Fallout 76 Has Improved But Is Still Underwhelming
Updates since launch have improved the game, but it’s not nearly enough
After the dumpster fire of a launch that was Fallout 76, we’re now almost two years into the aftermath of the failed launch by Bethesda Game Studios. The game was a complete disaster, devoid of any substance in its lifeless world. Sure, it’s a post-apocalypse, but Fallout 76 originally launched without any NPCs whatsoever. This, among many other things, made Fallout 76 a dreadfully dull game to play.
However, I’m willing to give the game another chance. I’ve given hope for some other games that flopped at launch, and those games have had good turnarounds. Namely No Man’s Sky and Star Wars Battlefront II (2017). They were able to put their heads down and traverse the PR nightmares of their disastrous launches. And both of those games are arguably great now. Who says Fallout 76 hasn’t made the same turnaround?
Fallout 76 received its first major turning point update in the form of Wastelanders. Yes, believe it or not — a Fallout game launched without any proper human NPCs in its world.
This was the major reason why the game felt so empty at launch. Everyone in Appalachia, the post-nuclear wasteland of West Virginia, was dead by way of the “Scorched” virus. The only remaining NPCs were robots, stuck in the programming loops they were in before all of the humans fell to the Scorched disease. Every quest you performed was done via holotape, or via notes found upon the ground. It got dull extremely quickly.
Additional performance issues have been tweaked and tuned over time to be a bit better, but I believe the game will still be held back by inferior hardware on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One consoles. Instead, the game is best played on the next-gen PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. In fact, the Series X version of the game has the FPS Boost feature, allowing for a super-smooth experience.
My original experience with the game was on Xbox One, so picking up the game on PC lately has been almost jarring in terms of performance. The game runs much smoother and allows me to focus on what it has to offer rather than merely trying to trudge through inferior hardware.
This doesn’t even mention how grindy the game felt. Fallout 76 grabbed the survival mechanics from Fallout 4’s Survival difficulty, forcing all players to quench their thirst and hunger bars periodically. Ammo became more of a chore to handle since it now weighed the player down. Combine this with a storage box that only allowed up to 600 pounds to be stored, and it was completely detrimental to the experience.
I remember constantly saying “What’s weighing me down?” and then having to toss away some outfits or weapons I wanted to collect or save for higher levels. Instead, I was forced to favor storing junk, extra Aid items, and ammo.
Although the game launched in late 2018, it had very minor updates through 2019. Nuclear Winter launched on June 10, 2019 — in the wake of Bethesda’s E3 showcase the day prior. Nuclear Winter was Fallout 76’s foray into the battle royale genre. As a fan of the franchise, I don’t mind Fallout attempting to spin-off into other genres. I’ve thought for years that a Fallout RTS would be fantastic, for instance.
So Nuclear Winter was an idea I was open to, and it was relatively fun… for what it was. The 52-player battle royale was surprisingly unique in its own way thanks to Fallout’s setting and an arsenal of weapons, along with Power Armor playing a factor in your team’s success. Lore-wise, it was explained well too, being a simulation to the death to determine an Overseer for Vault 51.
However, the ring of fire (which was used to market the mode by way of the Johnny Cash song) that surrounded the map and acted as the encroaching storm mechanic like other battle royales ended up tanking the performance on last-gen consoles. For a competitive game mode like Nuclear Winter tried to be, the only optimal way to play it was on PC, rather than attempting to pummel your way through the Xbox One or PlayStation 4’s frame rate.
However, with Nuclear Winter being the only substantial update in 2019, things didn’t look good for Fallout 76 at all.
The Return of Human NPCs
Wastelanders launched on April 14, 2020, marking the first major update to release since Nuclear Winter in June of 2019. A huge gap, surely, that likely killed most of the remaining player base of the game, who would only come back to check out this update if their interest still lingered.
Marking the return of human NPCs, Wastelanders brought me back to the game to see what had been changed. And I was relatively impressed by what they had done. The game had genuinely been improved by having breathing, talking humans in the world space. Who would’ve thought, right?
They were added seamlessly as well. For returning players, these NPCs were marked as being settlers from other places in the Wasteland who have settled themselves down in Appalachia. For new players, it was seamless — it felt like these NPCs had always been here. There was no need to retcon the storyline of the “Scorched” eliminating Appalachia’s population.
The NPCs were handled much like MMO NPCs. They aren’t killable or even damagable, and players can interact with them independently of others in their group. A dialogue system was implemented that went back to the dialogue style of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, instead of the “4 choices of death” dialogue system that Fallout 4 became infamous for. Although Skills are still not a mechanic in the game, it is a promising step in the right direction for the way dialogue in Fallout used to be handled.
