Maybe you're skeptical about Fallout 76. I sure as hell was.
A multiplayer Fallout? The announcement felt something like heresy. Part of the appeal of these games has long been the intense feeling of loneliness they instill in every player, that crushing sense of isolation. Oh, sure, you might hire the occasional companion or scour the wastes with the lovable Dogmeat by your side, but that's still technically a single-player experience: you can always jettison your followers at a moment's notice; you can always send your dog packing once you've decided you've had enough (look, I like Dogmeat as much as anyone, but seeing my boy repeatedly throw himself into harm's way proved to be too much; I don't even like seeing digital dogs put in peril). But online multiplayer? Why would I want to invite that element of gaming culture into my Fallout experience?
The whole thing sounded insane, frankly, and to say that I was skeptical is actually a massive understatement. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to fly up to West Virginia last week and spend some quality time with Bethesda's latest open world epic, but - if we're speaking frankly, and I believe that we should - I walked into the experience feeling like Fallout 76 had something to prove.
And hoo boy, did Fallout 76 prove me wrong.
I'm not going to get into any plot specifics here. Even the most innocuous details should be left for you to discover as you play. No, I'm here to tell you how Fallout 76 functions, which...well, that's gonna be a much taller order, because even after spending three hours inside the game, I'm still not entirely sure how everything works.
This is, without question, Bethesda's most complex Fallout game to date. The broad strokes are largely the same - you've got a gigantic (and I do mean gigantic) map to explore, creatures to conquer, countless buildings to loot, side-quests and main story missions to complete - but the details are very, very different. Part of that has to do with the multiplayer component, which has forced the company to radically rethink how a Fallout game functions; part of it has to do with the leveling system, which now involves "perk cards" and "card packs" and "atom points" and such; part of it has to do with the the intense focus that's been placed on survival and crafting. Lots of moving pieces here. Much depth. When the developers later told us there were something like 70,000 possible add-ons, items and customizable options in the game, I had zero trouble believing them. It's a lot. Almost overwhelming.
Here's the thing, though: even though I don't think I completely understood everything the game threw at me, I could see how it was supposed to work. The game's potential repeatedly nosed its way into the experience, in ways both expected and unexpected. For instance: at one point our team found itself exploring an abandoned mine overrun with feral ghouls. My buddy was upstairs in some long-abandoned office, rifling through a desk. I was downstairs in a boiler room-like area, standing in front of a door locked via keypad.
"Oh, hey," I heard him say through my headset. "I just found a keypad code!"
"Gimme the numbers," I said. "I'm in front of a keypad right now!"
My friend recited the code, I punched it in, and boom: the door swung wide open. That might sound like a small thing on paper, but in practice (and particularly within a Fallout game!), the moment felt revelatory. The same feeling extended to combat and exploration. Time and again we'd find ourselves inside locations absolutely crawling with enemies, and time and again my team would clear the room together, picking off attackers as they stormed through doorways or watching each other's backs as safes were cracked and containers were searched. This represents a sea change to the Fallout formula, but it's also a brand-new flavor, one I found to be unexpectedly satisfying and kinda gripping. If this is what the game feels like when playing with friends, well, shit. I am sold.
The game world itself is hugely impressive, as well. Though we were repeatedly cautioned that the build we were playing was far from complete (and that we might even encounter framerate issues, rough textures and/or wonky animations), I experienced very little of that. I was, in fact, gobsmacked by how much better Fallout 76 looks than...well, any other Fallout game. The environments are detailed and varied, with all kinds of interesting stuff tucked away in every corner. The colors are vibrant and sharp, even moreso than those of Fallout 4. If you were worried that the size and turnaround time on Fallout 76 might mean that corners were cut in the looks department, I can assure you that isn't the case. It looks great.
Given West Virginia's mountainous terrain, it should come as no surprise that verticality plays a huge role here, both inside and out: I stumbled down into mineshafts, climbed radio towers that'd been turned into elaborate treehouses of death, and was frequently stopped in my tracks by an unexpectedly picturesque view. I couldn't have seen more than 5% of the overall map, of course, but what I did see was top-notch, and packed with the kind of detail that rewards exploration. I am desperate to see the rest of it (which'll take some time: in case you hadn't heard, Fallout 76's map is four times the size of Fallout 4's).
