From a design perspective, Fallout 76 is one of the most interesting games to come out this year. It is most of what you would expect from a new Fallout game, but with some changes to that formula. They've included more survival elements this time around, including hunger, thirst, and item degradation. And obviously the biggest change being that it’s an online multiplayer game now, as opposed to the traditional Bethesda Game Studios single-player experience. Yes, it has a slew of technical issues at the moment, but I'm not going to focus on those. This is mostly where the bad reviews on YouTube are coming from, and the notion that Fallout 76 deserves a “0/10” score is completely ridiculous. Those technical issues will be fixed in the updates to come (many of which have already been fixed since I started writing this). I want to talk about where the game succeeds and where I believe it needs improvement in regards to the design of its systems, environments, and quests. I will be focusing entirely on brand new aspects of the game, not things that were simply brought over from Fallout 4 with little to no changes, such as the gunplay and weapon crafting.
I want to start by talking about the C.A.M.P. system because I think this is where the game truly shines. If you played Fallout 4, you'll be familiar with this system as a new take on the Fallout 4 settlements. The big difference is that instead of managing multiple settlements with NPCs, you're managing one mobile camp completely centered around your wants and needs (or perhaps the wants and needs of other players). If you want a small, simple camp with just your basic necessities that can benefit both you and other players, go for it! If you want to create a massive structure with defenses, traps, and locked doors to keep other players out, you can do that too! The point is that you can do whatever you want, and that's part of what makes this feature incredible. That freedom of choice is what makes Fallout, well, Fallout - and it is something I feel is largely absent in this game (more on that later). Oh, I mentioned it’s a mobile camp, right? This means you can move it wherever and whenever you want. Here are some pictures of what my camp has looked like throughout several iterations of it in multiple locations:
I find a spot to camp out, I build it, and eventually decide I want a place with a better view, so I move it and build it slightly different. Then, after some time there, I realize I want a place near some water so I can have a industrial size water purifier, so I move it and build it differently again. I ended up moving it yet again so I can have a water purifier and a great view. Moving your camp sounds simple, but it can actually be a lengthy step-by-step process if you have a large camp, which I think is pretty great.
1. First, you have to go exploring and find the perfect spot for your camp. Exploration in this game in general is really fun, and it’s even better when you have this specific goal in mind and you're scoping things out. Different players will have different motivations and ways they want to build, so this will vary depending on the person.
2. Once you find your sweet spot, you have to mark that location on your map and return to your camp to blueprint whatever you want to keep in a pre-built layout and store everything else.
a. The ability to blueprint camp layouts is a fantastic idea. Unfortunately, it hasn't proven to be very useful for me thus far, simply because it doesn't work very well for larger layouts. If you try to blueprint an entire structure, it can be difficult or just impossible to place that structure in a new location, especially if that new location is on an incline. At that point, the game just constantly tells you that the blueprint is floating or intersecting with other objects and you end up having to store it and rebuild it from scratch. On the bright side, this has actually led to me coming up with new and better ideas for building my camp structures. I haven't tested this out yet for myself, but it seems that many of these issues may be addressed in the December 11th update.
3. And finally, you move your camp, build it, and take a bunch of photos of your cool new space!
A photo mode feature is something that has existed in games for quite a while now, but the one in Fallout 76 is unique in a way. The game randomly cycles through the photos that you have taken and presents them on the loading screens. To me, this is one of the smartest design decisions that Bethesda made for the game. That small detail alone pairs so well with the C.A.M.P. system, the multiplayer aspect, and the exploration of West Virginia. That small detail gives players an incentive to take photos as they adventure throughout the wasteland. I’m constantly taking photos as I play with friends and discover cool new things.
S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Perk Cards
The new progression system involves unlocking perk cards as you level up. Each time you level up, you get to choose a S.P.E.C.I.A.L. category to allocate a point to, and choose a perk card to collect from a category. If you have more than one copy of a card, you can combine them together to level up that perk. There are tons of cards to choose from as you level up further, and you earn card packs every 5 levels that contain some random cards to add to your collection. You can even choose to share one perk card with members of your team.
