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.