What it’s like starting Fallout 76 in 2020

It is a strange feeling to boot up Fallout 76 for the first time. The game is surrounded by such a dense cloud of bad publicity missteps, sour reviews, stout defenders, and countless news stories that have been scattered all across the internet since the game’s tumultuous launch in November of 2018. A fresh multiplayer take on the traditionally single-player RPG franchise, Fallout 76 aims to mix the series’ established post-apocalyptic universe with an FPS survival MMO. 

Regardless of the end result, there is a lot of ambition in shifting a favorite series in such a new direction, and the constant flow of new content being released is commendable, even if it is expected of a “game as service” such as this. But, has Fallout 76 been able to save itself through those updates a la No Man’s Sky? To find out, I loaded up a brand new character and experienced the game right from the start, and will be breaking down the experience into three distinct stages to see if it is worth playing now in 2020. 

The newly added “Wastelanders” main quest just awkwardly thrusts itself on you.

Step One: Apprehension

Like most Fallout games, 76 starts the player off inside the game’s namesake Vault 76, a plush nuclear bunker whose residents are tasked with recolonizing the barren Appalachia post-nuclear fallout wasteland. After creating a character with a standard character creator, the player is freed to wander the vault as the last inhabitant to wander out to the wasteland. The player is shepherded through a procession of small stands, each giving the player some starting equipment accompanied by short tutorials of game mechanics. 

To say the least, the introduction is clunky at best. Not only is there a lot of information to download all at once, and with little context to help solidify it, but proceeding from stall to stall with personality vacuum robots saying nothing of importance is simply boring. The player is then released into the world, your only motivation being hunting down the overseer of the vault to simply check-in and see what she is up to. Once outside of the vault the player is immediately pushed into dialogue with two NPCs, a recent addition to the game through its large Wastelanders update, who ask you some questions and tell you about the legend of a treasure that is captivating everyone in Appalachia. 

The characters offer little of interest, and the intent of the writing is laid bare. While it is rarely difficult to decipher what a game wants you to do, Fallout 76 puts minimal effort, if any at all, towards dressing it up at all to disguise it or make it feel natural within the game. It is at that moment, high up a mountain with the wasteland spreading out vastly before you, that one feels tempered optimism. The writing has been clumsy so far and the environment leaves much to be desired, but those are of little importance when it comes to a survival MMO. 

Fallout 76 starts just like any other Bethesda title

The rest of the starting hours consist of being told what the player was told by stands but with more hands-on interaction. You talk some more with a tavern owner, who points you towards the new story added in the same Wastelanders update, shoot some enemies, and start toying around with the building mechanics. The shooting is clunky, especially the game’s awkward real-time implementation of VATS, but remains satisfying due to some solid sound design and a quicker time to kill on low-level enemies. The building system, dubbed C.A.M.P., is also promising in the early hours. 

Rather than having to punch trees and pick up rocks, the standard for survival games, 76 tasks players with collecting random junk that is then disassembled into basic materials such as wood, glass, plastic, and metal. While gathering materials through natural gameplay and exploration is much preferred to harvesting resources endlessly, the junk’s contribution to a hard weight limit does necessitate return trips to your camp to an annoying degree. In the early hours, however, the C.A.M.P. system offers an inspiring amount of options and intuitive enough controls that it is quick to learn and promises plenty of engagement. 

The setting’s closeness to the nuclear apocalypse offers up some interesting new enemies

Step Two: A Game By Definition

By the time a player reaches stage two of starting Fallout 76, they have spent a healthy number of hours with the title. They have a modest camp set up, typically comprising a building that was constructed at first with a lot of care before the player grew tired of the finicky system and simply started throwing down various workbenches. They have made a decent amount of progress in the main quest line as well as a handful of brief side quests, and are most likely around level fifteen or twenty. 

It is at this point that the game loop at the core of Fallout 76 is laid bare, and the result is less than flattering. It is a rather tight game loop that tasks the player with retracing their steps through the world on endless fetch quests, scavenging as much junk as one can find, clicking through dialogue trees, and returning to camp to deposit all of the junk before doing it all over again. Any charm granted the game by its concept is quickly worn through by just how frequently players walk through the same vistas, fighting the same enemies at the same spawns ad nauseum. There is a large enough pool of content, spread across main quest lines, side quests, events, and the drive to improve your character and C.A.M.P., but the endless repetition means that it feels like there are only a handful of activities to simply repeat.

Even with newly added NPCs, many quests are handled by terminals and robots

This is worsened by the ever-encroaching presence of bugs. Even this far into the game’s life cycle, the land of Appalachia is home to many mutated monsters, but the most prevalent population is easily technical bugs. Glitching V.A.T.S, clipping enemies, hitboxes not registering damage, and wonky graphics that seem to begrudgingly stop working are just some of the most frequent that you will come across, but there are plenty more that rear their ugly heads. 

It is also now that many more of the game’s problems begin to exacerbate themselves due to frequent exposure. Perhaps the largest of these is the general cheap-feeling quality of the visuals. Exteriors feel cookie-cutter in their sameness with a sparsity to the foliage and a pitiful draw distance. Animations are stubbornly clunky, especially when it comes to anybody’s face moving. It all has a last-generation feel to it, which does little to help it feel like a complete package. 

