Fallout 76 Review Impressions: 15 Hours and Counting

The trials and tribulations of one Vault Dweller in West Virginia.

The tagline everyone remembers from Fallout is that opening quote uttered by Ron Perlman: "War. War never changes." Despite that line at the beginning of many Fallout titles, it's not true in terms of the series. Fallout has changed and shifted. Fallout 1 and 2 are isometric, dialogue-heavy role-playing games. Fallout 3 and 4 are first-person shooters with role-playing elements and some simple dialogue trees. And now we have Fallout 76, which moves the series from a single-player experience to a multiplayer one. Fallout is always changing.

Fallout 76 springs from ideas tested in Fallout 4: the Survival Mode, base-building, and detailed resource collection can all be seen as a precursor to this game. Fallout 76 drops you into the wilds of West Virginia before the events of any previous Fallout game. You're a survivor of Vault 76, tasked with rebuilding society after the Great War and the Scorched Plague. Fallout 76 wants you wandering Appalachia, shooting nearly everything that moves, collecting stuff, finding out what went wrong, and most importantly, interacting with other players.

Man vs Wasteland

Day 1: Problems and Solutions

Just above 15 hours in, I can safely say that at times you can completely forget that you're playing an online-enabled Fallout. Exploring the decaying, forgotten remnants of civilization in West Virginia feels like it did in Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 4. Bethesda has taken a look at the game's base-building mechanics, offering an improvement in the more mobile C.A.M.P system, rather than a set location for construction. Fallout 76 still carries forward some of the issues with weight and inventory management that I had with Fallout 4. But when you're in a sub-basement shooting at ghouls, reading computer terminals, and taking everything that's not nailed down, those neurons forged in modern Fallout start firing.

Like a lumbering super mutant, online play in Fallout 76 seeks to destroy some of the things you love about single-player Fallout. At its best, online play in Fallout 76 is multiple players working together to tackle a random event, or a team of friends diving into a derelict building together. It's not always at its best though.

One issue comes from general immersion. Fallout 76 starts with open mics active for all players. I was streaming some of my opening hours with the game yesterday, and had to shut down my microphone when I realized it was live. That meant everything I was saying to viewers on the stream was also being piped out into the world. And most people aren't cognizant enough to change their settings.

When I've run into other Vault 76ers, there's a wide variety of outcomes. Some don't talk at all, and don't interact; they're busy on their own missions. Others use the built-in emotes before going on their way. One guy followed me around for 10 minutes talking about the game before realizing that I wasn't going to provide anything to the conversation; I almost felt bad about that one. Some have been jabbering about nothing in particular while in earshot. And during the beta, I even had two folks shoot and kill me.

Connectivity in the Wasteland

The point is, you don't control the other people on your server, so you never really have any idea what you're going to get. There's no easy way to jump to another server, like you would in other online survival games ARK: Survival Evolved and Rust. Fallout 76 just drops you in a world at random, unless you join up with a friend. Fallout 76 would also benefit from a regional chat channel, which would help players form groups and gather people for events. (With a toggle, of course. I didn't need to see chat nonsense all the time.) Fallout 76 has people that can annoy you, but it also feels rather lonely.

The other issue with Fallout 76's online is the general stability of it. I'm not too down on the occasional disconnect in an online game; it happens, especially around launch. What I resent is losing time or resources to those disconnects. I was completing a random event in one town with two other players when I disconnected the first time. Upon reloading, I was no longer in the event, or even in the same area, meaning all the effort (and bullets) that I used to get to that point were lost.

Yeah, there are still bugs.

The same thing happened again later while I was exploring solo. I was near my objective, only for the game to disconnect and reload at a completely different place. Again, anything I had used to get to that point was gone. I'm not entirely sure why Fallout 76 doesn't reload you where you logged out. I play massively multiplayer games on a regular basis, and generally that's the way it works. And my hard crash to desktop was treated the same, with a reload in a different location. Fallout 76's handling of this is perplexing.

Managing Your Stash

The same is true of Fallout 76's handling of weight and inventory management. At its base level, Fallout 76 is a resource collection game like other survival titles. You're supposed to head out into a hostile environment with only a few tools, use those tools to explore, find useful resources, and improve your equipment. I like survival games. I've played Minecraft, Starbound, Terraria, Rust, ARK: Survival Evolved, both State of Decays, Don't Starve, Astroneer, and more, but I've never felt as constrained as I have in Fallout 76.

Get used to this screen.

For one, the amount of stuff you can carry on your person feels entirely too small. You're always having to scrap weapons or armor you've just recovered from a corpse. You constantly have to leave behind random items which could be scrapped into valuable resources. Being over the weight limit gives you the overencumbered status, which lowers your stamina (AP) and forces you to walk slowly. This means that while the game is about exploration and loot in theory, your exploration is entirely blunted by the distance from the nearest crafting table. It's something Bethesda seems to have realized, because crafting tables are a feature of nearly every location you explore.

But what if you don't want to scrap your loot? Well, there are more issues to contend with. In that case, you have to carry the items around in your inventory, taking up valuable weight until you reach a stash box. Every stash box in the world is connected to your personal stash. The problem is your stash has a maximum limit of 400 lbs, and you'll find that some of the better weapons (hello, power armor!) and your crafting materials will eat up that space quite quickly. There's no way to increase your stash size either. I added another stash box at my C.A.M.P., only to realize both boxes pointed to the same finite space.

I understand the idea behind item weight and forcing players to choose between what they carry, but Fallout 76 is entirely too tight in this respect. And since weight management is such a huge problem, you'll have to spend a good deal of time in your Pip Boy menus figuring out what you can drop to bring your weight down. (At the moment, there aren't any mods to clean up those menus.)

Day 1 Wrap-Up

Visually, I'd say Fallout 76 looks pretty damned good. Stepping out of the Vault and looking down onto the valley below, with the bright reds and oranges of fall, is a stunning beginning. If you've played Fallout 4, you'll have a basic idea of what to expect here. Performance is still all over the place. I'm running an Intel i7-4790 and Nvidia GTA 970; my rig runs Fallout 76 at respectable levels for the most part (45-60fps on average). I've tweaked the settings to offer more consistent frame rates, but the game will still dip hard when you're coming into town or fighting against some enemies. That's the kind of thing I'd hope Bethesda will improve with time, given that this is a service game.

There's more I've experienced at this point, like my ongoing struggles with Fallout's base-building system, but I'll save some of those impressions for another update. Right now, Fallout 76 feels like a game I can occasionally dive into and find that zen in looting and scrapping. That's what I play survival games for, that slow burn of reconstituting the world in your image. Fallout 76 isn't bereft of that feeling, but it also goes out of its way to put roadblocks in my way. Perhaps as I get farther in, those roadblocks will lessen.

Tagged with Bethesda, PC, PlayStation 4, Reviews, Survival, Xbox One.

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