Fallout 76 is filled with intriguing ideas, set amid an appealing post-apocalyptic sprawl ripe for exploration. It’s also a mess.
The latest Fallout sheds the narrative focus of its its single-player predecessor, Fallout 4, and introduces an online multiplayer setup where the human-controlled strangers you meet are supposed to fuel a new sort of storytelling. This bold new direction is not without its charms, but its consistently woeful execution leaves it feeling less like a playground of exciting possibilities and more like a graveyard of missed opportunities. Fallout 76 is not a soulless game, and there have been moments during my over 40 hours with it when its atmospheric beauty and pervading sense of despair profoundly affected me. Yet there have been many more moments during which its insipid quests and tedious item scavenging felt like a time-wasting struggle.
Seemingly every moment with this game is plagued by significant, noticeable problems. Glitches of varying intensity are routine. Quest lines occasionally hit invisible snags and fail to progress. Your progress can be undone with no warning, for reasons outside of your control. Every menu and system in the game is not just unrefined but actively hostile to amicable interactions. For weeks, I have been unable to play the game without it eventually crashing.
From its brief, hopeful beginning to its shallow, fatalistic end game, Fallout 76 occasionally resonated with me in deeply emotional ways. It is otherwise convoluted, incomplete, and broken.
Fallout 76 is the earliest game in the fictional Fallout timeline. It takes place 25 years after the “Great War” that killed most of the world, decades before the events of 1997’s Fallout. While a lot of its systems and stylistic flourishes are reminiscent of developer Bethesda’s past 3D Fallout games, 76 feels almost like a stripped-down reboot. The dialogue trees have been scrapped. The karma meter is gone. No faction wars. No non-player characters walking around. No robot detectives, no friendly feral ghouls, no fancy cocktail parties from which to sit and watch the world burn. There’s just you, trying to build a refuge in the woods where you can store all of the junk you pick up as you explore an overwhelmingly vast stretch of irradiated West Virginia. Play long enough, and you can launch a nuclear bomb of your own.
You play as character, man or woman, who made it into a protective vault just before the bombs dropped. It’s now 2102 and your vault, Vault 76, has just opened. Its inhabitants have been unfrozen and released to explore and reclaim Appalachia, but you quickly discover that the surrounding areas have been overrun by zombie-like creatures called the Scorched. The game’s main story, such as it is, has you retrace the footsteps of Vault 76’s commanding officer to find out more about the Scorch plague, whether it can be stopped, and how to take control of the region’s remaining nuclear missiles. What follows is a loose confederation of fetch quests, crafting missions, and protracted, glitchy shootouts that you can play alone or with other people.
Some of these individual chapters can be heartbreaking on their own, but feel anticlimactic and wearingly obligatory when taken as a whole. I sometimes excavated interesting backstories about West Virginians’ lives before the war and how they struggled to adapt to their new reality: say, a cook rediscovering his faith after the apocalypse, or a raider thinking about overdosing rather than resorting to cannibalism in order to survive. You vault’s commander, who in the Fallout-verse is known as an Overseer, is a fascinating figure. She’s expertly voiced by actor Adrienne Barbeau, and comes across as a leader full of compassion but also hubris. She spends many audio logs intimately chronicling of her life before the Vault. I would have liked to have met her. Unfortunately, like everyone else who once occupied Fallout 76’s Mountain State, I never got the chance. Despite that, the conclusion of the Overseer’s quest line is one of Fallout 76’s rare narrative payoffs, at least in theory. Too bad the game glitched out on me during what was supposed to be the climax.
I never met the Overseer because, like every other non-robot, non-player character (NPC) in the game, she never actually shows up. Aside from the other human-controlled players you’ll occasionally stumble across, Fallout 76’s West Virginia is a ghost world filled only with automated computer voices and audio diaries. Most of the main story missions involve going somewhere, shooting what’s there, then looting its body for an item in order to satisfy the demands of a robot programmed by people who died long ago. The only humans you can talk to in Fallout 76 are other players, and none of the other players I encountered had all that much interesting to say.
