Video Games

Fallout 76 Will Trigger Your Existential Crisis

Unlike previous entries in the series, the new, online-only game never justifies its own existence.

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Bethesda Softworks

If you're anything like me, playing Fallout 76 is likely to provoke bouts of existential self-examination.

The game raises questions, such as: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? Is there a purpose to my existence? Is it to scour a desolate virtual landscape looking for desk fans while being pummeled by super mutants? To engage in clunky, frustrating shoot-outs with irradiated human husks that somehow manage an astonishing level of accuracy with various firearms? Or maybe to talk to funny robots and listen to audio diaries of dead survivors of a nuclear apocalypse while trying, pathetically, to build a defensible little fort that I will inevitably lose due to a game-breaking glitch that any real-world insurance agent, even the most devout atheist, would doubtlessly categorize as an act of god?

But mostly: Why, dear lord, why am I still playing this game?

Over the past decade or so, I have played hundreds and hundreds of hours of Fallout games—Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 4—and I've spent similar amounts of time in the Elder Scrolls games, the sister series of role-playing games created by Bethesda Softworks. And while those games have occasionally caused me to wonder just what, exactly, I am doing with my life, I have always been able to provide an answer: I play for the stories, for the characters, for the world, for the systems of emergent gameplay, for the sheer, overwhelming, immersion of these massive, ridiculous games. And — if I am being honest—every now and then, I play for the desk fans.

To understand why Fallout 76 is such a frustrating mess of a game, you have to understand the appeal of previous games in the Fallout franchise. Since the 2008 release of Fallout 3, the main entries in the series have been single-player open-world role-playing games that you play in a first-person perspective, a lot like a modern shooter. Think of a futuristic, video-game version of Dungeons & Dragons, played by yourself, which you experience looking down the barrel of a gun (or a spiked baseball bat, or a powered punching glove, or a deathclaw gauntlet, or…you get the idea). But the Fallout series differs from conventional first-person shooters in some notable ways. First, unlike nearly all other shooters, the combat doesn't occur exclusively in real time. There's a gameplay mechanism called the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.) that allows you to freeze or slow time, targeting specific parts of specific enemies, making the experience resemble a "turn-based" game like X-Com or Shadowrun or, for that matter, classic tabletop role-playing games like D&D. There are no 20-sided dies present, but the game involves a lot of hidden dice roles. This slows down the pace and makes it more contemplative and tactical, inasmuch as a video game shootout with a horde of mutated rat creatures can be.

Second, the emphasis is as much on story and character as on combat. You spend a lot of time in dialogue trees with various computer-controlled non-player characters, or NPCs. Some of these NPCs have very little to say; they are little more than information kiosks with faces. But in each of the previous games, there were more than a few memorable characters—a robot detective, an Elvis impersonator who ran a gang in a lawless part of town, a freedom-fighting retro radio DJ, irradiated ghouls who have somehow maintained their intelligence, and so on and so forth. In some cases, these characters become your traveling companions, and you spend a lot of time with them, getting to know their quirks and preferences. These are games with a surfeit of personalities, and they give the series a lively sense of the breadth and depth of human (and post-human) weirdness at the margins of existence.

It's not just about the characters, though. It's also about the world. The games are set in sprawling mock-ups of post-apocalyptic cities—Boston, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C.—that make deft use of environmental storytelling. Even when you're just aimlessly wandering, you encounter scenic dioramas that tell succinct stories, often about someone's untimely end. Some of these scenes are blackly comic; others are tragic. You end up feeling a little like a murder detective, traipsing through a world filled with the dead, examining clues to how they lived and died.

You also run across countless cities and communities, cobbled together from the ashes of the old world, struggling to eke out a measure of survival in a harsh world. Many of these ramshackle communities have ruling orders—governments or town leaders or family elders—and the storylines often revolve around internal political disputes and squabbles over local politics. The Fallout games are premised on the assumption that most people will self-organize into little bands and tribes, that most will be peaceful and some will be violent, and that, in any case, shabby politics will inevitably intrude and make life a little less pleasant. They are set in a world where government has failed, and where it continues to fail.

You also find a whole lot of leftover, pre-apocalyptic crap. In the Fallout games, there are a huge number of minor objects you can interact with: everything from paint cans to soda bottles to brooms and hot plates and batteries and duct tape and boxes of ancient cleaning products and cereal—and, well, desk fans. These items can be traded to in-game vendors or consumed for health, or, in Fallout 4, broken down and turned into parts that can be used to upgrade your weapons and armor, allowing you customize your armor and armory to a fairly obsessive degree, so long as you're willing to pick through the heaps upon heaps of stuff the game scatters around the world.

