Washed Out Quests
Quests aren't intriguing in Fallout 76. That's not to say they were always amazing experiences in previous Fallout games, but they had something Fallout 76 doesn't: semi-interactive characters who not only doled out the quests, but also reacted to them (and reacted to your decisions).
Cutting out NPCs bleeds into every other facet of the game itself, and with story-based questing, their absence is felt the most. There's no one to give you hints about where to find a particular item, or admonish you for killing someone (or not killing them). There's no one to reward you for your deeds (or misdeeds), no one to discuss freaky secrets you may have uncovered with, no one to really talk to about anything.
Instead, Fallout 76 issues its quests with holotapes, computers, and notes. For a game that literally cannot be paused, it sure has you do a lot of reading to uncover objectives and fill in backstory. You constantly have to fire up a stale old terminal and read through often-boring lines of text to trigger a quest, or listen to a holotape and extract bits and pieces from some dead stranger's voice.
This wouldn't be so bad if we could pause the game and not get attacked as we read. It doubly wouldn't be so bad if the content itself were engaging and interesting. Often it's not. The quests feel mundane, drab, and generally tacked-on for volume rather than quality-driven experiences that really add more depth to your playing session. They just feel like busy work, something to tick off your list in your everlasting grind for progress.
That's really the shame of Fallout 76: even when it's time to slow down and soak up the atmosphere or read a journal entry I feel this overwhelming pressure to keep going. To keep killing, to keep gathering, to continue fueling my Quest for More Loot. I feel like I'm wasting my time with the quests because they feel so forgettable and...well...boring.
Bethesda simply combined two things that don't really mix. At its core, Fallout 76 is a weird concoction of singleplayer mechanics mixed with online features. Some things from the traditional Fallout franchise like the gunplay translate well into online-only multiplayer, others, like reading stuff on your Pip-Boy or a terminal, absolutely do not. It's like drinking a strong cocktail that's not mixed right; the first sip is often harsh and jarring.
The most frustrating part of Fallout 76's questing format is that its delivery system was always meant to be purely additive, not a replacement for the sprawling missions and quests that can change the game world forever.
They feel like Fallout 4's side quests, those little smaller missions or explorations that are peppered throughout regions. I uncovered a variety of these in Fallout 4 simply by looking around, and they were mainly ancillary experiences, small bite-sized appetizers to whet my appetite for the main course. They're often humorous glimpses into a world that's been left behind, and fired up my imagination by lending more credence to the world itself.
But again, this is a secondary mechanism for world supplementation and shouldn't ever be the main implement. Without proper NPCs to give the world more color and make it feel alive, the content in these notes, holotapes, and terminals feels hollow.
Fallout 76 once again takes out a huge chunk of Fallout's best features and replaces them with something that once complemented the experience; it's kind of like replacing a delicious spice with a garnish. This decision takes a lot away from the meal itself and makes things taste quite bland. Relying solely on these things to deliver your player-oriented experience dramatically restricts the freedoms we once enjoyed and undercuts that sense of agency we feel in the game world.
Fallout 76's World is Interesting, but Lifeless
When I say Fallout 76's world is interesting, I mean it only on a surface level. It has interesting locales lifted straight from West Virginia as well as some neat little landmarks. The buildings and areas can be alluring, but without any NPCs or meaningful interactivity, they feel like empty husks.
Without meaning the world itself just feels like a playground. The all-important feeling of immersion is completely melted away and we're left with something that genuinely feels like a waste of time. Isn't that the point of a game, though? To waste time but do so in a way that feels rewarding? Exploration in Fallout games used to be rewarding in their own way because you'd stumble across a story, a rogue NPC with unique motivations, or maybe an item or two. But without NPCs, there's no stronger frame of reference to counterbalance the additive nature of holotapes, notes, and small little environmental stories.
The random events are just boring and way, way too time-consuming. Everything is aimed at artificially extending play time without properly maintaining the critical factor of engagement: fun. The areas seem washed out and just filled with random loot that inadvertently tells small little stories of a previous- and post-nuclear world.
These small stories were some of my favorite parts of Fallout 4. I'd find some interesting note detailing a weird love story, or a holotape seemingly about squirrels but really tells a horror tale. I found a lady with a bunch of cats who wanted to sell me cat meat.
Fallout 76 recreates these feelings and has a lot of little interesting things strewn around Appalachia. A lot of them simply aren't explained--like the weird bears in strange positions--and it's fun imagining little scenarios on how and why things happened.
But the reason these stories were so effective and interesting was because they were side attractions. They weren't the main event, but little things to discover as I went on my way through the wastes. When you take out NPCs, engaging quests, and interactive story-telling and/or delivery methods, these environmental tidbits lose a lot of their flavor and simply aren't enough to spice up a dull, dead world.
So...why did Bethesda even bother with Fallout 76? Why make an online-only Fallout with so many pieces missing? It's simple, really: it wants to make more money and take a stab at live games.
But sadly Bethesda doesn't understand live service games very well, which has led to a disastrous launch and the studio playing catch-up during a point where it needs to actually executive future plans.
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