Games Review: Fallout 76 is great for about four hours, and then it’s pretty awful

The biggest fear I had following Bethesda’s announcement of Fallout 76 was that the move to an online would blow up in their faces. Adding real people to the equation has always been one of fastest ways to ruin any gaming experience. But, from time to time, it’s also the best way to create unique, memorable moments unattached from any campaign or scripted sequence — the same moments around which Bethesda have built two tentpole single player RPG franchises, with a third on the way. Fallout 76 is the first to try the multiplayer coat on for size. After around 20 hours of play, it already feels like an uneven fit.

My first few hours in Fallout 76 were the best of the lot. I created my character, armed up and strode out of Vault 76 ready for adventure. Moving from town to town and exploring the mountainous Appalachia region felt like quintessential Bethesda-brand Fallout. I ran into a few people, one of whom was named GarpNutz. Garp was trying to get his mic to work and seemed worried he was alone and speaking into the void. He was so happy to have his mic check confirmed that he gave me a gun and ammo for my trouble. Thanks, Garp.

This interaction set the bar for most I’d have in those first few hours. Everyone seemed so charmed by the simple pleasure of running into other people. We would emote happily at each other, throw down items in a show of good faith and come to each other’s rescue when the ghouls got a bit rowdy. Sadly though, it didn’t seem like anyone wanted to explore together. Every request to buddy up I sent out was quickly refuted and I was left to wander about on my own.

By the time I reached the 10-hour mark, the seams between the game’s single-player foundations and the multiplayer were beginning to show. There are two very different schools of thought at work here, with one being laid over the other. There are places where the two are happy to work together and there are others where they are entirely at odds with one another. Fallout 76 shines when you’re playing it the way you would any other title in the series — wandering the wasteland, looking for supplies. It suffers when you’re asked to do any of the things that would be perfectly fine in another online title.

VATS simply doesn’t work in a multiplayer context. A mechanic that, in Fallout 3 and Fallout 4, was used to slow time and let the player choose where to shoot an enemy, falls apart when made to play out in real time. It becomes an auto-aim button, a way to quickly shoot something in the chest in a panic because god knows there’s no time to pick an appendage. Nearly every enemy moves too quickly to accurately track on console, making VATS more of an Oh Shit Button rather than a valuable tool in your arsenal. Shooting has always been the greatest weakness of any Bethesda-era Fallout title and that has rarely been thrust more directly into the spotlight than it is here.

What about your Pip Boy? In older Fallout titles, looking at your Pip Boy was a way to take a break from the action in the midst of an intense fight, manage your inventory and carry on. In Fallout 76, you get no such respite — the world moves on while you stare at your art deco smart watch. Looking at your Pip Boy and attempting to manipulate its interface, unaltered from Fallout 4, during a fight is a great way to get yourself killed in short order. You could argue that the ability to freeze the universe and look at your watch like you’re in GoldenEye was an overpowered one. That’s a valid argument. However, it also feels unbelievably clunky for your character to stare at their wrist, pointlessly inhaling snacky cakes while ghouls beat you to death with rusty pipes.

It feels like the way the game handles healing needed to be totally overhauled, but it hasn’t been. Bethesda seem to have tried to give you some leeway — your character can take a lot of punishment, even at Level 1, but the slow and methodical method of medicine delivery means death is quick and often unfair. This could be ameliorated somewhat by playing with a full group of four players — you could watch each other’s backs while someone heals up — and I look forward to running that experiment, as soon as I can find a single person who’s willing to team up.

There are timed Events to take part in, similar to Destiny 2, and any players in the area can show up to take part and haul in loot for their troubles. Again, most of these events have to do with shooting things. This, in particular, feels like a swing and a miss on the designers’ part. The quest for loot doesn’t really jibe with Fallout‘s established aesthetic, and the game does try to keep it sensible by providing crafting materials as a reward. But still. It feels weird to be asked to mow down wave after wave of ghouls in a derelict airport. Bethesda-era Fallout is a series built around somber reflection and crippling isolation. This action-movie yeehaw nonsense feels tonally jarring and horribly out of place.

The pile of gripes and misgivings only piled up the longer I played. The roleplaying is diminished, there are no NPC’s to interact with and the game is rife with bugs and glitches that mar the experience. This last point shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever played a Bethesda RPG before, but it turns out the context really matters. In Bethesda’s traditionally single-player RPG’s, the myriad bugs and weird hiccups have a certain charm. They only mess with your game and its possible to reload to an earlier save game if they truly ruin your life. In an online-only title like Fallout 76, not only do you not have this option but every bug affects more than just you on your own. Now a whole crew of people, people you are probably friends with, have to deal with the … well, fallout.

There are a few positives here, it must be said. The community that has sprung up around the game despite its failings is remarkably positive and genuinely nice to be around. The game’s West Virginia map is truly wonderful and makes me wish it existed in a Fallout game I cared more about. The building and construction systems have been really nicely honed from something basic and kind of clunky to something that feels creatively arresting every time you do it. I ultimately spent more time on the building than I did any of the game’s many multiplayer quests or activities.

Fallout 76 must have seemed like a great idea internally, but in practice it is a strange, uninspiring tangle of identity issues and technical problems. I spent years wondering what a multiplayer Fallout would look like and now I know — an experiment that was worth running, but one that didn’t pan out the way anyone hoped.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: West Virginia is beautiful; The community is great; First four hours are vintage Fallout
Lowlights: Dull multiplayer activities; Severe bugs; Fallout in name only
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows PC
Available: Now

Review conducted on Xbox One X using a Fallout 76 Tricentennial Edition retail code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.