You can also build homesteads in certain locations, setting up what are essentially defensible farms. The more you build, the more they become populated by computer-controlled locals, who scrape at the ground and gripe about the misery of existence and occasionally fight off gangs of AI raiders. You're not just a scavenger; you're a wasteland combo of our last two presidents, part real estate developer and part community organizer.

It's possible to spend as much time scrapping aluminum cans, collecting glue bottles, and upgrading sniper barrels as you do fighting gigantic mutant spider-creatures. (In this way and others it's more than a little like No Man's Sky.) The games are virtual havens for those with crap-collector tendencies, and they tend to turn even the most committed minimalists into into hoarders, junk hunters, and DIY weapons enthusiasts. The appeal is in the expansiveness and immersion of the worlds, and the sense of endless opportunity they offer.

Fallout 76 resembles its predecessors in many ways: The open-world exploration, the clunky combat, the mountains of reusable junk. But it differs in one crucial aspect: You don't play alone.

Instead of computer controlled NPCs, every single other person you encounter is controlled by a real human being here in the real world, who is interacting with the same game world, at the same time as you.

Doin' it for the desk fans.
Bethesda Softworks

There are story reasons for this; the game is set in the ruins of West Virginia early in the Fallout timeline—after the nuclear war, but before humanity began to resettle the planet. But it changes the experience from a rich, lonely fiction into an awkward social nightmare. Somehow, it makes the game feel more lonely than ever.

It means, among other things, that the combat now takes place entirely in real time, since you can't slow time for one player but not another. (A V.A.T.S. system still exists, but it's a kludgy, real-time auto-aim that often works less well than just pointing and shooting.) It means that there are no robot detectives or freedom-fighting DJs to meet, no surprisingly intelligent irradiated ghouls to befriend. It means that every community you find is dead, and that the stories are all told via the audio logs and notes of survivors who ultimately didn't survive. There are a handful of friendly robots, but they exist primarily as vendors or dispensers of mission details; they are as interesting to converse with as an automated telephone system. Press seven to start your next boring quest.

Yes, the game carries over the series' bleakly comic skepticism of government and politics (an early mission that takes you through a bombed out capitol building filled with notes and recordings that tell a story about corrupt dealings between politicians and local mining interests). But the "characters" are all long expired; the narratives are just diaries of the dead. As a result, the game feels cold and lifeless, like a long walk through a fictional mausoleum.

When you do happen to encounter another player, it disrupts any sense that you've been transported to a fictional place. Looting hot plates from a bombed-out skyscraper is still fun, in a way, until you run into Woodchipper67 or BernieFanSince09 trawling through the same building. In theory, you could team up with these people, but it's not clear why you'd want to; game objectives must still be triggered individually, coordination opportunities are limited. Fallout 76 is just more proof that hell is other people.

The presence of others is also a huge departure from the isolation that made previous entries in the series so enjoyable. When I play a Fallout game, I want to lose myself in an immersive post-apocalyptic landscape set against the ruins of a dysfunctional America. Adding a social aspect makes it more like Twitter.

Okay, bad analogy.

Bethesda Softworks

What all this means is that the core of Fallout 76 is collecting and modifying stuff: hunting for junk, scrapping it, and using it to build up your weapons, armor, and home base. The game takes the base building system from Fallout 4 and emphasizes it even further, but drops the socio-political aspect. You're no longer a settlement organizer; you're just building a hideout for yourself…so that you can…do more of that. It feels pointless. It is pointless. But you search and collect and scrap your way through the game anyway, because that's all there is to do. In Fallout 76, it's all desk fans.

It doesn't help that the game is riddled with bugs. Once again, the social aspect makes this worse. Previous Fallout games have been glitchy, but you could usually go back to a recent save. Because 76 is always online, there's no conventional saving (saving is essentially a way of reversing time), so if you're inexplicably booted from the server, you often end up outside of the quest area, forced to fight your way through enemies you've already killed again. There are other issues: Enemies appear in front of you with no warning, your base disappears, the stuff you've collected becomes inaccessible. The problems are so frequent and so infuriating that I sometimes wondered if the developers were actively attempting to undermine my play. Why was I playing this game?

