So, here we are then. My pals and I. Clutching an assortment of battered, cobbled together weaponry, leafing through the smashed remains of a West Virginian supermarket. It’s the middle of the night. We’re hunting for spare screws and aluminum to build our first generator – the last stop we need to get a working water purifier up and running. Clean, healthy water has been a struggle for a while now, but among the sad debris of this old, destroyed supermarket, we might just find what we’re looking for. The horror begins as soon as we step inside, but probably not the kind of horror you were hoping for…
A huge spike of lag freezes our screens in place for a few seconds as the game struggles to load 6 feral ghouls into memory and suddenly zaps them in front of us like they were beamed down from the Voyager. It feels like we’ve interrupted a troupe of actors as they struggle to squeeze into their monster outfits and have to suddenly act menacing.
“Oh, I’m lagging,” my pal says “…and now I’m being killed. What’s going on?”
But don’t be put off just yet – you’ll be surprised by how much fun Fallout 76 is with your buddies. It’s hard to get your hopes up, admittedly. Bethesda’s history with releasing unfinished, albeit excellently crafted game worlds is now world famous and their reputation had certainly preceded them with 76. With no experience of online worlds under their belt, the internet is half expecting (and half hoping) Bethesda would seriously fumble the pass. But colour me pleasantly surprised to find out that, actually, Fallout 76 is…Well, it’s good. It’s actually good. Not only is it great fun with your buddies thrown into the mix but oddly enough an MMO mixed with a Fallout game is as good a match as a hand to a glove.
It makes sense, actually, when you really think about it. Bethesda are great at environmental storytelling. Littering their worlds with little nuances and details about previous lives. Those passing tales are made a little more interesting when you’re discovering them with a buddy, pulling and prodding their attention to the cool things you’ve just found. You’ll spend a lot of your time kicking over old dustbins to reveal hastily scrawled notes to lost loves, fingering the keyboards of old computers where memo’s about office gossip have been handily left unread for you to giggle at and thanks to the slightly janky, stilted gunplay from Fallout 4, smashing through a building of super mutants is somehow tense, frantic and fun.
But temper your expectations, vault dweller. As the name implies, the Beta is serving up a mightily unfinished game. Graphical glitches mean that pixels frazzle and explode in front of you, creating some sort of esoteric damaged digital art as you’re upgrading your weaponry. Enemies will spawn suddenly in front of you, causing your console to freeze for a split second, shitting itself to accommodate the unexpected visitors and frame-rate is abysmally bad for what seems to be no real reason at all, often leaving your console huffing and heaving under a rough sub 30fps frame rate, despite having not moved from the same location for five minutes.
Alas, it’s a beta, or a “Break it Early Test Application” as Bethesda’s marketing pals are calling it, so some janky and unrefined gameplay is to be expected. But this close to release, who knows if Bethesda will really ever pull things around?
But the worries don’t stop there. The much-touted survival mechanics come off as inconvenient, not immersive, and the constant march for food and water appears to be a snidey hard-coded pathway into players wallets when micro-transactions are inevitably introduced into the game. This is quite a damning feature, too, as it’s tied into a lot of other game mechanics and it becomes one of the main reasons to own a base – for renewable food and water. Which, as you’ve already guessed, needs supplies to get up and running. So while it’s great fun building up a home you can be proud of it’s hard not to shake the sense of cynicism behind the scenes. Aren’t we just feeding a constant demand for supplies that could be made oh so much easier with a little microtransaction here and there?
But if you’ve ever played Bethesda’s previous titles then you’ll be familiar with the incredible wanderlust that positively radiates from each game they produce. Thankfully, that is present and correct in the lush wilds of West Virginia. Each blade of grass, each shattered building and every oddly convenient audio log and written note all underpin a vast and beautiful American countryside tainted by nuclear annihilation. All the big landmarks are present and correct, meaning you’ll often plot routes through the world based on which sights your band of nuclear survivalists would like to see most, coupled by the odd quest to neutralize along the way and trust me, stumbling across those great hidden treasure troves are all the more thrilling when you have a friend in tow. Creeping through old abandoned fairgrounds and parking lots to tense encounters with super mutants in cluttered city streets – in Fallout 76 you are actually surviving in a broken world, together.
The tone is darker, too. Set 20 years after the end of the world it’s harder to ignore the more immediate aftermath of nuclear war. Fossilized bodies remain trapped and frozen in place, scorched to the landscape like the bodies preserved at Pompeii. Bulletin boards with the names of loved ones still missing after the war dot the various towns and villages, holding out for hope when all is seemingly lost. Blasted skeletons hold hands in church pews or retreat into the fetal position in the darkest corners of bunkers, still clutching whiskey bottles in their final moments. It’s a much more somber Fallout overall, one that stands out even more as a screaming super mutant passes through the nearby wall unobstructed, thrashes erratically as it tries to figure out where the hell it is, before exploding in a shower of limbs and blood and disappearing again all in the space of a few seconds, causing your pals to glance at one another in befuddlement.
It should go without saying that this is early days for a developer that hasn’t had too much experience in creating massively online games, so some rather tentative Bambi steps into the wild are to be expected. Bethesda, though, are certainly on to something. Exploring Apolachea with your pals is a welcoming fit and when you’re all hitting the now famous Fallout beats and patterns of exploration, questing and leveling up it’s an entirely engrossing experience that’s all too easy to sink 3 or 4 hours into per night. But any recommendation, even at this early stage, has to be tempered with stern warnings: Beware the cynical survival mechanics which seem to pave the way for microtransactions and make sure the glitchy, broken infrastructure doesn’t come crashing down around your ears.
Fallout 76 is released on November 14th for PS4, Xbox One and PC.