I’m exploring the south western portion of Appalachia to undergo a final initiation for a faction called the Responders, when a strange building catches my eye. Unlike most of the other former dwellings scattered throughout the wasteland, this structure looks recently lived in, with automated turrets guarding four symmetrical walls and a set of stairs leading to a door.
I’m shown each of the three floors in turn, along with their rather fine collection of power armour, and even get treated to some guitar music. A series of trades follows, my host showering me with crafting plans, recipes and high-level gear. I reciprocate with what I can - mostly spare tat, chems and a couple of bobbleheads – though it doesn’t come close to making for a fair trade. The gesture at least seems to be appreciated, though, keen not to outstay my welcome, I’m out the door to waves and thumbs up from both parties.
Fallout 76 may have more than its fair share of detractors, but I’m surprisingly hooked by Bethesda’s online take on the franchise. Due to its negative stigma, I went in with exceptionally low expectations - in fact, were it not for a Black Friday deal that saw it arrive bundled with Battlefield V, I’d probably never even have played the game - but after an initial test to see just how bad it could be, I find myself more than 12 hours deep and still coming back for more.
Am I a glutton for punishment? Do I have poor taste? Or is it a case of Fallout 76 not being the total dumpster fire it’s been made out to be? I’ll admit, this is only my second stab at the series after Fallout 4, so perhaps my limited exposure means I’m not as averse to the fundamental changes, like a lack of NPCs and dialogue. It could also be that 76 features more of what I enjoyed most in Fallout 4, namely plenty of exploration and environmental storytelling, as well as slightly wonky shooting mechanics that feel oddly suited to the ramshackle nature of the series’ post-apocalyptic technology.
After an initial test to see just how bad it could be, I find myself more than 12 hours deep and still coming back for more.
While traipsing through the shells of broken buildings may feel oppressively lonely at times (the game cries out for an AI companion like Dogmeat), it does help to invoke the feeling that you’re an isolated survivor, piecing together the tales of those who went before you with holo tapes, computer files and scrawled notes. There may be a dearth of characters in the traditional sense, but 76 isn’t exactly lacking for emotional clout when it comes to narrative, you just have to be willing to go looking for it.
And then there’s the much-maligned online element of the game, something that’s easy to forget considering the size of the map and the relatively low player count per server. It’s possible to go entire sessions without seeing another player, but the rarity of such an event does add weight to each encounter, such as the memorable one outlined above.
There’s little risk of hostility due to Bethesda’s rather limiting PvP restrictions, but it’s not something the player base appears to be interested in anyway. Most players, including myself, are more likely to help than hinder one another, sharing a sort of ‘we’re in this together’ sense of comradery. The small player count might also be considered a boon for those worried about the unpredictable, often immersion-breaking presence of human players - an issue that spoiled my opening hours with Bethesda’s other online take on a flagship franchise, The Elder Scrolls Online.
That’s not to say the positives I’ve found totally overshadow the criticism aimed at Fallout 76. Microtransactions feel unnecessary (not to mention overpriced) and the game struggles technically at times, with the frame rate occasionally tanking for no apparent reason. The lack of a manual save system and respawning enemies can make clearing out difficult areas a chore, and, at one point, I found my character assailed by invisible Liberator bots, whose bodies hadn’t yet loaded, every time I entered a world because that’s where the game consistently decided to spawn me.
According to their most recent blog post, Bethesda look intent on sticking with Fallout 76 well into 2019 (a new mode without PvP restrictions is being added at some point), so there’s a good chance the more pressing issues will eventually be ironed out. Still, in its current state, it’s hard to fully recommend 76, despite having sunk a dozen or so mostly enjoyable hours into it. Other big releases available right now are honestly more deserving of your time and money, but, if you had even a fleeting interest in 76 before, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on as things progress.