In Fallout 76’s opening moments, you are urged to leave your underground vault and remake America after a nuclear apocalypse, adventuring through Appalachia collecting scrap to build with and weapons and armour to help survive the irradiated environment and the monsters, super mutants and robots that now call it home. You’re not alone in this endeavour: online, you can team up with, or attack, your fellow former vault-dwellers – or you can ignore them completely, treating the game as a solo experience (that nonetheless requires a constant internet connection). Rebuilding the world with strangers and friends is a tantalising prospect, but Fallout 76 has neither the fun social dynamics and communal sense of purpose that make other online multiplayer games enjoyable, nor the rich characters, stories and world-building that made Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 more than pointless walks in the wasteland.
Fallout 76 has no supporting characters; every person you see is another player. But real people don’t provide what written characters bring to a world: context, story, connections and a sense of life and place. Real people usually run around erratically and babble into their headsets. Instead of using characters and dialogue, the meagre story is told almost entirely through written logs and audiotapes left behind after the bombs fell, which although well written and voice-acted are overused to the point of absurdity. Every time you are sent on a quest to find someone (and this happens a lot), you already know that either: they’re dead, they’re not there, or they will turn out to be a robot or a computer. At first there is melancholic interest in figuring out what happened to the previous inhabitants of Appalachia, but constantly reading about and listening to interesting things that you didn’t get to be a part of makes the entire game feel like you’ve arrived late to a party and are left to clean up the mess.
Whenever I did stumble across a place or a storyline that was engaging, Fallout 76 would find ways of disrupting my play. A tedious communal event involving killing endless mutants made one area impossible to traverse when I needed to go there on a mission. The loot that should have been waiting in the carcass of the large enemy that I’d wasted all my ammo on wouldn’t load. Enemies either wouldn’t react to my presence at all, or a large group of them would materialise out of nowhere. VATS, Fallout’s automated targeting system, was so unreliable in its estimations of whether a shot would hit that it became more of hindrance than a help, and shooting things without it isn’t as much fun.
Eight times in my 30 hours of play, the game disconnected from its servers and crashed, and when I reloaded I was outside whichever building I had been in and all the enemies had respawned. Bugs and the occasional crash are to be expected for online open-world games, but their frequency is a real issue in Fallout 76. Over time the game will become more stable through patches and updates, but in its current state it seems to be held together by duct tape and sheer will.
If the point of an online game is the interactions you have with other players, Fallout 76 makes no sense. It is designed neither for fun co-operation nor exciting face-offs. If you shoot at another player, you can only cause them a teensy sliver of damage until they shoot back – at which point a duel is initiated and you can do full damage to each other. But this drastically unbalances fights, to the aggressor’s detriment: you could empty a clip into someone at point blank range and shave off a quarter of their health bar, and they could wait until you’re reloading and kill you with a couple of retaliatory shotgun blasts.
As for trying to team up, only once did I manage to even attempt to connect with a random player on my server. After a few thumbs-up emoticons, a bit of trading and jumping up and down (the usual online game courtship ritual), the “invite to team” prompt kept disappearing, and we resorted to sending screenshots over PlayStation messaging to try and figure out why the game wasn’t letting us work together. Eventually we shrugged it off as a bug and went our separate ways. Playing with a friend was a more pleasant experience, exploring together and discussing the bizarre things we’d seen, but company makes any experience more tolerable. And asking your friend to be quiet and wait while you listen to a lengthy audiotape on a mission isn’t conducive to a fun time with your pals.
You can set up camp almost anywhere in Fallout 76, building a base from the salvage you find. Pay a few caps and you can move the whole thing somewhere else for a change of scenery. Unfortunately, building is the same fiddly, frustrating process as it was in 2015’s Fallout 4 and hasn’t been meaningfully improved. Building with a first-person camera means that seeing what you’re doing can be tricky, particularly with larger constructs, and items have a tendency to float in mid-air. I really tried to get into building my camp, picking a lovely spot in the forest next to an only mildly toxic river, and built a little shack with some furniture, a power generator, a small vegetable patch and a water purifier. Just when I was starting to feel proud of my rustic homestead, the server crashed, and when I logged back in my camp was gone, as were most of the items I’d painstakingly crafted. If your camp can just disappear like that, why should you bother?
Fallout 76’s setting is honestly beautiful, with its autumnal forests, irradiated bogs, ski lodges, folktales, and mountains hollowed by mining. It deserves to have a better game attached to it. There are some striking places to find, including a settlement built up from the stripped parts of a nearby crashed aeroplane. Following Vault 76’s overseer’s story is at times heartbreaking, even if it is told through tapes, and a mission that involves a veil, a mansion and a mysterious order was a highlight. But this potential is obscured by the game’s many problems. Previous Fallout games always had something to say about the post-apocalypse and the human factors that led to it; here, it’s reduced to shooting mutants and picking up rubbish. Even if, in the future, it mutates into something more stable, it will still feel eerily soulless.
Fallout 76 is out now; £49.99.
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