Fallout 76: Hands-On First Impressions
(Disclaimer: I was invited to play the game on an unfinished (not final) build for a few hours during the recent Xbox Stress Test. NDA prevented me from sharing my impressions until now with the release of the B.E.T.A)
After watching a couple hours or so combined of footage from multiple youtubers/outlets, my hype for Fallout 76 had all but died. The game looked like a janky mess (even by Bethesda standards), and it just seemed like a pointless, disjointed murderfest with painfully mediocre online mechanics and a beyond weird looking real time VATS mechanic. After playing I can confirm that VATS is still weird, but overall the footage shown by those youtubers did not do Fallout 76 and its very atmospheric world justice.
My adventure started off, of course, in Vault 76 itself. After creating my character with the same system used in Fallout 4 (and admiring how good the facial hair looks) I took the time to explore every nook and cranny, and I was admittedly kinda disappointed how little there was to find in the Vault. Most rooms are sealed off (including one open one that was strangely blocked by an invisible wall), and it just seems like Bethesda wants to shuffle players out of the vault as quickly as possible. After gathering some supplies, putting my first SPECIAL point into intelligence, and getting the returning Medic perk (stimpaks heal 15% more) I took my first step out of the Vault (which has a door much closer in resemblance to the original Fallout’s Vault doors, which is a cool nod). I had originally planned to play solo, but as soon as I left the vault I encountered another player (with proximity voice chat) who seemed like a cool dude, so I rolled with him. We got our feet wet killing some chinese robots and collecting some basic loot and ammo; while just trying to get used to the concept of an online multiplayer Fallout game.
Unlike Fallout 4’s Vault 111 which was placed in almost the very northwest corner of the map, Vault 76 is placed more toward the middle, so players are surrounded on all sides by points of interest. I much prefer this design decision, as even though there is a set path you’re supposed to follow, you don’t actually feel funneled into going a certain way like in FO4. There was a very enticing highway I could have followed to the northwest for example, but after exploring the immediate area my friend and I began following the overseer’s trail to the east. After looting our way through the Appalachian countryside and taking out some scorched (several of which glided across the ground like they were wearing ice skates, only to disappear when we approached them) we made it to the nearby town of Flatwoods where the Overseer passed through. There were multiple other players milling about (since we all started at the same time) so it didn’t feel very lonely; but if you go off exploring solo I could definitely see it feeling very lonely, with the lack of human npc’s giving it an almost creepy ghost town vibe. The town of Flatwoods mainly consists of some houses, and a church turned trading post established by a faction called “The Responders”; a faction made up of police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other good samaritans who tried their best to help the surviving populace (a completely benevolent Fallout faction? No wonder they’re all dead!). Even though there were obviously no NPC’s from this faction around, I still got to learn plenty about them and their history by reading notes, terminals, and listening to holotapes.
Unlike in Vault 76 itself, the sheer amount of notes/terminals/holotapes to digest is almost overwhelming, but in a good way. While some of these were mundane, some of them were quite compelling, especially the “survivor stories”. These holotapes all featured superb voice acting and writing. A particularly compelling tape I found was from an old lady telling her story of winning the lottery a month before the bombs fell, and how she spends her time reading old newspapers and actually finds life more peaceful than before. Another tape I found had the desperate pleas of a Responder somehow trapped inside a fridge, begging for his life by telling the location of his life savings, which I was able to find in a nearby stump by following his directions (no quest markers!). The world is also filled with great environmental storytelling, the most striking of which I found included a note called “The last will and testament of Jeremiah” where a man, seemingly under duress, scribbled his will on a piece of paper and mentioned that someone had kidnapped his granddaughter. Next to the note was a baby crib with a makeshift memorial inside of it, truly powerful stuff.
