When Bethesda announced the upcoming addition to the Fallout franchise, Fallout 76, prior to E3 this year the fans went wild - or did they? What was Fallout 76? A straight-up sequel? A spin-off á la Fallout: New Vegas? A take on the MMO genre channelling its Elder Scrolls Online aura? We were invited to the Fallout 76 event at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia and with the information shared with us at the event as well as that gathered during our gameplay session (we only got about eighty minutes of actual game time out of the three scheduled hours because of technical difficulties with the console dev rig) at said event we're here to clear up any confusion. What is Fallout 76?
Fallout is one of those major franchises that has seen many twists and turns over the years, even branching out into multiple genres. It started out as an Interplay-developed top-down, open world CRPG with a turn-based combat system in the late 1990s. Since then we've seen the franchise branch out into a tactical strategy RPG with Fallout Tactics, a story-heavy, consequence-centric RPG with Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 3, as well as a massive action-shooter RPG with the latest instalment Fallout 4. For the upcoming Fallout 76, however, Bethesda has taken more of a risk than ever, gunning for both general multiplayer and MMO players, as well as trying to get the old school Fallout fans interested in the game. However, with broad appeal comes compromises - compromises that don't cater to either group but still has some potential.
The biggest change to the series, for single player connoisseurs, comes with the scary term "always online". The world of Fallout 76 puts the player in a lovely nuclear wasteland in the West Virginia mountains with twenty-three other players. One can tackle the game as a single-player experience, surely, but it seems it may be an experience that pales in comparison to playing with others. Multiplayer, be it PvP or co-op, is the game's main focus and even though there are missions to be found all around the massive map of the Eastern state (said map is almost four times the size of its Fallout 4 counterpart) these have been somewhat stripped down to make room for a more fluid multiplayer experience. For example, there are no NPC characters in the game aside from robots, which means no interesting quest givers or fun conversations with quirky individuals. This, in turn, means that the missions you will be able to take on will come solely from picking up and listening to holotapes, finding notes on dead bodies or in the wasteland, chatting with a robot, or finding information on a terminal hard drive.
If you want to get some quality co-op time with some other wastelanders (and you really should want to as the missions we got to play definitely had more of a multiplayer, MMO-type feel to them, especially the "main" missions - there were a lot of "stand your ground" quest lines, for example) you can see the team leader's selected quest highlighted with a star on your map and compass, however you need to pick the quest up and go through the mission checkpoints yourself, meaning you can't rely on your team leader for XP progression. If you use Fallout 76's proximity chat, you can, however, ask your squad for information regarding the quests and if they're feeling like being helpful in silence (or just want to show some fancy animations like sending a love heart your way or giving you a thumbs down for doing something bad) the other players can use emotes to tell you what to do, where to go, or when to come running to help your dying team once you've wandered off too far. Speaking of relying on your team (or other players for that matter) there are some perks with the always online thing, one being the new trading system. No human NPCs means no AI traders in the wasteland but with the help of other players, you can trade your unwanted junk for a sweet weapon another player doesn't need (for a good price, if you're lucky).
As for other aspects of multiplayer, PvP is, of course, a major part of Fallout 76 (don't worry too much though, there are ways around player versus player combat). Fighting with a member of your team isn't possible since there is a friendly fire system in place, but if you hit another player with a projectile to the knee and they hit you right back the two of you can fight to the death with no consequences other than dying (which means some lost scraps that you can then pick up from your decaying corpse later on) and fast recovery times if you want to take revenge after being killed. Worth noting if the V.A.T.S. system is your preferred method of combat, V.A.T.S. has been tweaked some and understandably so since stopping time for a few seconds would give any player an insane advantage in combat. The action takes place in real-time instead of pausing the action but the system still lets you aim for specific body parts if you pick one of the neat Perk Cards linked to the combat system. That's it for voluntary PvP combat, moving on to involuntary PvP: murder.
Say you've put a bunch of bullets into a lonely wastelander, trying to get some PvP going without them wanting any part of it - well, first of all, you do little to no damage to other players unless you both hit each other and start an encounter. However, one of the players in a different team at the event put all of their special points into strength, power levelling while wielding a melee weapon and seemed a bit over-powered. Were you, however, to be persistent (and rude) enough to actually kill an innocent, non-confrontational player you get branded as a murderer. Being a murderer takes away your ability to see other players on the map until you drop dead at the hands of another player and it shows you as a giant red marker on the map - and you do not want to be a red dot. Once this happens other players can kill you without any repercussions and collect the bounty on your head, and be wary of your teammates - even they can collect the bounty as friendly fire ceases to exist once a player becomes a murderer, but only for that specific player of course.
