Screenshot: Kotaku (Fallout 76)

Fallout 76 is out today, three years after the last game in the series, Fallout 4. Unlike its predecessor it’s not a single-player open world role-playing game, but an online multiplayer one. It also went through a lengthy beta period, with players’ progress from those sessions carrying over into official release today. As a result, the game’s official release feels most like another milestone on the difficult journey to predict what the game will become. The more I explore the far corners of the map, trying to decode mysterious radio signals and collect better Power Armor pieces while steering clear of its dangerous threats, the more unsure I am whether to hate Fallout 76 for its stockpile of small frustrations or to love it in spite of them.

After 15 hours with the game across its beta and today’s release, I expected my feelings about the game to come into stronger focus, but it’s been the opposite. While it feels increasingly like Fallout 4.5 with multiplayer, I’m increasingly less sure about what the implications of that might be. Is the fact that another player can try to kill me at any moment a distraction from the rest of the game or one of the most important factors undergirding it? It’s still too early to say.

Here’s something I’ve experienced in the game more than once. The sun’s just gone down and it’s dark out. I can barely make out what’s in front of me on the mountain path I’m following toward my next objective marker. Then a howl, followed by a second and third. All of the sudden I’m surrounded by wounded dogs I can’t really see. I try to shoot them, but the game’s stiff controls make it impossible. I try to use the V.A.T. system, which is supposed to let me spend AP in exchange for auto-aiming, but now I’m suffering from thirst and hunger and I don’t have any points left.

The edges of Fallout 76's map constantly taunt you with questions about what lies just over the horizon and how fast it will kill you.
Screenshot: Kotaku (Fallout 76)

I search my inventory, while being repeatedly bitten, in hopes of finding a good melee weapon, but they’re all busted because I’m still missing one of the four ingredients needed in each case to repair them. So I try to karate chop the dogs with the butt of my 10mm. Repeatedly and haphazardly I smash the right shoulder button. But often nothing happens, or the attack occurs on a delay. A minute goes by and I’ve only killed one of the dogs. Finally, after much frantic flailing and two stempacks later, they’re dead.

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I loot the bodies for meat and decide now would be a good time to fast-travel back to my campsite so I can cook some food and get rid of my hunger. The game says I can’t because there are still enemies around. I look for them. Nothing. Listen for them, still nothing. I twirl around searching my compass for any sign of a red dot representing said enemies. Nothing. Finally, after walking half the distance to my camp, the game says the coast is clear and lets me teleport.

This is just one example of the nonsense in Fallout 76. Of course, there’s been similar nonsense in previous Fallout games, but here there’s no quicksave, pausing, or magical V.A.T. system to help grease things along. Instead there’s even more friction, with survival and crafting mechanics to manage as well as a messy perk system that feels more like playing spider solitaire than navigating a traditional skill tree.

While it’s early days for the full game of Fallout 76, a lot of people have already made up their minds. Some spent the greater part of this morning review bombing the game on Metacritic, writing things like “Basically it’s an asset flip of Fallout 4, minus real quests, plus multiplayer.” Others were pitched against Fallout 76 as soon as it was announced, feeling that rather than building on the series’ grand single-player legacy, Bethesda was planning to flog it for microtransaction cash by turning into a battle royale-esque online shooter. Reactions from vocal minorities like this aren’t new, but they feel especially ill-suited to a game with so many different sides to it that’s still in its infancy.

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You run into people infrequently enough in Fallout 76 that when it does happen, at least for now, people usually stop and try to connect in some way.
Screenshot: Kotaku (Fallout 76)

At times Fallout 76 feels like any other modern Fallout, just with random strangers with weird names above their heads occasionally running by. There are audio logs to find, mutants to kill, and computer terminals to hack, most of which can be done without every dealing with another human being. There are only 24 players to a server, and since the map is roughly four times bigger than Fallout 4’s, the game can feel surprisingly but refreshingly lonely at times.

Some of my favorite moments with the game so far have simply been exploring a dilapidated house or factory building alone, picking through containers while the game’s soundtrack of beautiful forlorn violins hum softly in the background. At times Fallout 76 has the emotional resonance and narrative slow burn of a walking simulator, in which environmental storytelling through found objects and audio recordings do the bulk of the heavy lifting.

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At the same time, the concessions the game makes in order to accommodate multiple humans is hard to ignore, even if other players are rarely present. Timed events pop up on the map at regular intervals, pulling you to some far corner of the map to team up with other Vault dwellers in the hopes of getting the resources your survival depends upon. Usually this means fighting off a horde of enemies together which, even when repetitive, fosters a slight sense of flourishing together or not at all. Most of the time, quests are doled out by robots and pre-recorded tapes hooked up to automated machinery. In this regard the world is more like a post-apocalyptic fun house to scavenge through than a living, breathing world, but there are still small but vibrant pockets of civilization humming along.

Narratively, Fallout 76 takes place prior to the rest of the series. Set in the beginning of the 22nd century, not long after the bombs fell, the game’s players are supposed to take on the role of homesteaders taking back the wasteland. One consequence of this design choice is that Fallout 76 relies on each server’s players to provide the storylines, cultural subtleties, and violent confrontations that normally drive the arc of a Fallout game.

Screenshot: Kotaku (Fallout 76)

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That means that while you can play Fallout 76 like a single-player game, you won’t get the Fallout experience unless you go out of your way to be social. So far, most people have been busy looking for their first gun or simply trying to find enough food and water to keep from starving all the time. That means most of the multiplayer storylines haven’t had time to properly emerge yet, and likely won’t for a least several more days, if not weeks.

However, a small but noticeable subset of the game’s more veteran players decided to celebrate Reclamation Day, the day when residents of Vault 76 leave to find fame and fortune in the land above, by helping brand new players out. Some players have out helpful starting equipment or simply said hi by adding a beer to their inventory. I’ve had a number of people come up to me during my travels and greet me with a thumbs up emote before asking me if I want to trade. It’s early enough in the game’s life that neither of us have much to offer the other, but on more than one occasion I’ve exchanged various types of ammunition, just for the hell of it. If nothing else, it’s a testament to how eager players are to create meaningful human interactions where none are fabricated in the game itself.

These types of interactions are what I’m interested to see develop, especially as they become augmented by end-game activities. Throughout my journey so far, everything I’ve already accomplished has increasingly felt like a tutorial for something bigger: an eventual carnival of player vs. player faction wars, raid-like co-op bosses, and nuclear code arms races. Fallout 76 might have released today, but it still doesn’t feel like it’s gotten completely started yet.