It's been about two weeks since I emerged from a semidrunken stupor (a state not unfamiliar to me) and left the comforts of Vault 76 to recolonize what was left of West Virginia after the Great War. After a hundred years, I'm ready to explore, meet new folks and kick some mutated ass in the world of Fallout 76.
There's No "I" in Team
War might never change, but apparently game premises do. Fallout 76 marks the first multiplayer entry in the series. That means that technically, I'm no longer the Lone Wanderer — I guess you could call me "One of Many" on Team Wanderer. After making the trek from the vault to my first town in an attempt to track down my vault's Overseer, I joined up with a couple of players around my level to see the sights.
Much of the time I've spent with other folks in 76 has revolved around completing Public Events –– missions that anyone can join with the goal of earning experience and much-needed health items, weapons and crafting materials. So far, everyone I've played with has gone the co-op route, working together to defeat a common foe.
Even with all these people running around building settlements, clearing out Super Mutants and Feral Ghouls, I never felt so lonely.
But once you reach level five, you can start striking out at your fellow vault dwellers. I've definitely been the target of less-than-friendly fire on several occasion. The ensuing damage was relatively minimal, unless I decided to strike back — then it was likely to turn into War of the Roses: Wasteland Edition. If you crave player-vs.-player action, there's a radio station on your Pip Boy that'll help you find new opponents.
But, the majority of my time with Fallout 76 has been spent roaming around the West Virginia Wastelands by my lonesome –– pretending to be the Lone Wanderer, until someone inevitably showed up and invited me to join their team. But even with all these people running around building settlements, clearing out Super Mutants and Feral Ghouls, I never felt so lonely.
A large part of Fallout's appeal is the people you meet over the course of the journey. In Fallout 4, the nonplayable companion synth Nick Valentine became a fan favorite, thanks to his heavy pulp fiction noir sensibilities. And there's always been a lively cast of humans and ghouls to dole out quests or at least chew the fat. You lose a lot of that lived-in charm in 76, however. Here, you receive the bulk of your missions from robots or from holotapes of people long dead. In such a massive world, I truly felt isolated, like I was the last person on earth.
Eventually, the loneliness would win out (plus, I kept running into stronger enemies) and I would team with other people. But with their motivations set on tackling the next Public Event, they could never provide the wacky, creepy, optimistic-but-always-entertaining personalities that I've come to expect from the denizens of Fallout.
Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck (S.P.E.C.I.A.L.) –– Fallout's famous stat system is back, with a few new tricks. Similar to previous entries in the title, every time I leveled up, I received a Perks Point, which I could allocate to one of the seven stats. But because this is a new, experimental Fallout, Bethesda added a new wrinkle to the system in the form of Perk Cards.
Presented like a pack of shiny-new, post-nuclear-apocalyptic baseball cards, Perk Cards unlock special skills that correspond to one of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats when equipped. In order to equip cards, you'll need enough points in that particular S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat. So, if I wanted to equip a card with a 2 rank in Luck, that stat would have to have at least two points. You can level each Stat up to 15 points, and with hundreds of cards available, the possibilities for your skill loadouts are endless.
Since sharing is caring, you can trade cards with other former vault members. And if you're feeling super benevolent, you can even share some of your perks with your team. Just level up your Charisma and let the good times roll. I'm not going to lie, the collector in me is addicted to getting new cards (gotta catch 'em all). I continue to be excited when I get a new pack, and with the intricacies of card development, I can spend hours agonizing over what to equip or upgrade. Thankfully, you can swap out unlocked cards at any given time.
Survival of the Hoarders
Unlike in Fallout 4, you'll have to worry about surviving the second you step out of the vault in Fallout 76. No, I don't mean getting eaten by a Radroach (although that could happen) — I mean you literally have to constantly pay attention to your thirst and hunger levels.
Let either fall to dangerous levels, and your health and stamina levels will drop. So you'll need to have a steady supply of clean water and fresh food on hand. Note I said clean and fresh — ingesting dirty water or spoiled food opens you up to a variety of status-affecting diseases. Personally, I enjoyed the extra challenge, but folks who want to roam the wastes without worrying about this sort of thing will be annoyed.
Speaking of annoyed, in the search for reusable scrap to build yourself better armor, weapons and accommodations, you can quickly become overencumbered. Fans of the series know that this status effect makes it impossible for you to run or use fast travel. The only real remedy is to constantly drop precious resources or drop them off in your personal Stash box, which has a laughably low weight limit of 400 pounds. I need all those broken fans, empty paint cans and crystal decanters so I can improve my C.A.M.P. (Construction and Assembly Mobile Platform), armor and weapons as well as cook food and chems.
