Fallout 76 is a Badly Designed Trash Fire

But some of the graphics are nice

Within seconds of emerging from Fallout 76’s opening vault, other players on my server had set off a nuke. A warning blared out of my headphones and across my screen. You may have to move! This nuke might kill you!

This must have been one of those polite nuclear bombs I’ve heard so much about.

Fortunately, it was headed to the other side of the map, so I could stand on the first hill and watch it blow up.

It irradiated the distant area and high level monsters spawned there for a while. But if you went there right now, on the same server, you’d never know it happened.

This exposes the core problem with the game: it’s a soulless husk of a janky online world that hopes you’ll team up with or fight other players and ignore its massive pile of flaws. Nothing in the game has a point, a consequence, or any sense of persistence. It’s a place for you to hopefully get addicted to a badly-designed loot treadmill that isn’t fun.

Fallout 76 strips out all the things I’ve loved about Bethesda’s post-Morrowind output, and replaces them with absolutely nothing.

THAT ENGINE

I don’t hate the Creation Engine, like some folks do. Yes, I’m aware that the scripting, editing, and level design systems that Bethesda uses now are more or less based on tools first used in 2002’s Morrowind. They’re old and crusty.

But over the last 16 years, Bethesda has done so many cool things with that ancient technology base, and they’ve been grafting on new parts to it over time. They’ve overhauled the AI, created custom physics, re-done the renderer, and much more.

Fallout 76 throws out much of this progress in favor of nightmarishly bad server-heavy multiplayer design.

Radiant AI, the system that gave all the NPC’s their own schedules, mindsets, and goals in the world? Removed. Along with all the human NPCs. 95 percent of the characters in the game are enemies, and the rest are vendors that open the selling menu.

Radiant Questing, the system that gently guided you towards areas you hadn’t yet explored in Skyrim and Fallout 4 through procedurally generated side quests? Removed. In favor of grinding your way aimlessly across a world, and a feel of player punishment.

The fully persistent physics system that allowed you to pick up objects and transport them around the world, or just hurl a bunch of cabbages off a mountain? Removed in favor of static objects and no true world persistence whatsoever.

The ability to “wait” and pass time? Well. Time still passes. But you just have to wait around if you want to wait. You can rest on a bed, but it doesn’t speed up time since it’d have to for every player on the server.

And the time doesn’t matter anyway because nothing is attached to it except the lighting.

These systems are what gave Bethesda games a sense of life. It was fun to stack up physics objects, or watch them go flying during combat. It was fun to see an NPC come check out a sword I just dropped on the ground. It was fun to watch the world change as time passed throughout the day, as if it were a magical clockwork toy.

It was fun to experience a story that made me the center of a grand quest. You know, like a video game.

All of these fun interconnected systems are replaced by emptiness, and other players…

But mostly emptiness.

EVERYONE IS DEAD

The questlines in Fallout 76 all revolve around audio logs, text on terminals, and chasing people who either turn out to be dead or who are never there when you reach your destination.

Frequently, you also have to pick up x number of items or shoot a monster.

The design thinking was probably that this would cost less on the production side, and that other players would make up for the total lack of NPC interaction.

But Bethesda still spent a ton of money recording voice work for the audio logs…some of which just go on and on and on. You’ll be trying to listen to the story of yet another dead “survivor” and find three more lying around. There’s no sense of pacing to the audio logs or their distribution, and no real clear indication for what will be delivered in text and what will be delivered in a recording.

If you don’t like to read or listen to audio that’s vaguely connected to what you’re doing, you’re going to hate every quest in the game

At first, the game likes to fool you into thinking it works like every other RPG that has people in it. “Go find this person over by the river!” You think to yourself, oh okay, there will be a person there.

But there literally never is one.

And yes, they go to some lengths to try and establish why this is the case in the storyline setup. But it’s so goofy. And replacing NPCs with exactly 23 other players running around is a poor substitute.

The world itself doesn’t fare much better, lacking the charming level design and carefully thought-out progression that made Skyrim and Fallout 4 more fun to move through than their predecessors. 76’s massive sprawl is a bunch of big empty spaces with buildings every so often, and every single location in the game is an un-memorable home for resources, audio logs, or enemies.

