To start with, I need to make everyone aware that to complete this review I had to implement my own house rule for Fallout 76. Just so that I could play it enough to write a review for it. Fallout 76 has no difficulty settings, a cardinal gaming sin in the book of Gideon. Sometimes, though rarely, they just aren’t suited to a particular type of game. So Fallout 76 with its online-only nature deserved the benefit of the doubt before applying that fact negatively.
So trudging forward, Fallout 76 took my benefit of the doubt and bludgeoned me to the floor with it. Bethesda could have implemented twenty-seven difficulty settings and it would have made no difference. When you die in 76 you drop a bag of all the junk you have collected and need to respawn. Sounds rough right? Wrong!
You can respawn, right away, at any location you have discovered including the location you were at when you died. To make matters worse, if you play on a team with other players you can spawn on them, even if they are in combat with the thing that killed you. Death in Fallout 76 is pointless.
Now, in complete fairness, it does cost a few caps, the game’s standard currency. Respawning at your camp, vault 76, or a friend, however, is free. Fancy explanations aside, it functions exactly like the following.
You die, you respawn within feet of your death. You pick up the bag of junk you dropped. The enemies you killed have not respawned, the enemies you wounded have not healed. But you now have full health.
Death in Fallout 76 is a health refill plain and simple, a free stim-pack. If Bethesda were to grant you God Mode, where you literally could not lose health. It would functionally be the same as it is right now. Not everyone is aware of this, but games have a definition.
Game: a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.
Seeing as your success is not dependant on skill, strength, or luck since you can throw yourself at an obstacle until you succeed through attrition and death is simply refilling your health. 76 is not really a game, it’s just pretending to be one.
The challenges in the game are purely pretending to oppose you. Does that mean nobody will find it fun? Of course not, you can play pretend while smashing two action figures together and have fun. I won’t judge you, but it’s not for me.
So, back to my house rule. Knowing what I do about the game, I would not be able to stay interested in its complete lack of challenge as it stood. In order to bring you a well-thought-out review and analysis.
So I banned myself from fast travel (keep reading and you will understand why soon) and if I died, I was to spawn at vault 76 only. Which can be one freaking long walk from where you were when you died. That way, I had an incentive to avoid death and to play the game’s systems to my advantage. That was my hope, at least.
That house rule becomes complicated in an online-only game. If I want to team up with another player, I can’t force them to follow it. While I might be able to pose a convincing argument as to why they should. Philosophical conversations on game design kinda kill the mood when you are in the game already. My partner, however, has a similar viewpoint and played along with my house rule, yay!
Dwelling In Shadow
With that out of the way, you begin the game in Vault 76 where you create a character. The character creation is decently in-depth. If you spend enough time with it you can probably accurately recreate your own appearance or that of someone famous. A departure from previous Fallout games, however, is the fact that you do not select your special scores at character creation, they all start at 1. These scores represent your character’s statistical attributes. Such as strength or intelligence, which can affect many aspects of your character’s playstyle.
After leaving the vault you are mostly able to do what you want, whether you wish to explore, loot, or follow the quest lines. There are no human NPCs. Quests are given out by robots or holo-tapes and nearly all dialogue is done via a holo-tape or reading notes and computer terminals.
The quests are entirely your standard open-world affair, fetch things, kill things. But they feel soulless because of the medium that they are told through. The creators of the holo-tapes and notes have always either moved on or are dead. You know this from the very outset of the game because it has no human NPCs.
You really don’t feel like you are a part of the storyline. The story already happened, you are left eternally chasing the ghosts of the storylines past. The lore itself is interesting and you can find a lot of entertainment in digging through it. But the online nature grinds against it here.
If you are in a group. It can be difficult to take the time needed to read all of the text and to actually hear what the holo-tapes are saying. Even more frustrating is that more than once I accidentally interrupted one holo-tape with another one I picked up and had to listen to the first one a second time to hear what I missed.
The Gunplay feels good and is an improvement from Fallout 4. But most enemies in the game are entirely not threatening. The majority of them deal very little damage to you and can be taken down in a couple of shots with standard weapons, even if they exceed your level by 10 or more.
This again, is where Bethesda’s own systems fight against itself. They made an online-only RPG but didn’t want to force you to group up. So the difficulty, which the player cannot change, is scaled down to be absolutely sure a solo player of any skill level can play it. So, not only will a veteran of Fallout 4 who played on higher settings find it easy, but the whole group dynamic obliterates it entirely.
Two people will wade through the game’s opposition and it becomes a simple shooting gallery with three or four. When the game does manage to throw something meaner at you. The death system keeps you nice, safe, and warm (remember my house rule rant!).
This problem becomes exacerbated by the game’s other systems as well. The perk cards are a brilliant upgrade from Fallout 4. When you level up you choose a special attribute to increase and you pick a perk card.
The perk card may grant you extra damage with melee weapons or allow you to pick locks etc. Every few levels you also get a pack of random perk cards. This is meant to incentivize you to try builds you would not normally choose. The system is fun and flexible, but flawed. You can unequip and re-equip the cards at any time, and this is a big problem.
There is nothing to stop you from unequipping the cards that let you pick locks and hack terminals, and equip them again the very moment you need to pick a lock or hack a terminal. This makes the very fact that locking picking and hacking are gated behind cards utterly pointless.
Fallout 76 has survival systems in place, such as hunger, thirst, and weapon degradation but again the game never commits to them. Supplies such as food, ammo, and junk are plentiful to the point that you will quickly exhaust the limits of your storage and struggle to figure out what to keep and what to toss away. Not to mention you can fast travel or bring your entire camp to you for a few caps, or simply fast travel to your camp for free.
