Museums are pretty great – where else can you see dinosaur skellies, poorly taxidermised cross-eyed apes and probably cursed mummies in the same place? What’s not great, though, is going to a museum with someone who insists on taking in every word of every single information panel.
You know the sort: while you want to move on to the T. Rex and that bit where you can pull levers and make a dented ping-pong ball go down a pipe to represent nuclear fission, they’ll be reading a novel-length epic about a lump of bauxite in a dusty corridor that hasn’t been visited in decades.
Worse still, they’ll even linger to read plaques in the human reproduction exhibit, right in front of the disturbingly hirsute nudey models who look like they’re from that ‘funny yoga’ book you found under your mum and dad’s bed in 1982. Perverts.
Now, imagine that you’re with 3 or 4 people like that, and you ALL have to read the information boards before you’re allowed to move on whether you like it or not. Does that sound like fun? Does it, Dennis? Of course it doesn’t. So you’ll be as delighted as I was to discover that this craptacular gaming mechanic has inexplicably been made an integral part of Fallout 76’s multiplayer experience.
Fallout 76 is Bethesda’s latest grope of the udder of the franchise cow, and unfortunately if this is game is anything to go by she’s currently got crippling mastitis. Unlike previous games in the series, this new instalment takes the whole shebang online. There are still a host of missions and tasks to do of course, but now you can team up with up to 4 chums (or randoms you meet along the way) to tackle them.
Team-based fun with friends in the Fallout world as a concept clearly sounds great. So what went wrong? Answer: most things went wrong.
First off, it’s got that trademark Bethesda bugginess – and by this I don’t mean irradiated cockroaches. Like a desperately unsuccessful clubber attempting to breach a VIP area, I got stuck behind a roped-off section before I’d even left the alleged safety of my bunker and had to restart the whole sodding game from scratch – and having checked online, it seems this particular bug has happened to a lot of people.
Framerates also stutter frequently, even on a PS4 Pro, and character and scenery models often glitch and warp all over the shop. Often hilariously, until you remember (a) this cost you 50 quid and (b) this nonsense has been going on with Bethesda games since Oblivion.
So far, so arse then.
Once you’re outside and in the wilderness though, things must pick up, surely? Well in the sense you have to go and pick up a load of stuff, yes. Otherwise, not so much. Because if you’re hoping for a world full of interesting characters and survivor stories, you’ve come to the wrong postapocalypse. Fallout 76 is empty. So very, very empty.
Bethesda made the decision that, as this was going online, to avoid confusion there would be no humans in this game other than fellow players (explained away by the storyline of this game happening very early on in the Fallout timeline – i.e. everyone else is either freshly nuked or still hunkered down underground). The take-away fact though is Bethesda think you’re too stupid to tell a genuine person from an AI character, which is nice of them.
Anyway, the result is all the NPCs are robots or mutants, and all your tasks come from recordings or text files left by corpses because everyone else is stone dead. The knock-on of this is you don’t have any sense of feeling connected to the plot: anyone you could possibly get invested about the story of is already taking the big dirt nap, so who cares?
But what it ALSO means is that you have to read or listen to a lot of canned exposition to advance the quests you’re on, or indeed have any clue why you’re doing them in the first place. There’s no in-game storytelling here, because there’s no one left alive in game to tell it. And if you’re doing a quest with other players, this is where the aforementioned ‘museum bore’ factor comes in – because you ALL have to do ALL quest steps to progress.
So if that’s listening to a recording, or clicking through 5 screens of text on a terminal, every single one of you has to do each bit.
This obvious teeth-grinding tedium aside, it makes teaming up with people to complete quests in the first place a mess too; you have to be on the same quest step or wait for whoever is behind to catch up, or you’ll be horribly out of sync. It also means you can’t properly work as a team to do quests more quickly – after all, how can you divide up goals if you all have to do the same ones?
As design ideas go, it’s as stupid as building a house out of yoghurt.
