Fallout 76 Hands-On: A Very Different Kind Of Post-Apocalyptic RPG
Ever since Bethesda Game Studios announced the next game in the Fallout series, it's been difficult to get a sense of what Fallout 76--an online-only RPG--is all about. While the concept of an online Fallout experience is enticing, it also comes into conflict with the series' typical brand of role-playing. Though Fallout 76 does lessen those traditionally single-player details to a noticeable degree, it offers up an alluring opportunity to explore uncharted, irradiated territory with other players online.
With the pivot to multiplayer, Fallout 76 focuses a lot more on exploration and survival in West Virginia's Appalachia, with all its regional oddities and newfound horrors coming in large doses. Recently, we played three hours of the game ahead of the game's upcoming October beta, and spoke with developers from Bethesda Game Studios about the particular challenges of making a different kind of Fallout.
Set only 25 years after the bombs dropped--making it the earliest game in the series' timeline--Fallout 76 gives itself plenty of distance from previous games to show off the freshly devastated wilderness. In traditional fashion, you leave the safe confines of the Vault to venture out into the wasteland--bringing with you a sense of determination, and also the naïveté that can come from living in somewhat comfortable isolation. After a quick introduction, you create your character, get accustomed to the new controls and systems, and venture out to the surface. However, what sets this game apart from the others is that you're one of many survivors. And once you're outside, it's every Vault Dweller for themselves.
During the first hour, I got my bearings by taking a tour around the immediate area, even joining a group to take in all the sights. Fallout 76 has the familiar RPG mechanics and sense of exploration that the series is known for, but it also has more of an amusement park vibe--with several key attractions and locales clearly highlighted on the map, such as The Greenbrier Resort and the Top of the World ski-slope. While exploring Fallout's take on West Virginia, which is several times larger than the Commonwealth of Fallout 4, I got the feeling that I was sort of experiencing the greatest hits of all things Fallout. First came the familiar weapons and armor found from previous games, then came the feral ghouls, the Super Mutants, and references to the Brotherhood of Steel and Enclave.
Still, the new location in West Virginia feels totally different from Fallout 4's Capital Wasteland and the Mojave from New Vegas, which quickly introduces its own brand of locales and strange monsters that reside there. Along with weird monsters like enlarged ticks, three-headed possums, and even Mole Men, there are other monsters that reference West Virginian urban legends. This includes the headless, hulking Grafton Monster and the enigmatic Mothman, the latter of which is revered by the hostile cabal of Scorched, heavily irradiated humans who eventually evolve into ghouls of sound mind.
For the most part, combat and general movement handle similarly to Fallout 4. However, the new mechanics and survival systems at play felt somewhat overwhelming to get a handle during our introduction. In 76, much of the tutorial happens in a trial by fire scenario in the open world, where you'll have to follow the early moments of the quests closely in order to learn the new mechanics, all while fighting off enemies and scavenging resources. While I appreciated the quick pace at which players are whisked out of the vault, picking up some meager supplies along the way, I felt that the on-boarding process could be a bit more detailed--it made me feel mostly unprepared as I was scrambling to find any weapon I could get my hands on.
With the new online focus, some returning mechanics have seen some changes. For instance, Fallout's iconic V.A.T.S.--allowing you to target enemies and fire off precisely-aimed shots--now operates in real-time. It acts more like a real-time lock-on--with your weapon's hit-rate adjusting depending on the enemy's movement or their surroundings. This style of V.A.T.S. definitely took some getting used to. Mostly to the fact that enemies move around often, and combined with the awkward focus of the V.A.T.S. camera, it was jarring to actually use it during a fight. Because of this, I mostly stuck with standard aiming and shooting, which felt more reliable during engagements. While you can upgrade V.A.T.S. with perks to make it more effective, it feels more like an option that should be used sparingly.
Fallout 76's survival mechanics take many cues from Fallout 4's more challenging Survival mode. In addition to keeping your character well fed on a regular basis, you'll also have to avoid ailments and diseases--such as contracting the oddly named but still troubling Rad Worms. Some enemies and locations even carry specific diseases, which create added risks to watch out for when exploring. These illnesses range from diseases that sap your maximum health, action points, and the general damage resistances for your character, to even increasing your susceptibility to radiation.
With a large emphasis on survival, nearly every item and resource you can get your hands on feels much more valuable. Nothing really lasts too long in Fallout 76--even the buffs from Bobbleheads and skill magazines only last a short time--so every tool you have will inevitably be discarded for something new. As you're scavenging through the open world, you'll find junk items, scraps, and crafting plans that can be turned into new gear and building materials for your constructions. Some of these materials can create bizarre weapons like the Heated Pitchfork or Ski-Sword--a single ski sharpened to form a blade. But over time, weapons and armor will eventually need to be repaired or broken down into materials for other items. Moreover, cooking and chem stations now have a greater importance, allowing you to prepare meals and craft support items.
Character growth is still the core part of Fallout 76, and it offers an impressive amount of variety and flexibility. After leveling up, you can place points into the familiar categories of the SPECIAL system, each of which boost areas of your character's raw stats. Eventually, you'll acquire a pack of Perk Cards that can offer special buffs in their assigned categories. For example, the Gladiator perk card is a Strength card which increases damage with melee weapons, while Lead Belly can decrease the radiation from drinking contaminated water. The more points you have in a category, the more Perk Cards you can potentially slot in, giving you a whole suite of added buffs. At any time, you can swap out your set of Perk Cards to readjust your character, to better prepare for different challenges.
