Up until now we've heard all the buzzwords surrounding Fallout 76, and have even got a chance to play it when we visited West Virginia last month, but now the beta (or B.E.T.A.) test is up and running on Xbox One and a number of vault-dwellers have already taken to the servers to see exactly how all these systems work in practice. We were among those lucky enough to emerge on Reclamation Day, and we got stuck in for the first four-hour window in which the beta was available.
We won't explain too much about what the overarching concepts are, as we've all heard by now that it's an online experience and all that business (head this way for the fundamentals if you want to get up to speed before reading the rest of this), and instead we'll explore how the experience translated into a minute-by-minute experience. From the very start, in fact, we were greeted by our fellow man as we woke up in Vault 76 and found that it was time to leave and rebuild America, and of course as with any online experience this involved some tomfoolery and a quick fistfight in the vault lobby.
At the start the beta felt like The Elder Scrolls Online in the sense that loads of people are just running around and lining up to hand in the same quests. Without NPCs you have to rely on text and audio for your narrative, so by accessing a few terminals and listening to some logs, we got a sense of the story behind Vault 76, and perhaps some secrets that it's hiding underneath the veneer...
This method of storytelling is divisive, because part of the appeal of Fallout games is the rich tapestry of characters they offer, but with this it's a hell of a lot of reading and listening, the latter of which is made way more difficult when things go bad and gunfire starts drowning out important audio logs. It's not the most engaging way to deliver the story, and we found ourselves following the waypoints for the quests rather than listening and taking in all of the narrative being thrown at us.
As we exited the vault with all of our belongings, we had to do a few more initiation quests before the world really opened up to us and PvP was enabled. This introduction took around an hour and saw us instructed in the ways of crafting, which is deep enough to entice survival fans but not intrusive enough to scare away the newcomers.
Everything can be broken down into scrap incredibly easily at workbenches - including all the junk you find in the world - and then you can use these ingredients to easily craft weapons, armour, modifications, repairs, and more. It's much the same as we've seen in Fallout 4, except this time there's more of a survival feel with thirst and hunger bars. These don't deplete exceedingly fast, so it's never a chore, and with plenty of stuff to cook right from the get-go at any cooking site, it's not hard to stay stocked up. Plans and recipes can also be unlocked, increasing your options, including one we found for a good ol' fashioned ribeye steak.
Once we'd crafted the obligatory items to show the game we weren't inept, we found ourselves inundated with options on where to go and what to do. The main quest took us north to Morgantown, for example, but the side quests were already piling up and an event had even kicked off to the west. These events - much like those in Destiny - happen every now and then and see you join a load of other players in completing a particular task for rewards, like killing some rogue robots. They're spontaneous little additions to the game that are really fun and bring people together, even if they've all got selfish mercenary goals.
Speaking of other players, they'll have a meaningful impact on your experience in a number of ways. They can be traded with, battled, and conversed with for a really social experience (there's game chat as you'd expect), and lone wolves can recruit members to their team on the fly by interacting with each other in-game. This lets you fast-travel to your fellow team members and take on tasks together, with buffs being applied with certain perk cards (we'll get back to those), and of course, emotes help keep things extra entertaining. One instance saw us signal 'follow me' to a random passer-by, who joined us on our adventure and later became a team member.
When you're not engaged with quests you can always build a CAMP, which is, of course, an extension of the base building in Fallout 4. The scrap materials you gather can be put to use on walls, roofs, floors, turrets, ornaments, and everything in between. Everything comes in various shapes, sizes, and materials, so you can really customise, and what's even better is that it also serves as a fast-travel point for your adventures. When monsters come attacking though, you'll need to repair and replace things, especially since super mutants are no laughing matter this time around.
Speaking of customisation, there are a number of ways you can personalise your own character, as there's the character creation as well as a new perk system built around Perk Cards. Each time you level up you get a card pack, and here we saw some of the options available, as we assigned cards to Strength that reduced the weight of all chems by 30%, while another in Charisma gives you 5% more XP when on a team. You can't equip them all as they have level requirements and you have a limited number of points to assign, but it's a great way to adapt the existing systems fans knew into something equally varied and enjoyable.
