Fallout 76 Review – A Worse Vanilla

Of the two types of wastelands that Bethesda’s core studio makes, Fallout has always been my least favorite by a large margin. Skyrim always felt more alive and infinitely more discoverable in a hooking way. Elder Scrolls is chocolate chip cookie dough fantasy romp. Fallout is simply a vanilla apocalypse.

Now, I still like vanilla. It has a bolt of familiarity that doesn’t overwhelm you with beauty, but it’s consistent for when you really just need a sweet flavor. Fallouts 3 and 4 had worlds worth visiting a time or two more, the consistent flavor coming about as close to painting a picket fence as a shooter can come. Neither broke any molds for me but the line was held, for better or worse.

What Fallout 76 showcases, however, is that there are some people that can even screw up vanilla.

From the E3 showcase where Todd Howard infamously made a lot of assurances, an online-only multiplayer shooter never seemed like a good idea. The wool that was over so many eyes to shade – not fully hide – the issues of the past still gave lots of fans hope. Let’s be blunt and honest here, now that Fallout 76 is fully out into the open: Bethesda is a one-trick pony that hasn’t produced a cutting-edge showstopper in the industry at large in almost a decade. Their worlds haven’t changed in a fundamental way since Fallout 3 – a full decade ago – in an industry that improves at the speed of light. They’re not the hacks that many have made them out to be, but their games have felt so similar and thin that I haven’t been able to force my way through any but Skyrim.

There, that’s the bottom line of the company. The aching topple of all that built-up hope and collector’s edition love has come and stayed with the end nowhere in sight. Bethesda has stayed to their template and broken many hearts in the process. For me, Fallout 76 is just another version of the same basic motions, albeit taken to the extreme of each and every one of them.

To place it up front, this is, by far, the glitchiest game I have ever played without qualifier. The back half of my experience was purely just to see what new and exciting glitches I could run into. For all the grief I gave Mass Effect Andromeda, if I were to list out each instance of serious, crippling bugs, I’d run on for pages. Damage suddenly becoming meaningless, bullets flying off at random angles, grenades needed to clear out a horde quickly falling through the world to explode at the Earth’s core, no less than 10 crashes in my 12 play sessions. Fallout 76 was batting for the record and shattered it.

Fallout 76
The loading screens showcase a lot of untapped beauty.

And yeah, the glitches are a hoot to see. Scorched, which are the enemies you’ll see the most in the Virginian hills, can’t hold guns correctly. Their hands are permanently set as if there’s a melee weapon between their fingers, so the gun barrel, despite shooting in your direction, could be pointed towards the sun or ground. Visual filters and lighting are constantly angling to where your camera is facing, showing your moving, grainy silhouette behind the lockpicking keyhole or completely breaking the shadow textures. Fallout 76 is a showcase of horrors and comedies in unintentional ways that were purposely left in nonetheless.

There are signs of a storied developer honing their craft inside the hills and flatlands. The world is one of my favorites of the series so far because of the visual identity. When I think of Fallout 3, I think of grey. Fallout 4? Orange. Fallout 76 deals in what seems like a much wider swath of colors including lavender and aqua, giving an instant attractive quality to the art style the team(s) added. As long as you’re walking in dense skeleton trees or on a tight highway inside of a valley, the game looks like a visual upgrade in both style and horsepower. Pop-in is prevalent for objects and enemies to a bleeding degree, each time the inconsistent framerate drops to the teens. There also seems to be a leak that springs every now and then where the textures will lose all definition for minutes at a time as you slowly walk along. Mountain vistas, as a hellish mixture of both, never feel worth drinking in as you’re looking at more blemishes than oil painting. Never you mind about that “you can see weather in the distance” promise either. I could barely articulate separate clouds in my sessions.

The world does communicate with you in a way that the rest of the game should’ve mirrored. Looking at the map or even the landscape communicates through greens, browns, reds, and oranges what you might see as later-game areas. The lush green of the center of the map is enticing and full of unique landscapes to behold as wonders of a pre-decayed age. Communication is clear when you cross the threshold outside of the enemy strength (we’ll get to that window dressing) so you know how to judge your own readiness moving forward. It’s a simple, effective system of feedback to be sure.

Combat has never been the strength of Fallout, and Fallout 76 makes it the worst of all worlds. Shooting hasn’t been improved, glitches have been added to a constantly spinning wheel of chance, and V.A.T.S. is a Thanksgiving turkey burnt to a crisp. In the past, V.A.T.S. allowed for critical strategy such as crippling larger opponents or shooting weapon hands. Now, you’re looking at visual gibberish wherein anything but a chest-shot is a waste of time and resources because time no longer slows down. Everything is always happening. A moving enemy can experience dips of hit-percentage chance of up to 99 percent multiple times inside of a second. There are no seeming benefits to the system anymore, leaving you with a nice new hammer and no nails.

Fallout 76
But then, you know, this.

For me, melee is Fallout 76’s only mostly able combat system. Nothing is immune to the legion of bugs but melee will work 8 out of 10 times and is the piece most simply stacked for damage output. Especially if you run out of usable weapons due to damage, you’ll always have your fists to knock down whatever enemy comes next.

Never let it be forgotten that Fallout 76 also, constantly, has multiple meters watching your every move. Every shot breaks down your gun, every swing damages a melee item, and every sloowww sprint increases your thirst and hunger. Those last two meters are joined by the normal radiation meter that actively takes away your health as you do something as simple as cross through a stream. Radiation can also give you a random mutation as eating or drinking something weird or uncooked can give you a disease with random determinants to your journey. Every action in the game, on paper, takes away from your desire to continue playing the game.

