I want to like the new “Fallout” game, but I can’t. I want to tell you about all the environmental storytelling and quiet exploration, but so much of that is marred by a vast emptiness.
“Fallout 76” is a jumble of disparate video game elements set loose in an online world, held together by a string of pointless fetch quests and experience points. It is a bad game – full stop.
It is a “Fallout” game without a main story, without major characters, and without a memorable, iconic city. Previous “Fallout” games offer players a rich world full of interesting characters, bizarro sidequests, and distinct, memorable experiences.
To that end, “Fallout 76” feels like a “Fallout” game in name and theme alone. Let’s say you’re willing to look past all of that – here’s why you shouldn’t:
What is “Fallout 76”?
“Fallout 76” is an online-only successor to single-player predecessors including “Fallout 3,” “Fallout: New Vegas,” and “Fallout 4.” You control a character of your creation in a massive, open-world environment, either from a first- or third-person perspective.
The environment is the star of the show: A post-apocalyptic wasteland full of mutated animals and people. There are “radroaches” and “supermutants” and all manner of other irradiated nightmares.
In the case of “Fallout 76,” you’re exploring the post-apocalyptic America as one of the first survivors out of a protective vault. To that end, the game is a bit of a prequel to the last few “Fallout” games, which take place later in the fictional timeline.
What makes it different from previous “Fallout” games?
What “Fallout 76” adds in an online-only world – the ability to play with other people – it loses in nearly every other way.
Gone are the myriad characters that make “Fallout” so memorable. Gone is the main narrative thread leading through the game. Gone is any semblance of cohesion – this is a game about taking on fetch quests, completing those fetch quests, and then maybe listening to an audio log that’s supposed to stand in for an actual story with written characters.
Let me be completely clear: In the 20-ish hours I spent with “Fallout 76,” I encountered one non-player character in the big open world. He was a supermutant merchant named “Grahm,” and he said almost nothing. Every other character I encountered was through leftover audio logs and notes.
Where do quests come from? A computer. What do you do when the quest is done? You report back to the computer and check it off from a list. Literally every quest I’ve completed in “Fallout 76” feels like exactly that: Checking off a task from a list.
As Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.”
It makes sense that the world of “Fallout 76” would be empty based on the premise of the game: You’re one of the first people out of the vaults – the apocalypse-resistant bunkers built by Vault-Tec, according to the franchise’s story – and as such you’re one of the first people exploring the post-apocalyptic world.
That feeling of isolation might be effective if it weren’t for the fact that “Fallout 76” is an online game. There are loads of people in the world – instead of written characters, they’re just random people like me. And yes, they’re almost always leaping around, as people do in online games. If you’re looking for a feeling of desolate isolation, look elsewhere; the world of “Fallout 76” is populated by people acting as silly as possible.
Here’s hoping you’re into collecting a lot of junk and fighting the same three or four enemy types over and over.
The folks behind “Fallout 76” are Bethesda Game Studios – the same people behind the “Elder Scrolls” games (“Skryim”, anyone?) and the last few major “Fallout” games. They’re a team that makes a lot of games with open worlds where you collect a lot of junk and fight the same types of enemies repeatedly.
That alone isn’t a condemnation.
It’s that those two things are more or less all you do in “Fallout 76.” There’s a world to explore, and there are nuclear bombs to fire off, and there are some “legendary” creatures to seek out, but that’s all set within a massive, empty world.
There are no characters to talk to in the process, or settlements to find. Just a lot of empty buildings full of junk to collect. By the fiftieth time I’d killed a grubby, irradiated little animal, I was ready to never fight one again. By the twentieth empty building I’d explored, I was done scrounging through every little nook for the tiniest scrap of material.
“Why am I doing this?” I thought. “What is the point of this?” The answer isn’t clear. So I can level up, I guess? To what end? Where is all this going?
Other than West Virginians, who wants to explore post-apocalypse West Virginia?
“Fallout 3” was set in the ruins of Washington D.C. “Fallout: New Vegas” was set in the ruins of…Las Vegas. “Fallout 4” was set in the ruins of Boston.
“Fallout 76,” inexplicably, is set in West Virginia.
No shade, West Virginians! I’m sure your slice of the American pie is a true delight, but in “Fallout 76” it’s a bland wilderness pocked with the remains of rural, small town America. There are no landmarks for players to recognise because, well, do you know anything about West Virginia? I certainly don’t. I’d bet any amount of money you’re in the same boat as me.
There’s something to be said for the mystery of exploring a real place that isn’t usually featured in a game. And there’s something to be said for giving West Virginia a shot at being the setting for a game. Unfortunately, for West Virginians and for “Fallout” fans, this is a place I didn’t want to explore. I don’t expect you’ll feel much differently.
So, why does this game exist?
That’s a great question that I can’t fully explain. It’s clear that Bethesda Game Studios invested millions of dollars in “Fallout 4,” and it’s clear that “Fallout 76” feels very similar in terms of gameplay.
Video game development is incredibly complex, and it’s not as simple as “Bethesda wanted to re-use something it spent a lot of money on.” But there’s definitely some element of that here – this doesn’t feel at all like a sequel, or something new in the “Fallout” franchise. Instead, it feels like an online mode strapped onto an existing framework.
I don’t mean that as an insult to the many people who no doubt spent thousands of hours making “Fallout 76.” I mean that solely from a “how this feels as a player” perspective.
Here’s one clue as to why “Fallout 76” was made:
Making blockbuster games like “Fallout” is incredibly expensive, and companies like Bethesda Softworks have to balance years of expensive development against the incredible risk of releasing a game that doesn’t make a profit.
I’m sympathetic to the situation. At the same time, it’s hard not to look at “Fallout 76” with an eyebrow raised.
Who was asking for an online-only “Fallout” game? Who was asking for a real money-based system that enables players to buy in-game outfits? Rather than Bethesda creating a “Fallout” game for people who love “Fallout” games, “Fallout 76” feels like a way for Bethesda to turn “Fallout” into an ongoing revenue stream.
Worst of all: I just don’t want to play this game.
As I creeped through yet another derelict factory, I found a bobblehead hidden off in a corner. Sweet! Free perk!
After picking up the bobblehead and heading into my perk menu – the usual “SPECIAL” acronym broken into various attributes like strength (S) and perception (P), among others – I realised that only a few of my perks were of worth. What’s the point of upgrading “charm” when there’s no one to charm?
One of the most amazing things about the “Fallout” series is how it allows players freedom to solve problems in a variety of ways. You can talk your way out of a jam, or sucker-punch your enemies. It’s a series focused on choice.
But “Fallout 76” only offers one option: Shoot things until they’re dead. It’s a game about picking up junk you find in a post-apocalypse West Virginia, and shooting all the mutants you encounter along the way. I can’t suggest it to even the most hardcore of “Fallout” fans – it’s an empty, boring game without a story.
And, frankly speaking, there are too many great games available this holiday season to waste your time with this.