Fallout 76 is fast becoming a cautionary tale in how not to make games.
In an attempt to capitalize on the growing popularity of online and cooperative play, Bethesda Game Studios opted to make the latest entry into its long-running and popular series of post-nuclear apocalypse games and online multiplayer experience. "Fallout with friends" is what people called it (including me). This sparked instant hatred among fans who love dedicated single-player games and saw the move to online play as a betrayal. These players were never going to enjoy Fallout 76, no matter how it turned out – an early warning sign that the game was headed for trouble.
But the problem with Fallout 76 it is not that there are other people in the world with you as you play. Servers limit the number of players in every instance of the game's huge world – four times that of any previous Fallout – to just 16, and as a result I rarely run across anyone else while playing. When I have stumbled on someone else they've almost always behaved well, which means I just ignore each other (I'm just as uninterested in Fallout multiplayer as it seems most other players are). Worries that I would be relentlessly attacked by other players, or that they would relentlessly destroy any camps I built have proven for no. The handful of times I've seen antagonizing players in my world – they're handily marked on the map with a big red WANTED symbol, meaning they've attacked another player – I've just blocked them so they could not see where I was.
Granted, the online game introduces some issues not present in solo games, such as the inability to play without Internet connection, to pause the action, or to do nifty things like slow down time during combat. These are bummers, sure, but not deal breakers.
The real problem with Fallout 76 – and one that will be an absolute deal breaker for many – is that it is buggier at launch than any other game I've ever played.
I've encountered missions that I could not complete because of a key object being glitched. I've fallen through the world floor in empty space. I've had the game freeze and kick me out countless times. I've seen all location and objective markers disappear from my map, making it impossible to do anything. The brown bag containing all of my loot where I last died has been rendered invisible, impossible to collect even when I'm right on top of it. Holotapes will often not play when I pick them up. Recently repaired weapons sometimes become broken again for no reason. My action point meter sometimes remains full even when I'm running or weighing (at least this one is a help rather than a hindrance).
I could keep going, but you probably get the picture. Fallout 76 It feels like a game months or more away from being ready to launch to the public. It's not even properly optimized for performance. Hiccups where enemies freeze and then jump a few meters closer or to the left or right are commonplace – this despite looking like a five-year-old game not even close to being on the same graphical level as open-world contemporaries like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Assassin's Creed Odyssey.
All of this said, it does feel like Fallout. Do not let the game's more hyperbolic detractors convince you otherwise. It's not like Bethesda's other online experiment, The Elder Scrolls Online, which feels almost nothing like the single-player Elder Scrolls games. Everything from collecting resources and crafting gear to using and upgrading power armor to jamming around on your Pip-Boy – the series' iconic wrist-mounted computer – will instantly be recognizable to returning players. Even movement and fight feel pretty much the same as in past games.
What's more, the artists have maintained the franchise's always appealing retro-futuristic visual style. And most locations are loaded with discoverable lore that provides further insights into the fascinating alternative world history series, in which just a few key collective cultural decisions in the 20th century sent America down a different path than the one we know today. Expect familiar plot threats exploring massive corporate corruption, exploited workers and consumers, and blind faith in the promise of technology even greater than what we feel today. Finding and following these stories – presented primarily through computer logs, handwritten notes, and audio recordings – is one of the highlights of the game.
But even this typically robust part of the Fallout experience is not as strong as it has been in the past, probably due to Bethesda choosing not to include any human non-player characters in the world. This was done so that if you see another human in the world, you'll know it's being controlled by a player. But the upshot is that there are none of the cities, lone survivors, or enclaves that add so much flavor to other Fallout games. It makes for a big, empty, lonely, and almost uniformly hostile world in which virtually everything you run across – supermutants, ghouls, robots, crazed semi-humans known as the scorched – is trying to kill you.
If you're wondering why there are no humans in West Virginia, an area of the United States has saved a direct atomic blast, according to Fallout history, which is explained as story progresses. We ran across many places where people lived after the war, and some seemingly emptied of survivors not all that long ago. Finding out what happened to them is a primary part of the story that unravels as you progress. The forensic investigation is interesting at times, but it's not as fascinating as the living human-driven stories of other games in the series.
More's the shame, given this game's promising milieu. It takes place just 25 years after the war, making it the earliest entry in the Fallout chronology. Plus, the bunker from which players emerge is the famed Vault 76, long known to be the only one of Vault-Tec's scores of bunkers designed to function as a legitimate nuclear shelter meant to preserve humanity without any hidden psychological experiments performed on its population. There was an opportunity here to grow Fallout fiction in powerful new ways, but Bethesda's self-imposed narrative constraints resulted in too many stalls and false starts.
There is something about Fallout 76 that's keeping me coming back, albeit not as enthusiastically as I'd have hoped. The fresh lore is definitely part of it – like many, I harbor a dark fascination with Fallout's dystopian universe, and I'm always keen to eat more of it – but I also enjoy the franchise's simpler pleasures, such as discovering whatever might be over the next ridge, scrounging for supplies, and crafting new gear and mods. I just like surviving in the wasteland.
I can not recommend Fallout 76 more than a handful of people. A niche will still be drawn to it, perhaps out of curiosity, and the finalist's need to devour all things Fallout, or, like me, a morbid desire to simulate life after the end of the world. For everyone else, hold on to the hope that Bethesda learns a lesson from this failed experiment.