After playing for a while with these NPCs, I can appreciate and applaud their inclusion, but I can’t shake the feeling that it feels too little, too late. Sure, they add some substance to the game, but the quest writing still suffers from the lack of choice and consequence that made games like Fallout: New Vegas so great, and Fallout 3 to a lesser extent.
Side note — I appreciate that they added dialogue to robotic NPCs already in the game, like Rose and MODUS — even though Rose is likely the worst character in the entirety of the game.
There are now “Ally” characters the player can help out by bringing them to their camp and having them settle down. However, only one of them can be brought home at once. So if I want to experience all of their storylines, I have to remove the former “Ally” from my camp to do so. Well, it’s not like you miss a ton anyway. The questlines of these characters are not much more than simple fetch quests. Go here, do this thing, head back to the character, get some story, repeat.
The Legendary Run was the next named update to come to the game, released on June 30, 2020. This update was fairly minor, introducing Public Teams, legendary perks, and seasons. Public Teams allowed those going solo to still get the benefit of being a team by joining random players in their session. Legendary perks allowed players past Level 50 to enhance their character even further with powerful perks that they could spend points on by scrapping Perk Cards.
Seasons are part of the game today, and are reminiscent of a game board — although essentially mounting into a mere Battle Pass-like system. You advance through tiers by performing respective actions in Appalachia, and get rewards for those tiers. Of course, players can spend Atoms on tiers by way of microtransaction if they so desire as well.
One Wasteland For All finally made it possible for players of different levels to team up with one another. The levels of enemies and loot in the world were scaled independently based on the players themselves — allowing for a Level 40 player to team up with a Level 125 player without any real detriment. I appreciated this update a ton when I recently went back to the game, since I ended up being consistently 5–10 levels higher than the two friends I had teamed up with.
Later, we got a Brotherhood of Steel-themed update in the forms of Steel Dawn and its sequel, Steel Reign. Having a new questline focused around the Brotherhood sounds good on paper. Although Appalachia’s chapter of the Brotherhood seemingly operates independently of the western Brotherhood we see in the original Fallout game, it is cool to see the Brotherhood even as early as Fallout 76 takes place in lore, predating even Fallout 1.
When I recently came back to Fallout 76, I ran through the entirety of this Brotherhood questline, now that it was seemingly at a conclusion after these two subsequent updates.
Unfortunately, I was very underwhelmed at the entirety of the questline. It wasn’t that long, and due to Fallout 76 not having any gated prerequisite quests, you can run through this whole storyline as soon as you possibly want to. With my character, I decided to intentionally do the Brotherhood quests after first joining the Enclave with the rank of General. I wanted to see if there would be any interactions there — even if I was wearing an Enclave General’s Uniform the entire time.
There wasn’t any, which was hilarious in retrospect. The only interaction related to my status in the Enclave was when I was tasked with infiltrating an abandoned Enclave bunker. The AI that ran this bunker had some special dialogue… that amounted to absolutely nothing. Again, Bethesda’s recent Fallout games present the failure for branching consequences and choices, dampening the role-playing aspect of these games significantly. This bunker I was assigned to infiltrate has tons of leftover Enclave experiments — and you’re telling me that my character, an Enclave General, wouldn’t be interested in retrieving any of it at the least?
The DLC at hand mainly featured a tense relationship between Paladin Rahmani and Knight Shin. Rahmani has ideals closer to those of Fallout 3’s Brotherhood, where the organization is willing to help common folk more. Shin on the other hand, is more akin to the Brotherhood’s mantra, and wants to keep focused on the western Brotherhood’s ideals.
Without spoiling much about this DLC, the conflicting ideals bubble over into a choice the player has to make. Either choice, however, results in a lackluster conclusion for the DLC entirely. In fact, despite your efforts, you are not considered a permanent member of the Brotherhood of Steel. You can’t roleplay as a Brotherhood soldier, because your character has “other obligations” in Appalachia, and is given the new title of “Knight-Errant” instead of being a standard Brotherhood Knight. Even Fallout 4 allowed the player to become a Brotherhood soldier if they so desired.
The only other significant character in the Brotherhood beyond the earlier mentioned Knight and Paladin is Scribe Valdez, who doesn’t seem to react much at all even after your final decision, a decision that’s rather impactful on the future of the Brotherhood of Steel in Appalachia.
This questline is so underwhelming. Frankly, I would’ve loved a way to completely destroy the Brotherhood of Steel. Admittedly, I’m burned out on the faction after their appearance in every Fallout game to date thus far, and it would’ve been a nice way to complement my Enclave-themed character. You can side with Raiders at some point to the detriment of the Brotherhood, but you aren’t reprimanded for it and it doesn’t affect the story in any shape or form.
