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Fallout 76 succeeds as a fever dream instead of competing as a simulation

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That’s something in short supply in games

Fallout 76 beta - two humans hunting a beast Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

I discovered a cluster of beehives tucked under a riverside cliff while exploring the wilds of West Virginia in Fallout 76. I edged closer and snagged some honey. The bees didn’t respond, so I cleaned out the rest of the hive — and then the swarm attacked. I scrambled across the river, frantically trying to outrun their stingers in perhaps the most Yogi Bear-ish moment of my virtual life.

The same day I outran the swarm, I fought a diseased honey beast, a tarantula-like monster with beehive growths on its back. I’ve never seen anything like it. There was no river across which I could escape, so it wiped me out. The whole thing felt karmic; I should have just left the honey alone.

Fallout 76 - diseased honey beast
Do not eat honey from this hive.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

It’s the sort of experience you could have in plenty of open-world games, but Fallout 76 offers something few other big, complex worlds have: a weird, fantastical unreality.

Why this is unique

Most open-world games are trying to capture a version of reality, even if aspects of the game are based in fantasy. Spider-Man is a superhero in a recreation of New York that strives for perfection in Marvel’s Spider-Man, and Red Dead Redemption 2 takes place in a fictitious American West that nevertheless looks a lot like Monument Valley. Far Cry 5 presented a version of Montana in which the most surprising thing was the number of underground bunkers.

That’s fine for those games, but each blockbuster title sometimes seems like a missed opportunity. Why does reality have such a stranglehold over a medium in which anything is possible?

Fallout 76 shines when that grip is loosened. It rewards my aimless wandering with bizarre and imaginative sights, not to mention strange and impossible creatures. The game is set in West Virginia, but it takes place in a nightmare of sometimes unknown scope.

I was passing through the small town of Helvetia when I was set upon by some enemies. I fell back into a church for cover and, after the battle was won, I turned and found an effigy of the Mothman watching over me. This isn’t the first evidence of the Mothman or its death cult that I’ve stumbled upon; I even found some Mothman eggs, which I scrambled into a mighty fine Mothman omelette. It gave me a bonus to charisma.

Fallout 76 - Mothman effigy in church
The Mothman cometh.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

This is a return to the dreamlike feeling that makes the best Fallout games stand out, and which was sorely lacking in Fallout 4. Every location in that game felt like it was primed to require my help. I missed stumbling upon bizarre vault experiments and little underpass civilizations.

I’ve already played way more Fallout 76 than I did Fallout 4, and I’m not finished. I find myself itching to return to that giant teapot I saw on the horizon, or to follow the train tracks leftward to see where they go.

Exploring pays off with experiences like playing in a four-piece band to summon a nightstalker. I remember finding a gown and veil that gave me access to a secret, laser-protected underground bunker. This fortification belonged to a group of vigilante women called the Order of the Veil. I’m a member now, and I take my responsibilities very seriously.

Fallout 76 is so weird, and that strangeness spills in so many directions, that one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen is a single, pointedly unmutated tabby cat. What is that cat’s secret?

Fallout 76 - tabby cat
But seriously, what’s going on with this cat?
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

This is the magic that happens when games unburden themselves of realism. That cat is probably just a cat — not everything has to be a nightmare — but for a few seconds, my mind exploded with an unlimited number of things it might be. That’s what Fallout 76 offers, and it has almost no competition that can say the same thing.

The story in Fallout 76 is a great way to learn its new mechanics while being guided around the huge and daunting map, but the best experiences in the game come when you go off-road. And it’s not a rare elk I see when I go foraging in the night, it’s ... well, it could be anything.

Fallout 76 lays an impossible world at your feet, and invites — or perhaps dares you — to explore all its dark corners. And that’s why I’m such a fan, despite the warts and growing pains. This is an environment dreamt into being by radiation and neglect, and anything that can thrive in that environment won’t be interested in doing what you expect it to do. Or in being what you can expect it to be.