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.
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