Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform: Xbox One (played), PS4, Windows
Release Date: November 14, 2018
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
Links: Bethesda Store | Official websiteThe first few hours in Fallout 76 are strange. It's both familiar and foreign. The well-trod path of creating a character and exiting the safety of an underground vault is sharply juxtaposed with a distinct lack of scripted NPCs. Instead, in a departure from Fallout's decades-long history of single-player titles, you share your slice of post-apocalyptic West Virginia (referred to as Appalachia) with real, live people. Since Bethesda didn't provide pre-launch review code, we've only been able to spend our single day playing in this strange new land alongside the rest of the audience. So far, it's unclear whether this experiment will be a successful one.
What is clear immediately is that Fallout 76 is the best-looking Fallout ever. Running on an Xbox One X and displayed on a 4K TV, the visuals are vibrant and clear, a far cry from the muddy textures of Fallout 4. So far, the game has run much more smoothly as well, without the long loads and jerky pauses of the previous Fallout titles. These days, that's an impressive feat for a multiplayer game on launch day.
Fallout 76 starts similarly to other games in the series: after decades in an underground vault, protected from the nuclear war and ensuing fallout that devastated the United States, it's time to go outside. While Vault-Tec subjected many of its vault inhabitants to convoluted social experiments, Vault 76 residents have a simple mission: on Reclamation Day, 25 years after the bombs fell, it's time to leave and take the country back.
You'll create a character from scratch, determining details like face and body shape, skin color, hairstyle, and gender (male or female only; there's no non-binary option). Fallout 76 adds a fun photo mode that lets you snap your character using a variety of filters and frames, like an in-game Instagram. After taking that first photo and naming your character, you're on your way.
Hell is other people
Finding yourself in an empty vault the morning after what appears to be an epic party is strange, but even more bizarre is the first time another live player wanders into your field of view. Seeing someone else in a vault suit doing the same thing you are is a little jarring: they're running around, exploring nooks and crannies of abandoned buildings, and jumping up and down just for the heck of it.
Players can form parties of up to four people to explore the wasteland together or venture out alone. Either way, though, you can't avoid running into other vault dwellers controlled by real-life people almost immediately. And even if you don't team up with anyone, there are still other ways to interact. We found ourselves jumping into combat to save people from gangs of monsters and healing fallen strangers during the short grace period between running out of HP and respawning.
These fellow players are the only non-irradiated humans you'll find in Fallout 76. That doesn't mean there aren't traditional, scripted stories to be told in Fallout 76. It does mean that those stories are told through notes, computer terminals, tapes, and robots. Plenty of wasteland stories are still waiting to be told, but these sterile tapes and notes aren't replacements for past series personalities like Fallout 4's synth private detective Nick Valentine or Fallout 3's radio DJ Three Dog.
You'll begin by tracing the Overseer's steps through the West Virginia wilderness, and there are plenty of other objectives to find along the way. In addition to fixed missions, there are also location-based events that pop up for a limited time, often bringing players to the same area to complete objectives, like destroying Mr. Handy bots. Completing missions nets you caps, the in-game currency, and you'll need them, as fast traveling from one location to another will cost you. Ammo is also scarce in the opening hours, though you can trade with other players in a pinch.
The V.A.T.S. aiming system has been reimagined to work in real time, but when multiple targets are attacking, it makes combat a bit clunky and chaotic. For example, it's not uncommon to target one feral ghoul only to be attacked by three or four others before you can even get a bullet out. It may just take some getting used to, but you'll probably miss the slowed-down, precise targeting of Fallout 3 and 4.
After the first few hours in Appalachia, Fallout 76 feels less like a complete Fallout game and more like a social experiment—the type Vault-Tec might conduct in one of its vaults, in fact. We need more time with it before completing a full review, but in the meantime, we're curious to learn more about the Overseer's secret quest… we just might need to find some friends in the wasteland first.