To fully illustrate how far Fallout 76 misses my expectations, I felt it prudent to highlight the previous games.
I've always liked Bethesda's Fallout games. The old-school cRPGs are very, very different animals that are frustrating but rewarding in their own ways...yet I've always gravitated towards the more accessible FPS-driven RPG action found in Fallouts 3, New Vegas, and especially 4. These games had a few key pillars that remained largely consistent throughout the franchise, but Fallout 76 broke this trend so that Bethesda could try and chase the money trail of engagement monetization.
Here's a quick checklist of what Fallout 76 is lacking when it comes to core principles (in my perspective of course). I'll circle back to many of these things throughout the review:
- Freedoms are massively dialed down
- Building bases is pedestrian
- No NPCs or followers
- No mods or console commands
- Questing is rote and boring
Previous Fallout games were always intimate experiences that put the player at the heart of everything. I felt like I had agency in the world, that my decisions had an effect on the characters and places around me, and that I made a difference in some small way. Sure I always wanted to do certain things like clean up ramshackle towns, inspire the people to build on their own, or even donate my food and other goods to better civilization, but the worlds just weren't that dynamic.
Fallout 76 had such promise to do many of these things. With its online-based world, Bethesda could evolve things even further and offer unique varying questlines and rotating NPC events, or finally, let us actually help the characters build anew (or destroy enemies in great faction wars). My head swam with the possibilities. But it was all a fantasy. The reality is a broken, washed-out world that's empty, soulless, and devoid of any real substance or connection--at least not the kind I had always felt or expected from the series.
This is really Fallout 76's downfall in my eyes: it's not just the technical bugs and glitches, but that it fails so miserably when compared to its predecessors. And I'll outline just how and why it fails to live up to my expectations.
With its previous games, Bethesda tuned us to this unique frequency of choice and freedom that ultimately added depth to our play sessions; we could choose how to react to confrontations, how to solve quests, which factions to join, who to kill, and, in Fallout 4, what to build.
That last one is important to me.
I spent a lot of time building things in Fallout 4 and enjoyed this kind of game-within-a-game fantasy of helping my townspeople live comfortably in this destroyed world. I felt like a kind of bastion in the irradiated wilderness, as if my town were a beacon of hope in a sea of death, the place where the starving and thirsty and dying could go for aid. My place felt like a home in this wasteland, my personal space that I could decorate and make my own. Even vanilla Fallout 4 had decent base-building. These towns I built gave me agency in the world and made me feel important, as if I'm telling my own story through the things I choose to do.
This connection is extremely important to me and is something I always expect from Bethesda.
But Fallout 76 utterly demolishes these core tenants and replaces them with cheap imitations of specific things. Agency in this world is significantly diluted with the base building alone, which feels so watered down, and it's clear the grindy aspects have been inflated to keep players playing. Yes, it was grindy to find mats to build stuff in Fallout 4, and yes, it was monotonous, but there were other aspects that organically fed into this grindy meaningful exploration and questing interspersed with NPCs.
It's ironic that Fallout 76, an online-driven live game with lots of potential for change, feels less lived-in and more empty than the static singleplayer Fallout games. That's when I knew something was very, very wrong; instead of taking the approach of adding rather than taking away, Bethesda stripped away core concepts that I'd known and loved and didn't replace them, leaving gaping holes.
Part of this interruption in agency lies in the world itself.
Fallout 76's online framework is mainly built to be a playground for groups of people to shoot and loot. Playing solo really breaks the thin veil and shows the ugliness beneath--that empty world that's predicated on keeping you playing for as long as possible rather than actually being fun. This clearly showed me that Bethesda doesn't understand service games very well (more on that later).
