After finishing up Hitman 2 and Tetris Effect for reviews last week, I finally was able to dive into Red Dead Redemption 2 in earnest, but its obtuse, old-feeling control scheme caught me off guard. Even after sinking a good 20-something hours into Hitman 2 for a week straight, it was all I wanted to go back to, because at least it felt smooth. I squarely disliked the controls of Red Dead Redemption 2. Fast forward to Wednesday afternoon, when I emerged from Vault 76 in Fallout 76. At least, I told my co-workers, Red Dead Redemption 2 didn't feel this bad.
A good survival game is all about the loop. Falling into a grind, progressing towards something, and being challenged along the way. My favorite survival games have always had a solid loop; loops that shine even in the face of clunkier mechanics or bugs. When Fallout 76 was announced at E3 2018, I was apprehensive, but also semi-optimistic. Bethesda RPGs have never clicked with me—I find them hard to stay interested in because the combat itself isn't great—so a Fallout in a new framework actually appealed to me. Maybe this would be the Fallout that clicked with me.
It doesn't, at least in the hours I've spent skipping through Appalachia so far. It's a beautiful map, in its premiere achievement. Immediately upon exiting the vault, you get a gorgeous vista of orange and red-leafed trees, signaling the autumn season. The first small town you walk through is quaint feeling, with a worn down Victorian church standing at the tip of it. But it's the interiors of buildings that I've found surprisingly dull. In a multiplayer world, especially a Fallout world, I expected the environments would help it feel lived in—past tense is key there, as if people once lived in these husks. Where even when I wasn't meeting people, I would be learning about them through their belongings. But all the learning is done through skimming proto-blogs on a monochrome monitor.
The first quest that had me digging through some poor sap's home, where I lurked through Delbert Winters' computer-terminal-thing, is also where I learned how to cook. A lot of the quest starts are misleading too, telling you to find So-And-So at their home or C.A.M.P., only to find an audiolog and a trace of where they went. In Delbert's house, I got some insight into him, but mostly I learned about cooking, as this was a tutorial quest. I explored the town after and popped into other dishelved homes, only to find that the interiors largely look the same from building to building. It's a lot of dirt, rust, and busted fridges. I'm still just collecting materials for survival and reading an occasional letter, but mostly I'm getting lore dumps in electronic terminals and audiologs. Comedian Mike Drucker compared Fallout 76's way of storytelling to an Audible book.
As revealed at the time of its announcement, Fallout 76 is the biggest map Fallout has ever had, and yet it has no NPCs. The closest you get to other people are nice robots, or the Scorched, who are basically zombified humans. Straight out the vault, I thought a player had posted up in a building to shoot at newbies coming down from the vault. When I returned later after learning that players are stuck in "Pacifist" mode until getting to Level 5, I discovered that it wasn't another player shooting a gun at me: it was a Scorched dude with a gun. It made me think: if zombies can shoot guns, then why can't Fallout 76 have proper NPCs?
Fallout 76 skews closest to what you'd imagine an actual nuclear fallout to be: barely any survivors, with those that lived through the destruction doing their best to pick up the pieces. In Fallout 76, those pieces are scraps for crafting and building up bases; doing their best is level 50 players griefing level 6 players fresh out of Pacifist mode. The reality is that in most of my experiences so far, I've only come across folks trying their best to play solo with no ill will. The problem is no one wants to interact. For solo players, the only thing dragging them along are tepid audiologs telling them where to head next, without a compelling hook. We're all chasing the ghosts of the Overseer and others, and I'm not quite sure why it's even worth the effort.
The enemies I've encountered have all felt the same too—faceless robots, zombies that aren't called zombies, the occasional mutated dog or frog or something, and other players, obviously. One of my first encounters were some mutant dogs, who chased me for awhile even as my stamina dwindled and my character breathed heavily. I gave up trying to escape and hacked away at them with a machete, but not before they bit me a bunch. While the late game promises cool-looking beasts, like the giant bat of the Scorchbeast, right now the combat just feels the same as it always has in Fallout: not good. And what makes it more glaring in Fallout 76 is that it's all that I'm doing: shooting things, not navigating dialogue trees where I know consequences await. Fallout 76 robs the series of its role-playing, right down to the repetitive enemies you face straight out of the vault.
The lack of NPCs is what really hurts Fallout 76. All the other people you see in its world are other players. In the early goings, there are players everywhere learning how to play, chasing the minor quests in the starting valley. I found myself emoting a lot, trying to get people's attention and buddy up because I'm needy, but no one cared. Since Fallout 76 defaults to everyone's mics on, most people didn't even realize they were broadcasting to the world. For a solid hour or so, I experienced a symphony of coughs, sneezes, and people clearing their throats. It was ridiculous, but humanizing. Here we all were, trying to figure out the scraps of this not-great survival, not-great Fallout game, to see if there's anything here for us. At one point, a person muttered "oh shit" to themselves, not knowing they had an audience, and I watched them run away up a hill as robots shot lasers in their direction.
It's one of the aspects of Fallout 76 that I've found myself liking, for how bizarre it is. I've experienced my fair share of multiplayer games that default to microphones on, and usually I leave others on (unless it gets toxic) and leave my own off, or chime in when I have friends buddying up alongside me. In Fallout 76, I leave it all on. Someone can probably hear me eating chips or drinking a beer, but who cares. I can hear them do the same, and there's something charming about that. Above everything else, it makes Fallout 76 feel more communal; something that shockingly for a multiplayer-only game, doesn't quite come across otherwise.
Beyond that opening fresh out the vault area, people end up spreading out far and wide. The solo players tend to stick to quests, it seems, whereas I'd see clusters of dots on the world map—presumably groups—off doing their own thing. You cross paths with others, but given how big Fallout 76's map is and how only 24 players are in a server at once, you likely end up running into mutated animals or robots more than anything else. So far, beyond that opening valley in the first couple hours, in my exploration I haven't seen anyone. This makes Fallout 76 feel not just empty, but mighty lonely too.
In theory, a multiplayer Fallout sounds like something that could work really well. Such as group exploration, a quirk Fallout 76 has, or watching stories unfold together and reckoning with a teammate going rogue on a quest and killing the wrong NPC. Fallout games, and Bethesda RPGs by extension, have always found their strength in the role-playing elements, in how you build and chase your own story. Fallout 76 frankly doesn't give people the tools to chase the same fantasies. What we're left with is a wasteland that feels I guess like a wasteland should, only more dull; a story without any compelling characters to believe in (or hate, even). It's Fallout, without everything fans love about Fallout—something that seems like a cardinal sin on the series, especially after the widely mixed reaction to Fallout 4.
Hours in, I hit a bug that was my last straw. Somehow in Fallout 76, bugs feel worse than the type that have always driven me away from Bethesda RPGs in the past. Perhaps that's because they're joined by unstable servers, and a jittery frame rate that doesn't quite catch up with me sometimes. (I'm playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro.) For this bug, I accessed a terminal to complete a quest, only for the terminal to freeze somehow. The game itself wasn't frozen, the terminal just never got past the loading animation. I was trapped in limbo. With no way to exit out and me smashing every button, I was no longer content to just watch the monochrome monitor load. I closed the game manually and entered again, only to find my progress on the quest autosaved to a way earlier point, before I had gotten the goods to deliver to this terminal.
I quit on purpose this time. At this point, I don't think I'm ever looking back either. Accidentally stealing a wagon in Red Dead Redemption 2 while trying to get on my horse sounds like a much lesser annoyance in comparison.