What this system does, in contrast to the perk chart from Fallout 4, is it allows you to freely swap out perks as you see fit. Since you are limited in the number of points that you can allocate to each category, this is a great option to have. Even with just 5 points in the Perception category, you could easily swap out different perk cards depending on the situation. Stumble across a level 3 locked safe? Go ahead and equip the Master Lockpick perk. About to approach a high level enemy? Switch over to the Expert Rifleman cards. Additionally, with the December 11th update players have the option to re-allocate their points after reaching level 50, which adds a ton of flexibility to the system. It’s difficult to know exactly how you want to spec your character when you first start playing, so this gives players the flexibility they need to take points out of categories they don't necessarily need them in anymore and focus on what really makes them S.P.E.C.I.A.L.
Overall, I really like this new take on the special system. It does a lot of the same things that the perk system in Fallout 4 did, but it’s presented in a new format. You now have tangible things (the cards) that represent the perks you have and the progression of your character, which I think is always great to have in a game if it makes sense. My favorite game of 2018, God of War, also does this. In that game, Kratos’ level is determined by the gear that you have equipped, which are tangible items that are physically representative of Kratos’ overall power. It requires an understanding of the items and how they can be used to compliment your play style, and I think the same can be said of the Fallout 76 perk cards.
Real-Time Combat and V.A.T.S.
I know what you’re thinking: “But wait, Fallout 4 had real-time combat, that’s not different!” Yes, and no. It is true that the combat and gunplay in Fallout 76 is the same as Fallout 4, but the big difference is that you cannot pause the game by opening your Pip-Boy since this game is always online. A big part of combat in Fallout, for me, has always been the ability to quickly open up your Pip-Boy and switch to more effective weapons or explosives in tough situations. It was a great way to give yourself some breathing room and assess the situation before engaging. Without that, it can make combat much more difficult, especially when going up against something like a Deathclaw. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s just… difficult. Of course, this is where the quick weapon swap using the left d-pad button comes into play.
As for V.A.T.S., that too is completely in real-time. I understand this was a necessary change for the game, but it does cause V.A.T.S. to lose a little bit of its “cool factor” without the slowing down of time and the slow motion kills.
Similar to opening your Pip-Boy in Fallout 4, it was also an opportunity to give yourself some breathing room and assess a difficult combat situation. Without this, it has essentially turned into an auto-targeting and critical hit mechanic that can be quite useful, but doesn’t feel nearly as awesome to use (but still kind of awesome).
Fallout 76 introduces new survival mechanics that players have to monitor. It’s not quite as intense as the survival mode from Fallout 4, but it does require some additional considerations and strategizing from the player. While these changes are relatively small, they actually add a lot to the overall experience.
Hunger and Thirst
By default, players need to keep their hunger and thirst satisfied by eating food and drinking beverages.
If you let any of these get too low, your maximum AP (stamina) is greatly reduced. I’m actually not sure what happens if you allow them to both deplete completely. Maybe you die? Maybe it completely depletes your AP? I haven’t allowed it to happen to me, nor have I seen it happen to anybody else, so I have no idea.
Some people might find these mechanics annoying, others might enjoy it. I’m one of those who enjoys the challenge of managing your wellness, and I think it adds a lot to the game. It’s another thing to take into consideration when preparing for an event or a long journey through West Virginia. Not only do you need to stock up on meds and ammo, but you also absolutely need food and drinks. In Fallout 4, food and drinks are only used for temporarily boosting HP, AP, or special categories. They still do that in Fallout 76, but that’s now secondary to their primary use, which is to prevent starvation and dehydration. This simple mechanic has given much more value and meaning to items we’ve seen throughout previous Fallout games, such as Purified Water and Blamco Mac and Cheese. Even uncooked food or dirty water can be worth keeping if you’re desperate to keep your hunger and thirst satisfied, although you can catch a disease this way! You can use these items strategically as well by consuming them when you need to satisfy hunger/thirst and are in need of health. This helps keep all of your wellness up at once and also saves you some stimpaks.
Weapon and Armor Degradation
In Fallout 4, the only pieces of equipment that would degrade over time and need repairing was the power armor pieces. In Fallout 76, they’ve added weapons and regular armor to that list.