Overall, this merely showed me that despite Fallout 76 slowly implementing new content, that content still suffers from the writing issues and lack of branches that Fallout 4 had. Somehow it’s… worse? At least in Fallout 4 you were capable of destroying or alienating yourself from all of the major factions. In this, however, you’re forced to side with the Brotherhood the whole way through, even if you try not to. The only way you can’t is by just abandoning the questline altogether, which causes you to miss out on some pretty sweet loot as rewards.
The most recent update to Fallout 76 and the one that sparked inspiration in me to write about the game came in the form of Fallout Worlds, making its debut on September 8, 2021.
Fallout Worlds mainly marketed itself as being a way for players to create highly-customized private worlds. Adjust the settings however you’d like to make as silly of a game as you want. Unlimited ammo, rapidly-spawning creatures, no fall damage, Nuka Cola Quantum rain? There’s a lot of fun to be had in messing about with these settings to make an experience that’s really enjoyable to play.
At least on paper it is. In practice, Fallout Worlds is ultimately an underwhelming experience.
What I’m reminded of the most in Fallout Worlds are the early days of Overwatch’s Custom Games feature. There were some silly settings you can flick on and off, and it ended up being a lot of fun… for a few hours. Then, you realize you’re not really progressing anything or doing anything meaningful in the game. Why play Custom Games consistently when you’re missing out on SR in Competitive, levels in Quick Play, or weekly loot boxes in Arcade?
Fallout Worlds has a similar issue. Progression for your characters in Fallout 76 does not transition between a standard Adventure session and the new Private World customization. Sure, I can complete the game and gain a bunch of levels doing so while having fun in a customized world… but it’s all meaningless compared to Fallout 76’s standard modes, where my character is stuck the way I left them.
So what’s really the point beyond fooling around a little? Not much, really.
Why do I have to pay for Fallout Worlds then?
Yes, in order to make a customized private world with whimsical settings, you need to subscribe to Fallout 1st — the game’s subscription service. As a way to market the mode, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate provides a free full month’s worth of Fallout 1st for both the Xbox One and PC versions of the game. Which I appreciate, because I can’t in good conscience purchase a subscription to Fallout 1st.
Included with your subscription is a Desert Ranger Armor, an iconic armor that most notably graced the cover of Fallout: New Vegas. Many will jump to say this is a lore break, but it is not — Ranger Armor predated the New California Republic that appears in New Vegas and Fallout 2. In fact, it’s even worn by Tycho, a companion in the original Fallout, also predating the NCR. But what happens when the subscription runs out? Do they yank that clothing off of my character? Thankfully you can keep it, but you’ve still lost some of your dignity by paying for this meaningless subscription service. You won’t be able to keep that.
Sure, with Fallout 1st enabled you can now play Adventure mode in a truly solo world, essentially playing an “actual” Fallout game. However, playing this game solo only makes it feel more… dead. Having other players wandering around the map actually makes the world feel a bit more alive, and encountering other player’s camps is actually helpful while roaming the wastes. Most players who have been at Fallout 76 for a substantial amount of time have built up shops and workbenches that can be great pit-stops for your journeys throughout Appalachia, and you miss out on that in a solo world.
Don’t get me wrong, Fallout 76 is indeed better than the state it initially launched in.
However, instead of a broken game, Bethesda has since morphed it into a boring game. A game that is lackluster and inferior to its predecessors in almost every way. A game that can be fun and enjoyable for periods of time, but quickly loses any marvel it has once its many glaring flaws become prominent once again.
Fallout Worlds being a paid feature ultimately feels inherently greedy for no good reason. Perhaps Bethesda should take a page out of Minecraft’s book. Minecraft has paid worlds in the form of “Realms”, which are always-active servers that allow friends of the owner to join freely whenever they want. Making a private server for you and your friends to play on, though, as an invite-only server only available when the host is on… those are free.
I understand why progression doesn’t carry over to these highly customizable worlds. I’d take the above scheme from Minecraft and allow these customizable worlds to be open to everyone for free. These worlds are only good for a few hours of fun… a few hours that you shouldn’t be paying for. At the moment, they feel like a mere toss-in addition to Fallout 1st. Similar to Custom Games in Overwatch, these shouldn’t carry over any progression — but instead provide a highly reduced amount of XP, so people don’t feel like they’re entirely throwing away progression in Adventure mode just to enjoy themselves a bit.
I’m glad that Bethesda recently hired a writer from the Fallout London modding team, because their quest writing, choices, and consequences are still incredibly lacking. Although I don’t expect perfection in a live service game like Fallout 76, I expect these quests to be a little more meaningful at the very least. They all feel stale, dull, and pointless by the time you’re done with them.
While Fallout 76 has improved since its atrocious launch state, it still has a long, long way to go to being the game it could be — and I believe the potential is there for it. I just hope their future updates in the form of Expeditions: The Pitt and Tales From the Stars can tap into some of that potential, and give the game the turnaround it can potentially reach.