There were elements I was not in love with. The focus on crafting and camp building, for instance. I largely ignored settlement building in Fallout 4, and was not thrilled to learn that establishing camps and constructing bases was "far more integral" to Fallout 76. Survival mechanics are also a major focus here, with the game demanding that you drink water or feed your character at regular intervals (lest you wind up dead), and every piece of ammo contributes to your overall weight. On the one hand, I never found myself overencumbered, even as I picked up virtually everything that wasn't nailed down; on the other hand, I don't like the idea of having to micromanage that kinda shit. Of course the game gives you ample opportunity to store your junk/unimportant scraps, but that's just a band-aid on a gameplay element I simply have no interest in. All of that stuff feels like a chore to me, and the last thing I want when storming around a wasteland is chores. Your mileage may vary.
Here's another thing your mileage may vary on: the changes that have been made to Fallout's iconic VATS system. Fallout 4 greatly improved the franchise's first-person shooting, but - if you're anything like me - you got hooked on VATS all the way back on Fallout 3, and continued leaning on it well into FO4. While it's true that 76 does include a VATS targeting system, it's markedly different from the version you know and love. Here, the game has to account for the multiplayer component, which means it'd be impossible to have everything freeze while players target their shots. The compromise? A new iteration of VATS that still highlights enemies in that familiar green glow, but doesn't stop time. I gave it a whirl while clearing out a building filled with ghouls (or somesuch creatures), and found it to be helpful in terms of highlighting my foes, but...that was about it. We were told that VATS would be more helpful when facing down different enemy types, but my limited experience with the new version leads me to believe I'll probably just be aiming down the barrel of my gun for most the game, like my forefathers did.
And, hey, speaking of guns: Fallout 76 has a metric fuck-ton of them. Pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns - each customizable and each attractive in their own ways - along with new weapons I'd never encountered in a Fallout game before. Many of these turned out to be inoperable at my level (I believe my character maxed out the demo at a level 7; don't quote me on that), but it was intriguing to see things like "Ski Sword" and "War Drum" and "Harpoon Gun" in my inventory, even if I couldn't use them. Which reminds me: ammo seemed far more scarce than it usually is in a Fallout game. The developers we spoke with implied that this was by design, and suggested that players spend their earliest hours with the game getting comfortable with melee fighting versus firearms. I ended up taking this approach naturally, as I quickly blew through what little ammo I was able to scrounge up or craft ("I need to find some gunpowder!" was a thing I said out loud, to no one in particular, on many occasions), and found this to be good advice: melee combat was perfectly manageable. It even kinda brought me back to my Skyrim days, truth be told.
The detail on the game world and the weaponry also extends to the creatures you'll encounter. The predominant enemy type I came across seemed to be feral ghouls, but there was a huge amount of variety to their designs: the feral ghouls I crossed paths with in that abandoned mine were dressed like (you guessed it) miners, while a group I stumbled upon an hour later in a ski chalet all appeared ready to hit the slopes. Some of them carried firearms, and - while I didn't witness this personally - I'm told that they're also working with quite a bit of dialogue. In addition to those damned souls, I also found myself fighting a variety of robots, something called a "Wendigo" (and ho-lee shit, you do not want to get on the bad side of those things), Mirelurks (whose hides seem tougher than ever) and, of course, Super Mutants (the variety in the Super Mutants' designs was also notable; each one looked different than the last). The character models here are gross and well-animated, and while I wouldn't swear to it in court, it certainly felt to me like every enemy I encountered behaved more intelligently than foes I battled in previous Fallout games. Combat with all of these monsters was very satisfying.
About half an hour prior to our session ending, I informed our guide that I was breaking off from the team to do some exploring. Everything we'd seen up to that point was cool, but I was eager to get a taste of that classic Fallout flavor, the one where it's just me, whatever weapon's in my hand, and a wide open map. I left my group behind and climbed a ridge that eventually spit me out onto a cliff high above a rocky embankment. The view was incredible, and when I looked down, I was delighted to see an overturned jeep far below. There, next to the vehicle, was a dead body, its brains sprayed out across the rocks. I made my way down to this unfortunate scene and looted the area, then followed a nearby path up into another collection of hills. This brought me to a sizable radio tower. Nearby, a crashed jet. Various pieces from the downed aircraft had been used to turn the tower into a gigantic, multi-level fort, and I fought my way through its enemies, all the way up to the top, where I found a pair of seats - clearly salvaged from the plane - set up on a platform overlooking a gorgeous little town. I sat in the chair and soaked it in, marveling at the detail around me.