Again, it’s a mechanic that some players will enjoy and some players won’t. I think it's a good design decision for these reasons:
Quests and the Absence of Human NPCs
Okay, here we are. I have so many thoughts on this topic so this is going to be a loaded section. The narrative structure of Fallout 76 is a huge departure from the classic Bethesda Game Studios narrative that you would expect. With the lack of NPCs to engage with, the mostly linear quest structure, and the lack of a dialogue system, Fallout 76 is missing three aspects of what makes a great Fallout game:
The Story Is There, But Multiplayer Works Against It
The feeling of isolation is a theme that has been present in previous Fallout games. This feeling of loneliness is overwhelmingly present in Fallout 76, more so than it ever has been before, which is a little ironic considering it is the first multiplayer Fallout experience. Playing alone is also the best way to experience the story of the game, which I feel counters the overarching goal of bringing players together and creating stories together. Since all of the story is now presented in terminals, holotapes, handwritten notes, and the occasional robotic NPC, it becomes very difficult to absorb all of that while experiencing it with other players. The terminals, holotapes, and handwritten notes worked really well in previous Fallout games as a way to compliment the story that you were experiencing with NPCs, or to just present additional side quests in a different format and change up the pace of the game a bit.
Even with the few non-human NPCs that you get to talk to, it isn’t very engaging without the dialogue system and doesn’t feel very different from listening to a holotape. As I mentioned before, you don’t have the opportunity to make meaningful decisions with those NPCs or even really interact with them, you just kind of listen to what they have to say and then go do the thing they want you to do. This unfortunately can make a good amount of the quests feel like simple fetch quests, which can get tiring. In response to this, many people are saying things like: “the story sucks!”, or “there is no story!” These people couldn’t be more wrong. There is a well-crafted story, you just have to put in a lot of effort to digest it. While listening to holotapes or non-human NPCs, it is easy for the voice chat of other players to drown that out. If you’re questing with others that like to play at a much faster pace, you get distracted and don’t have the time to read through all of the terminals and notes. In the words of one of my co-workers, “it is the least accessible narrative in any Fallout game.” If you’re a new player coming into the Fallout universe for the first time and you want to experience the story with friends, it might prove to be difficult to pay attention and absorb all of the information being thrown at you. I myself am guilty of mindlessly clicking through terminals just so I can trigger the next quest objective and continue on with my friends, without paying any attention to what content is in those terminals. There are, of course, some exceptions. Personally, I really enjoyed the Enclave quest line, and MODUS is a really interesting character, albeit still a robot terminal. Those quests, along with the Enclave Events, really captured my interest and attention even while playing with others. I hope many more quests are able to do this in future content updates.
The ability to share and play through quests with teammates is essential in a multiplayer game such as this. In Fallout 76, however, it’s not exactly the easiest thing to figure out. Essentially, the way it works is that the team leader can toggle certain quests on and off that will appear for all team members, which are indicated by star icons next to them. As for which quests are shareable, that can get confusing and I haven’t even fully figured it out yet.
Additionally, quest sharing in Fallout 76 just isn’t what players have come to expect in multiplayer games like this. The Elder Scrolls Online, for example, allows you to actually share new quests with others in your party as long as they’re eligible to receive them (e.g. they haven’t already completed the quest you’re trying to share), effectively making you the quest giver. This option should 100% be in Fallout 76, but it isn’t. If I have a quest that nobody else in my team has but everyone wants to do it together, I should be able to give it to them, so long as it’s not some main quest that they simply haven’t reached yet. It would save me from the hassle of trying to remember where that quest was found and then googling it because I can’t remember, just so my team members can go grab it. And maybe I'm wrong and the game does actually do this silently, but I haven't noticed it and I don’t think that is the case.
I don't want to spoil anything for those who haven't reached this point yet, but I think it's pretty common knowledge that you're able to launch nukes in this game. It definitely is one of the most satisfying moments in the game. Maybe that makes me an evil person, but it's awesome. However, you have to follow a pretty lengthy process to get there:
While I have my fair share of criticisms for Fallout 76, the positives far outweigh the negatives for me. The character progression is great, the huge open-world of West Virginia is impressive, and the combat is both fun and challenging. The C.A.M.P. system alone is something I can sink countless hours into, and I am excited to see what else Bethesda Game Studios brings to the game throughout the year. Additionally, playing Fallout 76 is definitely some of the most fun I have had playing a game online with friends. We are ultimately creating our own stories and memories together, which is a pretty amazing thing to experience. See you all in West Virginia!