Fallout 76 is a big and bold move from Bethesda, taking the beloved post-apocalyptic action RPG series and sticking it in a blender with all sorts of multiplayer inspirations. There’s elements of survival games here, of sandbox gaming, of more traditional MMORPGs, but at a base level it’s also about being able to share this world with your friends. Stepping into the Break it Early Test Application over the weekend, we sampled the first few hours of this open world of possibilities, but will it do enough to convince the doubters?
Waking up after in Vault 76 after one last night of drunken debauchery, it’s Reclamation Day, where the inhabitants of the vault all head out into the Appalachian Mountains and seek to rebuild society. Of course, you might not have been late to the party, but you sure are late getting out of bed, traipsing through the hallways of the vault on the way to the door. If you’re not paying attention, it can be surprisingly easy to run past some of the tables of provisions laid out along the path, forgetting to pick up a bottle of water, the mobile camp, and a few other handy bits and bobs that should see you right for the first few hours of the game.
The one thing you’re missing, though, is a weapon. As I stepped out into the wide open world, suddenly someone started taking a few little pot shots. I took a glancing hit or two – Fallout 76 dramatically reduces player on player damage until both are active participants in the fight – and looked around in a little mild panic, but only found other fresh vault-dwellers looking similarly confused. Time to get a move on, then!
The manner in which you encounter other players so quickly – this is a multiplayer game, after all – makes Fallout 76 feel like a more traditional MMORPG instead of the sandbox survival game that it draws elements like base building and throwing nukes at each other from. With players all starting at the same point and time, you’re all running out into the light at the same time, you scamper down those steps to find the decaying corpse of the Overseer, set off in the direction of their camp, and all progress through the same starting missions and quests. You’re not painted as the one and only saviour of the world of the world here, but it’s a similar feel to the hubbub of other online games.
At some point this path of missions does branch out, more elements and factions are thrown into the mix, but early on, you bump into people all the time. It’s suggested when you do meet each other that you might want to team up and journey together. You can’t bash each other over the head to start off with, because it’s only once you hit level 5 that the notice pops up to say that PvP duelling has now been enabled, so why not team up and make friends?
Teaming up happens quite passively as well as world events regularly pop up, both nearby and more distantly, giving you a window in which to perform a particular task. One, quite laughably, was to find the Mr. Messenger robot, reattach a bit that had fallen off him and simply walk alongside him until he reached his destination. That was it! Others were much more engaging, to go on patrol through a town and prevent a Protectron from taking too much damage from the angry mutants that attack it, or to search through a warehouse for tubs of food and chuck them into a processing machine, all the while battling Chinese robots and mutants that didn’t like the noise. Other players can dive in alongside you and reap the same rewards.
The combat works fairly well, with the first and third person shooting doing a decent job of letting you battle the threats you come across. It’s more serviceable than the fluidity that you might find in more refined shooters, and I quickly found that the hunting rifle was my favourite weapon simply for the punch it packed. If you’re not a fan of real time combat, then sucks to be you, because the live online multiplayer means that the game’s VATS system also works in real time, merely changing from a need to aim to letting the game calculate your odds of hitting.
You can still get locational damage with VATS thanks to the new SPECIAL cards system. You get a bunch of these as you leave the Vault and again a little later on, with the cards being shuffled into the different categories in the series’ distinctive SPECIAL stat systems. Each time you level up, you can put a point into one of your SPECIAL character stats before then picking a card from that category to apply. These cards replace the perks system from Fallout 4 with something a little more flexible, as you can switch perks at any time and potentially take on a role when playing as a group or reorienting your character. You’re still funnelled in a direction by your SPECIAL stats, but it’s a nice dose of flexibility.
The most tangible difference to a traditional MMORPG is that there’s no safe zones and towns to retreat to. Sure there’s a few robots that you can run into, but Bethesda don’t have sanctuaries filled with vendors and faction leaders to chat to. Instead the story and the missions are handed out by terminals and other things you can find while exploring and scavenging. To start with, it’s all about the Protectors, and it’s through volunteering for their missions in the small town of Flatwood and up at Morgantown Airport that the game continues to run you through some of its systems, like crafting, modifying, cooking and base building. That’s as far as we’d got in the first few hours, but already there were hints of these do-gooders having had run ins with the fledgeling Brotherhood of Steel, while there’s plenty of other factions across what is quite a large map.
It’s been just 25 years since the bombs fell, but the world here is just as twisted and mutated as you’d expect from the rest of the Fallout series. That said, it’s still full of vibrancy and colours. The area around the vault might feature decaying roads, buildings that are half fallen down and more than a few mutated multi-headed animals, but it’s also absolutely gorgeous to look at. The grass is thick, autumnal trees are covered in browning leaves, and the way the light shifts throughout the day can be truly beautiful. Of course, there’s a lot of common ground with Fallout 4 here, but if this is a sign of what the rest of the world and its various biomes will hold, then this will be a real treat.
Sadly performance left a bit to be desired at this point. It’s difficult to know whether it’s client side (I was playing on Xbox One X), server side or both, but my suspicion is that as more players get close enough to be loaded into your game world that can crater the frame rate for a few moments. I also found myself dying quite suddenly on a couple of occasions, and whether it was simply through a lack of feedback to the damage I was taking or getting a huge dose of lead all at once, I’m still not sure Obviously that’s what the beta is there for, and hopefully these are things that can quickly be ironed out and improved.
I think a bigger problem for Fallout 76 is that it’s not really a game you can quickly pick up and play. With a lot of people unconvinced by the core concept of the series going for this kind of freeform multiplayer, just being able to run through the early tutorials and get a brief taste of the early game probably isn’t going to convince them that this is a great idea. However, there’s certainly a lot of potential for multiplayer within the Fallout universe and I don’t think Bethesda would be taking this gamble if they themselves weren’t convinced by it. Deeper into the game, where the human interactions can increase, where the hunt for nuclear codes and tougher quests and adventures lie, there could be something a bit special here.
If you’re curious about the Fallout 76 BETA, it launches tonight on more platforms. You need to pre-order the game for access, but if you do, find out when you can play on PS4, Xbox One and PC here.