Past Fallout games were loaded with interesting NPCs and factional rivalries, and their absence leaves an interesting opening that Fallout 76 unfortunately fails to fill. The new game does away with a lot of the overbearing narrative restrictions that could actually make wandering the wasteland feel crowded and overly familiar, particularly in 2015’s Fallout 4. I liked not constantly having to contend with other characters as often as I did in that game, because it meant being able to explore Fallout 76’s factories, power plants, outposts, and West Virginia landmarks at my own pace and for my own reasons.
In fact, despite being the first online multiplayer game in the series, Fallout 76 is one of the loneliest video games I’ve ever played. That solitude can be refreshing at times, even rejuvenating. My tours of its rolling hills and through its muggy forests have been some of the most visually striking, emotionally arresting hikes I’ve had in any open world role-playing game in some time. Many modern games feel as if everything within them exists to be discovered, interacted with, and checked off a list by the person playing. Fallout 76’s world is more independent, quietly reverberating the echoes of a tragic past whether I’m listening or not.
While I’ve found that most of my destinations rarely hold interesting secrets, I’ve taken a surprising amount of joy and even solace from the journeys in between them. Fallout 76 nails the sensation of being out in the boundless wilderness, where the threat of the unexpected lies around every bend. It is not visually polished, particularly not when placed against its open-world video game contemporaries. Foliage is jagged and washed-out. Textures pop in constantly. At a distance, though, I often found it had an odd sort of beauty, like seeing nature’s scars reflected off the grimy surfaces of a junkyard at sundown.
At dawn and dusk, the light hits the rooftops of an abandoned main street, or hazily reflects through clearing storm clouds. It’s the first Fallout world I’ve wished I could visit myself, to feel my toes squishing through the wet grass, even to breathe in the air. There’s an Edenic quality to its mosaic of mountains, forest, deserts, and marshes that at times recalls Nintendo’s lovely Zelda games. More than once I found myself wondering if maybe it wouldn’t have been better for all of us to have just stayed in the vault and let this beautiful world recover without us.
Over a long enough time, Fallout 76’s solitude eventually begins to feel relentless, then immiserating, and then ultimately inescapable. Up to 24 different players at a time can call the same version of Fallout 76’s world home, but there are so few chances for meaningful interaction. Each character is signified as a little white dot on the map. You you can locate one, walk to their location, and proceed to talk, trade, team up, or fight. That’s pretty much it.
Once someone teamed up with me, and we carved through waves of enemies together. Afterward, they gifted me a number of stimpacks and fusion cores, an act so generous I felt somewhat ashamed accepting. Another time, two players dressed in raider gear found me while I was picking berries for a quest. They tried to initiate a player-versus-player (PvP) fight with me, something I would have to agree to before either of us could damage the other. I wasn’t interested, but they continued following and harassing me no matter where I went on the map until I finally logged off. Those two stories pretty much capture the limited range of player-authored drama for which Fallout 76 sets the stage, at least when it comes to interacting with strangers. The game can be played with friends, whether you both want to do the same thing or simply be teamed up while otherwise exploring completely different parts of the map. I actually found Fallout 76’s coop to be one of the more seamless features in game, even if in the end I used it only rarely, instead opting to spend most of my time with the game adventuring by myself.
Most of Fallout 76 revolves around journeying into unknown places in order to find weapons and scrap, which you can use to get more powerful, after which you can go into even more dangerous areas. As you explore and kill monsters you’ll level up, using a simple and streamlined leveling system that allows you to adapt your character’s skills as you play. V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) returns, but no longer freezes time. It acts as a temporary aimbot instead, which can still be useful, but only when it’s working correctly, which feels like almost never.