In keeping with the game's focus on pioneering, the building mechanics from Fallout 4 also return. Now known as the C.A.M.P. system, you have in your possession a mobile construction device that allows you create a building at any time--provided that it doesn't overlap with existing structures. You have free rein to construct whatever you like, whether that be subtle safe-houses for you to stash supplies, or even larger mega-structures that house turrets and a dedicated place to relax. If you ever want to pack up and move elsewhere, you can save your structure as a blueprint and dismantle it. This can come in handy if your chosen spot becomes too popular with other players.
The biggest point of contention with Fallout 76's online nature is its lack of NPCs and slimmed down story, now serve to highlight the focus on moment-to-moment engagements with enemies and other players. This lack of traditional interactions and storytelling felt more noticeable the deeper we dove into the world. While you're certainly free to play solo and avoid other players--and we definitely took the opportunity to strike out on our own, leading to those familiar moments of solitude and wanderlust, you'll always be a potential target within the online world.Having said that, I couldn't help but feel intrigued by the re-focus here. Lore and smaller doses of story are still in surprisingly ample supply, but told passively through the environment and journals scattered about. While there are no active NPC characters to find--with exception to roaming robots that can offer trades and intel--you'll eventually stumble across the bodies of long-dead survivors who have had a notable presence in the world. In their possession are special holotapes known Survivor Stories, detailing the last moments of their lives in the irradiated wilderness.
These stories told some interesting tales for the characters in Appalachia, which had some poignant and heartfelt moments to them--which was reassuring given the fragmented nature of the storytelling in 76. Speaking with design director Emil Paglliarulo, he elaborated on their refocus to make Fallout more about engaging with others players.
"We started off with the premise where the only other people you see are the ones that came from the vault," he said. "We've also never had the opportunity to do a game that's set twenty-five years after the bombs fell, it's always been two-hundred something years after. Now, we have the stories of the people that survived the initial war, and we've never been able to tell those stories before. Of course without NPCs or no dialog trees--which was a huge adjustment for our quest designers, as they were used to doing it a certain way--and now the lore-heavy stuff comes from holo-tapes, which now has its own tab in the Pip-Boy. That's been really interesting for us. And what ended up happening is that we ended up having a much more lonely story than in Fallout 4. All of these people that you do [learn about] are dead already, and it's almost like a weird ghost story. We didn't expect that."
Whether you want to play solo or within a group, player interaction is a big part of the game. Encountering another person after rounding the corner or reaching the end of a dungeon creates some genuinely tense feelings--not knowing what intentions the other player in front of you has. To communicate with others, Fallout 76 features a variety of in-game emotes to use and proximity based voice-chat. During our session, however, we used Xbox Live's party chat client to stay in constant communication with our group--which won't be the case for most players online.
When playing in groups, communication is important, and the emotes and proximity chat are a great way to get your point across. This is especially vital when grouping up for some of the more active quests that task you with overcoming some bizarre obstacles, such as finding the keys to an armory in a makeshift town built out of a destroyed aircraft, or finding out a mob of "unruly golfer feral ghouls" at a ritzy resort that's still maintained by protectotrons. This can lead to some humorous and equally tense moments where players are scrambling to rely on their team's special skills to progress further.
Once you reach level 5, Fallout 76's PvP systems open up. When you encounter another player that's over level 5, you can fire your weapon at them to let them know of your intentions. If they return fire, then you'll both engage in a duel, with the loser dropping their current haul of junk items--no caps or gear is lost after a defeat. When shooting at a player that hasn't engaged in response, all damage will be cut in half, which gives them enough time to react. It's possible to kill another player who is not into the idea of fighting, and appropriately enough, this backhanded approach will mark you as a murderer, painting a massive target on your back for all players in the world to see.
Our group of level 5 explorers tried to take down a level-58 player in power armor in similar fashion, but it didn't go over well at all as he easily decimated the group with a high-powered Tesla Rifle. While damage calculations scale for enemies, allowing low-level players to potentially take out monsters several levels ahead of them, it does not for PvP engagements. However, if you wish to avoid PvP, or if a player is bugging you too much, you can block them or fast-travel to safety fairly easily. So far, the system in place is a thoughtful way to overcome the potential harassment that can often spring up with this type of game.
To cap off our hands-on time, the developers launched a nuke, which obliterates specific areas of the map. We all had front row seats to the explosion, and then proceeded to jump into the ensuing fallout--with its heavy radiation promptly killing us off one-by-one. As one of the larger end-game goals in Fallout 76, activating a nuke can lead to new events in the irradiated areas, revealing rare materials and dangerous enemies to fight. It also highlights the more dynamic nature of Fallout 76, with many of its narrative touches informed by the player's decisions in the world.
The scale of Fallout 76 seemed impressive based on the first few hours. The location of West Virginia--and all its oddities--was exciting to dive into, which felt refreshing after coming off of Fallout 4's Commonwealth. However, much like previous Fallout games, there were a number of odd bugs and large frame-rate dips that occurred throughout. This was especially noticeable during larger fire fights against large groups of enemies, which brought overall performance down to a slog. The developers we spoke to, however, assured us that the performance will be improved in time for its November 14 launch.
76 certainly isn't like other Fallout games. After our three hours, I got the impression that Bethesda is taking a risky approach with the series in regards to its lore and its core gameplay. With its heavy focus on survival gameplay and the online experience, I suspect that this largely experimental take on Fallout will become a rather polarizing entry. Though the mechanics were somewhat overwhelming to get a handle of, I can't deny that I enjoyed exploring the large map and engaging in the mysterious, post-apocalyptic take on West Virginia. Fallout 76 looks like it can flourish in the long-term, and I'm interested in what can come about after many hours in its off-kilter and ever-changing setting.