The FALLOUT 76 Diaries, Part One: Nuclear-Grade Frustration
Back in October, I flew up to West Virginia for Bethesda's big Fallout 76 junket. The trip itself was an elaborate three-day affair revolving around one, key experience: sitting down and playing Fallout 76 for three hours with two other journalists and a Bethesda employee. If you're reading this, chances are you read the report that followed, where I expressed a largely positive opinion sprinkled with a few key complaints (among them: the new V.A.T.S. system and the focus on crafting/survival). I came home from that trip eager to hop back into Fallout 76's virtual world.
Flash-forward to a few weeks ago. Bethesda provides Birth.Movies.Death. with four download codes for its latest epic, all of which include access to the game's Beta. Myself, BMD contributing writer Russ Fischer, and everyone's favorite managing editor, Evan Saathoff, hop into the game and immediately get to work. I'd been talking up Fallout 76 for weeks, and was eager to share the same experience I'd had at the junket with my co-workers. Almost immediately, we found ourselves struggling to recapture the same fun I'd had in West Virginia last month.
Part of the problem, of course, was that my junket playthrough involved having my hand held by a Bethesda employee. With someone knowledgeable on-hand to walk you through Fallout 76's many, many systems, the game feels complicated but not insurmountable; left to your own devices, however, the experience is far less welcoming. BMD played through that entire week of Beta testing together, and it took us about that long to wrap our heads around many of the game's vital functions: Atom Points, perk card packs, the scrapping of junk and breaking down of unwanted weapons, the various upsides to using the new C.A.M.P. feature, and so on. Even now, a dozen or more hours later, we're still figuring out how a lot of things work. It's not quite a beating, but it's also probably not what most folks would consider "fun".
Then there was this: a critical error was made when, early on, I suggested that our crew simply light out for the territories, pointing ourselves in one cardinal direction and seeing what kind of mischief we'd get into along the way ("Your brand is chaos, Wampler," Evan would ruefully tell me later). This was an unfortunate plan! As it turns out, Fallout 76's earliest missions are crucial to understanding how the game works, providing both valuable information and gear to help you get through the next half-dozen hours of play. Eventually we realized our error, and some of us went back to complete those early missions, but by then, an increasingly unshakable feeling of frustration had set in.
Our issues here are legion. Detailed, compelling locations are almost always devoid of the kinda top-shelf loot that might make them worth fighting a small army of Super Mutants for ("Sure, I just blew through fifty of my best bullets to clear this weird cavern, but at least I got a paintbrush and some Mentats outta the deal," is a thing you'll never hear anyone say). Quest lines are frequently confusing, and we've found at least one which proved impossible to complete thanks to a bug. The rigid focus on crafting and scavenging is a chore, as well: a substantial portion of our playtime has been spent picking up trash and breaking it down to its basest elements, a gameplay loop that has a way of making Fallout 76 feel more like Rummaging Through Drawers: The Game.
Oh, and because this is an online-only title, pausing the game (to answer a phone call, or let your dog out to take a leak, or to valiantly review bomb Metacric, like a reasonable person) means exiting out to the main menu completely, as thirst or hunger could kill you even while you're standing still in a safe space. Diseases are also a thing you'll contend with. I've contracted several of them at this point ("YOU ARE SUFFERING FROM BONE WORMS," my screen helpfully informs me), but I'm still not clear on how I'm contracting them. Seems like it's probably from eating spoiled food or drinking dirty water, but sometimes those're the only options you've got.
The lack of NPCs is an issue, as well. What starts off feeling like a mild annoyance ends up being a much bigger issue the longer you spend within the game world, and the alternative - getting your quests from reading computer logs or listening to Holotapes - quickly wears out its welcome. The audio recordings and computer logs are, in typical Bethesda fashion, well-written and entertainingly performed, but they provide zero dramatic momentum and are frequently difficult to hear or concentrate on when you're listening to your teammates yammering through a headset. The map, meanwhile, is as big as advertised - four times the size of Fallout 4's, in fact. Trouble with that is, huge sections of it feel barren and...well, kinda like someone was trying to pad out the map. It's possible to walk for minutes at a time without encountering anything of note, and even when you do find yourself in a random encounter, chances are it's gonna involve keeping yet another batch of wildly annoying Mole Rats away from your ankles.
So, look - with all of that said, it should probably come as no surprise that, on more than one occasion, one of our party members (myself included!) has abruptly decided they'd had just about enough of Fallout 76's wonky hijinks before exiting out of the game completely.
There have been moments of great fun. Friendly fire won't damage your teammates, but that hasn't stopped me from sniping at Evan from great distances, just to see him whirling around and trying to figure out where the shots are coming from. One quest line had us trying to track down a kidnapped child in an empty water park, a task which had me climbing up and down water slides while my teammates fended off a series of Feral Ghouls. At another point, in the midst of trying to quickly take ourselves from one location to another, I realized we were missing Russ and asked him where he was. "Oh," said Russ via my headset, "I'm just making a blackberry crumble" (Russ is the cool, collected member of the team, a good counter-balance to Evan's frequent - and increasingly angry - refrain of "Guys, I think I hate this game"). Now that the Beta's over, we've been joined by BMD's Gaming Editor, Andrew Todd, and I genuinely look forward to finding out what flavor of hijinks he'll bring to the crew.
There's something here, in other words. In those moments when the game truly comes together - when you're piecing together a mystery, or you're standing shoulder-to-shoulder and wiping out a swarm of Radscorpions with your friends, or when you stumble into a new location that does a particularly good job telling a story through environmental clues - the game can be a lot of fun, and even when it's not, I simply love being inside the world of a Fallout game too much to quit playing. Right now, the enjoyment I'm getting from Fallout 76 is roughly equal to how annoying I'm finding it, and I cannot shake the feeling that what we're playing (officially "finalized" version or not) is bound to be updated, patched and tweaked for months to come. If I'm correct on that, this means that Fallout 76 could eventually become the game my associates and I want it to be, but will I even be interested when that day rolls around? How many patches out are we from that? How many months?
There's really no telling. The reaction to the game seems mostly hostile, with everyone who plays it finding one thing to be super-duper EXTRA pissed about. Given my love for the franchise, I'm definitely not ready to throw in the towel on Fallout 76 at the moment. I need to try more things, fiddle with my perk cards some more, investigate what it's like to join a team of randos (rather than a team of co-workers). There's much to be considered, and as such I don't feel like any of us are gonna have a rounded, well-informed opinion for some time to come. For now, Fallout 76 is just a tantalizing frustration, a thing I cannot put down even as I grumble and snark away into my headset.
The rest of BMD's Fallout 76 team will be weighing in with their own reactions in a few posts which we'll be rolling out over the next week, and I imagine those reactions will get deeper into the nitty-gritty of what's wrong (and right!) about Bethesda's latest. You're gonna get a variety of opinions on this one (warning: mine might be the most positive reaction of the bunch), and we're interested to hear about the experiences you're having in the game as we go along. Feel free to leave those in the comments below while you're waiting on the next installment!