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How Fallout 76 handles combat with VATS

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At lower levels, it’s better at finding foes than hitting them

My history with Fallout begins with Bethesda Game Studios taking custody of the role-playing franchise a decade ago. So I’ve only known combat under VATS, the series’ time-slowing/stopping approach to an RPG-style battle. Whether I was alert, sleep-deprived, panicked or just plain drunk, the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System was indispensable in helping me get the drop on someone, or countering when someone had gotten the drop on me. And VATS, which actually allowed for some decision-making in first-person combat, sure as hell beat getting shot to pieces by teenagers in Call of Duty: World at War or Resistance 2. More than anything else in the game, VATS helped hook me on Fallout 3.

So this signature feature’s treatment in Fallout 76, Bethesda’s first multiplayer title for the franchise, would be the bulk of my first impression in a hands-on session with the game last week. It’s one thing to be told that VATS is present in Fallout 76 — to see the percentage chance to hit. But it does not stop or slow combat with other humans the way it does in the previous, single-player entries. You really need to use it to understand what it provides. For me, VATS in this game was more of a comforting familiarity than a combat aid, especially at lower levels.

At first, VATS combat in Fallout 76 was a little confusing — because the action didn’t stop, I continued to move the right thumbstick, instinctively, to aim. When the low-level perk that targets body parts is equipped (without it, users simply fire at the target’s center of mass), the right stick cycles through the parts. Because the weapon graphic goes still and does not track the target, I was blasting on faith and getting a dice-roll outcome, which imparts a feeling of not-aiming-while-aiming.

I also wasn’t thrilled by some of the hit probabilities I saw in VATS. That could be because of my low perception (the attribute governing weapon accuracy, which I raised to 3; in Fallout 76 progression, all players start with attributes set at 1). But when a Super Mutant poked his head over the cornice of a building, it was easier for me to aim down sights and headshot him on the fly than it was to go into VATS and take my chances there.

VATS was most useful in simply highlighting a hostile during a chaotic situation — and most combat encounters felt chaotic from the first shot fired. Some of this is because Fallout 76’s Appalachia is the first wasteland environment with real foliage, which provides a ton of useful cover for both humans and CPU adversaries. When my HUD flashed and blood spattered the screen, I whacked the left bumper to find out who was pot-shotting me. Going into VATS will cost action points (an energy bar more often drained by sprinting) even without firing, which I presume is to keep players from abusing VATS’ scanning ability.

Fallout 76 - aiming at a Super Mutant in VATS Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

There’s another complication VATS brings to multiplayer that I’ll have to keep in mind when the Fallout 76 beta rolls out Oct. 23, and the full game on Nov. 14. When there are no hostiles in the area, VATS won’t activate, same as in the single-player Fallout games. But with one hostile present, everyone in range — friend, foe or neutral — can be targeted. “Pacifist mode” (basically, no friendly fire among teammates), which is on by default, prevents players from hurting allies. But you can still waste ammo on someone if you’re not careful. Unallied humans can take careless fire too. A Bethesda Game Studios developer was in our world wearing power armor; I confused his bulky frame for a Super Mutant in the middle of a firefight, and cracked off a few shots at him by mistake.

The protocol of player-versus-player combat in Fallout 76 is on everyone’s mind, and I got a mild taste of its application with and without VATS. I know the rules: Firing on someone who has not engaged you will do minimal damage unless and until they fire back. So one or two unintentional strikes aren’t a huge problem — except the other player can, I assume, return fire without then incurring the much-discussed “murderer” bounty and penalties.

It’s possible that at higher levels, or with other perk cards equipped, VATS becomes more useful. (“Concentrated Fire,” at higher ranks, confers an accuracy and damage boost if you go after the same body part.) But it’s also possible that VATS’ biggest success ends up being that it was included in a multiplayer game and nothing was broken for it. The scanning/highlighting utility may help some players who are less skilled in multiplayer shooters, which can often break down to being shot to death before you see who’s shooting. Against CPU foes, I made faster work of my enemies by free-aiming.