Fallout 76 has massive potential and could very well evolve into something incredible. But at launch, the game is rocky, rough, and unrefined--which is to be expected--and has a few annoyances. Here are my first impressions from my first day with Fallout 76.
Test system specs:
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 (4GB VRAM)
- CPU: Intel Core i7-4770K @ 3.50GHz
- RAM: 16GB DDR3-1330MHz
At its core, Fallout 76 is a survival simulator. The game strips away key elements found in other Fallout games like captivating story arcs and large swaths of memorable NPCs, replacing them with engagement-driven live events, online multiplayer, and tedium. But the tedium is actually alluring and serves as the main drive to keep playing: in Fallout 76 you're always searching for more stuff and trying to get better to fuel your grind, which is the hallmark to any good RPG. The constant search for more loot propels your journeys, but curiosity is a big motivator, too. Just like in the previous Fallout games, irradiated West Virginia has a strong pull to it and makes you want to uncover its secrets.
I started playing Fallout 76 alone. I soon found this was kind of a mistake. After about an hour of running around and scouring for items (you're always scrambling for junk, weapons, armor and everything else in a mad dash for survival) I came across a duo of players and asked to join them. They agreed. Only then did my adventure really open up and offer something that Fallout never had before: player-based camaraderie. We told jokes, we talked about games, current events, you name it, all as we killed huge radtoads and tackled quests and events.
But without this interaction, I feel that Fallout 76 could be a bit stale and lonely. In previous games, we always felt like overlords with a world that's always available to us. Fallout 76 is always-online, and that luxury has been yanked away; gone are the days of pausing to aim with VATS or power up with some Mentats or Med-X. Everything's in real-time and checking a terminal or going AFK could be fatal.
There's a very real tension to everywhere you go, but only if you're alone. With your teammates the game has a steady cadence that all engagement-driven games strive to have: rather than providing stronger challenges, the game seems to put emphasis on how long you play versus how hard you play (if that makes sense). On the flip side, playing alone is just...well...lonely.
Things feel artificial, and the veneer of the game world seems quite thin. You start to realize that Fallout 76 looks very, very much like Fallout 4 and that there's hardly any real NPCs to interact with, and you can't interact with a good portion of the game's world and items. Plus there's no mods so there's no way to control, extend, or augment your gaming experience. You're essentially at the mercy of your own luck, skill, and Bethesda's whims.
But that's not to say playing alone is always bad. In fact, it's a good thing from time to time. I'd say that Fallout 76 is a game best enjoyed across an even split of both singleplayer and multiplayer. Only after playing alone can you really digest the quests and understand what it is you're actually doing (it's hard to pay attention to certain things when party chat is always buzzing).
An empty, yet intriguing world
The world is filled with charm and genuinely feels like a whimsical, yet dangerous playground.
While playing Fallout 76 I discovered a creamery with a giant ice cream cone logo (there was also cream to be had in its dead fridges), a dog house with beakers and test tubes and mathematical equations written inside of it, a roving super mutant merchant who sold a level 30 machine gun, and a giant teapot building.
We also saw a kitchen with a skeleton half in the oven and another in a fridge. I played a banjo and got a neat little bonus from it. I made a rudimentary CAMP (I think this is going to be my new addiction, save me now) and then killed some radtoads for a special event. We had to bring luminous firefly goo to a giant lighthouse in an effort to reignite its giant light.
Irradiated Appalachia is colorful and full of life, but it's the kind of life you'd find in an MMORPG like Elder Scrolls Online versus bustling, thriving organic life in something like Red Dead Redemption 2. And rightly so, given the nature of Fallout 76's online bent. Still, though, I can't help but feel I've experienced all of this before with hundreds of hours of Fallout 4 play, and if it weren't for multiplayer, I might feel let down.
Despite playing about 5 hours today, I barely scraped the surface of what Fallout 76 has to offer.
