I’m sure I won’t be diving back in unless I have some friends at my side.
I still don’t know if Fallout 76 is my jam. But I’m sure I won’t be diving back in unless I have some friends at my side.
I jumped into the beta intending to answer the question of whether or not Fallout 76 can actually “work” as the kind of solo experience fans of Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 4 have come to expect from the series. After around 15 hours, I’m feeling sure of two things: it definitely does work, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good time.
It’s still a Fallout game.
It’s still a Fallout game from Bethesda, of course. Even though I’m not a fan of going it alone, there’s still that same familiar pull to leap back in and explore the vast landscape of Appalachia.
I want to spend more time wandering the broken roadways and overgrown woods, just for the thrill of stumbling across an old airport remade into a raider fortress or the crumbling, mutant insect-infested remains of a mountaintop radio station.
To wake up in a Vault and hear another human talking in my ear was jarring.
My first moments in Fallout 76 started in a familiar location: I was in an empty Vault, in my little private room at first, doing all the usual first-time character setup. Face molding. Choosing a name. Assigning my first S.P.E.C.I.A.L. points (which works a little differently here, but that’s a topic for another conversation).
But something weird happened as I was pinching and pulling my post-apocalyptic avatar’s face: this dude was in my headset talking about upgrading his computer. Not his character’s wrist-mounted PIP Boy, but his actual real-world PC. I think he was talking to someone else who had public chat muted, so I only heard one side of the conversation.
For all the fleshed out companions and choice-driven storytelling, Fallout games tend to feel like lonesome, solitary experiences for me. Your allies are quest dispensers, pack mules, and combat boosters. There’s rarely a strong sense of character or humanity emanating from the script. So to wake up in a Vault and suddenly hear a flesh-and-blood human talking in my ear, and not even to me — it was jarring. This happens frequently as you move through the world, in and out of population centers. I would later learn that there’s proximity-based voice chat in Fallout 76 so you can hear other players when they’re nearby.
Heading to the exit brought to me a familiar Fallout visual: The massive Vault 76 hatch spun open and bright rays of sunlight shone through. I walked through the portal and found myself at the top of an overlook staring out over a broken landscape. I was unarmed and had nothing other than my jumpsuit in my inventory, since (oddly, for a Fallout game) there’s very little scavenging — and no weapons to be found — until you leave the Vault.
As I started to wander off, I noticed movement. A pack of little, Soviet-branded four-legged robots with cylindrical heads was skittering about and started firing off inaccurate laser blasts as I got close. Noting the “1” level indicator next to their health bars, I shrugged and sprinted in, punching their dumb soup can heads and watching with delight as they fell to pieces, one by one.
Then things got weird: The robots I hadn’t punched yet started blowing up all around me. I spun around and saw a fellow survivor clad in a Vault jumpsuit and firing his pipe pistol into the crowd. I looked at him. Then I looked back at the growing pile of robot carcasses all around me. The next move was clear.
Every player sees their own, randomized loot.
I started moving from robot to robot, grabbing every bit of junk I could from their sparking, shattered remains. The gun-toting survivor moved to do the same. It was a race. We’re both trying to survive in this wasteland, and there are only so many parts on the ground.
This was wasted effort, I would later learn; every player sees their own, randomized loot, so even if someone else loots a corpse first you’ll still find your own items there. But Fallout 76 doesn’t tell you that up front and junk carries so much value in the post-apocalypse. I can see a lot of people falling into the same pattern as they take their first steps into Appalachia.
Personalized loot is an important feature for any Fallout 76 player, solo or otherwise. Scavenging is such a huge piece of these games, and not having to worry about another player swooping in and stealing your hard-fought supplies means you can stay focused on other tasks. Shared loot would put much more of a focus on player-vs-player confrontations, and that’s not what this online experience is about.
Fallout 76 gives you quests to take on and quest-specific checkpoints to guide you through the world. When you first leave the Vault, you’re sent to follow the trail left behind by your former Vault Overseer, a chase that gradually takes you on a tour through Appalachia.
There’s a lot of reading to do in Fallout 76 for those that want to keep up with the story and the lore that fuels it.
I followed my first checkpoint to the shattered remains of a nearby town, gathering a small arsenal along the way: A pipe pistol, a pipe revolver, and a healthy supply of ammo. I had concerns when I left the Vault with nothing other than my fists to protect me, but those concerns went away quickly. Not only was I more than capable of surviving a little gunfire while I punched my way to my first pistol, I was also swimming in scavenged items. Overburdened, even.