Bethesda does balance food and water fairly well, to be fair. I was never short on either and eating uncooked food never bothered me since the effects are mostly locked to just “you need more food”. Drinking radiated water, on the other hand, was a nightmare that spawned a further nightmare as you kept drinking. I was Dumbledore in that one Game of Thrones episode. The one with the irradiated hand and Radaway nowhere in sight as invisible space rays cooked my insides. Bethesda added nothing here to mitigate the increased radiation unless you just want to pop Rad X every step of the way – another non-viable option due to scarcity.

Scavenging in general is the exact same as Fallout 4 with a noticeable uptick in locked doors and terminal fishing. My major problem with the scavenging is that this game that is clearly built around scavenging and building your little house of cards will never, ever really build up a surplus. Weight limits perform a merrily ironic dance as they break your back, ensuring I was hitting the ceiling within 15 minutes of starting. Neither of the stopgaps – power armor and your storage box – can offer a real solution because the problem is far more fundamental. What great design revolution would’ve been lost by reducing everything deemed “junk” to a 0.1 weight? Instead, the numbers vary wildly with no filtering option based on weight, pulling you further and further into the inventory hell this entire series has projected.

As nothing pauses in Fallout 76, that deep, unfiltered inventory comes off as a joke when the heat is on. The D-pad allows you to switch between two weapons and slam a Stimpack for combat purposes, but as long as some area liberations can run, you’ll almost always be forced into your inventory amid bullets and bashings for some new addition. Being in power armor, again, helps this slightly by giving you a cleaner layout that isn’t restrained by the Pipboy screen. Good luck with not only finding it, not only keeping it fed with Fusion Cells, not only surviving the Slender Man glitch, BUT then not having the game take it from you for no reason at all.

There is a lumber mill northwest of where the official startpoint of your adventure spews you forth that is overrun with super mutants. I approach through the front because of my apathy towards death and give shooting a full try for the first real time. I’m hardly taking any damage (those with levels over me be damned), but my two low-level guns break within the first few enemies. Suddenly, I’m in a fistfight with half-a-dozen armored super mutants. Beside myself with disbelief, I open my inventory, go over one tab, scroll down while carefully weighing the cons of using any of the weapons, pick my shotgun, come out, and notice my health down maybe a tick from a full 10 second beatdown.

In case the issue isn’t painted across Fallout 76’s salesman-esque smile, this is rubberbanding of the worst kind to me.

Fallout 76
Revolver Ocelot WISHES he was as good as this random Scorched.

Your deaths that do come are inconsistent with how you got there because the levels every creature has are completely meaningless. A level 1 Scorched can take two shots to kill and a level 40 Radstag can die to a level 15 me in a couple of headshots. Logic behind the scenes is never communicated to the player. I get that a level 40 Radstag should die pretty quickly, but there’s nothing telling me that. There are no symbols for armor, acid, poison, diseased, radiated, or even super-uber dangerous. Legendaries are the only real symbolically showcased enemy type, but their power seems sporadic. Even Mothman, spawning randomly in some mountain pass, fell to me without a single death despite being 25 levels my superior. Huh-wha?

My maximum level before I ejected the game for good was 20. Even as such, I’ve taken down legendary creatures of level 40 and 35, a level 30 deathclaw, and hordes of enemies my own level without a sweat. Without stealth as a viable addition to the combat, the game had to be this easy to keep players moving forward. This would’ve taken a full reconstruction of the systems from Fallout 4 and before to address. As it stands, Fallout 76 has combat that feels patchwork from end to end.

Swinging around to the story is a short, meaningless visit. Your only interaction with the characters is through their echoes, each of them a star in space that you’re never going to see in this current world. The main thread has you following in the steps of a character far more interesting than you called the Overseer. She has moved from resistance camp to outpost to medical facility, all in an effort to end the scorch plague and fits beautifully into the world that’s struggling to acclimate to the titular fallout of the great war. Other characters do too, amazingly, their writing actually quite well rounded despite the intentional isolation of the world.

On one hand, Fallout 76 is indeed leaning into that isolation by relegating all of that story – every bit ever – to logs or holotapes. Once I accepted that, the isolated ambiance undoubtedly carried me forward in search of a calm corner to just absorb the world for a few more moments. Hand number two deals with reality, which isn’t a good thing for Fallout 76 because this is a shooter with screaming other people. Oil and water absorb as poorly as you’d expect because there are zero stakes, not even imaginary ones. Everyone’s already dead and nothing you do affects the living. What’s the point?

Fallout 76
Vault wars or factions? Uh, yeah, please.

You could argue that a purpose could’ve been inserted with the idea of the players becoming the NPCs in Fallout 76. Sure, I could see a scenario wherein one would choose their “class” in a game-wide faction system that supported contact between players with the ability to give one another pieces of a larger story or even missions. That would’ve been unique, even bold of Bethesda to explore and would bring life to the world in a way it drastically needed.

In actuality, people are a myth and cooperation is sparse. Unless you’re part of the train-gain porting from one world event to the next, you’ll likely never see or hear from another human. I bought a ticket and roamed from station to station because EXP is brokenly leaned towards low-level public events, seeing plenty of people that I wanted nothing to do with ever again. Trading is pointless in my mind because of how varied the levels are. Going rogue, which might be fun by the name, is an instant death sentence with a ticking clock. No matter what kills you, you will lose a huge amount of caps when you die again with the benefits being absolutely vacant.

At some point, the laughing and smiling stopped. I had to put on my game face and fully absorb what I was looking at which is, objectively, easy to argue as one of the worst triple-A game releases this generation. Fallout 76 is breathtaking in its assumptive success and ability to nail every decision available to make the experience worse. Throw out how updates can make an experience better if you’d like, but even after 50GB of “fixes”, I’m timed out and marching to a different state.

Fallout 76 Score:

3/10

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