For many action-RPG fans, Bethesda's Fallout games are synonymous with sprawling, deep experiences tailored for solo players. It's kind of weird to have to ask, "So, how does the latest Fallout game rank as a single-player experience?" It's like asking "Can you still jump in Nintendo's newest Super Mario game?"
But people are a little worried about Fallout 76 as a single-player game, and justifiably so. Bethesda hasn't been shy about pushing Fallout 76's most unique / concerning feature: The option to play with friends. You and four buddies (all of whom roleplay as residents of Vault 76) wander the Appalachia wastelands in search of food, clean water, ammunition, and scrap materials that you can melt down into weapons and building materials.
I went hands-on with Fallout 76 last week for approximately three hours. I was part of a group of four that included one of the game's developers and venerable Xbox personality Major Nelson. I can confirm travelling and fighting as part of a caravan of survivors is a lot of fun. The four of us pointed out areas of interest to each other, shared food and ammo, and banded together to take down tough enemies.
And yet, I often separated from the group and struck out on my own—sometimes because we were forcibly separated during fierce monster encounters (nothing a fast travel won't fix, admittedly), but also because I wanted to hold Bethesda to its promise that Fallout 76 still offers the kind of single-player experience Bethesda fans look to them for.
From my time with the game, I can confirm Fallout 76 is a great single-player experience. But here's the rub: It's a great single-player experience for me. I'm someone who enjoys Bethesda's witty NPCs and chatty companions but can easily do without them. I'm someone who loved the long, lonely moments of exploration that came to define The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And my tastes might differ from other veteran Fallout fans' tastes.
I love Fallout 76's eerily beautiful Appalachia. I love wandering into trailers and tents to read logs and diaries. I enjoy seeking out the Holo-Tapes and research that guide you through the main story (you're chasing after the beloved Overseer of Vault 76, who departed without explanation). I imagine once I have access to the full game, I'll happily root out the notes that explain some of Appalachia's bigger mysteries, like the origin of the Scorched (a new monster that's essentially part of an intelligent Ghoul hivemind), and the fate of the region's humans (no living humans are left in Appalachia aside from Vault 76's survivors, the "best and brightest" of the species). In other words, I'm someone who still enjoys the "audio log" method of storytelling made popular by 2007's BioShock. And I acknowledge I might be part of a rare breed.
Fallout 76's switch from active to passive storytelling should still retain some fans, though—and maybe bring in some new ones. Whereas Rapture has a handful of story threads to pursue, Fallout 76 weaves innumerable tales, from tiny snippets of a person's life to huge narratives that take you in and around famous West Virginian landmarks. One such landmark is the Greenbrier Resort, the infamous hotel that rests on a bunker meant to protect the United States Congress in the event the Cold War might've turned hot. If you said "Wow, that sounds like something that'd be right at home in a Fallout game," well, you're right.
Fallout 76 is stuffed with the kind of story content you'd expect from any Bethesda adventure, really. The big difference is how that content is dished out. When I stepped out of the Vault, I immediately happened across the body of an unfortunate soul clutching a note instructing him to report on the state of the Vault. "It has to open sometime," the note declared. Well, it did—but not before some mysterious plague or event wiped out West Virginia's human population.
Still, not every single piece of story content is passive. The developer I travelled with told me about an early quest involving a live kitty, and the regretful literature its doomed owners left behind about their beloved pet. I couldn't find the cat despite a desperate search, but a colleague who played on another team told me she locked eyes with the cat in the upper window of a house. She entered the house and found all the documentation about the orphaned feline. I'm still terribly jealous. Between encounters like the one with Mr Cat and the legions of robots still doing their thing (I primarily spotted Mr Handys and Sentrybots, but there might be more humanoid-type androids walking around), it's safe to say Fallout 76 feels "lonely" rather than "lifeless." Still, I'm hoping I'll be able make friends with a settlement of friendly Ghouls.
Speaking of settlements, you can indeed build, build, and build in Fallout 76. You can pack up your portable CAMP ("Construction and Assembly Mobile Platform") and move it wherever you like. In the event of a disaster (say, of the nuclear persuasion), you can rebuild almost instantly with the help of blueprints. One developer told me Bethesda understands how much people love building settlements in Fallout 4, and Fallout 76's robust CAMP-building options are engineered to feed into that love. That's great, though part of the fun of building settlements in Fallout 4 is giving the Commonwealth's ragtag NPC survivors a place to finally set down roots. Toting around a mobile mansion is an awesome prospect, but is there much point if it's only populated by yourself and a handful of friends?
Then again, people hop into Minecraft and assemble structures that make the Tower of Babel look like a toothpick, just for the pleasure of making something grand. I don't doubt we're going to see some miraculous feats of engineering go down in Fallout 76, but I do hope there's a future option to give Ghouls and robots a place to rest their heads. Maybe we can make a Home for Reformed Deathclaws.
I spent very little time fiddling with my CAMP, though. I was more interested in listening to the wind rustle through the tall grass while watching a rainstorm belt a band of mountains far to the north. I couldn't exactly let my guard down while observing Fallout 76's breathtaking views, though: Monsters are everywhere in the game, and they're relentless. This is where having friends comes in very handy, though Bethesda still has you covered if you want to fight alone. In addition to putting points into Fallout's SPECIAL stats (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck), you occasionally acquire packs of Perk Cards that you can level up as well. Perk Cards can be shuffled and shared amongst friends, so Perks that let you, say, share experience points with your pals can be removed and replaced with single-player bonus Perk Cards (additional Strength when travelling alone, for example) if you decide to strike out on your own.
I'm cool with Fallout 76's solo gameplay. I'm down with digging up Appalachia's secrets while taking a potentially deadly walking tour through West Virginia's lush and slightly radioactive landscape. When I played, I heard the occasional gunshots of other players, and it was enough to remind me I wasn't alone. I loved that feeling. I'm interested to hear what other fans have to say, though.
Bethesda is interested, too. Or maybe "eager" is a better word.
"I'm pretty much a solo player, even in Fallout 76," Bethesda design director Emil Pagliarulo said during a roundtable interview. "I like to follow the main quest and listen to the Overseer's Holo-Tapes, and then get the little stories here and there of different people.
"It's the first time we've set a game so close to the Bomb being dropped," Pagliarulo continued. "We've never been able to tell the stories of the people who survived the war. There are stories, little and big, all over the place."
We'll see how much veteran fans enjoy the unorthodox lifestyle of a Vault 76 dweller come November 14. Keep an eye on our Fallout 76 guides if you want to know how to thrive in the wilderness once the radioactive dust finally clears from the atmosphere.