Fallout games all follow a specific formula to make things more engaging (and I mean organically engaging, not the annoying live service engagement strategies) and breathe life into the game worlds. All of the games have these core concepts that lend agency to the world, and all of the concepts fluidly mesh and cycle into one another as part of the formula:
- Intriguing, interesting NPCs with quirky behaviors and motivations
- Winding story arcs that take us through the battered world
- Exotic locales
- Random side attractions tied organically into exploration
While Fallout 76 does have some of these components, making truly interesting worlds requires all of them to be present. Every step is just as important as the next, and they organically bleed into one another in a cyclic nature (somewhat like the engagement monetization cycle, aka the Service Game Circle of Life).
Fallout 76's biggest hole is that it's missing NPCs with actual character.
That's because there really aren't any in irradiated West Virgina. Other than a super mutant merchant and maybe a quirky robot mayor, all of the NPCs feel drab and tacked-on at the last minute. NPCs are absolutely critical to making any Fallout game feel like a Fallout game, and since the very first cRPG they were extremely important vehicles for quests, plot devices, and added a magnetism to the world itself.
In short, NPCs always have and always will give Fallout games character. NPCs make Fallout games feel alive.
Until now, that is. Bethesda's decision to mix meaningful human NPCs was part of its bizarre design concept - a flawed concept that affects every single aspect of the game as a result. Every other human NPC would be a player, meaning the massive world of Appalachia is basically a skeleton for you to pick clean. In a very real sense Fallout 76 feels like a tomb; a tomb full of ancient remnants of a ruined world, yes, but a tomb nonetheless.
Other players don't, and can't, give it enough life to make it feel the way it should.
Without NPCs, players have no anchor point. There's no frame of reference, no way to relate to specific characters or build that intimate connection. There's no way to hate a rampant marauder for their murderous mayhem, or a way to love, say, a synth Bogart-voiced android for his savvy charms. We can't be intrigued by a hundreds year-old mutant man stuck in a tree, nor can we uncover a bizarre Children of the Corn-style cult of the atomic age.
There's so much we can't feel because Bethesda closed the door on the franchise's beating heart.
When this relation is severed it so too severs the relationship players can form with the game, severely hampering any kind of meaningful impact that Bethesda RPGs are known for.
We've seen this kind of thing happen time and time again with service games. When publishers force key IPs into the live service mold, many of the best attributes are shaved away to leave an empty playground full of loot. This mainstream casualization is by design and it's always a shame.
NPCs are so, so, so important to any Fallout game that when they're gone, we actually feel it. It's easier to ignore when you're playing with friends and trying to score loot or maybe taking down a huge boss, but that weird loneliness is still there, that feeling the world is just missing something at its core.
Instead of the enamoring, often weird characters found in other Fallout games, Fallout 76 gives us hollow robots with little to no personality. There's protectrons with their mundane styles and monotone voices, and even the Mr. Handys lose their British charm when you've talked to your 50th rustbucket.
It feels like Bethesda just didn't even try to uphold one of the most basic core tentpoles of its franchise. Non-human or humanoid NPCs is an absolutely terrible idea, to begin with, but I feel like the studio could've been a lot more inventive and creative with its mech NPCs. But ultimately this feels like yet another cop-out and an easy escape route to ensure that most of the focus was put on multiplayer elements.
This brings me to the lack of followers. Now I've always loved the idea of followers in Bethesda RPGs (this goes way back to Morrowind's Mournhold expansion); they're companions who're with you through thick and thin, who have your back when things get dicey. You take care of them, and they take care of you. But Fallout 4's companions really pushed the bar for me and let me actually feel something for them.
Take Cait, for example, who happens to be my favorite companion.
Her life was in ruins when I met her. She was addicted to chems and brawling in an arena for a pittance of caps, but I helped her break free of her bonds and saw her grow (not substantially, mind you, just figuratively through light story elements and dialog) in a way that created this kind of interesting union. After tackling her personal mission I felt a kinship with her because I knew what she'd gone through, and I knew because I took the time to talk to her and do something about her issues.
This is reactive storytelling and it's something Fallout 76 is missing in droves. The lack of NPCs and companions means everything else in the game will suffer, especially quests.
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