The C.A.M.P. system is similar to the settlement-building mechanic in Fallout 4, which means you can be as detailed or as spartan as you please. And while you can build your new digs from scratch, I prefer using the various blueprints I found around the world. Just be sure to put up plenty of defenses, like turrets, to guard your C.A.M.P. While you're gone, it's almost guaranteed that either some enemies or other players are going to try to loot your camp. Which is fine, I guess, but some jerk looted my camp, razed my crops and stole the water from my purifier while I was out gallivanting.
I haven't been the focus of any hostile takeovers (yet), but with scant resources, don't be surprised if someone tries to steal or destroy your hard-earned stuff.
V.A.T.S.: A Comedy of Compromises
Holy crap, Bethesda! What did you do to V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting Systems)? It's almost unusable, especially against fast-moving enemies like the Scorched. When I think of V.A.T.S., I'm expecting to hear that telltale shhhhh noise as time slows to a crawl, allowing me to pick and choose limb shots based on the probability of scoring a hit. And I thought that once I chose and took my shot, I'd be treated to a gloriously gruesome, slow-motion shot of the bullet connecting that was full of blood and guts, punctuated by the slowed-down yelp of my target (Good Freaking Times).
Bethesda pulled a fast one on us with 76, instituting a "real-time" V.A.T.S. system. Since all the running and gunning is being done with friends, everything has to be happening in the same time period for everyone. That means that when you activate the targeting system, there's no real slowdown —- instead, it just shows the likelihood of hitting your proposed target. Which means, if you're like me and took time to measure up those beautiful, precision shots in the old V.A.T.S., the new system is likely to elicit a stream of expletives that would make a sailor blush every time you use it.
The new V.A.T.S system is almost unusable, especially against fast-moving enemies like the Scorched.
Yes, you can upgrade V.A.T.S. via the power of Perk Cards, but I miss the stylized violence. If I can say anything good about the system, it's that it's caused me to change up my Fallout play style. Where I used to toy around with my foes with light weapons like pistols and submachine guns, now I'm going in with shotguns and melee, going for quick, decisive tactics. Trying to do close-range fighting with any other weapons is way too hit or miss for my taste.
Pretty as an Irradiated Picture
"Country roads, take me home/To the place I belong ..."
I've never been to West Virginia, but if it's half as pretty as Bethesda's irradiated take on the 35th state admitted to the Union, I'm missing out. As with most Fallout titles, there's a desiccated beauty to the Wasteland. But it's one where there are waterfalls that transition into babbling brooks — and then there are trees, actual trees that make up large, majestic forests. I've even found an ice cave of sorts during my travel.
As with most Fallout titles, there's a desiccated beauty to the Wasteland.
Many of the mutated fauna from past Fallouts appear in 76, including Mirelurks, Mole Rats and Deathstalkers. But many new, irradiated critters are making their grand and horrifying debut in 76. The Scorched have quickly become the bane of my existence. Essentially a bunch of humans infected with some mysterious disease that makes them look like walking magma monsters, they're fast and have enough cognitive faculties to competently wield weapons. I'm not ashamed to admit I've been bludgeoned to death by a horde of Scorched. I've even been shot to death by one —- it's a humbling experience.
Bethesda tapped into local West Virginia folklore for some of the game's monstrosities. There's the Mothman, a literal giant moth creature that only shows up in the darkest corners of the Wasteland. It's almost as if it knows how to milk its environment for the greatest jump-scare effects. You even get a Wendigo, pulled from Native American legends. Then you get straight-up abominations like the Honey Beast, which looks like a giant bee with a massive hive melted onto its back –– you know, nightmare fuel. I can only imagine what other twisted horrors Bethesda has in store as it starts rolling out patches and DLC.
Nukes, Nukes Everywhere
In another first for the Fallout series, 76 is the first to let players fire off nukes. And I don't mean, "should I detonate that kinda dormant/kinda not warhead in Megaton" nuke. I mean a "hunt down launch codes, fight a bunch of robots for keycards and watch the fun happen from the safety of a silo" nuke. And true, some unscrupulous gamers were firing off nukes willy-nilly at the beginning, but trust me, creating a massive neon-orange crater is that much sweeter if you jump through the hoops.
Exploring your new hot zone yields rare resources, typically after you've gone toe-to-toe with some massively powerful foes. But after doing this a few times, it started to become a tad routine. It's something that Bethesda is going to have to address in subsequent DLC.
Look, I'm never going to turn down an opportunity to return to the Wasteland. But whereas previous Fallouts delivered meaty journeys, complete with moral dilemmas and weighty stories, Fallout 76 seems like a quick jaunt. Without human NPCs to flesh out the world, post-apocalyptic West Virginia feels empty — and not in a good way. I'm also not a fan of stripped-down V.A.T.S. or having to constantly ration crafting resources due to ridiculously low weight limits.
Still, if you've ever wanted to explore the Wasteland with a friend or frienemy, Fallout 76 is the game for you.
- More: What's it like two years on? Read our Fallout 76: Steel Reign review