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Fallout 76 Is a Good Game with a Bad Identity Crisis

Fallout 76, the oft-panned spin-off of the behemoth Bethesda series, is a game I actually like. Sure, as a Fallout game it lacks the appeal of the mainline RPG series, but as a lite survival it can be a pretty entertaining ride. It mixes the sandbox exploration elements and customization that I love about Bethesda RPGs with the survive-em-up craft-em-up sensibilities of a Minecraft. When it sticks to its guns (or nukes) the game is a blast! But the problem with Fallout 76 is that it doesn’t really know what guns it has and often covets the arsenals of other games.

Just look at Vault 94, Fallout 76's new end-game raid. Now it’s not the game doesn’t need more high-level content, it’s that Fallout 76 doesn’t really have the technical or mechanical groundwork in place to support a traditional raid. Games like World of Warcraft and Destiny have exhaustive gear, combat, and progression systems to make their raid encounters interesting and rewarding. Fallout 76 has merely adequate progression and combat, so it’s raids feels more like a resource drain with poor rewards than a cool new test of skill.

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This is a recurring problem with Fallout 76. For as fun as it is wandering around post-apocalyptic West Virginia, meeting other players, and creating your own place to call home, the game loves to flirt with seemingly half-baked ideas. Take Nuclear Winter. Does Fallout need a battle royale mode? No. Is it fun? Kinda? Does it conflict a with what the classic “Adventure” mode offers? Yep. It’d be easy to dismiss something like Nuclear Winter or the Vault Raid as Bethesda chasing fads or throwing mode spaghetti at the game wall, but to me it hints at a fundamental misunderstanding of the kind of game they’re building.

A good example of Fallout 76's weird discordant dueling banjos problem is the narrativefor the game itself. Aside from the series’s change in how it treats nuclear weapons, the game’s main story seems askew from what the rest of the game is about. The game’s nuclear apocalypse takes place in a West Virginia that has seen rapid automation. Though humanity has been wiped out, civilization still buzzes on thanks to machines men built to replace other men. Robots still mine, farm, chop trees, train soldiers, fight wars, run tea stands, and run for mayor all without human guidance. It’s a fun angle on Fallout mythos that opens up tons of interesting story angles, especially since you are part of a Vault tasked with resettling and rebuilding this land. How do you rebuild a world that was designed to run itself, and what problems arise when that old world is reclaimed by the new post-apocalypse world?

The actual plot of Fallout 76 is about stopping giant hell bats that can create zombie hordes.

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Said bat zombies also explains why there are no human NPCs in Fallout 76. They were all wiped out be the bat zombies before your character gets there. There’s already been enough crying about Fallout 76 not having NPCs (enough that Todd Howard promised NPCs at this year’s E3) that I’m not really going to get into it, but the lack of other NPCs in the game is a lot more noticeable when you’re dealing with the remains of two apocalypses. One apocalypse is more than enough apocalypse for me! Also none of the zombie bat slaying ties back into the bigger game world, the pre-apocalypse, or any themes established by the gameplay. (Except maybe stuff about the nuclear bats come from underground where companies were digging up / digging with nuclear stuff.) It feels like the game world was created almost perfectly for the “no NPCs, just recordings of the past to shuttle the player through this cold automated world” but they instead wanted a story about blasting monsters.

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And in all fairness, there’s also a lot of good stuff going for the game! The Nukashine update introduced a short questline that introduced a new speakeasy location, a drunk robot, and the ability to craft your own brews. Another had you participating in Fasnacht Day and getting cool cosmetics for your trouble. One update tasked you with hunting down one of West Virginia’s cryptids. One update gave you a camera and a quest to photograph a bunch of tourist destinations. Fallout 76's best additions have always been those that add to the ways you can interact with the game world or give you another reason to go out and explore more of Appalachia. I want more of that.

This leads me to believe that Fallout 76 has a bit of an identity crisis; there’s what it is and what it wants to be. Fallout 76 is a multiplayer survival sandbox with lite RPG mechanics. It’s got an interesting setting with tons of locations to explore and mechanics that have built a rad community around it. And I honestly like that game a lot. But it’s also a game wants to be the next big all-consuming live-service game. It wants people logging in each day to do their daily and weekly quests, run dungeons, and grind for more/better gear. The problem is that the game isn’t really good at what it wants to be and I don’t think it ever will be good at what it wants to be, at least not without some herculean changes. But it REALLY wants to be those things badly.

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And I doubt adding NPCs will make it those things it wants to be.

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Zachary Long is a cryptid that is said to occasionally visit TAY and can be found on Twitter and pretty much anywhere else as InvadingDuck. Currently playing: Fallout 76, Mario Maker 2, Monster Hunter World, Sea of Thieves, and Dragon Quest 11.

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