Building anything close to this requires impressive amounts of grinding

Another of these problems is Fallout 76’s clumsy implementation of perks. Every character has seven attributes to level up, as is the standard for the series. Split between strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck, players get the opportunity to level the attributes when they level up. However, rather than leveled attributes offering flat bonuses for the character, it instead allows the player to equip higher levels out of the associated perk cards. These perk cards are gained by opening perk card packs that the player is given when they level up, and can be combined with identical cards to level them up. The system is, to put it bluntly, frustrating, and intrinsically uninteresting. Not only does the randomness of unlocking perks from which to select make it nearly impossible to plot out and prepare for character builds, but it also dampens the excitement of leveling up due to the reward for doing so being what is effectively a loot box that has little chance of having anything that the player is interested in. 

The third of these problems is that the online component of Fallout: 76 is effectively pointless. Afraid of ruining player experience by having player vs player combat unregulated, as is standard for the MMO survival experience, Fallout: 76 takes a strict approach where players must invite one another to a player vs player duel beforehand. In case you could not guess, this means that it never happens. And while these interactions are not required for a multiplayer game to justify its multiplayer nature, 76 has little else to offer. Players can make groups do events or side quests, but, in my experience, these are rare at best, and players can trade with one another but the lack of players in voice chat means that this primarily happens when a high-level player donates extra gear to a new player. It is a nice gesture but only occurs once or maybe twice in a player’s time with the game. This all means that most of one’s interaction with other players in Fallout 76 is little more than seeing their absurdly high levels whenever one opens the map. 

A premium subscription is required to wear the iconic Ranger Set

Step Three: Tired and Broken

At this stage, the player is either finished with the main quest storyline or nearly is. As a consequence, the player has seen just how boring the story is, and cannot help but feel disappointed in its lack of impact. Due to the game’s online nature, completion of the story does very little. The game world remains static, and everything is just as it was before one sunk hours and hours into the story for very little in return. It is not well written or thought-provoking enough to stand in its own right, and the impact it has on one’s gameplay experience, in the end, is little more than a series of waypoints to walk to and characterless hitboxes to click on. 

It is also at this point that the severity of Fallout 76’s repetitive grind has hit full swing. The cycle of re-exploring the same environments to claw at identical pieces of literal junk in order to clump together organized junk that you can call a base or get incrementally improved guns that make bigger numbers be on screen is eternal. It is here that Fallout: 76’s worst side reveals itself. Offering to solve your grinding woes, 76 benevolently informs you about Fallout 1st

Fallout 1st is Bethesda’s premium subscription service. For a whopping $100 a year, players gain access to private servers, a placeable fast travel point, a handful of microtransaction currency, a storage box for holding unlimited building materials, and a couple of cosmetics. It is a steep price to pay and hardly justifies that high price point. However, it also introduces one more question: microtransactions?

I never thought I would get sick of seeing walls of fire in a video game

Oh yes, Fallout 76 has a bevy of microtransaction options available to players right from initial boot-up, including a large flashing sign so that you won’t miss it. Dubbed the Atomic Shop, it allows players to spend real cash money on a weekly rotation of cosmetic items and various ways to smooth out the gameplay experience – its most controversial category. For only a handful of cash, players can purchase repair kits that instantly fully repair any piece of equipment, eliminating a core incentive for exploring and looting. Or, if the mandated grind has gotten to be too much, players can also purchase either a refrigerator that prevents food items from spoiling or a scrap collector that eliminates the need to go out and find your own, which comprises the majority of Fallout: 76’s endgame. Oh, and neither of these items are available to earn in-game. 

It all leads to feeling as if the game is attempting to exploit its dedicated fan base while a quick perusal of the game’s forums and subreddit reveals that little has been done to address the community’s long list of complaints. A prime example of this is the game’s battle royale mode, dubbed Nuclear Winter (despite fire playing a large role in its mechanics and not a single snowflake being visible on the map). 

Nuclear Winter is pretty standard fare. Up to 60 players are shepherded into squads of four that are spawned on a section of the world map. Through scavenging the area, although the vast majority of interiors are blockaded and inaccessible, players loot various pieces of gear while avoiding getting caught in an ever-shrinking ring of fire that limits the play area. Whichever squad is the last one standing are the winners. Where Nuclear Winter attempts to break the mold is through a leveling system that unlocks exclusive rewards for both the battle royale mode as well as the base game. Players can unlock building recipes for the base games and perk cards for a separate Perk system that is dedicated to the mode. 

Unfortunately, hardly any of this works. The game’s clunky shooting mechanics leave much to be desired in the mode’s high-cost encounters. There is very little as irritating as being killed by another player as you struggle to slowly swing your reticle over to them. The lack of interiors is also a large detriment. The environments are repetitive, with few landmarks and even fewer interesting arenas for encounters. The Perk system also does the mode a large disservice. Not only does it weigh the matches in favor of players with vast advantages through better perks, but it is all the more detrimental when they are applied to a mode that is built on all players having an even playing field at the start of the match and having to build up a loadout over time, making the mode as a whole feel unfair and too clunky to properly reward invested time. 

Having to navigate Pip-Boy menus in the middle of combat is detrimental in a game that never pauses

In the end, I’m honestly left disappointed with my time spent playing Fallout 76. I was unsure of what to expect going in after the seemingly endless stream of negative press surrounding the game, but I remained hopeful that the time Bethesda had to improve the game had been used well. Unfortunately, it seems that it has not. My time spent with the game was characterized by wrestling with bugs, pushing through unfun mechanics and systems in search of enjoyment, and a monetization model that is insulting to any fans of the game. Which Fallout 76 definitely has, and more power to them. But in a day and age where there are more quality video game experiences releasing than ever before, I find it difficult determining just how Fallout 76 justifies player’s attention over those other experiences.