Of all the things that the Fallout series is known for, multiplayer is not one of them. With Fallout 76, Bethesda hopes to change this by letting you party up with real people to explore the post-nuclear apocalypse wasteland of West Virginia. This means that you’ll finally have an audience for when you accidentally incinerate yourself by launching a Fat Man projectile into a wall that’s two feet away. For everyone else, the game marks the beginning of a new chapter in the Fallout series, a chapter that is already off to a bad start thanks to people's inherent dislike of extreme change.
While the core gameplay mechanics of Fallout 76 will be familiar to those who have played the other Bethesda-era Fallout games, especially Fallout 4, the overall experience is not quite the same. For instance, the traditional perk system has been ditched in favor of a new perk card system. Upon leveling up, you simply get a bunch of perk cards that you can equip and unequip whenever you want. The limiting factor is that there are only so many cards that you can equip at once, so you have to make some choices as to which card in your card inventory is right for you. Thankfully, the effects of the perk cards are quite similar to the traditional perks that exist in previous games, so the learning curve shouldn't be too steep. In other words, some perks will be so niche that they're useless, some will become a mainstay of certain playstyles, and some are generally good to keep around just in case you need them.
Similarly, VATS is no longer going to pause the game so that you can queue up a series of attacks against various targets. On the contrary, VATS is a real time system in Fallout 76, a change that was undoubtedly made for the sake of multiplayer. Like before, you can press a button to activate VATS at any time, letting you detect and lock on to enemies. Things start to divert from here as you are limited to targeting the entire body. Press the fire button, and you just...shoot. Or stab, or whatever attack fits your weapon. Only with the right perk cards can you target individual limbs. Without the right perk cards, new VATS may as well be an inconsistent built-in aimbot.
Seeing as how enemies move at normal speed anyways, it might be best to use new VATS in such a manner as it is far too awkward to select and deselect limbs in real time. This is especially true on console as limb targeting relies on the D-Pad. Though it is functionally identical to traditional VATS, new VATS feels unwieldy and somehow less accurate than manually shooting something. New VATS still has its uses, but losing the ability to freeze time, become virtually invincible, and shoot multiple targets at once without worrying about targeting the wrong thing is rather crippling, at least upon initial inspection.
Yet, of all the changes that Fallout 76 made to accommodate multiplayer, none are as tragic as the elimination of all non-hostile humanoid NPCs. There’s not going to be some guy who pesters you about some far off settlement that’s under attack, there’s no town that’s full of interesting and relatively varied characters to interact with, and there’s certainly not going to be any human NPCs (smoothskin or otherwise) to drive multiple plotlines forward. Fortunately, you can still trade with robots and learn the fates of those that survived the nuclear apocalypse via holotapes and computers. Unfortunately, Bethesda seemingly took the concept of a nuclear wasteland a bit too far and created a beautiful world that’s utterly devoid of life.
Initially, this may not feel like a huge problem. As you get to explore more and more of Fallout 76’s rather large map, you may not even notice this omission at all. After wandering around for a couple of hours though, Fallout 76 plays more like a FPS with leveling elements than a FPS-RPG hybrid. If all you’re looking for is a fairly laid back FPS that you can play for a couple of hours with your friends, then 76 is fine as it is. If you’re looking for something with substance, it is hard to say whether or not Fallout 76 can stand up to previous games within its own franchise, much less other games. The phrase “wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle” certainly comes to mind in this regard.
Consequently, it is quite possible that Fallout 76 will fall into the same trap that destroyed games like Sea of Thieves. You have this beautiful open world that players can explore at their leisure, but what happens after five hours of gameplay? How about 25, or even 50 hours? Wandering around, building settlements, and crafting impenetrable armor and powerful weapons may be fun for a while, but what will draw players back when they tire of such things? Perhaps there will be some form of raid, or world boss, or some other end game event. Maybe Bethesda has a very long list of free post-launch content. No one outside of Bethesda knows, and 76's beta isn't going to answer such questions.
That being said, one must bear in mind that Fallout 76 is not a bad game per se. It is only a bad game if you are looking for a traditional Fallout experience. In all other aspects, especially in regards to being a pseudo-survival FPS with crafting and leveling mechanics, 76 is quite enjoyable. Combat presents a reasonable challenge, the new hunger and thirst mechanics feel like a natural fit, and the game offers a view of some of the most breathtaking exterior locations and thematic interiors that you can find in a modern game. Furthermore, the new perk card system, while perhaps a bit strange at first, has the potential to impress those who enjoy switching between wildly different playstyles from time to time. There are even public events that you can fast travel to from almost any part of the map, giving you a chance to make friends and fight a small horde of enemies for some rewards.
It is clear that Bethesda hasn't completely forsaken their fans seeing as how there's so much to explore, and at worst one can consider the game to be an experiment for everyone involved. Fallout 76 has been and likely will continue to be a bit polarizing. If you genuinely don't want a game that doesn't have a traditional story or NPCs that you can talk to and bond with, it might be a good idea to stay away, but it seems unlikely that 76 will be the death knell that signals the end of Fallout as we know. In the end, there's a lot to like about Fallout 76 regardless of how you view the game's premise, especially if you are well acquainted with the Bethesda era of Fallout games.
TechRaptor played the Fallout 76 beta on Xbox One via the Pre-Order beta. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 and PC.