There’s a lot of tension in Fallout 76 between the series’ solitary past and its new multiplayer future. During my four hours in the game’s beta last night, these two sides of the game repeatedly rubbed up uncomfortably against one another. I have a tough time imagining how they’ll ever be reconciled.
Fallout 76 began with me emerging from the game’s titular vault on Reclamation Day into a small portion of West Virginia’s irradiated wasteland. I was ordered by the vault overseer to take back the country and rebuild civilization. I was immediately surrounded by other players, often with ridiculous names floating above their heads, awkwardly jerking this way and that. Our numbers quickly dwindled as we traveled further from that starting point, searching for better loot. By the time I’d emerged from the game’s nearest set of workbenches with a make-shift pistol and wooden board at my disposal, I felt entirely alone. Not just alone in the normal single-player Fallout way: Fallout 76 has no NPCs. I encountered my fair share of ghouls, mutants, mole rats, and quest-giving robots, but that was it. The parts of West Virginia I managed to visit in the limited time I had with the beta were mostly empty and abandoned, filled only with the occasional buzz of old time radios or the occasional pop of guns going off in the distance.
I spent most of my time following train tracks towards the east as they snaked in and out of small riverside towns. Scavenging the wasteland for good equipment, like laser guns and power armor, has always been a central part of Bethesda’s Fallout games, but Fallout 76 takes it to a new level with its in-depth crafting systems. Everything that can be collected in the world, whether it’s wild herbs or metal pots, can be processed into useful materials at one of the crafting benches stashed throughout the world. Raw foods can be seasoned and cooked to improve their nutritional value. Guns can be repaired, and ammunition can be crafted. Old clothes can be broken down into the raw materials necessary to stitch together something more protective.
I went into every building I could find, loading my pockets with all of the garbage inside: old magazines, board games, cooking utensils, skis, plungers, cups, flower pots, pencils. Occasionally I’d rummage through a dresser and find objects useful in their own right, like the bobby pins necessary to pick locks, but more often than not it was all junk. This junk is the life blood of Fallout 76. It’s how you build up not only your own equipment but also entire buildings, which can be used as personal forts to get a safe night’s sleep in and stash your valuables to make room in your pockets for even more junk.
It’s also what you lose when you die, either at the hands of an AI-controlled enemy or another player. Other players can loot your remains and take any spare teacups or metal plates you dropped. Anything that’s been stashed in your base or refined into raw crafting materials is safe, however, so there’s an incentive to plan your travels accordingly.
You can also trade your junk with other players, in addition to finished weapons, armor and the like. A few of the people I stumbled upon offered to trade with me via emotes (although voice chat is also an option), but since we had all only just started the game, our inventories looked mostly identical. Nuka Cola caps can be traded to robots at general stores throughout the world. I gave one about 40 for three bobby pins, which I then proceeded to break on a locked door in a nearby school cafeteria.
My long walks through Appalachia’s beautiful fall foliage, which included occasionally running toward mysterious PUBG-like supply drops, eventually yielded me enough enough wood, concrete, and other resources to build a cabin. This can be done in the vicinity of specially designated crafting benches, which can only be occupied by one player at a time. My cabin sat on a solid foundation and had four walls and a ceiling. I hung lights from it, added a small table with a radio on top, and created a sentry drone to watch the large opening where I had tried but failed to build a door. (Objects are crafted from a list and can be placed in spots where they appear green—while the system was easy to use overall, I found the finer points of door installation elusive.) I added a mattress on the ground and then slept for a few minutes to recover my character’s health. The first stage of reclamation was complete.
Then, after I left my new home, someone shot at me. I tried to retaliate, but—this part probably won’t be surprising—Fallout 76’s combat system is incredibly clunky. It’s good enough for facing down ghouls or even mutants, whose limited AI makes them easy targets. In fact, the stiffness of aiming and the long reload time on the game’s early guns play into an overall sense that anything could kill you at any moment and you should probably just go back to hiding in the vault. When forced to exchange pleasantries with other players, however, the difficulty of aiming and the delay between pulling the trigger button and a bullet leaving the chamber can get frustrating.
Fallout 76’s VATS system is one in name only. In practice, it simply lets you expend a certain amount of stamina to deploy an aimbot for a couple of hits. It no longer slows down time, due to being on a live server with other players. And though its new functionality would seem like a sensible trade-off, I often found it more cumbersome and distracting than simply trying to shoot at my target normally, even when that seemed to not be working either. Severe frame-rate issues didn’t help either. Since this is a beta, the finished game is likely to vary, but at least in my experience last night, any time too many players got together, the game’s performance took a big hit. I didn’t experience any weird bugs or glitches, but did struggle to accurately fire even at stationary targets when the game started to chug.
When someone kills you in Fallout 76 they become an outlaw. The game puts a bounty on their head and telegraphs their transgressions to the rest of the players on the server. The game also gives you the option of respawning near them to try to get your revenge rather than at your last checkpoint. I attempted revenge every time, even though it ended in my own death more often than not. Even at the end of the world Fallout 76 makes it easy to nurse grudges.. Even within the few hours the game was live last night, it was clear a hierarchy beginning to shake out based around guns, and my bolt action pistols were not cutting it.
This is the other side of Fallout 76, a semi-lawless state of nature where the people with the biggest sticks and the most junk set the tone. Since the consequences for killing or being killed aren’t very onerous, it didn’t make life feel nasty, brutish, and short. But it did remind me that, unlike in previous games, Fallout 76’s world doesn’t belong to me, but to the cumulative effect of my and 23 other people’s actions. Where games like Destiny 2 cordon off competition in specific modes, Fallout 76 sets it loose on the entire world. I have no idea what types of norms, communities, and memes will take shape and govern the game after it releases in November, but it does seem like their existence, for better or worse, will be inescapable.
Fallout 76 has its own main story and quests that involve trying to track down Vault 76’s overseer and learn about her backstory through recordings scattered across West Virginia. While exploring these locations on my own, the game’s felt even more convincing then the series’ past ones. The immersive fantasy, no matter how long it lasted, was eventually always broken by forces beyond my control: notifications for timed public quests popping up on my screen, other players rampaging through battlefields I was content to sneak through, someone walking up beside me wearing a party hat, aviators, and a police officer’s uniform. It felt like two games, each potentially great in its own right, competing with rather than complementing one another. Only time will tell which one will win.