First impressions from the opening day of fallout 76 – etechro

Fallout 76 is peak Bethesda: shonky graphics, dumb artificial intelligence, fluctuating frame rate, and an insect house full of bugs. Ugly character creator, terrible animation, horribly loose combat – it’s all here. But what’s unfortunately not here is the charm and intrigue that makes you want to immerse yourself in a world, regardless of its aesthetic shortcomings. The sprawl of West Virginia is lush and verdant, in stark contrast to the arid, scorched, and desolate wastelands of previous Fallout games. Which is ironic really, as those wastelands were teeming with communities, some thriving and some less prosperous. But also bandits, traders, preachers, farmers, families, tales of dirty deeds, courage in adversity, good versus evil, and the human spirit laid bare.

Those worlds breathed. Fallout 76 is dead, an empty husk. Plenty has, and will continue to be said and written, about the decision to have no non-player characters in the game, and with good reason – it’s an absolutely baffling design choice. Well-drawn characters lend colour and emotional connection to the landscape. Human players cannot replace them because they have no roots in the world, no backstory, and no role to play. They’re just flailing around trying to get to grips with the same asinine user interface that you are. And they’re probably wearing silly hats for the lolz.

Without a meaningful narrative to anchor you in its reality, Fallout 76’s technical and design shortcomings become exponentially more obvious and less forgivable. Red Dead Redemption II’s landscape can be breathtakingly beautiful to the point where you find yourself stopping simply to take in the view. Graphically it’s hard to believe Fallout 76 came out in the same decade, let alone almost the same fortnight. Especially as you can mod the seven-year-old Skyrim to look better than this. Then there’s all the usual glitches you know you’re going to get with a Fallout game. Characters clipping through walls, monsters frozen like statues, an iron staircase that strobes between black and neon green. All that stuff that you managed to ignore in previous games because you were immersed in the narrative now takes centre stage. Draw distance? Hahahahaha. The only positive is that the game has been commendably stable from the get go, and not afflicted with quite the same frequency of frame rate drops that plagued the B.E.T.A. But there are so many design decisions that serve to pull you out of the moment. Loot is shared out equally, so two players can strip the same corpse and get all the same stuff. Presumably this was done to avoid squabbling, but it just feels lame and unnecessarily artificial. The same goes for items in the world. Often you’ll see a different item to the player standing next to you. Such a heavy-handed mechanism diminishes the importance of co-operation between players as well as removing much of the sense that you’re desperately scavenging for supplies to stay alive.

Since most missions are accessed through holotapes found on dead bodies, or conversations with robots, their context is merely anecdotal. Without a greater consequence at stake, or bigger picture to consider, the game boils down to personal survival. But the mechanics are too half-arsed in their implementation to generate any sense of urgency or accomplishment. You just have to eat and drink regularly, and use RadAway to periodically de-irradiate yourself. That’s pretty much it. To make it a proper survival game would have meant rethinking the basics. What Bethesda has done is shove a couple of additional status bars onto the screen, that you need to keep replenished. Pretty much everything else is carried over from Fallout 4. The pipe revolver neatly encapsulates this laziness: when you run out of ammunition, you can still see shells in the chambers. All this leads to a whole new set of problems, where what worked in a single-player environment just doesn’t in multiplayer. Take the Pip-Boy inventory system, for example. It was always convoluted, fiddly, and a pain in the bum, but at least the game paused while you wrestled with it. Obviously, there’s no pausing in an online game, so you’ll frequently find yourself frantically scrolling through menus and sub menus trying to find the thing you want while under attack.

Even when you’re not being attacked, the sorting system is annoyingly inadequate. Why aren’t there separate tabs for food, drink, and meds? Why don’t guns, melee weapons, and explosives have their own tabs? Instead you end up with endless lists of disparate items to scroll through, which is just an irritating bore. The ability to fast travel further erodes your connection to the world. There’s no sensation of scale or wilderness when you can zap yourself across the map for the price of a few bottle caps. And then there’s V.A.T.S. It exists in Fallout 76 as a temporary aim assist but it has no place in what is now essentially a first person shooter. Except the gunplay just isn’t satisfying enough to be the core of the experience. None of the guns have any oomph – they all feel like peashooters. The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. skills system has been simplified down to adding perk cards to each skill, the number of cards you can add being determined by the number of level-up points you put into that that skill. As for how much your character build will impact the way you play the game, only time will tell, so we won’t go into that now.

Perhaps most importantly, given the emphasis on ‘survival’ in the game, is that there doesn’t feel like there’s any great consequence to death. You just respawn and carry on where you left off. Sure, you might lose some loot, but it just doesn’t seem like a big deal. You should always feel like you’re desperate to stay alive, but you don’t. It’s like everything else in the game: lightweight and inconsequential. Lastly, but by no means leastly, we have to talk about character creation and customisation. Forget about making a cool-looking character. The whole system and all the assets are carried over directly from Fallout 4. It was rubbish then and it’s rubbish now. When combined with the terrible in-game animation, you’re going to struggle to have any sort of connection with your in-game avatar.

Character creation is made even worse by the fact that you can completely edit your persona – including their sex – at any time through the menu. This just reinforces the feeling that nothing in this game matters. Your avatar is the same as everything else: a meaningless facsimile of something you kind of recognise but without any depth or meaning. A cardboard cut-out character in a cardboard cut-out world. There’s some entertainment to be had when playing with friends, but even then most of that comes from laughing at the game’s inadequacies. Although given there’s so much wrong with the game that at least may provide some longevity…