Sometimes all three things are there.

The entire game’s core content is a churning grind of following breadcrumbs left by people who don’t actually exist in the reality of the game, and finding new locations where you’ll participate in the combat.

It might have still been fun in a Borderlands/Diablo/Destiny sort of way…if the game weren’t so reliant on server-side processing.

SERVERS FOR EVERYTHING

Fallout 76 relies almost exclusively on its dedicated server system for all of its core game content and interactions rather than your local machine, and it makes every second of play feel like a haphazard mess.

Want to loot a container? It checks the server to randomly generate some content in there, which sometimes pops up late.

Want to fight an enemy? Both your position and the position of the enemy are constantly uploading to the server, resulting in weird janky animations and a generally unsatisfying feel. You’ll regularly see enemies glitching out and teleporting around the world, without having to look for more than a few minutes. The new systems for battle damage on enemies are cool, but it often takes so long to update their state that they’ll pop from alive to dead in a shuddering dance.

You can still pick up objects from the environment, but they have no physics modelling, and they’ll eventually repopulate after the server decides that enough time has passed. The same thing goes for every enemy in the game. If you clear out an area and stand around long enough, the enemies will pop back into existence

That’s pretty typical for the MMO genre, but most other MMO’s hide this stuff so much better. It’s like Bethesda didn’t play a single other online game in crafting this design.

Warcraft uses clever instancing to show you content that’s relevant to your spot in the story while still allowing you to interact with other players. Fallout 76 has no content that’s relevant to your progress. You’ll make no impact on its world. Every location in the world has two states: normal, and nuked/spawning rare enemies right here.

Are you someone that likes to make a lot of save files? Well you’re out of luck here. Like everything else in the game, quest progression is stored server-side, and you have no real control over when this happens. So prepare to replay some quest steps if you log out at the “wrong” time.

Other big budget online games feel so much smoother than this. The constant server checks give every action a feel of slight delay and latency. It takes several more seconds to loot a room full of dead enemies than it would take in Fallout 4, and that adds up over time. In combat it’s a struggle to even switch weapons quickly, because there’s a small delay while it tells the server what’s happening.

Persistent objects have always been an issue for Bethesda’s tech. Skyrim famously has save files that grow larger and larger the longer you play the game, and the more object locations it has to keep track of. But that’s a single player world, and your local machine’s CPU is in charge of everything.

Imagine taking that complexity and throwing it onto a server, and accounting for 24 players. It’s no wonder the tech can’t keep up, and not surprising they removed physics almost entirely.

I finished a side mission that called in a supply drop, and watched the drone delivering the crate attempt to carefully hover to the ground. As it neared land, it freaked out, hung in the air for several seconds, and then spun out of control, throwing the crate to the ground and crashing through the terrain.

This kind of thing happens all the time.

Older Bethesda games smartly drew only the area around your character while everything else lived only in numerical data. The server-heavy approach of 76 allows for the whole world to “exist” at once, and for you to see other players way off in the distance and all over your map…but I don’t think the sacrifices in performance, feel, or world persistence were worth it at all.

A more traditional co-op experience like Borderlands, where one player hosts and others join in, or Destiny’s smart combination of instances and shared areas, would have been so much better.

WHAT DID WE GAIN FROM THIS?

The irony is that, aside from sometimes running into a large group of people, this push for a real-time always connected server doesn’t actually add much to the gameplay that other simpler designs don’t have. You can team up with people to fight through the miserable quests. And you can participate in PVP (once you’re level 5).

But I don’t think the small incentives for PVP were worth all this trouble or the many sacrifices.

You’ll only see those small rewards if you have the good fortune to run into a player of a similar level on your server who actually opts in to fighting you. Most players I’ve seen are more interested in just running around and trying to get to the end of the game.

GRIND YOUR LIFE AWAY

Many aspects of Fallout 76 seem like they were designed around a free-to-play business model.

Fast travelling costs in-game currency, which is devilishly hard to come by. As are all the other resources, like bullets and food. You can fast travel to your CAMP for free…but moving the camp costs in-game currency.