Your starting point of Vault 76 is located roughly in the center of the map, after which you’ll branch outward, exploring nearby towns and abandoned ski lodges before finally encountering the state capital. Eventually you’ll find volcanic mines, extensive flatlands, and fissures in the earth, which are home to dreaded Scorchbeasts. In each of those places you can pick up scads of random objects strewn about—glass bottles, coffee pots, animal bones—each of which can be broken down into the basic materials from which everything else in the game can be crafted. You can build guns, explosives, melee weapons, armor, and even structures for your campsite, which is your eminently upgradable refuge in the post-apocalyptic wilderness.
Every player in Fallout 76 gets their own personal Construction and Assembly Mobile Platform (C.A.M.P.), a device that lets you build your very own fort in the woods, complete with protective machine gun turrets and a stash box to house all of your extra junk. Your camp can house crafting benches for making better gear, fire pits for cooking whatever mutant animal you most recently killed, and even a bed on which to rest.
My camp stash allows me to store huge amounts of scavenged stuff, but I still spent far too much time in Fallout 76 anxiously trying to optimize my inventory. Everything weighs something. Even the bobby pins take up precious space. The hardest choices I’ve had to make in Fallout 76 weren’t about killing or saving people in the wastes, they were about whether or not to scrap that rare weapon I just found or to abandon an extra set of Power Armor I’d been trying to complete.
In addition to weight and backpack space, you’ll also have to manage your character’s hunger and thirst. If you become “dehydrated” or “starving,” you’ll reduce the amount of stamina you have for running and jumping as well as the weight you can carry, which leads to even more difficult choices over what to do with all the crap you’ve been hoarding. Adventuring into a cave or raider hideout requires collecting enough food and water beforehand, and lingering too long in hostile environments means potentially contracting debilitating diseases. Weapons also break easily and often need to be repaired. You can address each of those things at your camp, but the limits on what you can create and store can leave the experience feeling less like building an exciting new one-person village and more like rearranging a pile of leaves in a stiff gale.
Sometimes you’ll stumble upon another player’s camp, which is fun. You can make use of their crafting benches or borrow their fire pit to make a quick meal. Other times someone might stumble upon yours and you can say hello, invite them to trade, or even offer up your bed so they can catch a few winks. More advanced camps might even include equipment for mineral extraction or water purification, but every camp is constrained by hard limits on the total amount of objects and structures that can be placed within its perimeter. Your fort will never be a factory or a warehouse; it’ll always just be a little fort.
It also might temporarily disappear altogether. Each time you log on to Fallout 76 you’re put on a random server, and if you ever log onto a server where the position of your camp on the map overlaps with that of another player, one of you will find their camp broken apart and stored away back within their C.A.M.P. device. Each individual fragment can be placed back down again without needing to spend new resources, but hardly ever in the correct arrangement, and sometimes not at all. I’ve had the blueprints for more than one stored camp structure disappear altogether. Camps are mobile, and moving them around can be useful for a number of logistical reasons. Moving camps is similarly destructive, however, which, along with the likelihood of logging on and immediately needing to rebuild, incentivizes keeping things as bare bones as possible.
Some of Fallout 76’s camp problems could be fixed in future game updates. But even if they were, the underlying problem would remain: you can’t work together with other people in this game. Not really, anyway. Logging onto a new random server every time you load in means anything you did outside of your designated quests and personal character progression will be different. Your effect on the world is localized and ephemeral. You might have fun building a campsite alongside some other players, but your work will be undone as soon as you log off.
The denizens of Vault 76 were tasked with going forth and rebuilding America, but Fallout 76’s lack of permanence cuts against the very core of that mandate. This world is full of monstrous drills, power plants, dams, and radio towers—hulking monuments to the greed, grandeur, and collaborative spirit of America before the war. It’s also home to numerous outposts where the raiders are all now dead, either because they ate one another or because they succumbed to attacks by rival groups.
Fallout 76 makes it impossible to reenact or re-envision any of that. At best, you are a tourist on a hike, admiring nature’s resilience and ruminating on the folly of man. At its grimmest, you’re a graveyard keeper, setting Appalachia’s affairs in order as it slowly tears itself apart.
