Fallout 76, the latest in the long-running series of RPGs, is the answer to a question no-one was asking: what if it was multiplayer?
In the new release, you play as a member of a nuclear bomb shelter sent out to reclaim post-apocalyptic America. You explore Appalachia (a reimagined West Virginia) and scavenge the wasteland for food and weapons. Along the way you’ll fight robots, mutated wildlife, mutated humans, and the greatest monster of all: misguided game design.
Previous Fallout games have been hugely popular because of their complex storylines with branching dialogue trees and multiple quest solutions, as well as a cast of quirky characters.
But 76 makes the brave (or foolhardy) decision to junk all that.
Earlier games were set around 200 years after the titular nuclear war, during which time new societies have emerged from the ashes of the old. That makes Fallout 76 a prequel, this game being set just 25 years after the nukes, meaning there are no new communities to speak of.
The idea is that you and everyone else playing online will build this new world. Perhaps you’ll create a trading post where players can swap gear, or start your own township?
But this grand ambition falters against the jagged rocks of reality. Online servers are capped at 24 players, so the wasteland feels sparse, and none of the players I encountered wanted to trade or team up.
The multiplayer system does allow for dramatic moments – at one point, I was cornered by a group of Scorched (zombie-like enemies wielding guns), when another player swooped in to save me. But memorable events like this don’t make up for what’s been sacrificed. Gone are the memorable quest-givers and sidekicks of previous games. Instead, the story is delivered via audio tapes, written notes, or bland robots. Missions are mostly simple fetch quests, where you go from deserted location to deserted location, kill some beasts and collect a doodad.
Combat is also disappointing, though it’s never been a highlight of the series, with the shift to multiplayer effectively killing the time-slowing VATS system, meaning you have to battle through unsatisfying combat in real-time. To compensate, other gameplay mechanics are expanded. Survival is more important in this game, with hunger and thirst to manage as well as your health.
There’s a welcome return of the elaborate base-building systems introduced in Fallout 4, which feels like a dark version of Minecraft, with the ability to do everything from modify your armour to set up elaborate circuitry to power your new settlement.
But the fun is largely snuffed out by the surfeit of bugs (and not the radioactive cockroach kind). The frame rate regularly drops and stutters, while server and connection problems occur often; don’t bother if your internet is spotty. A post-release patch alleviates – but fails to definitively fix – these issues.
The Fallout series is fundamentally a single-player experience, and trying to make it multiplayer is like jamming a square peg in a round hole. There’s stuff to love. I enjoyed exploring the sombre wastes, scavenging junk to craft better items, but sorely missed the story and dialogue – the actual role-playing – of previous games. Wait a few months and pick it up for a song, by which point this irradiated mess may have evolved into something more playable.