Contrary to popular belief, there is a main story in Fallout 76, which is almost entirely told through holotapes/notes/terminals, and revolves around following the trail of the Overseer. This environmental storytelling approach is similar to that of Bioshock or Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, and (maybe unintentionally) adds an almost eerie vibe to the game. I found a couple of the Overseer’s logs in Flatwoods, which instructed me to gather supplies to survive, make food, and test the nearby water sources for radiation. These tasks may sound mundane, but that is probably what the first vault dwellers to emerge into the Wastes would be doing. Compared to Fallout 4’s first quest which involved you fighting raiders, ghouls, and donning power armor and a minigun to battle a deathclaw, Fallout 76’s somewhat realistic and grounded experience was actually quite refreshing; and I was shocked how little emphasis these early quests placed on killing (well, besides one part of a quest where I had to kill a brahmin for its meat, which resulted in me hilariously chasing it around Flatwoods with a hatchet). After doing these short initial quests and looting, reading, and listening to everything in sight, I was ready to venture toward Morgantown airport to continue my search for the Overseer and the Responders (alternatively I could’ve went to another town to search for more of her personal logs). Sadly, at this point performance started to get wonky and I got booted off the server, and was unable to rejoin. This may have had more to do with my internet connection than anything though, so I’ll give Bethesda the benefit of the doubt here.
It was definitely weird at first just talking to another player thru a headset while playing a Fallout game. However it didn’t take very long to get in a nice groove of looting, calling out loot spots and things the other person may have missed, and taking down enemies together. Think of it like playing Fallout 4 with a companion, except your companion is a real human who is actually smart and useful (hopefully). It’s definitely possible to play solo however since the enemies aren’t that tough (at least in the early stages of the game). I didn’t have enough time to really get a feel for the online mechanics however, and I didn’t get to engage in PvP, so there's not much I can really say about that yet. Performance in this build was definitely improved over the footage shown a couple weeks ago, although there were still some noticeable framerate dips the further along I went. The graphics are definitely improved over Fallout 4 (especially lighting) although many textures look unchanged. There is a very slight yellowish hue to everything, which helps add to the Appalachian atmosphere, and like in Fallout 4, important buildings tend to stand out due to their distinctive colors. Another thing that adds to the rich atmosphere is the ambient soundtrack, once again provided by Inon Zur. I listened to the radio a bit (mostly just heard returning songs from Fallout 4) but Zur’s work had me totally entranced. Gunplay seemed a little bit tighter to me as well, although like I said earlier, VATS in real time is kinda disorienting and weird as fuck, so I didn’t use it a whole lot. Obviously, I didn’t get to progress very far so I can’t comment on the leveling or new perk card system. I also did not get to try out the new C.A.M.P. settlement mode or get deep into any sort of crafting, although it seems to play a pivotal role. Something that annoyed me however is not being able to edit the HUD at all, or change the color. The HUD itself can get pretty crowded and the yellow default color is kinda ugly, so this is a small but annoying nuisance. Also in my short time playing, the hunger and thirst survival mechanics depleted constantly which was annoying, so that is something that will hopefully be tweaked. However, I do think that the “softcore” survival mechanics (including ammo weight, diseases, weapon repair, and level requirements for certain weapons/armor) add a much needed layer of complexity to the game, and add to the overall rugged survivalist tone of the game.
Overall, I really enjoyed my short, but sweet first experience of Fallout 76. Even though I only got to see about 2% of the world, I’m pretty confident that this is the most rich, immersive, and painstakingly detailed Fallout wasteland Bethesda Game Studios has yet crafted. Time will tell if my enjoyment will last through the course of an entire playthrough however. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game and had no qualms (yet) about its online functions, I can’t help but wonder what Fallout 76 would be like if it had actual NPC’s and the traditional dialogue choices of a mainline Fallout game. If you combined the dialogue/RPG mechanics found in Fallout 4’s Far Harbor (minus the voiced protagonist) with Fallout 76’s amazing world, compelling early game progression, and immersive atmosphere, I would dare say that would be the best modern Fallout game yet. Maybe that line of thinking is exactly the problem with the public perception of Fallout 76; everyone wants the game to be something it isn’t rather than enjoying it for what it actually is. While Fallout 76 may not be the New Vegas successor many had hoped for, it doesn’t need to be. It is undoubtedly a new atmospheric world to get lost in, and an innovative take on the franchise. Which in my opinion, is a whole lot better than getting nothing until Fallout 5.