Thinking of grabbing a large number of your pals outside of your party to go on killing sprees? Well, bad news for you, there are no server lists available so picking the right server will not be as easy as one might think. Killing an innocent can result in you going up against the rest of the server's 23 players, is what all of the above means, so be nice (or don't, and deal with the consequences). All of the regular "everyday PvP" aside, there's the ability to nuke other players and their bases. We didn't get to actually nuke anyone during our gameplay session (even though we did get nuked collectively at the end) but we were told that nukes will not be a common occurrence. Players will have to find a nuke and collect launch codes to actually launch one and once launched the launch codes reset.
Moving away from the multiplayer aspect for a bit; let's talk base mechanics. Like in Fallout 4, the crafting system is a big focus in Fallout 76. The weapon crafting and upgrading feature returns, giving the player a massive amount of possibilities to customise their arsenal (new barrels, sights, stocks, magazines, special enhancements), and the same goes for armour and armour pieces. Customising the look of your gear will, however, not be available through the workshops, at least not without unlocking the cosmetics through challenges or buying them with Atoms, the in-game currency (yes, as in microtransactions). Speaking of customisation, the character creator, similar to that in the previous game, can be opened at any time in the game's menu, meaning you can switch your wastelander out if you get bored. Every piece of gear also deteriorates over time meaning you have to maintain them at their specified workbenches to keep them in top condition (which can also be found in the wasteland). It is therefore wise to pick up every piece of junk you can find and dismantle it as soon as you can to eliminate the risk of being over-encumbered with random lamps and alarm clocks.
Dismantling turns every piece of junk into crafting materials and materials weigh far less. Crafting also extends to ammunition and if you ever find yourself short on ammo for your favourite weapon you can craft some bullets too - even on the go with the new C.A.M.P. system. The C.A.M.P. is your portable settlement (its idea being similar to the settlement builder in Fallout 4) in which you can build workstations for gear and ammunition, a bed for your sleep-deprived wasteland body to rest on as well as a cooking station to keep your hunger sated and your dirty, nuclear polluted river water boiled and disinfected (every structure you erect in your camp gets built the same way no matter where you set up). The latter station comes in extra handy in Fallout 76 as the survival element is back which means you won't make it in the harsh state of West Virginia without food and water - just like in real life! The C.A.M.P.s can also be used as portable fast travel stations and are one of three that can be used for free, the other two being Vault 76 and your teammates' locations. You can also fast travel to already discovered locations but the trip costs some caps (more the further away you are from your chosen fast travel location).
As for the levelling system in Fallout 76, perks and S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats are still the main mechanics but the perk system has seen a total overhaul. Players will not be stuck with their choices from early in the game as they'll be using perk cards instead of a massive skill tree to pick their abilities. One card can be chosen in any category when putting a point in a S.P.E.C.I.A.L. category, and a pack of perk cards is awarded to the player with each level. The packs contain three regular, random perks and a "Gold card" which is basically just a flashier, animated card for you fancy wastelanders to collect.
The massive open-world that is, as previously stated, four times the size of the huge Fallout 4 map seems well put together. The varied landscape makes exploring the wasteland interesting and exploring it with friends was even more exhilarating. Our favourite part of the gameplay session was finding the Greenbrier Hotel in-game and comparing it to the resort in person because the similarities were striking - however, there's something we need to talk about that's a major issue. Even though the setting is perfect and the design of the world is great, the game suffers from major performance issues. Framerates at the event when playing on the Xbox One X consoles were absolutely terrible; it got so bad we had to reboot the actual console to fix the problem since our character got stuck in a lag-filled loop, sending her bouncing up and down through the ground about ten minutes into the game. Sadly, this wasn't an issue just during those ten minutes and it definitely wasn't isolated to our experience. This needs to be fixed - and soon - because we're not too far from the release date.
Backtracking a bit, so as not to end on too disturbing a note, we did get to experience some fun exclusive content - we know for a fact that our gameplay footage caught a rare encounter known as the Flatwoods Monster; an alien-looking, ghastly figure that spawned close to where we started our adventure after exiting Vault 76, and we were immediately excited to play more just to see more of these spooky encounters in the West Virginia wasteland.
So, as we ask ourselves a final time: what is Fallout 76? Well, as for what we've actually seen, it's a multiplayer game with some single-player elements that will be best enjoyed with a couple of teammates. The PvP is a lot of fun if the player finds the right team to PvP against and the anti-griefing system in place seems to work quite well. The upgraded levelling system is interesting and takes away the set character path, letting the player switch it up as he or she goes along and the same applies to the character creation. The performance issues are worrying, to say the least, but the game's not out yet which means these issues could well be fixed before then, but that's something we'll learn about soon enough. That being said, Fallout 76 has potential both for those aiming to experience the game solo and those determined to PvP their way across West Virginia.