Meticulous Survival Mechanics
Mechanics: Rinse and Repeat Grinding
As I said above, Fallout 76 is a survival sim at its core. The game feels like an added expansion built specifically from Fallout 4's official survival mode. What's interesting is the game's emphasis on sequencing. Players must consistently check and pay attention to their character: check your hunger, check your rads, check your thirst and weight limit and weapon condition.
This tedium takes a lot of your time, and the menus and UI aren't really that good. Without proper optimization of quick menus, UI, HUD icons and other content that could make dramatic Quality-of-Life improvements, players are left to simply sift through Pip-boy menus and memorize specific menu controls.
For example, Tab closes most menus, but it also opens the Pip-boy. So let's say you want to open the map (which is done by pressing Escape, by the way), you'll have to press Tab to exit it. There's odd combos of buttons to do certain things, and you kind of have to consistently reprogram yourself to adapt to the controls. There's also tension here since you can be attacked at any time while in menus.
There's also sequencing to the gameplay itself. There's a constant cyclic path to everything you do in the game. Loot an area, fill up on weight, get hungry and thirsty, then use nearby workshops/stations to scrap your junk and grab some food and drink, and move on. Rinse and repeat. Questing organically propels you into the world where the cycle begins in some fashion, and exploration typically keeps you going.
But the interesting thing about Fallout 76 is the sequence has many permutations. The freedom aspect is still there. You can go where you want (at the risk of death or worse) and do what you want, and team up with whoever you want to. There's not a lot of cause and effect outside of the basic explore, loot and EXP-based killing, but players still have the choice to do specific things.
Of course, the cycle is more dynamic than that. Your weapons can wear down and even break and must be maintained. You're constantly aware of the radiation that must be cured, and the ammo that you need, and the weight that you have or how hungry or thirsty you are. All of these things seem like added disadvantages that must be addressed, but they vary in their degree of importance.
For example, you're more likely to simply fill up on items before you are to die of radiation poisoning.
There's a very real tiered structure to the tedium, and it's here that Bethesda's engagement opportunities really shine. By incorporating this kind of survival-based tedium, players are more likely to keep playing so they can cleanse themselves from negative effects while slowly growing. Growth is also built around engagement, and some of the best Perk cards are ones that mitigate negative effects.
Some loot is instanced whereas big items like power armor are available to everyone on a first-come-first-served basis. This isn't very intuitive and only by trial and error are you able to discern what can and can't be shared; ie what items you can see that are exclusive to your game.
The best part about Fallout 76 is that no single part seems pressing all at once. It's not overwhelming nor does it really push you towards specific things. You can do what you want and go where you want and try to survive the best you can.
As you play, the game naturally opens up and unfurls before you; when I played with my team, I leveled up five times without even really noticing, and collected lots of gear that I didn't feel the need to instantly equip. Provided you stay hydrated, rad-free, fed, keep weapons maintained, and watch your weight (hardest part), you can pretty much keep playing unhindered. Of course, that's impossible, and there will be times you have to stop what you're doing and dump off stuff to your stash or repair a weapon. But even this isn't confusing or harsh since crafting stations are littered everywhere.
My Gripes with Fallout 76
Frustrations and Growing Pains
Of course, Fallout 76 is often frustrating. I found myself wanting a mini-map for quick referencing, so I didn't have to open my Pip-boy. You can only set one custom destination point, which makes marking crafting stands, beds, mob spawns, or other points of interest annoying.
There's bad FPS drops in areas (I dropped down to the 15s here and there), but I didn't experience what I'd call actual glitches.
Your food can spoil, and the game doesn't tell you before or when it actually happens. You just pop open your menu and surprise! That radstag meat you were saving has gone bad before you got a chance to use it.
Ammo and stimpaks have weight in this game. Pretty much every item has weight outside of notes and holotapes. Expect to drop some items as you trek and don't be disappointed when you're quite full quite often.
The quick-item menu needs to be optimized ASAP. Just like in Oblivion or Fallout 4, Fallout 76 has a radial menu that quickly accesses an item. But every segment isn't prioritized by item type, but instead listed in A-Z order, making quick plotting even more annoying than it should be. Bethesda needs to separate items into types--weapons, armor, food, drugs, etc--so we can easily change out gear when it breaks or when we need a quick Rad-Away.