It was a quiet journey from the Vault to that little town. I ran into a few more of those skittering robots as well as a bunch of feral ghoul-like enemies called Scorched — they’re humans afflicted with some kind of plague and seem to play a role in the larger story (I didn’t get far enough to find out for sure) — but no other online players. Not until I reached the town.
The first checkpoint led me to an outpost of sorts, a safe haven for the Responders. This faction, formed out of first responders who hung onto their sense of duty after the world ended, is committed to helping people. Your early Responder quests are all about acclimating you to the world, teaching you the basics of crafting, cooking, and setting up your C.A.M.P.
There’s a big thing missing though: All of those Responder quests are picked up from a robot or a terminal. There are no human quest-givers anywhere in Appalachia (that I saw). I’ve always felt that Bethesda’s past Fallout games treated NPCs more like game pieces than actual characters, but they still inject some personality into the story.
That doesn’t come across as clearly when you’re reading text off of a fake computer screen. There’s a lot of reading to do in Fallout 76 for those that want to keep up with the story and the lore that fuels it — moreso than you’re probably used to seeing in these games. But I’ve never been the kind of Fallout player who spends much time reading at in-game terminals, and that also made it harder to invest in the story here.
Without any (virtual) human interactions and the choices and moral dilemmas they present, Fallout 76 quests boil down to ping-ponging from checkpoint to checkpoint. You go to a place, do/kill/collect a thing, then follow your map marker to the next task. Once you finish, new stuff appears in your inventory. I don’t think the absence of NPCs is the sole reason Fallout 76 felt so empty and lifeless to me, but it’s a big piece of that puzzle.
Your C.A.M.P. lets you show your work and indulge in the joy of sharing with others.
Seeing other human players running around isn’t enough to fill that void. There’s no interaction, no sharing your experience when you cast off your headset and go it alone. There’s no hook in solo play that encourages an emotional investment in what’s going on. That’s why Fallout 76 is built for online play. Doing all of these familiar Fallout Things with human companions is the whole point.
Your C.A.M.P. (referred to hereafter as “camp”), a big focus in Fallout 76, is a good example of that. In Fallout 4 there were a bunch of different zones on the map where you could clear out all threats and start building whatever you wanted to inside the clearly marked boundaries. Your Fallout 76 camp is a mobile version of that. It’s a way for you to carve out your own, personalized corner of Appalachia. You get shelter, crafting stations, all the stuff you’d normally want from a Fallout abode. But you also get to show your work and indulge in the joy of sharing with others this thing you’ve created.
Quests are, of course, what you’ll spend most of your time doing. The scripted quests I ran into all felt rather small and devoid of big action moments, though that could admittedly be a product of how early it was in the game. Your search for the Vault Overseer amounts to following a trail of breadcrumbs; each time you reach a new destination, you find a clue that leads to the next one.
Public events are not exactly exciting, but they can be helpful.
Another task equipped me with a quest-specific tranquilizer rifle that I needed to use on yao guai (that’s Fallout for “mutated bear”). When the tranq dart didn’t work, the objective shifted to “kill it dead.” Generally speaking, the quest objectives I encountered tended toward simple “investigate this location” or “activate the computer over there” kinds of activities.
The locations those quests took me to never felt crowded with other players (though I’m not sure how solo instancing works in Fallout 76), with one notable exception: there are public event-style activities aimed at getting a bunch of online players into one area. They pop up all around the map and function as fast-travel points while they’re active — though fast traveling anywhere other than your camp carries a cost, in caps.
I intentionally avoided playing with people during the beta, but I got into the habit of checking out these public events when they popped up. They’re very low-impact activities — survive X waves of enemies, keep a patrolling Protectron safe, that sort of thing — and with enough people around, they’re done in minutes. There’s no human interaction or coordinated cooperation required and each completed event gets you a fresh pile of helpful items, so while they’re not exactly exciting, they can be helpful.
For all the human players running around, Fallout 76 feels weirdly lifeless when you go it alone.
Exploring, completing quests, futzing with your camp, and jumping into public events — that’s really the extent of the Fallout 76 solo experience. Maybe that changes once you reach the higher levels and things like nukes come into play – I didn’t reach that part. But you’d also have to stay invested enough as a solo player to get to that point.
That’s the problem I had: staying invested. By most appearances, Fallout 76 is a normal-ass Fallout game where you occasionally see other human-controlled players running around. But it strips out just about everything that makes running from point A to point B meaningful.
The social piece of it, the act of running around and doing stuff in a Fallout world with friends at your side, is ostensibly there to fill the void in the absence of a more involved story. But you brush up against that only occasionally when you lone wolf it. For all the human players running around, Fallout 76 feels weirdly lifeless when you go it alone.