a museum. When the interactive prop is a Holotape (read: audio log) you end up with survivors all politely listening to their Pip-Boys and it gives me flashbacks to taking the Bill Bryson audio tour of Bath’s Roman Baths. You shouldn’t drink the water there, either.
The absence of fake people/real NPCs is more severe when you dig into quests. Your initial task - find an overseer who has left the vault ahead of you - quickly loses its mystery when you realise everyone is playing hide and seek. Hospitals: empty. Recruitment centres: automated. Camps: stove fires stoked by ghosts, presumably. And replacing characters with Holotapes is no solution, no matter how well performed these monologues are. The effect is worse when it’s a terminal, forcing you to battle with the cumbersome interface and clack through screens and screens of neon green text.
Thing is, I don’t hate it. I’m actually in a state of general surprise and bemusement through my first hours. Surprise, initially, at how smoothly it runs (er, if you got over the initial hurdle of Bethesda’s idiot game launcher launching the game into the abyss) and how it feels like Bethesda's other Fallouts. The kerching of XP as I shoot a mole rat. The outline of a building on the compass pinging to life as I step over the threshold. The convenient junk and ammo plucked from skeletons inside those houses. I find a brahmin stuck in a bathroom and can’t decide if it’s environmental storytelling or a glitch - that ambiguity is about as Fallout as you get.
When you’re away from the crowd of clones - and I can see them disperse across the map as the beta session goes on - the general to-and-fro is indistinguishable from Fallout 4. Pick a compass direction and you’re only a minute’s walk from something curious: an ominous shack filled with mongrels and vague meaty smears, say, or a powerstation fortified with liberator bots. It may not have the proper quests to motivate you to make the trips, but a big part of 3D Fallout’s appeal is sticking your nose into a property to see what happens.
And the survival aspects seem generous to the point of obsolescence. Your food and water meters drain slowly, and are easy replenished with boiled river water and throwing any monster meat you have on a campfire. It’s an inconvenience sorted in seconds, as opposed to an arduous scrabble for crafting ingredients. It maybe helps that the opening area is in the remnants of a vast rescue operation, rich in health supplies and premade stoves, but I struggle to see how survival will become the main focus of the action. I came here to fight super mutants, not a rumbly tummy, so it’s a balance that works for me.
I’ll admit that I came armed with Fallout 76 tips courtesy of the RPS Guide Wizard. As menus don’t pause the game you can switch the Pip-Boy to a screen overlay to track any monsters trying to gnaw on you - that was a good shout from the wizard. As was investing in melee weapons and their related perk cards. Ammo is sparse and enemies spawn more regularly than in Fallout 3 and 4. Or they give the illusion of it; it could just be other dumb humans luring attackers into communal areas. Whacking things with a machete got me through.
The big test is what happens in the hours that follow (the beta has very fixed windows of access). I’ve yet to dig into the character perk system - something poorly explained about cards - or the base building. In Fallout 4 I could only build ugly wooden boxes: basically a coffin with a bed inside. We’ll see if it’s slicker here. And I want to find the character. I’ve read about folkloric creatures roaming the wilderness; perhaps they’ll add the flavour missing with the NPCs. Flavour I will eradicate with extreme prejudice.
And maybe I can have fun with my fellow clones. Somewhere in those tens of fellow travelers there could be a character as vivid and unusual as any written into a game. It is unlikely to be CocktimusPrime.