Arguably more than any other form of entertainment, video games implicitly raise the question: Are they worth your scarce and precious time? The best video games, like the best novels or television shows or board games, are in some sense self-justifying: In exchange for your time they offer beauty, amusement, cleverness, suspense, wit, drama, pleasure, or escape. Up until now, the Fallout franchise has offered enough of these to keep me coming back. Fallout 76, sadly, fails to justify its own existence. This wasteland journey is just a waste.

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  1. At least they don’t have to re-write history for this video game.

    1. But they did choose to rewrite the history *in* the game.

  2. Eh, I’ve been having fun with it. The social aspect is great if you’re playing with people you know.

    It’s a different type of game and different experience.

    Except for the hoarding of course.

    1. But isn’t EVERYTHING better if you’re doing it with people you know?

      That isn’t praise, IMO.

      Howard also said it was a good experience single player. It really, really is not.

  3. I think this article dances around the chief problem of Fallout 76 without quite addressing it. The problem with Fallout 76 is not that it’s an exploration-focused survival game. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s great. the problem with Fallout 76 is that the marketing and PR for it was selling it as Fallout 5, so there’s lots of folks trying it expecting Fallout 5 and getting this Fallout-themed survival game instead.

    So yeah. If you wanted an RPG experience, don’t get Fallout 76. If you like survival games, but you could do with less base-building and more custom-written stuff to explore instead of procedurally generated weirdness? Then it’s great.

    But yeah, the biggest failing of Fallout 76 is that the marketing/PR pushed it as something it’s not, and then marketing/PR team keeps fucking up at every turn.

    1. And the bugs and glitches.
      But you’re on the mark about the PR/marketing failure. The name “Fallout” implies certain expectations that 76 failed to deliver. This is akin to SimCity Society, Command and Conquer 4 (which I’m still angry about), and (music-wise) Opeth’s albums including and after Heritage. (The only good example here is the last one.) Hell, just look at other Fallout spin-offs that failed: e.g. Brotherhood of Steel.

      1. Oops, that should be SimCity Societies.

      2. And the bugs and glitches.

        Eh.

        It’s tragic, but expecting bugs and glitches in newly released games has been normalized. So while I’d prefer that they didn’t, that’s a gaming-culture problem and not a Bethesda-problem.

        That said, I think that you certainly can release games that take radical directions in gameplay from other entries in a series. You just have to be very up-front that’s what you’re doing so you don’t create false expectations. To use your own example of Fallout Tactics, the problem with that game wasn’t that the gameplay was radically different (that was an up-front expectation), it’s that it failed on (A) being a good game on it’s own merits, and (B) actually using the Fallout lore. But it being a different game genre/experience wasn’t a failing.

        Similarly, Fallout 3 did the same thing. From announcement, you knew it wasn’t going to be an isometric turn-based RPG like Fallout and Fallout 2, it was going to be something more like the Elder Scrolls games.

        Other examples are the Final Fantasy series and the Final Fantasy Tactics branch.

        So you can have spin-off games in a different game genre set in the same series/world/whatever, you just have to be clear that’s what you’re doing so you don’t build up false expectations. For Fallout 76, they did not meet that bar, which is why you have a lot of people that got the game with wrong ideas. It’s a PR/marketing failure, not a game failure.

        1. Fallout 3, for all it’s horrendous, could easily be seen as a mainline entry of Fallout, and FFT had “Tactics” appended to it to differentiate. “76” Isn’t enough of a differentiation. With all that said, the biggest problem here, though, is that 76 isn’t that good of a game in a genre that’s already overly saturated. And I think you’re downplaying those bugs and glitches. That patch they released felt like a fucking joke.

          1. for all of it’s horrendous issues is what I meant to type out. Proofreading is for losers.
            ?(????)?

          2. “76” Isn’t enough of a differentiation

            ?
            To quote myself…

            [?] the problem with Fallout 76 is that the marketing and PR for it was selling it as Fallout 5 [?]

            So you can have spin-off games in a different game genre set in the same series/world/whatever, you just have to be clear that’s what you’re doing so you don’t build up false expectations.

            And I think you’re downplaying those bugs and glitches.

            Yes. Let me use an analogy.

