Many folks watched 2015's excellent Mad Max: Fury Road in theaters, but not as many have seen the preceding films. Outside of the first film, which is more of an origin story, every Mad Max film has the same core: Max is minding his own business, surviving in the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Australia, and then someone gets in his way, bringing him into a larger plot where he has to help those who can't help themselves. Mad Max 2, Beyond Thunderdome, and Fury Road all have mostly the same premise.
That's how I feel playing Fallout 76. This weekend marked the last beta period for Bethesda's shot at a service game. Fallout 76 takes the gameplay of Bethesda's Fallout games, removes nearly all of the non-player characters with quests and interesting dialog, and replaces them with other players. It's a prequel to the rest of the series, with you and others stepping into the role of dwellers of Vault 76. This vault is tasked with rebuilding society, a task they fail at pretty handily given subsequent games.
Fallout 76 is primarily a multiplayer game, but you can play it as a single player one. I didn't run into anything in the parts of West Virginia I explored that can't be handled by one person. I dutifully followed the path of the Overseer, the woman in charge of my vault who I only know through the holotapes of helpful information she's left in her wake. Along the way, you'll listen to recordings from others who are long dead, or find their innermost thoughts and scrawled ramblings on pieces of paper lying around. These are the only connections anything that feels like a traditional Fallout story, or even some of the best sidequests, in Fallout 76.
This makes Fallout 76 a very lonely game. It's still Fallout: you'll wander the wasteland, grabbing everything that's not nailed down. You find derelict homes and office buildings, killing the stumbling mutant inhabitants and plundering them of so many knick-knacks: pens, clipboards, cups, skis, barbells, trays, etc. Then you'll shuffle back to the nearest crafting table—like Fallout 4, Fallout 76 has stations for Armor, Weapons, Cooking, and more—and dismantle everything into basic materials. Then you'll use those materials to upgrade and repair any weapons or armor you've found. Rinse and repeat.
You've done this before in the modern Fallout games. You've done it before in other survival games. Fallout 76 isn't particularly punitive about the survival aspects, many of which come from the Survival Mode introduced to Fallout 4 back in 2016. You have to eat and drink to keep hunger and thirst at bay. Environmental hazards and food present the constant spectre of radiation. You can even get diseases, depending on where you decide to sleep; I caught a weird itch from resting on a sleeping bag behind a diner.
At its best, Fallout 76 gives you freedom to explore the environment. Crafting stations are plentiful early on and 76 introduces the C.A.M.P, a mobile, craftable base that can be moved around the map. That means the ability to create good food and water is usually nearby, and all of your spoils can be broken down into easily-transportable scrap. This leaves you free to wander; if you see an empty factory or office building, you can spend your time dungeon diving and seeing what cool things humanity left behind. Unlike some of the previous Fallout games, I found it rare that I had to cut short my exploration because I was overencumbered.
It's a lonely ghost town for a Fallout game, and compared to other survival titles, it merely checks the boxes needed. Fallout 76 is helped by its setting: the wilds of West Virginia are fairly unique and Bethesda has gotten good as portraying fallen civilizations. As I worked my way up the ranks, I found and crafted better weapons and armor. My blue-jumpsuited hero began to resemble the desert raiders of Fallouts-past. I put on clothing found lying in lost storefronts and homes; at various points I was dressed as a paramedic, a priest, and a high school jock with a letterman jacket. I even saw someone else sporting an excellent summer dress.
That "someone else" is key to the premise of Fallout 76. Even if you do play it as solo player, the others on your server are always around. I'm sure there are situations where you can band together with friends to explore the wasteland, working in tandem to explore new areas and build settlements. But my beta experience wasn't quite the idyllic romp Bethesda is probably aiming for.
The first person I met was in the starting vault. It was a young man, 10-14 years old if I had to guess, with a microphone. I know this because I was soaking in the ambiance of Vault 76 when I heard a scream behind me and turned to see this other player. He followed me around. When we stepped from the Vault itself to look down upon the valley in front of us, what was probably a majestic moment was underscored by the young man singing the lyrics he remembered from Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver.
The kid wasn't that bad a partner. We joined a group, and together we were the wasteland's Jay and Silent Bob. He had endless things to say-including to people in his home-and I said nothing. We worked our way through the quests in front of us with no major issues, until I guess he had to log off. I don't really know; we were in the basement of a building destroying automatons when he just stopped moving. He never came back.
The next person I ran into looked to be more interested in playing solo. We waved at each other and headed in our separate directions. No harm, no foul. The final players I interacted with were the worst-case scenario though. I was sitting in a chair on a porch, taking a picture, when these two players walked up to me. I stood and waved at them both, expecting they'd do the same and move on. Instead, one slashed at me with his hatchet while the other started to shoot.
So I ran. And for 10 minutes, these two people chased me across the town of Sutton and the surrounding wilderness. Eventually I gave up, and went willingly to my doom. The penalty for death isn't all that bad: you choose where you respawn and you lose caps, the rare currency in Fallout 76. I'm mostly lucky they didn't decide to camp in town, moving on to kill others.
Earlier this year, I reviewed Sea of Thieves. At the time, I said that game worked well when all the stars aligned and you found a great group of people to play with. My guess is Fallout 76 is the same. One half of it will be that distinctive Fallout-style dungeon-diving, where you push deeper into an unknown location, picking up cool items and new quests. The other will be the same multiplayer free-for-all you find in games like Ark: Survival Evolved. If you don't find the right in-group on a server, you're doomed to die over and over again.
Right now, in serving both masters, I'm not sure if Fallout excels in either; it's not as good as more traditional Fallout games, but it's also not as good as other survival games with more years behind the them. (It does run better than Ark does, so that's a plus.) During the beta though, I kept coming back to that Mad Max feeling: trying to survive and mind my own business, until someone else came and ruined everything. A unique experience to be sure, but I'm not sure it's the one I want from a Fallout game. I don't dislike Fallout 76, but I'm waiting to see if the final product surprises me a bit more.