Some hangover sufferers struggle with a trip to the local shop, so we can only imagine how Fallout 76’s intrepid vault dweller feels. After waking in an empty vault following one heck of a party, they’re tasked with rebuilding and restoring West Virginia to its former glory, working alongside a group of other carefully selected individuals.
Namely, yourself and your online buddies – this is Bethesda’s take on the shared-world online experience. An MMORPG this isn’t, however. In fact, Fallout 76 doesn’t know what it wants to be, even borrowing a few ideas from the survival genre such as hunger and thirst meters. Allow us to pigeonhole it in a different way: if Fallout 76 was a party, it would be the ‘bring your own bottle’ kind. The host has provided the essentials, but it’s up to you to bring the fun and frolics.
But wait! After an hour or so it starts to become apparent that Fallout 76 isn’t the most considerate or hospitable of party hosts. They keep kicking out guests, the snacks look out of date, the same music is played on repeat, and whether you’re having a good time or not is never even considered.
You paid the entry fee, now it’s up to you to make the most of it by generating your own fun. If this isn’t the least appealing set-up for a shared-world online game, then we don’t know what is.
Going into slightly more detail, Fallout 76 provides a colossal open world to explore, a list of quests and timed events to partake, a cubic tonne of junk to repurpose, and well…very little else. There’s no main quest – meaning there’s no drama, twist-filled, storyline to become engrossed in – and there are no NPCs aside the series’ trademark retro sci-fi robots. Following the nuclear fallout, they’ve been ordered to trundle West Virginia while awaiting your arrival.
Like the omission of a storyline, the lack of NPCs also has a knock-on effect. The world feels empty, and the game as a whole feels incredibly soulless. Every building is deserted; every town is a ghost town.
To use the party analogy for one last time, playing Fallout 76 is akin to turning up to a shindig beyond fashionably late. Everyone has left – all that’s left to do is clean up while the host shares a few embellished stories of what you missed. That’s to say, most of Fallout 76 is spent cleaning up other people’s mess – quite literally, given one mission involves collecting discarded beer bottles – while tracking down holotapes to listen to tales of living in a post-nuclear world.
Missions are mostly of the ‘fetch quest’ variety – one includes collecting blood samples from foes, while another entails collecting dirty water from various sources – and a cookie crumb trail leading to Vault 76’s overseer to follow. For most part, though, you’re left to aimlessly wander. The best-case scenario is discovering one of the better, more interactive, missions (in the absence of quest-giving NPCs, simply strolling into a town triggers an event), or finding a building to explore and ransack for loot. This is very much a game that requests you find your own sense of purpose. The chance to replay a live event for an umpteenth time isn’t what we signed up for.
Casually roaming the golden-brown countryside is mildly diverting, at the very least. In fact, it’s one of the few things Fallout 76 has going for it – with no major focal point, it has been reduced to its default status of being a sedate walking simulator.
“Where shall we casually stroll to next?” we often asked ourselves. Pulling out the camera (Fallout 76 has a new photo mode), we’d often stop and take a few snaps while walking from one location to the next. There’s a picturesque ice cream parlour on top of a mountain, and a quaint tea-pot shaped café. It’s a shame the game isn’t more photogenic – the creaking engine is way past its best, even struggling to load textures in good time.