Certain quests will give you nice item rewards at the end. They’re delivered in a comical fashion, with a large list of items just appearing as text on-screen and falling into your inventory. There’s no way to see what a quest’s reward will be without finishing the quest first, or looking it up online.

The map in Fallout 76 is much larger than the maps in previous non-Daggerfall Bethesda games. That means it’ll take you a long while to walk to the next objective, as walking is your only mode of transportation. You can upgrade your sprinting abilities, but only at the cost of other perks and skill points.

Resources, especially the ones you really need to progress, are scarce. Bullets are hard to find. You’ll frequently find yourself with bullets that you don’t have a gun for, or a gun you don’t have bullets for. That might change in the endgame, but I’m not sure I’ll survive long enough to get there. Similar frustrations hang over all the resource collection in the game.

Regular resource drain is introduced through “Survival Systems,” really just hunger and thirst meters you have to pay attention to on top of health and radiation. In a well-balanced survival game, these sorts of mechanics provide a fun risk/reward feedback loop. Here, they’re just implemented so that you have to keep spending the resources you worked so hard to get.

It’s not fun to make the meters go up when it just means you now have to find more water, and the random loot means it’s often hard to know where to look.

It’s hard to ever feel like you’ve got a foothold. And if you build up a cool fort with the CAMP system? It might not persist on your next log-in. See, when you log out, any trace of you on the server is sent away into a digital locker along with your character. When you log back in it’s all plopped back down, but if someone else has already claimed your spot, your fort will get stored away instead, forcing you to rebuild it.

And of course, there’s a cash shop full of items to buy. If you buy the Xbox version, you get more premium currency for free! What an exciting platform exclusive!

Fallout 4 had a pretty good sense of loot progression. Sure, you’d pick up a million Pipe Pistols, but you’d also get a healthy selection of armor, weapon mods, and unique items that generated after fighting powerful enemies. And it was quite easy to find the resources you needed for all the crafting.

76 contains the same exact collection of weapons and armor to find, with a handful of new stuff. But it doles it out at a much slower pace.

All of these decisions would make some amount of sense in a free Fallout spin-off. But they’re pretty frustrating in a full-priced game.

Well, I say full-priced. The game had tons of discounts last week, just one week after launch. It wouldn’t surprise me if the game was eventually free.

IS ANYTHING GOOD?

The visuals are often remarkable, thanks to the new rendering systems in place. Depth of field and environmental lighting are more refined than in Fallout 4, and the game is capable of drawing a lot of trees on-screen all at once with minimal pop-in.

Lots of the art looks nice…

But just as much of it is recycled from the previous game. It’s pretty frustrating that the world is full of the exact same pipe pistols that littered the world of Fallout 4 even though it’s set over a hundred years earlier. And that same complaint applies to numerous pieces of furniture, and buildings, and textures.

The game has a good version of Midway’s Tapper in it. I think I had more fun playing that than I’ve had in the main game so far.

CAN THIS BE SAVED?

If the server latency attached to everything was faster and the PVP rewards were greater, there might be something here. But the rest of the game would still be a soulless loot grind with too-little loot and a cast of completely dead characters.

Destiny, Borderlands, and Diablo III are all dramatically better games that allow you to play with other people. They all have stories, personalities, and loot treadmills that don’t feel as soulless and exploitative.

And if you’re after strictly single-player adventures? Check out Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, or any of Bethesda’s other games. Or heck, even the games I just mentioned above play well solo.

You’ll get what you’re looking for. And you won’t have to be sad about this mess.

No Man’s Sky, a game with its own beleaguered start, does a lot of the same stuff much better. Enough of the game runs locally for it to feel responsive, it has a story with a logical arc to it and characters to interact with, and it strategically uses server data to bring in content from other players, or other players themselves.

A Fallout 76 that had real characters and worked more like that could have been fun.

Instead, it’s a grindy poorly thought-out mess that has none of the fun mechanics from Bethesda’s older games and absolutely nothing new that hasn’t been done better somewhere else, and dramatically so.