Recently, I was given the chance to travel to West Virginia and get my hands on Fallout 76. While Fallout games have earned their place as one of the most popular post-apocalyptic settings out there, the latest entry from Bethesda Game Studios takes a risk by making the RPG—typically a single-player-only series—into a multiplayer experience. Given that massive change, most fans have one question that rises above all others: “Does it still feel like Fallout?”
Now, I only got to play for about three hours, but I’d say that the answer is “yes” – though that ‘yes’ may come with a few footnotes.
Despite the open-world nature of the game, there’s still a main story to Fallout 76, as players will find as soon as they exit the vault. The Overseer has left the vault before you, and your journey will take you in her footsteps, listening to her holotapes and following her path. The quests you’ll find along the way function just as they would in any other Fallout game, sending you to achieve different objectives in and around the quest hub, or to retrieve items from across the world.
However, when I played, I didn’t spend much time on the story. Instead, I went with a group, consisting of two other journalists playing for the first time and a guide from Bethesda, in order to learn more about the multiplayer side of things. I’ll give Bethesda points for making grouping up with people really easy—you’re able to fast travel to anyone in your party for free at any time, there are no servers to worry about, and you’re automatically able to see your friends’ quests and help them out to get a share of the rewards yourself. The more points you put in Charisma, the more you can share with your friends, getting perks that buff the experience gained by the entire party or sharing perks you unlock with everyone. The downside is communication, which could be rough for players without mics. There’s no in-game chat, a deliberate measure made to prevent trolling, so all communication happens all through an emote wheel. It works nicely for expressing approval, disapproval, friendliness, and for the purposes of trading, but for anything more complicated – like pointing out an enemy or coordinating building a camp – players will have to use their console’s party chat or something like Discord on PC.
As a group, we decided to make a beeline to the Greenbrier, a luxury resort that happened to be where the game demo was being held in real life. Not knowing much else about West Virginian geography to compare the game to real life, I made getting there my first goal (though I did secretly keep an eye out for any Mothman sightings during our journey). As it turns out, just getting to the Greenbrier in the first place was an adventure, and gave me a pretty good sense of what exploring the final game will be like.
First of all, it’s pretty easy to play Fallout 76 without running into other players. My tendency to scavenge through every nook and cranny for materials and to pick the flowers off every bush left me lagging a little behind my party. Without the markers pointing me towards my group, I might have totally lost track of them, even knowing what direction they were headed and seeing that they were only 90 or so yards away. Any players who want to play alone will likely have no trouble staying out of sight, especially with all the rugged terrain and foliage in the Appalachian wilderness. Despite this, we ran into another party as we neared the Greenbrier (turns out we weren’t the only ones with that idea). As we approached one another tentatively, I suddenly started taking damage—so I shot back. Within moments, an eight person, four-on-four firefight broke out on the side of a mountain.
Every death gives you the option to either try and keep fighting, or to run away and respawn somewhere else. All of us were determined to keep fighting, and none of us wanted to reappear somewhere farther away, so the fight kept going. We might have been there a while, if a level 50 Scorchbeast hadn’t suddenly appeared and swooped down upon all of us. Alone, it would be nearly impossible to tackle. With eight of us, all at level five or so, it was more possible, but still a challenge. We led the Scorchbeast around the mountain, firing shots into it whenever we could, a few people dying and reappearing to continue the hunt. Finally, it went down, and though it didn’t drop any loot, taking out something so powerful fresh out of the Vault was still satisfying. It was a true testament to the power of teamwork, I would hope, though, that other powerful enemies might drop a few more rewards, especially if one takes on the challenge of fighting something so far above one’s level.
The Scorchbeast was far from the only hazard. In the absence of human NPCs, Fallout 76 is much more densely packed with enemies than other Fallout games (there are no longer any occupied human settlements, after all), and they only got more numerous as we approached the resort. Our final desperate run up the paths towards the Greenbrier had us dragging our corpses up a hill of angry Scorchers, resurrecting and fast traveling to one another to make it to the top. A Deathclaw stood off to one side of the grounds, which I ran through a door to avoid. More monsters teleported across the golf courses. Once we reached the top, the robot guards protected us – until one of my party members managed to anger every single one of them (at that point, I admit I just stood back and watched and laughed as he ran up and down the halls, two dozen angry robots trailing not far behind, “Yakety Sax” playing in my imagination, that Deathclaw still screeching in the distance).