On a technical level, Fallout 76 is often a dismal experience. Just about everything in the game feels unresponsive. Menus scroll slowly, and sometimes require two or three button presses before things start moving. Its assortment of firearms can be satisfying enough to use, in a very crude sort of way, but the survivalist tension dissipates the moment a point-blank shot fails to register for no apparent reason.
I’ve been cornered in fights with mole miners and rabid dogs only for my melee attack to mysteriously freeze, leaving me defenseless as I wait for the game to figure itself out. Sleeping requires activating a separate camera mode during which you can still be attacked by enemies, but from which you must enact a drawn-out animation to exit. The acts of scrapping items, crafting new items, and modding existing items are each handled in different menus, requiring you to wait for each to load. Sometimes the load times are so long there’s a little animation.
Once I jumped off a ledge, only to land wedged in between a dumpster and a wall. I was unable to get out, which forced me to quit the game and reload. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every one of my play sessions ends with a crash—I haven’t been able to enjoy for a single sustained go at the game without it eventually failing. Sometimes it’ll crash on its own, other times the servers will disconnect. Sometimes it happens just as I’m taking down a legendary enemy. By the time I return to the game, the enemies I’d been fighting have been swapped out with another type altogether and the corpses I’d left unlooted have vanished, all because I’d loaded onto a different server. That’s just a brief sampling of the hidden dangers and obstacles which, even after two large patches, remain ever present in Fallout 76.
A lot of modern online games have suffered rough launches and come out the other side intact or, in some cases, vastly improved. The first Destiny followed its rough first year with an amazing expansion that overhauled much of the game. (The second Destiny did that too, come to think of it.) No Man’s Sky only started to become the game many hoped it would be earlier this year, two years and several significant patches after it first came out. It seems possible that Bethesda could manage something similar with Fallout 76, and that in six months or a year, this fractured and frustrating game could end up being something very different. That’s just a more generous way of saying that Fallout 76 shouldn’t have launched in its current state.
“War never changes,” Ron Perlman famously told Fallout players in 1997. The series’ seemingly dramatic shift to always-online multiplayer would seem to contradict that grim statement, but Fallout 76 is actually the tagline’s clearest manifestation yet. This is a mostly empty world in which, decades after the planet was mostly destroyed by nuclear war, survivors’ ultimate goal is to drop nukes of their own. It’s an unintentional ode to a vicious cycle that, due to its slipshod construction, has little to say about how that cycle can be escaped.
Shortly after you leave the Vault, you find a propaganda poster telling you to rebuild the country for a brighter future. It’s a pleasant dream, but all this game really lets you do is go out in the backyard and build a fort. You can invite your friends to the fort, and you can dream big dreams and hatch big plans. But you’ll never have the resources to put those plans in motion.
Before I played Fallout 76, I hadn’t really thought about what draws children to want to make forts. It’s got something to do with separating yourself from the routine, and from the predictability associated with your home, neighborhood, and community. A fort lets you declare yourself independent. You can make your own rules, and that independence imbues every task, no matter how small, with newfound meaning. You’re living by your own rules, estranged from the natural social order of things. Doing homework or cleaning the dishes is boring drudgery, but pitching a tent or fixing a rope-ladder feels like a divine calling. There are no chores in a fort, only the noble work of survival. It’s you and your friends versus the cold, the rain, and the occasional spider or neighborhood dog.
Fallout 76 relies heavily on that childlike sense of purpose. Whichever quests you end up doing or skipping, the larger world is always calling out for you to go and somehow make it better, make it new. If only you could.
No one is going to be building a new society with the tools this game makes available. This isn’t really “Fallout Online,” whatever that might be; it isn’t even Minecraft. It’s more akin to limited the co-op modes of a traditional first-person shooter than a bustling MMO like Final Fantasy XIV or a robust sociological experiment like Rust. It’s Fallout-lite with a multiplayer mod tacked on. Fallout 76’s underlying framework can be compelling, and its depiction of nature rebounding from collapse is at times irresistible. Everything else is just a big pile of rusted debris, stacked up like a child’s clumsy clubhouse.