Another thing that carries over virtually untouched from Fallout 4 is the feel of the combat, as many of the same guns appear alongside new variants, with the weaponry handling exactly the same as it did back then. As such it feels like an online version Fallout 4, and if you've played that game you'll feel right at home here. The 10mm pistol, for example, threw us right back to our time playing that last game in the series, and classics like the hunting rifle join the likes of shovels, pipe pistols, baseball grenades, and a whole lot more.
There are new enemies though, including Scorchers that we had to defeat while attending a rescue call, as well as old favourites like Mirelurks and feral ghouls. Radtoads are also among the rabid wildlife to look out for, and it's safe to say that neither you nor your team will be short of things to kill during your time in the wasteland. Occasionally legendary enemies rock up too, which require much more damage if you're to send them to their death, offering a larger challenge for wanderers. One of those we saw on our journey was a legendary wild mongrel, who forced us to run away for fear of death.
VATS is important to mention here too, as you obviously can't slow time down in an online game, but what you can do is improve your aim. How it works here is that you hit one button to get VATS up, highlighting the enemies, and then you use attack to get a more accurate shot, all of which happens in real-time. It's not the same as it was and it takes some time to get used to, but we had fun messing around with it.
While Fallout 76 clearly looks and feels the same as 4 (especially with the character models) West Virginia in itself is a far more beautiful place in many respects. Seeing the world shift into dawn with the early morning sun piercing the trees and illuminating the autumn leaves was really wonderful, and contrasts nicely with the ruined remnants of civilisation that are dotted around the wilderness. There's a nice mix between wilderness and buildings too, so you won't just be running around the woods getting lost all the time.
Even in the darkness there's something wonderful about Fallout 76, as the dreary interiors will need to be illuminated by your Pip-Boy and creatures can easily sneak up on you. In fact, there's a constantly evolving weather system that might see you drenched in rainfall one minute then basking in sunlight the next, which adds to the feeling that this world really is alive.
One thing that we should say though is that - for all its merits in art style - the game runs pretty poorly as of right now. The frame-rate regularly dipped on our Xbox One and occasionally even stopped for a few seconds, making it very frustrating to play. The loading times for certain areas were also dire, so we really hope these issues get ironed out sharpish.
We experienced a few surprises in the wasteland too, including a shocking mutation that we developed. As has been mentioned before, being exposed to radiation means that there's a chance of this happening, and ours was Talons, which lowered our agility while giving us a 25% increase in unarmed damage with bleed damage added on for good measure. This is another slightly more random way that your playstyle can be altered and means a more meaningful impact from radiation than just lowering your health.
Another surprise came in the form of a Bobblehead, which we found in a urinal. This wasn't just a collectible though, because it turns out we could use it to gain 2 points in Intelligence for an hour. Considering we didn't see another in our time in the beta though, we'd say these are worth using with caution.
We also had to test out the Wanted system as well, which meant - and don't judge us - cutting down an innocent player with a fire axe. If you don't know, PvP damage is severely reduced until the other player fights back, but that didn't deter us as we stood there hacking away like Butcher Pete. Once you murder a player without them responding, you're marked as Wanted and a bounty is placed on your head, which meant we could no longer see other players on the map. We didn't get killed in our session admittedly, but considering a level 2 player tried (they hadn't progressed far enough to turn PvP on) we can imagine things will get bloody in the final product.
As fans of Fallout we walked into West Virginia not really knowing what to expect. Sure we'd heard all the details from Bethesda, but was this really a Fallout game? After four hours we walked out with a much more solid impression; it looks and feels like Fallout 4 and that meant that we were able to happily slide back into the comfort zone once again and get stuck into the familiar crafting, base-building, and combat mechanics.
The big difference obviously comes from the implementation of online features, and these won't be for everyone. Removing NPCs drastically changes the way that the story is told - mostly through text and audio - but those worrying about the game turning into a Fallout version of Elder Scrolls Online shouldn't be too concerned. The map is big enough to ensure that other players aren't in your face all the time, and you can choose and ignore them as you wish. What we can't ignore is the shocking performance, and that's the biggest thing that'll need fixing before release.