by Johnathan Irwin
reviewed on PC
War Attempts To Change
You think of the long running post-atomic apocalypse role-playing series Fallout, one phrase comes to mind. "War, war never changes." Since Ron Perlman first uttered those words back in 1997, Fallout has become a timeless classic that multiple generations of gamers have come to embrace. Whether it's the vintage era of the isometric titles of Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics or the more modern entries in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and 4; you mention Fallout, and more than likely anyone with even a small knowledge of videogames is going to know the series you're talking about.
But now and then in this long running series, an anomaly peeks through. Something that fights the famous quotation. And usually when this happens, it's not for the better. Fallout Tactics attempted to turn the isometric RPG variants of Fallout into a strategy title with mixed results. Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, which tried to piggyback on the success of Dark Alliance by building a Fallout game on the same engine, was a dismal display of everything wrong with cash-in-culture that runs so rampant on the idea boards of companies of past and present.
And now comes another anomaly in the form of Fallout 76. A prequel to the entire Fallout series, Fallout 76 builds on the success of Fallout 4 and attempts to sprinkle multiplayer on top of it in a project that, by Todd Howard's own admission, is an experiment in the franchise, and is not a replacer for the yet to be announced Fallout 5. I was a big skeptic of this, and I was eager to get my hands on it to see if it could be pulled off. Can the same magic I feel with most of the rest of the series withstand my apocalyptic isolation being shared with other players? Over the course of the BETA (Break-it Early Test Application) which had the full game readily available, along with the launch day copy, I have a pretty good idea of just what Fallout 76 is, and what it isn't.
As you awaken in the depths of Vault 76 after a long night of celebration, players will customize their character in a manner lifted directly from Fallout 4. They tweak their facial features, hair, body size and gender before gearing up to venture out into the scenic West Virginia. The process is a bit of a quiet moment to prep yourself, with no real exploration of the vault available as you are guided along to the exit with Mr. Handy robots cheering you along the way and instructing you on where to gather starting equipment and how to use them at designated kiosks.
What's supposed to set the mood and get you excited to venture out into a brave new world, falls flat in comparison to other introductions in the series. In each and every other Fallout game, it feels like there's a lot at stake. With Fallout 76's Reclamation Day, it just feels like you're being herded through a non-existent line to get into a theme park. The main story is so bare bones that it's almost insulting, more of an elongated tutorial that will last over several dozens of hours. But while the main quest feels lacking, it is not reflective of the rest of the package of Fallout 76.
Where Fallout 76's main narrative falls flat, the sprawl of West Virginia (also referred to as Appalachia) and its various locales, side quests and the sheer amount of exploration in a world populated with friends and strangers makes up for it.
From the moment I stepped forth from the Vault, I was captivated by something not as badly scarred by atomic fire as many of the regions we'd seen before. Where normally we are treated to the brown and gray dusts and destruction of a world long gone, we enter into a lush autumn-like region known as The Forest, featuring relatively well preserved townships where infrastructural damage is more likely due to nature overgrowing rather than atomic hellfire. It was jarring, but it's a great place for players to begin and Bethesda drives that home, making sure the region is littered with more side quests, random events and locations to explore than you know what to do with. The positive aspect of that is there is a lot of content, where I was worried there wouldn't be.
The downside of that is that only about half of the content feels like it's part of the game and the rest feels like it's meant for the hardcore completionist who just has to do every single thing thrown at them no matter how menial (looking at you Events, I expected more fun out of you.) What really stands out in some of these side quests, though, are the side stories. Despite there being no human NPCs in the game, you can find various dead bodies (both recent and skeletal) that have audio logs or hand written notes left behind. While you don't directly engage in conversations with them (no chat options with a corpse, after all) seeing these stories of people that lived are often interesting, and usually kick off more to a quest than initially meets the eye. It's not the annoying prattling of Moira Brown, or the cryptic business intentions of Mr. House, but it gives more story than the main plot of the game does.
Outside of The Forest there are six other regions: The Savage Divide, The Mire, Toxic Valley, Ash Heap and the deceivingly safe sounding Cranberry Bog. Each region feels distinct from the others, and while that's visually pleasing it again makes the game feel less organic and more like you're participating in a theme park. It's like going to Disney World and walking from Frontier World to Tomorrowland; it just changes before your eyes and while it's not an immediate switch it's still obvious enough that it feels like it dampens the exploration slightly.
Combat handles much like it did in Fallout 4, with very little difference except now there are many weapons that are restricted by level. Find an awesome new rifle? Awesome! But wait, you won't be blowing the heads off of critters any time soon as it appears to be meant for players Level 20 and up, and you're but a mere level 14. This is likely a way to keep players from becoming overpowered too quickly, but at the same time it's another decision that feels like it goes against one of the many fun aspects of the series and that's the possibility of a game-changing reward for those who dare tread where others may not.
Another thing that has changed is the way the stats have been handled, throwing the old stat systems from any previous entry out of the window and replacing them with Perk Cards that make players pick and choose between randomized sets of cards as they level up rather than experimenting with different builds. While you can swap out cards as you go, and while it's mostly functional, it just feels odd to me. A change for the sake of change, rather than a real gameplay changing element.
While we're on the subject, let's talk about PVP and how very little it actually matters in the game. When 76 was announced, there were two camps: those who were ready to turn West Virginia into a warzone and those who weren’t. Fortune favors those who did not, as PVP is presented in a way that basically means both parties have to agree to it. One player shoots another and then the other shoots back to agree. Only then they will deal normal damage. If the other player doesn't shoot back, then the first player can keep attacking but hardly do any damage and if they DO manage to kill their target they get a hefty bounty on their head.
Basically, the PVP is pointless unless you and a few buddies want to fight it out for fun. There is a Hunter/Hunted style mode in the game but so few people use it I have no real point of commentary to give it, but supposedly it gives good rewards for each target slain.
Not For Everyone
Fallout 76 has me left with mixed feelings, and by and large the simplest way to put it is that it's not for everyone. If you loved the gameplay Fallout 4, then the chances are you're going to have fun with this game. If what drives you in games is a main plot you want to see through to the end, you won't find that motivation here as it just sort of strings you along. If you admired how well blended the worlds were in previous games, you may be put off by how different areas are so clearly divided that it feels like a theme park. Fallout 76 is Fallout, and it isn't Fallout at the same time. And for all the hype around the multiplayer, both friend and foe, it seems inconsequential most of the time. Just passer-bys on the street more often than not, it's there but it doesn't matter. It's a fun game, but I don't think it's going to be a timeless classic I return to time and time again years from now once I feel I've had enough.
Solid combat, West Virginia is beautiful, many compelling side quests.
'Theme park' feeling, multiplayer and other elements seem to be there just for the sake of being there, one of the weakest main plots in recent RPG history.