The Broken Promise of 'Fallout 76' (Review)

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Bethesda Game Studios

It is difficult to review a game like Fallout 76. Online multiplayer projects are a different beast than single-player epics. It's a living game with ongoing changes that put it on a trajectory to evolve into something much different than what came on release day. Bugs and balance issues arose during the beta period, and cast a long shadow over the launch on Nov. 14.

One week, and one massive 48 GB patch later, many of those problems remain. It's unclear when or how they'll be addressed, and while I have confidence Bethesda will resolve many of the issues plaguing an otherwise exciting premise, it doesn't change the fact they are asking full price, right now, for a foundering Fallout 76 experience.

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Exciting moments like this are far less frequent than bugs, headaches and boredom. Bethesda Game Studios

I have both a personal and professional fondness for Fallout. In my college heyday, I logged hundreds of hours in Fallout 3. A true entertainment value for a poor student, it kept me engaged and entertained for countless nights. The lore painted with broad satirical strokes to deliver a narrative range from the irreverent to the grotesque to nihilistic, brutal absurdity.

Fallout 4 changed the course of my career when a print feature opportunity for Newsweek helped usher me from a fringe freelancer inside a media conglomerate to a full-time editor on the flagship publication. So, like many Fallout fans, I am biased and feel compelled to like Fallout 76.

But I don't. Fallout 76 won't let me.

Fallout 76 Review - The Good

Fallout 76 offers the same gameplay loop featured in Fallout 4: go find things. You have to find quest objectives and junk for crafting in equal measure, and the points between A and B are often peppered with Bethesda's trademark environmental storytelling. Found narrative abounds with plenty of holotapes and handwritten notes providing context for ghastly scenes.

Fallout 76 is a different world, much bigger and much emptier. It's not empty in a bad way (usually). Instead, I felt more like a pioneer in uncharted territory who became the first person to make discoveries. The lack of human NPCs plays into this, making every bunker, shelter and dilapidated home feel like a crime scene.

And every scene is full of stuff. One thing Bethesda has always done well is populate its worlds with objects. Fallout 4 iterated on this with an ambitious crafting system that served as an engine for consuming all that junk. It worked. Suddenly things like coffee mugs mattered and once-random junk added purpose to the world. It returns in Fallout 76, coupled with new survival mechanics that add another layer of complexity. Food and water are extraordinarily valuable, moreso than crafting components. I made it a point to pick up canned dog food, for example, instead of common crafting items.

"Sense of accomplishment" is a bit of a punchline these days, but I did get that from Fallout 76. I'm proud of my little campsite, an oasis in a wasteland built from nothing. But maintaining that oasis, and any level of enjoyment in the game, is an absolute struggle because Fallout 76 continues to be a poorly balanced game.

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The Perk Cards system is one of few bright spots in the game. A smart take on static skill trees, evolving characters can change skills as it suits them. Bethesda Game Studios

Fallout 76 Review - The Bad

I'm not even talking about bugs (yet). The fundamental systems running Fallout 76 are in need of a major overhaul. Armor is a great example. It took me until level 20 to realize that it was far cheaper, resource-wise, to scrap busted armor and craft new pieces than to repair. A new leather chest piece requires leather and steel, both pretty common. Repairs add adhesive to the mix, a limited resource. It doesn't make sense.

Stash weight is limited to 400. In Fallout 4, the crafting mechanic worked because you had endless storage and large spaces to build. In Fallout 76, your stash is limited, as is your campsite. You have a "budget" for objects in you camp that gets no explanation, so any grand plans for a sprawling homestead are set aside the moment you realize a second-story for your home is basically impossible. You can technically build more on claimed workshops, but you lose ownership on those at an astounding rate. I claimed and rebuilt the same workshop three times in a day because I had the audacity to log out for 30 minutes to eat or use a toilet.

Eating in Fallout 76 is difficult too, because raw foods decay at an alarming rate. They even decay in your storage, something that seems patently unfair given that you have limited space. Growing crops is nearly worthless because the foods spoil so fast. Spoiled food can be turned into fertilizer to … plant more crops I can't use?

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A vast wasteland full of empty potential. Bethesda Game Studios

Fallout 76 plays more like Fallout 4.5 than a bold new online experience. I spent almost all of my time by myself, save for a co-op session on launch day. I rarely saw other people in game and it was mostly in passing. Events on the map often go unclaimed and I completed several by myself. While I don't want to be forced to work with people all the time, there's also nothing in the game that helps me work with other players I don't already know. Bethesda said dungeons and other late-game multiplayer content are coming, but with players already at or near level cap a week after launch there's a lot missing from the $60 purchase.

And I mean A LOT.

Fallout 76 Review - The Bugly

As I said above, it's difficult to review an online game at launch. I played an Xbox One version, and decided to give Bethesda until the first patch before rendering judgment on the game. If they were able to resolve the launch issues, it would demonstrate they have a handle on their creation. One week and 48 GB later, it's obvious they do not.

My first session post-patch hit me with the worst performance I'd experienced yet, including during the beta. Basically, a glitch had rendered enemies invisible to me, though they were still capable of causing damage. I tried to fast-travel to a different spot, but no other locations on my map were available for some reason, including my camp. So I traveled back to the same spot in the hopes it would reset the bug. It didn't. It got worse. I loaded onto a HUD-less screen locked in third-person mode, completely frozen and again taking damage. In an instant, dozens of enemies spawned around me before I died. Again, I couldn't respawn anywhere except that same location. So I did. And the same thing happened. I turned the game off and don't know when I'll be back.

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Fallout 76 has a long way to go. But fans hope it gets there. Bethesda Game Studios

This is hardly the only bug I experienced, and I am not alone. I lost hours of my time on two quests that didn't save. Of course, all the health and ammo I used on those quests didn't get replenished. So not only did I lose playtime, I also lost the time spent harvesting and crafting things. I'm able to look past the frame rate drops, the rubber banding, the rough edges and aesthetic jank all over Fallout 76. But I can't overlook having my time wasted because Bethesda rushed a game that wasn't ready.

Maybe things will get better. I sure hope so; I had some genuinely fun moments playing Fallout 76 the last few weeks. But they were outweighed by the near-constant performance issues and poorly executed game systems. There is no organized multiplayer experience to speak of, and the satisfaction of following the story is undercut by questing bug after questing bug. Workshops seem designed to act like semi-permanent base camps, but the turnover rate is way too high for any meaningful investment. Clunky menus, cheap deaths and a lack of information force you to work harder than you should to wring enjoyment out of a game concept that should've been a slam-dunk: co-op Fallout.

Newsgeek Review Score Fallout 76
Newsweek // Rocco Marrongelli