This means your entire storage is always at arm’s length, encumbrance is another pretend obstacle as you can bring your stash box to you at any time along with the food and water stored inside. I also found that I could actually gather an infinite amount of water from any water source, such as a river.
Thirsty? Fast travel by a river, gather all you need, bring your camp to you and cook it into purified water. If the survival mechanics never boil down to more than needing to open a menu every once in a while, then they were an utter waste of development time.
Then there is the matter of being always online. For every concession the game had to make to be always online, other players in the world matter very little to your experience. There are random events in the world that trigger and make all nearby players temporary allies to complete them cooperatively. I really like the concept of them, but the other players never factored into my enjoyment. My partner and I could do them mostly on our own with no help needed.
The PvP system is extremely flawed. If another player attacks you, and you do not attack them back, they do an insignificant amount of damage to you. More than once I was attacked by two or more players and I could simply ignore them as they wasted tons of ammo on me.
On the off chance, you are killed without fighting back, (Maybe you went AFK or something?) they get a bounty on their head that’s visible to all players and they can’t see other players on the map. What could have been a cool and engaging bounty system is instead used as in-game punishment for attacking someone who didn’t want to fight in the first place. It’s not likely to please anyone.
Players who like PvP will find it frustrating that they can’t kill and rob other players. Those not interested in PvP will be annoyed at being bothered by the PvP players to begin with.
If someone does fight back, the victim is given a huge advantage, as their first attack deals full damage. You can easily abuse this by running up to someone who is ineffectively pinging you with skittles trying to get you to fight back and unleashing a full-powered shotgun blast into them.
If you or your foe dies in mutual combat, you are given the option of revenge, choose it and you spawn close to your killer and the PvP system remains on. This leads to endless revenge loops where both players continuously come back until one finally gives up and does not choose to get revenge.
There are also public workshops, you can take these over and they grant you a pile of resources to actually build in the workshop area. These workshops get occasionally attacked by waves of enemies and can be taken over by other players.
The workshops grant rare resources every hour and are likely meant to serve as PvP zones for players to fight over. The problem is, Fallout 76s servers aren’t persistent. You don’t choose what server you play on when you log in. When you log out, your camp gets stored and disappears from the world and anything built in a workshop zone vanishes.
In functional terms, your camp is placed back in the spot you built in when you log back in. If that space isn’t available it gets stored and you can place it down elsewhere later. Claimed workshops do not.
It takes a lot of time to actually build defenses and structures around a workshop, and its rare resources are granted by the real-life hour. You would need a substantial amount of playtime in a single session to see any benefit from them.
Everything you built vanishes when you log out, or heaven forbid crash. What should be an intense and constant battle with other players for control of the workshops is instead largely ignored due to the work investment required.
Trading with players is also largely pointless. If a player builds a store in the server you are playing in, it won’t be there the next time you log in. There is little point to trading anyway. As I mentioned before supplies are abundant. What few rare resources there are will be rare for everyone. Trade has to work on a system of supply and demand, Fallout 76’s game world is all supply and no demand.
Building your own camp can be fun, the building system has improved from Fallout 4 and feels more responsive. However, if you enjoyed decorating and organizing your settlements in Fallout 4, you are going to be disappointed here. Lockers, boxes, and chests are all cosmetic in nature and linked to your stash. You can’t separate your loot into separate storage at all and you have a 400lb limit on what you can store. You will reach that limit very quickly and spend a lot of time struggling with the storage system.
The game’s biggest strength is its huge map and world. The game is legitimately fun to explore and has a large variety of new mutant creatures to find. It’s not graphically impressive but isn’t an eyesore either, barring a few really low res textures. The sound design is mostly good and the holo-tapes voice acting is really well done. You also meet one robot in particular during the main quest that is a riot to listen to.
The gunplay is more responsive than in Fallout 4 but familiar in terms of weaponry. Crafting is back but starts off very slowly as you have to find and unlock recipes for literally everything. VATS returns and functions precisely as it did in previous fallouts with one major change. It doesn’t pause, functionally it works surprisingly well but looks utterly ridiculous. Your character’s gun animations do not follow where VATS is aiming at all, giving the impression that you are firing homing bullets. It just looks silly.
I did run into a number of technical issues, framerate drops, pop in, broken quests, glitched creatures that clipped into the terrain, one crash, and a lovely bug that didn’t let me respawn because I was encumbered. They weren’t super common, but it was noticeable enough to warrant being mentioned.
In my opinion, Fallout 76 is fundamentally flawed and in a constant struggle with itself over what kind of game it wanted to be, while staunchly refusing to be anything at all.
It’s as if Bethesda were standing in the land of single-player RPGs at the edge of an online survival pool, and couldn’t decide whether or not to jump in. Instead, they stood on the precipice for hours straight, only dipping a foot inside so they could be in and out at the same time. meanwhile, players on both sides are looking at this crazy fool with wet toes who is wearing a way too tight speedo.
You have probably noticed that I think difficulty settings are a big deal. You can read about that here.
- Huge and interesting, if lifeless open world
- Lots of lore to dig into
- Intuitive camp building
- Lots of aesthetically pleasing creatures to discover
- Poor difficulty scaling and zero death consequence
- Poorly designed and balanced survival elements
- Gimped PvP and workshop system unlikely to please anyone
- Technical issues such as broken quests and frame rate drops.
- The story feels empty and soulless due to the games nature.