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Fallout 76 - a man with a pickax walks past power armor partially buried in the ground

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Fallout 76’s big multiplayer question: Who is in charge of the story?

‘Fallout-with-friends’ proposition works, but can get a little chaotic

Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Shortly after bounding into the world of Fallout 76, I came upon a campsite put down by the overseer of the game’s namesake vault. She’d gone out ahead of us on some important mission. What exactly it was, I couldn’t tell, because the holotape she’d left behind, and all the others I would find this day, was drowned out by the multiplayer chat of my three squadmates.

That first encounter draws out the fact that even an aspiration as simple and reasonable as Fallout 76’s — play a great role-playing game, just with friends — inherently poses some conflict to the staple experiences the series is expected to serve. Another great example is the well-known absence of human non-player characters in Fallout 76.

By itself, that’s not a problem for me — and I’ve put hundreds of hours into this game’s siblings. In fact, piecing together my goals and purposes from the notes and recordings of others reinforces the kind of solitude that made Fallout 3, 4 and New Vegas so engrossing. But it also meant that barely five minutes into this new world, I wanted my teammates to go the hell away.

Granted, that option will be available to me throughout the entirety of Fallout 76. Here, I was playing with others in a three-hour preview event organized by publisher Bethesda Softworks, the whole point of which was to show how the game’s world works with other people in it.

The largest problem I found isn’t that the quest givers are now robots, recordings or other narrative workarounds; it’s who is in charge of the story’s progress, and what the trade-off is for each. On my own, a world without NPCs seems starved for human contact — and that’s the whole point of the first multiplayer Fallout. Playing Fallout 76, with others, I was continually distracted: Someone found something, someone was shooting at something. Our group leader plowed into a side quest with no notice, adding its goals to a list encompassing the other quest I was tracking, a nearby event and advice to go find my dropped junk where I had been killed earlier. These shared missions began to feel like chaotic, semi-cooperative scavenger hunts from summer camp.

Once I can have the game all to myself, and set more of the agenda, I’ll be more than eager to dive into Fallout 76 when the beta kicks off Oct. 23 and the full game launches Nov. 14. This is still a rich Fallout experience, after all, a new chapter set earlier in the series’ canon than ever before. Such that I could hear it, I was intrigued by the story that awaits. In-world “events” similar to ones in Destiny are there when I just want multiplayer action separate from my character’s journey. The new progression system is an engaging change of pace from what had been a rather standard RPG build.

Fallout 76 - ‘Concentrated Fire’ perk
VATS won’t be able to target body parts until a (very low-level) perk is equipped.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Bethesda Game Studios and its developers have described how Fallout’s familiar SPECIAL and perk system works in Fallout 76, but as with most things, it takes playing to understand the choices and opportunities within it. The biggest difference between this and Bethesda’s previous Fallout titles is that first-level players begin with no perks and minimum ratings in all attributes. This means I won’t start with a build tuned to my playing style (usually ranged weapons with a lot of endurance) and going in that direction, usually forsaking some other components of my SPECIAL attributes.

I’m good with that. I’ve rarely paid much attention to strength in any Bethesda RPG, but in Fallout 76, I chose to increase it to take advantage of a perk card I’d passively acquired, duplicated and then upgraded. Progression in Fallout 76 should lure me out of my old habits and get me to try new things; it’s possible that at higher levels I will end up with an effective character unlike one I’d intended or imagined.

In past Fallouts, I never chose the Lead Belly perk (absorb fewer RADs from impure food and water). It found its way into my loadout because it was among the random draw from a perk card pack, and it was the only one I could lay on endurance. (You get a pack of perk cards every second level in the early goings; it’s every five levels at some later point.) And Lead Belly was a good one to have, because thirst and hunger played a more insistent role in my health maintenance than they did in Fallout 4.

Though I didn’t get much use out of VATS, other than using it to scan for easily hidden enemies, the combat was clean and accessible, with melee weapons taking on greater importance thanks to what I perceived as more scarcely available ammunition. There are throwable melee weapons, too, including a hand ax, which appears to be a first for the franchise.

Some items were locked behind level prerequisites, but I saw no barrier to my travels or to mission adoption, other than the general deterrent of getting my ass kicked. (Note: Some Bethesda developers mentioned that other players at the event had managed to stumble onto and equip power armor pieces, even this early in the game.) I trundled off to see The Whitespring, the game’s take on The Greenbrier, the West Virginia resort where this preview event was held. Once I was there, a pro shop full of golfing ghouls set upon me and handed me my first death. That said, I routinely fought above my weight class, chopping down level 15 and level 20 ghouls with a modified machete while I was level 5 at the most. Such level disparities were instant death in any other Fallout.