Talking of building, you can make your own little base with crafting facilities wherever you like – and you’ll need to, because the other grindtastic feature of Fallout 76 is that like a cat with worms or a hot tramp, you’re constantly getting hungry and thirsty. In other Fallout games eating and drinking acts to restore stamina and hit points. Here, it’s a constantly decaying stat that needs to be periodically topped up or your max health and HP will drop.
This means time that could be used for exploring – one of Fallout 76’s few saving graces is that it is still occasionally a fascinating world to mooch around – is instead spent on crushingly dull chores. Get water, boil water. Kill rat, cook rat bits and so on. I boiled so much water in my first few hours the game felt more like a kettle simulator.
What about combat then? Regrettably, this too is a ‘Parson’s milkshake’ – a meaningless phrase I’ve just made up because I’m so annoyed at how poor it is, it doesn’t even deserve a legitimate insult.
The usual Fallout VATS system wouldn’t work here because of course you can’t slow down time for each person in an online multiplayer world without breaking reality. So instead, there’s a heavily neutered version that works as a sort of auto-aim bonus. Which you may well need: Fallout has never exactly been a stellar shooter, but now you’re bereft of the ability to target a shot in bullet time real-time combat is all you have. And gawd, is it clunky.
Enemies aren’t particularly threatening unless in large numbers, but the shooting is so cumbersome you’ll often favour running away if you can just to avoid the bother of killing them. And melee combat is awful – your character can flail about in first or third person, but regardless of which you choose it just feels like you’re thrashing away and blows are landing out of chance rather than skill.
If an enemy scoots off, you’re left with the choice of burning through your ammo reserves trying to hit them at range with the gutted remnants of a system designed for slow-mo precision shooting, or sprinting after them and hoping you can get close enough to land a hit in some sort of ultraviolent homage to a Benny Hill chase sequence.
PvP is a bit of an odd experience too. It does exist, once you’ve levelled up a bit, but you do greatly reduced damage until the other person shoots back. So rather than the tension that could have been created from having to fight off fellow scavengers for the scarce resources on offer, you’re left with a weirdly polite situation where you shoot someone, wait for them to shoot you back to indicate they’re up for it, and only *then* engage.
Or, you just have to hope they’ve left their controller and gone to the toilet so you can get in enough shots with your weakened attacks to kill them before they return and simply bugger off. Your reward for a kill though? Next to nothing and a Wanted bounty on your head
This all acts to shove players towards co-op play in an entirely unsubtle manner. Which to be honest is no bad thing, as the most enjoyment in Fallout 76 is to be had is in just exploring the open world with another few players – when you have no mission requirements to hamstring you, it’s a big and occasionally fabulous-looking world to explore, with plenty of secrets to stumble across.
But just as you’re actually starting to enjoy yourself, something moronic like a cow floating past at head height, or an open-world event causing mobs of inexplicably high level enemies to instantly spawn into a previously safe, empty area and insta-kill you will happen, dragging you back to reality. Or, worse still, you’ll have to boil some more bloody water.
Fallout 76 is like a quiche someone dropped in a sink. All the bits are there, but it’s gone all wet and runny, and doesn’t hold together. Is it salvageable (the game, not the quiche)? Possibly, but that will depend on Bethesda’s commitment to a title that’s been received as warmly as a mandatory injection of wasp sting juice to be delivered direct to the perineum.
The real question though is, why would you even hang around to see if they do fix it? While it’s true other big developers have made massive stink-ups of open world launches before, like Destiny 2 and The Division, there’s always been a very obvious somethingthere to make player perseverance in the hope of improvement worthwhile – a good story, or pin-sharp gameplay mechanics to (re)build on.
Fallout 76 doesn’t even have that, though. Well, unless you enjoy trudging about looking at scenery (and you’d REALLY have to like it) while periodically being gnawed on by rats. I liked the theme music, so I suppose that’s something.
Other than that, boring chores, rubbish fighting, bad design choices, bugs galore and a (dead) cast of characters you don’t give two hoots about does not a fun time make.
SCORE: 4 MEGATONS OUT OF 10 MEGATONS (also: the tons are tons of poo)