            You have two groups of people going to the same restaurant XY. Group A thinks restaurant X serves “X” food, Group B thinks restaurant X serves “Y” food. Turns out it serves “Y” food. Also turns out they over-salt the foot a bit. Group A complains that the food isn’t “X” food, and it’s over-salted to boot. Group B agrees it’s over-salted, but is overall happy.

            No, it’s not good that it’s over-salted, but that’s beside the core reason folks are dissatisfied with their experience. It’s insult to injury, but not injury.

      3. And yet no one last thier shit over Fallout Shelter not being a classic open world action RPG. Go figure.

        This is just the next iteration of Internet Hate Mobbing.

        1. Fallout Shelter was also free, last I checked. Not $60.

          Expectations at the price are dramatically different.

        2. Fallout Shelter was released the day it was announced, and was free. There were no false expectations because there was (A) no time to build them up, and (B) it was made very clear, from the get-go, that this was another base-building tower-defense thing with no story, and not a full RPG experience.

          Very different beasts.

    2. I honestly feel like the settlement building of Fallout 4 was its weakest link, for exactly the same reason. Fallout had a great system, and then they tried to bolt on a minecraft/rimworld base building component to it. It was shallow, and distracting from what made the original Fallouts so enjoyable.

      If you want survival base building, there are so many other franchises out there that could scratch this itch and spraypainting Fallout Boy on this clone isn’t doing enough to require my subscription.

      1. The settlement building in FO4 falls flat because Bethesda Game Studios, as they are want to do, used its existence to basically say ‘ok, we don’t have to do any work the players can do’ and so didn’t bother to design interesting settlements. They just plopped a dozen or more small buildable areas, a couple buildings, and called it good enough, the modders will fix it.

        1. Too bad 76 is one of those Bethesda games where you won’t be able to make non-trivial mods.

        2. “”didn’t bother to design interesting settlements.””

          I see you are not familiar with Fallotu 76 then. Lots of intersting settlements. No one is living in them anymore, and that’s part of the story. But they are interesting.

    3. Its not an exploration focused survival game – though it has elements of that and presents itself as one. It has elements of several different genres in it. Except that the developer went out of their way to neuter all the game mechanics until they’re meaningless and reduced to a series of annoying task that drag you away from doing the only part of the game that’s even kind of fun – shooting shit. Its actually a really shitty survival game. Since resources are so abundant the search for them never drives the gameplay loop. It really just boils down to ‘when an icon shows on the screen, stop playing, open the pipboy, click on an item, continue’. You’re never thinking about where you’re going to get what you need. There’s no tension as you move from place to place only a meal or two away from a game-over. Same with weapons deterioration, radiation, ammo, diseases – all irrelevant in a game that showers you with loot to the point that you’re just throwing shit away because you can’t carry anymore (thanks to trying to build a large MP game on a db structure that can’t handle it).

      2. The marketing never suggested this was FO5 ‘with friends’. They’ve been pretty clear about this being an open-world shooter-looter.

  4. Bethesda a shit. Multiplayer is for fags. New Vegas is still the best modern Fallout despite the cut content and bugs.

    1. Either the link doesn’t work or whatever you linked to doesn’t exist anymore.

      1. I think it was the tweet associating this story with legalizing sex work.

  5. Bethesda games are the epitome of quantity over quality. Open world games in general just seem like tedious time wasters

    1. Life by numbers is for the weak.

  6. Maybe they can get Shatner on SNL again…

  7. It sounds like Fallout jumped into the MMORPG space without learning the lessons of successful MMORPGs.

    1. Most modern Fallouts should learn how to be a good RPG first before tacking on more crap.

  8. I disagree completely. I’ve got to play a few hours with some friends and we had a really good time getting our asses kicked by super mutants. I love that its a more true experience to being apocalyptically alone. I think the game is hated for what people thought it should be and not for what it is.

    It also cracks the door a little bit further open in the future of entertainment by giving us an experience we may crave, not necessarily one we think we want.

  9. I’ve loved the Fallout universe since Fallout 1.

    When I first heard about Fallout 76, I wasn’t sure if I would like it. The game play trailers looked beautiful so I thought it might be close to Fallout 5. I decided to wait and see what reviewers said.

    I’m glad I waited.

    1. Same here. Online Multiplayer ONLY? Hard pass.

      1. Crashes ruining my game when I’m doing single player? No thanks on that one.

        It might be good in the future. I’m not optimistic, but it might be.

  10. Hey, did you guys know that they don’t change the nuke codes after every launch? Nope. So as soon as you get a keycard, head to the FO76 Reddit and get the codes for the week.