Fallout 76 - two men giving a thumbs-up in photo mode
There’s a photo mode in Fallout 76. There should have been a dead Scorchbeast here. No, really. Biggest Scorchbeast you ever did see.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Death doesn’t strip you of your weapons — just your unprocessed junk, which you should always be breaking down and storing in your mobile campsite. Dying does take a chunk out of a weapon’s overall condition, I guess to keep players from overcoming a tough foe simply by respawning over and over. I lost the use of a hunting rifle this way, requiring a trip to a repair bench. Players may respawn on the location of any teammate, which allowed my unit to prevail against a level 50 Scorchbeast, a flying menace that barbecued me many times. But without teammates, you’ll respawn somewhere other than the place where you just died. This maintains some semblance of level gating while allowing lower-level players to join battles with higher-ranked friends.

As to that Scorchbeast, Fallout 76 has a photo mode for taking snapshots, and my teammates posed around the beast’s carcass like big-game hunters, popping the Vault Boy thumbs-up pose. I would have taken a picture, but the game glitched on me and didn’t show the dead creature.

Where I have my biggest concern is in how the game’s bartering economy will pan out when human players are the majority of the vendors. No human NPCs means no settlements and no merchants in those settlements, and no traveling traders, armorers or weaponsmiths, either. While human characters may have a greater variety of things they’re willing to part with (especially junk parts useful for crafting), there’s also the question of whether anyone will be willing to trade, if not innately hostile. An emote signal helps tell others you’re open for business, but there’s no guarantee you’re going to get an honest broker. Players engaged in the trading menu can still be shot and killed, so finding a good place to do business will be necessary to keep it from becoming a chem deal gone bad.

Fallout 76 - inviting a player to trade
An emote lets others know you’re open for business. Trading among players will be critical, since there are no human NPCs in Fallout 76.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

As to player-versus-player hazards, I’m not sure the “murderer” designation, and the bounty/forfeiture one faces, is going to be much of a deterrent to unprovoked combat, at least at the outset. Everyone will try shooting someone just for the sake of the experience; we all did in our preview, and encountering another group almost always guaranteed a firefight. Sure, Fallout 76 imposes financial penalties for murdering other players (and damage is minimal if those hit don’t return fire), but that’s not the same thing as encouraging or fostering mutually beneficial interaction, such as trading. As I saw it, this will largely be up to an individualized sense of trust and benevolence.

None of these concerns should obscure the strong fundamentals within Fallout 76. It’s gorgeous, for starters, and particularly sharp in 4K on a console that can deliver the enhancement. West Virginia may be an out-of-the-way choice, but it’s the perfect setting for the first Fallout with a green ground, and the hilly terrain adds another layer of variety we haven’t really seen in the series.

The night cycle in Fallout 76 is darker than in previous games, too, requiring the use of the Pip-Boy light to find your way. That, in turn, adds an element of danger to movement at night. (Also, the Pip-Boy has an optimized overlay option, instead of the animation where the user raises their arm, which is helpful in a game that can’t be paused).

Fallout 76 - started ‘Personal Matters’ quest
With multiple teammates in Fallout 76, it can be tough to keep track of everything that’s going on, everything you’re supposed to do and everything that you want to do.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Rooting around through the world dug up plenty of alternate looks and costumes for characters; more will be available through an in-game store for “Atoms,” a new in-game currency that Bethesda isn’t talking about much. (Clothing can be worn over armor, so players may keep their look without forsaking protection.) Atoms, of course, can be bought for real money and are otherwise freely earned for completing events, quests and other goals. Because we didn’t see the customization shop, I have no idea what Atoms will cost and what limitations, if any, will be placed on trading items acquired with them.

With so much of the game dependent on how nicely others play together, as well as post-launch content and balancing both promised and necessary, fans should approach Fallout 76 with eyes open to the possibility this game will take a few months to hit its stride. Playing solo and interacting with nothing but orphaned robots and audio diaries could make repetitive tasks feel even more so. Running around with friends might deliver great spontaneity and action, but less story progress. Fans will be in charge of balancing the game they play as much as Bethesda developers will have to tune the one they’ve built.

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