Our first goal accomplished, I wandered on my own more randomly through the world. It’s harder to survive alone, since all those enemies are still around every corner. Death doesn’t come with any great punishment, though—you only lose your junk items, meaning that you could miss out on some building and crafting resources, but not much else. I spent a little time trying to make a camp, finding that the building system works similarly to Fallout 4, with floor, wall, roof, and furniture pieces taking components to craft, and appearing in holographic form in the world before you place each piece. I didn’t have the materials to make walls or the blueprints to make anything fancy, so my base became a minimalistic work of modern art: a single floor panel with a sleeping bag, and a metal staircase that extended straight up into the sky, going nowhere. When another party member built his own camp, I could contribute to it, placing pieces as I saw fit over his design, though that meant losing the pieces from my own inventory.
I then spent a little more time on questing and exploring, though not enough, as my exploration left me with several unanswered questions. Despite there being more actual players in the game with you, the world feels more uninhabited, or at least the small section of wilderness I trekked through had that impression. This is partly due to the sheer size of the map, which is much bigger than Fallout 4’s, and partly because there aren’t any human NPCs in the entire game (apparently, finding out where they all went is another part of the story you’ll uncover). This means that you won’t see any “people” walking around, beyond the ones who are actually other people in real life, and you won’t have a dialogue wheel. There are still NPCs who will talk to you—robots are pretty intelligent in this world, after all, and tons of people left behind holotapes that will play out their last recordings as you complete their quests—but you won’t enter a town and find it populated.
This leads to what is perhaps my biggest concern for the game, though, as I said, I didn’t have nearly enough time to investigate the quests properly. The part of the story that I saw involved following the Overseer directly, and taking care of tasks left unfinished in a town after all its inhabitants had vanished. My worry is that by making this main part of the story already set in stone – the Overseer has already finished passing through before you, it’s not happening live – there may be less opportunity for player choice in the story. Instead of following different factions and choosing who to ally with and deciding how you’re going to tackle a developing situation, you’re left cleaning up after events that have already happened. However, I want to be clear that this was only my impression after completing quests in one or two smaller quest hubs, which is a tiny, tiny portion of the full game. My play time was not nearly enough to judge the entire story or game, and in the final product, I’d be happy to be proven wrong and have my fears be unfounded. (Still, I’d guess 76 won’t hold a candle to New Vegas in this regard).
I’ve talked a lot about the big systems present in Fallout 76 and how they differ from the past games, but there’s plenty that I haven’t talked about because, well, it feels the same. 76 changes a lot, but it really does feel like a continuation of the series, not a side branch or any other generic multiplayer shooter. It’s full of little details I’d expect from a Fallout game, like putting on a party hat to gain armor, using your Pip-Boy to flip through your inventory, and too-cheerful robots still delivering telegrams in the face of the apocalypse. Many of the actual moment-to-moment gameplay, like fighting and questing, is essentially unchanged (though the world no longer pausing when you open a menu or use V.A.T.S may take some getting used to). For those looking for a Fallout fix, there’s no doubt that Fallout 76 will deliver.
As for the multiplayer itself, I’m impressed. Bethesda seems to have eliminated many of the common complaints found in multiplayer games, making it easy to group up and play together regardless of level, without any of the inconveniences of matchmaking or choosing a server. Obviously, I would have to play more to see how it holds up with wider level gaps, but the content did seem to be nicely balanced for some of the level 50 Bethesda employees to play with us lowly scrubs down at level five without overpowering everything. Wannabe solo players may have a harder time, with timed world events, dense enemies, and of course other players serving as constant reminders that the game won’t cease to exist when you log off, but there should still be plenty of content and questing to do alone. Still, the constant reminders that the game is multiplayer will always be there.
Is this the sequel Fallout fans want? That depends on what you like most about the past games. But does it still feel like Fallout? Definitely, yes—and, different or not, it does seem to be a solid game, and perhaps one of the boldest ventures into making multiplayer RPGs yet.