The quick inventory doesn't tell you the stats of the items you're about to equip. So you better use the favorite system to mark them. It'll tell you the condition, but when you have 4 Hatchets, and all of them are different levels, that doesn't help you so much.
There's no way to take all items from your stash or a container, meaning you have to press E a whole lot. This is likely done to keep that added feeling of tension but just makes things more frustrating than need be.
The basic Pip-boy design is fine for an offline singleplayer game that pauses, but not ideal for an online game where action is ever-present. Navigating through the vertical menus is a clunky experience that doesn't befit any online game, and should be updated in some way at the very least.
There also needs to be a mini-map or a better compass. Something needs to be done about the simplified bar compass. I didn't really like it in Fallout 4 or Skyrim, but I managed. In Fallout 76 it just gets way too cluttered and you have to go to your map often to figure out where you are in relation to objectives and other landmarks. And of course opening up your map leaves you open to be killed...so there's that too.
Outside of the annoyances of always having to maintain your character and their gear, all of these things add a kind of weight to the experience that could be alleviated with more targeted refinements. There's some things we can't help and some things Bethesda made by design (like the survival elements) but others like the funky menus can be shored up.
Combat is fun but also challenging at times. Weapons are scaled pretty well and actually create even more tension, especially if you mess up or panic. For example, the fire axe deals lots of damage, but it's quite slow so you can't just expect to hack everything up. You can't switch weapons during attack or reloading frames, so you have to make every single shot and hit count.
I found myself trying to control my blows while in combat rather than madly swinging just to soak up the EXP. Resource scarcity also amps up the tension especially when you're playing alone. Not having enough food or stimpaks makes you play the game differently, as does having a near-broken board. There's a sense of urgency when playing alone, but with a group that feeling is dramatically decreased and it's more about how much time you can spend versus how much skill you need.
VATS is janky, but that's to be expected given its real-time. Honestly, I don't think VATS needs to be in the game at all really. Maybe it's super useful at higher levels, but I haven't found a real good use for it yet other than closing distance between myself and enemies when I attack.
Of course, I've mostly been using melee weapons and haven't messed around too much with guns. Maybe VATS will become more handy when I make that switch.
Enemies themselves are scaled in MMO fashion. As a level 6, I was able to kill level 10-11 creatures without any real problem, and the world itself scales properly if you're in a team as well.
Graphics and Performance
Fallout 76 can look lush and vibrant at times, but overall the graphics aren't too amazing. There's jaggies here and there, and texture pop-ins are prevalent, but this is to be expected given an online-oriented world. The visuals aren't bad at all (well sometimes they can be) and but aren't fantastic, and the world looks and feels like a Fallout 4 mod of sorts.
At 1440p I noticed some serious FPS drops in specific areas, mostly where enemies popped up en masse or where there was a lot of lighting and other visual/environmental effects. Knocking the resolution down to 1080p helped a bit and I retained 50-60FPS through most of the game.
Lag wasn't a big issue, but the FPS drops can be super frustrating when fighting bigger monsters or running away from a horde of scorched.
A New, but Rough Frontier
Wrap-Up: Rough but New
Right now Fallout 76 is kind of like a rusty gate. It opens and is functional, but it needs lots of care to make it shine. If you are thinking about picking the game up I advise you to play with friends or even with random players instead of going all-solo.
I have no doubt that Fallout 76 will get better and better over time as Bethesda rolls out different tweaks, but for right now be sure to expect FPS drops, frustrating menus, and to have a party to play with.
The game is genuinely engaging and enjoyable with other players, but it has lots of tedious and small things that add up quickly. Also be sure you're okay with service games and the whole rinse-and-repeat style of gaming before you step in, and don't expect any sprawling or grand stories at the beginning. Maybe it gets better with time, but I've mostly ignored a lot of NPCs simply because they just seem...boring.
Fallout 76 is a learning experience for both players and Bethesda, and right now we're all a little confused and new at this.
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