    Again, another example of them putting in a system and then making it irrelevant.

  11. Simply put, taking a game, whose series was based on the desolation of being one of the survivors of a nuclear apocalypse, and making it a subpar MMO is one of the dumbest ideas I could fathom. It’d be like doing GTA in Amish country.

    1. Fallout isn’t a post-apocalyptic game; it’s a post-post-apocalyptic. I don’t think one has every played as an actual survivor but as a descendent of one.

      1. Shit, you’re right. I think 76, sadly, is the closest, chronologically, to the bombing.

        Well, except for the opening of 4 which occurred during the bombing.

      2. Fallout 1: Emerge from vault.

        Fallout 3: Emerge from vault.

        Fallout 4: Emerge from a vault.

        Three out of four of the titled games in the series have a character emerge from the vault. Fallout 2 is the exception. Fallout New Vegas was a spin off it’s the game that sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the series.

        1. I actually liked NV a lot. More than 3.

          1. NV was designed by Obsidian and published by Bethesda. It still uses their jank-ass engine from 3, but it was made by people involved in the series since it’s inception.

    2. This^

      Whomever decided to make Fallout an MMO doesn’t get the appeal of the previous games: The hopeful hopelessness of the residents of Megaton, or Diamond City. The horrible choices the character (you) have to make with regard to using, exploiting, killing, or stealing from other people who seem real. The palpable loneliness felt when leaving friendly sanctuaries to explore the wastelands. The human aspects gone. Replaced by some gamerboys, or…nothing but holotapes and robots. Whats the point?

      1. We told them what we wanted. We didn’t even make it hard. We just said ‘This Fallout 4 thing you’ve done? We’d like to play it with one or two friends.’

        Balance? How does the story work with more than one player? ‘We don’t care, we’ll work around it. Just add in a little MP to FO4.’

        Instead they took the last remnants of what we came to their games for and doubled down on all the irrelevant and bad shit we merely put up with.

  12. combat now takes place entirely in real time, since you can’t slow time for one player but not another

    VATS is for sissies anyway.

    1. When compared to Fallout’s shit aim and the like…V.A.T.S is vastly superior.

      It’s hardly great…but it is the least bad option.

      1. If you can’t aim without assistance, you shouldn’t be playing a shooter.

        1. If one was playing a shooter, I’d agree. Fallout is about as much a shooter as Hellgate London was.

          1. Fallout 4 was pretty obviously a shooter as far as I’m concerned. I understand that longtime Fallout players were not happy with this decision and relied on wonky mechanics to make it less like a shooter.

            1. Fallout 3 hits are a matter of dice rolls, not aim. So if you didn’t have a small guns/big guns/energy weapons of 75 or better, your aim wouldn’t matter; you were going to miss a lot even with the crosshairs right on the target. New Vegas added aiming down sights which made those stats damage modifiers and not hit modifiers. (And yes, there’s a FO3 mod that allows aim down sights and it’s pretty much essential in my book)

              Before New Vegas using VATS was a necessity until you were high enough level to have spent a decent amount of skill points on your weapon of choice.

  13. Okay, here’s your cluestick Suderman. Same cluestick to the rest of the outrage groupies rending their neckbeards in anguish over the game:

    THIS IS NOT A SING:E PERSON ACTION RPG!

    It was never intended to be. Shitting your pants because it’s not Fallout 5 is stupid.

    It’s an online multiplayer game with survival and building elements and a lot of mechanics to limit griefing. It’s like a softcore Rust, or Minecraft with super-mutants.

    Not saying this game doesnt’ have flaws, but treating it like Bethesda just raped your kittens is pathetic.

  14. Also – No Dogmeat 🙁

  15. All I can say is I can’t wait for Starfield and CyberPunk to come out. I may get around to checking this out but I am not much of an multi-player RPG type so I didn’t care about it.

    For those complaining that they thought they were getting Fallout 5 either pay attention to what your buying or shut up. Bethesda made it very clear that it was an entirely different sort of game then they have ever made and even broke with company tradition and announced Starfield and ES6 early to pacify traditional single player fans that they weren’t abandoning the genre.

    1. The B.E.T.A was enough to make me realize I had zero desire to buy this. An easy cancel decision there.

  16. You should stop playing triple-A trash Suderman. You undoubtedly have a Steam account. Where’s the Reason review of Rimworld?

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