Fallout 76 has been an absolute rollercoaster of a game. Since its launch, I’ve been playing it nearly every day, both solo during the day and with a group of three friends in the evening. The game is astonishing because the highs offer so much promise and intrigue, locking me in for another few play sessions as I try to find that joy again. Unfortunately, it’s the lows that are far more common, and I’m never sure how to get back to those points where I was having so much fun.
Part of the issue is that Fallout 76 lacks a thesis; the game throws so many mechanics at the wall in an effort to see what sticks. Is it a survival game? No, it’s trivial to actually survive, even if it’s annoying to come down with a case of Parasites or Rad Worms. Is it a base-building game? Not quite, although the bones are all there, and logging in to find another player has taken over the space where your CAMP was takes the wind out of your sails. There are enough surviving robot NPCs and holotapes to fill out a single-player campaign, but Fallout 76 doesn’t bring that home into being a story-based RPG.
Playing with friends is genuinely fun, but it’s also fiddly. Every step, from inviting friends to a team (Did you get the invite? No, it disappeared into the void. Try inviting Jake first, that worked last time. No, I’m just locked out of the social menu now, everyone alt-F4 and we’ll try again.) to advancing through a dungeon feels clumsy. At times, my friends and I would have to stop and individually each pick up an item, or individually solve a puzzle together.
Then, of course, there are the bugs. It’s frustrating to finally hit your stride in the game, only to find that one of your companions suddenly has massive, distended hands. It’s not a mutation, just a glitch. In another instance, my group breached an Enclave bunker. It was genuinely stunning and the most immersive moment I had experienced in the game so far... until we stepped into the Vault and both of my friends suddenly showed as naked on my screen despite being completely equipped.
That’s not to say the game is without joy. As Polygon’s own Jenna Stoeber notes, Fallout 76 embraces the weirder side of the Fallout franchise, with locales like the Mothman shrines and spooky hidden bunkers. Indeed, Fallout 76 is at its best when it stops pretending to be a traditional Fallout game, complete with super mutants and ghouls, and starts throwing new and wild stuff at you. Being attacked by a giant torso of muscle in a dried up creek bed, desperately wheeling back and shooting while I eat highly effective dog food is far better than listening to a holotape of a survivor’s final moments. The variety of new enemies is nice, and we’re given some new and gorgeous locales to fight them in.
Even an old enemy, feral ghouls, became unique once my friends and I explored an old golf resort and found dozens of ghouls pouring out through every open door. We hacked and slashed our ways over the gold fields, ducked and weaved around gazebos, and finally found another player’s house. We howled for him to keep the doors open as we dashed toward his automated turrets, which proceeded to tear through the weaker ghouls until we gained our strength back and ventured back out to take out the bigger boys and collect our legendary gear.
Even character concepts can come to life in a unique, enthralling way. One of my pals plays an alcoholic doctor, wearing goggles and a surgical mask over survivor gear. He’s a sniper, and jokes that he’ll end the wasteland’s inhabitants ailments one way or another. The perks system gives him bonus stats and damage upon being wasted, and he can resurrect us with booze instead of stimpacks. We rise from the dead, drunk as a skunk, and get back into the thick of things. Every time we see alcohol on the map, we call him over, and he sprints to us.
Another friend runs his own wasteland shop, offering goods for trade. He’ll cut anyone who can bring him dog food a discount — he loves the stuff — and his turrets and party stand as a deterrent against anyone who might see his shop as a target. At one point, a brawl between two gangs broke out near his shop, and one of them called a nuke down on the other. We stood on the roof of the trading post and the nearby hills, watching in awe as we saw our first nuke fall.
Later in the night, we talked to some of those high level players, and they shared the location of a secret Enclave bunker. That took up the next few hours of our life, and we navigated through laser fields and Deathclaws to uncover the remains of the American government, beckoning us to join them as the new elite of the wasteland.
All of this sounds fantastic, and all of these experiences were a genuine blast. On some nights, and at times, these stories happened fast and furious, with back to back hits of good content that was easy to navigate and fun. Then there were nights where nothing happened except touring my friend’s new base, maybe doing an event, and looking through perk cards.
This is where the split thesis of Fallout 76 causes the experience to struggle. You can do a bunch of everything, but it’s hard to intensely focus on one thing. (If you decide not to base build, for instance, it’s going to kneecap the rest of your progress. If you choose not to PVP or engage with other players, your wasteland experience is going to be significantly more lonely). It’s fine to have a varied experience, but none of these systems feel complete or especially polished; it’s a smorgasbord of content, but none of it feels like the point of playing Fallout 76. It’s just there, and you have to wrestle the system to get the fun out of it.
Because the game is so big and vast, without one strong path for a player to follow, it’s hard to understand what actions result in the difference between a good game session and a rough one. Chasing down other players can result in having a good time... or they can just cuss at you and wander off. The story content varies wildly, from poorly voiced audio logs from dead people I don’t care about to intriguing mysteries set in fascinating locales. Is there a way to tell the difference in game between which is which before you commit to a dungeon crawl? No, not really!
Fallout: New Vegas was a title focused around gambling on the New Vegas Strip, but Fallout 76 is the game where the core experience seems focused on gambling. The game varies wildly in quality; at its best, it’s something I could heartily recommend to fans of Fallout or social games. The problem is the game at its worst, and how long those stretches of worst take up.
Sometimes I feel like I’m in one of those Vault experiments myself, and I’m the rat pushing the big red button and hoping for a reward. Sometimes the game gives me the sugar water of good, working fun, and oh, is it sweet to behold. Other times, I sit in the maze, hammering that big red button and waiting for the payoff that never quite comes. I have high hopes for Fallout 76, but its hard to share those hopes with others when it takes so much digging to find them.