Just as I was getting ready to head down to the town below, a voice came over the headset: a nuclear bomb had just been launched, and we needed to get as far from the area of impact as possible. The Bethesda employee guiding us through the demo had other plans, though: "Fast-travel to my location," he said. "You're gonna want to see this."
Over the next two minutes, every team on the server fast-traveled back to Vault 76, where our time with the game began. We gathered together on a sprawling deck overlooking a valley, and a few moments later an object came plummeting out of the sky, smashing into the ground below. The screen was filled with a blinding white light, then a rapidly-expanding column of fire. A mushroom cloud formed above it all, strong winds blowing back in every direction. When a nuclear event happens in the game, it irradiates the area of impact for an extended period of time, changing the foliage and destroying virtually everything within that blast radius. You don't wanna go into one of these areas unless you're very well-armored and prepared for the radiation inside. I was wearing a golf outfit, and - despite the danger - ran towards the blast. I didn't get far. An onscreen prompt told me I had gained a "mutation" mere seconds before radiation sickness wiped me out for good.
This was one of the biggest, most spectacular things I've ever witnessed in a Fallout title. All things considered, this was a more than fitting end to the hours I'd spent inside the game.
After our playthrough, we sat down with three developers who worked on Fallout 76 (including the game's project lead, Jeff Gardiner) and were given twenty minutes to shotgun as many questions at them as possible. Here are the highlights of what we learned, in no particular order:
- Long-term plans for the game (and, in particular, what Fallout 76 will become once players complete the main quest) are under wraps for the time being, but Gardiner said the intention was to "keep updating...this game until...the sun supernovas."
- Feral ghoul behavior has, indeed, been updated: the creatures will now ambush you from positions behind foliage, and you'll see them dressed in all kinds of outfits: cops, firemen, you name it. The idea was to give them a stronger zombie vibe, and, well, mission: accomplished.
- Mothman definitely appears in the game. Your first encounter with him will be quite memorable.
- You'll also encounter something called a "Liberator Bot", which will "scream Chinese propaganda" at players.
- Higher-level players will obviously have an advantage over lower-level players, but great pains have been taken to ensure that griefers are suitably punished for their bad behavior: killing players who do not opt into PVP combat (which happens simply by not firing back at a player who's shot at you) will mark griefers as "Murderers", and put an immediate bounty on their heads. Their positions are then revealed to every other player on the map, while everyone else's positions are then rendered invisible. If you're storming around this game acting like an asshole, you're definitely gonna pay for it - one way or another. This is one of my favorite elements of Fallout 76.
- There will be Pip-Boy radio stations with "dozens of new songs" unique to the region, but there is no DJ. Sorry, Three Dog.
- Legendary gear: confirmed. "Yeah, that's part of the 70,000 items," quipped one of the developers.
- Super Mutant Suiciders are back.
- Nuclear launch codes can be shared verbally, but the sequence required to implement them will change "somewhat frequently". To be perfectly honest, I wasn't entirely sure what they meant by this, but sounds cool.
- Calling this game Fallout 76 does not permanently alter the naming convention of this series. Should the next Fallout game be a single player affair, it would be called Fallout 5. I asked this particular question and everyone thought I was joking but I was dead serious!
Someone else in our roundtable asked the Big Question, the one I'd been eager to learn the answer to ever since Fallout 76 was announced: was it truly possible to play through the game solo, online but without teammates? The developers answered with a resounding "Yes", but there were qualifications: some tasks are not designed to be handled solo, and would prove very challenging if tackled by a single player (the functionality of the nuclear launches was name-checked here), and we were told that some "late-game missions" would be "much easier" if a team were taking them on. Based on what the developers said and I experienced, my guess is that "completing" Fallout 76 solo will become something of a badge of honor, but not something that most players attempt.
Prior to playing the game, I might have quibbled at this. But having now experienced the world of Fallout with a team, I can't imagine wanting to go back to that play style (at least not on this particular game). Fallout 76 with friends is an absolute blast, and while it's depth and complexity might be initially overwhelming, I was mostly left eager to learn how everything works, to dive into those complicated systems and figure out my favorite way to play. Miraculously, Bethesda appears to have created an entirely new Fallout experience that looks and sounds better than any other open world RPG they've ever made, and they were thoughtful enough to build the game in a way that will legitimately encourage teamwork (rather than rewarding assholes). I was truly skeptical going in, but now I'm just chomping at the bit to get lost in the weird, wild and dangerous mountains of West Virginia with my pals.
Country roads, take me home. I'll be there when Fallout 76 hits stores on November 14th.