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Fallout 76: Goods and Bads

Red Thomas Posted:
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I’m not sure anyone really expected Fallout 76.  I am sure no one expected the next installment in the franchise to push into the survival genre.  Building on the base creation system that already existed and capitalizing on a setting that’s really a perfect candidate for this sort of game, FO76 starts to make more sense once you consider it a bit more, though.

Once fans get over the shock of that genre switch, the next question has to be whether the game is worth the buy.  As with any other title, the question is a big fat “it depends.”  I can’t even say that fans of the franchise will like the game, because it’s not necessarily true.  There are also reasons why fans of the survival genre may or may not like the game so that’s a maybe, too.

The Good

So, what did Bethesda do well in Fallout 76?  One of the most iconic aspects of the Fallout franchise is the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. mechanic, which is a definite success in FO76.  Particularly, I thought they were smart in how they handled the Charisma functionality.  Without the RPG element in the game, what’s Charisma for?

The most basic benefit is that you can share one rank of Perk with those in your group for every three points in Charisma.  That both rewards players for putting points into Charisma while also encouraging players to group together.  Linking experience boosting-Perks to Charisma was another really intelligent design decision, as well.

Perks are random, which could mean you don’t have the option to build early characters the way you might like.

The entire system is very well done as each rank in a given attribute allows you to pickup another rank of Perk.  The wording there sounds a little weird, but it’s intentional.  Players get Perks in random draws of cards as they level.  They can combine duplicate Perks to rank them up.  A single Pack Rat card decreases the weight of junk items by 25%, but combining it with another for rank 2 will make it 50%.  The tradeoff is that you’d also need to have two points in Strength to equip the 2nd rank Pack Rat and you wouldn’t be able to equip other perks without additional points in Strength to match.

Perk cards give the player some flexibility as you can swap them around to meet your needs, but that’s not something you can do when bullets are flying.  It creates a really cool system that lets you build out a general activity loadout, but still equip those Hacker and Lockpick cards when the coast is clear.

Another success for the game would be the area-based public quest system.  It creates reasons for players to be in a given area of the map and even promotes cooperation without enforcing it.  It’s a great way of getting experience points, a little loot, and learning which of your neighbors are likely to leave you alone over the long term and which you might want to keep an eye on.  I felt these sorts of quests, while a little repetitive after a while, were really well done and a smart choice by the dev team.

Hacker is a perk that you’ll need in order to hack more complex terminals.

The Bad

On the topic of quests, we swing towards what I wasn’t crazy about with FO76.  I really didn’t care much for the main storyline questing.  The system was only okay as a tutorial system for the game, providing some basic introduction but still leaving new players a little confused about what to do next in some situations.  I also really felt like the quests just served to highlight the missing NPCs, which made the game feel very jarring to me.  It’s probably not a fair expectation, but I just feel like Fallout games need those traditional NPC factions that you can work with and around.

Playing with a friend of mine, who’s a very big fan of the franchise, I heard endless complaints about the “feel” of FO76 and how much it misses the mark due to the lack of NPCs.  It’s not really even a decision I understand.  There’s plenty of voice acting in the game, and there are robots floating everywhere.  The components of NPCs are there, but it’s possible that there just wasn’t time to rig new animations for hominid characters in the “new” game engine.

The second issue I had with the game is also the other side of one of their successes, and that’s the Perk system.   On one hand, I think it’s a hugely successful system.   I also think it looks an awful lot like something that was designed to be monetized.  You get to choose one of several randomly generated Perks when you upgrade an attribute, but you can also get Perk cards through packs.  You get these packs at several levels, but the cards you get are random and you stand a strong probability of missing the ones you want.

I’m not opposed to games monetizing and I’m definitely not one to call anyone out for pay-to-win often, but this feels like it could easily become that sort of situation.   Because many weapons and skills are locked behind Perks, not getting a good drop from your free packs could put you in a bad position.  Being able to purchase packs mitigates that problem.  Normally, I wouldn’t care, but the randomness of the generated Perks means there’s a chance someone could be max level and still missing some of those critical cards.

None of that bothers me as much as their system for selecting servers, though.   This is something I really hate with a passion and think may end up being the most grievous error in the franchise history.   It really is likely to be that big of a problem for them with no hyperbole intended.   Players are assigned to servers and there’s no way to pick your own, which makes for a number of big problems for FO76.

Bust your rear to nuke a section of the map for the crazy loot? Don’t logout. Your handiwork will be gone on whatever random server the overseers place you on when you log back in.

If nothing else, I can’t choose a community of people that I enjoy playing with and consistently see them in the game.  Playing in one of the public quests the other day, I ran across a group of players who had me laughing out loud with their in-game antics and goofing around with each other.  I’d have favorited that server and gone back to play in the same instance as those guys given a chance, but I won’t have it.  Instead, the Bethesda overseers will decide what virtual space I should inhabit and put me there.

This is going to make it hard for in-game communities to develop, which is at the core of the survival genre.  It also robs the game of some of their success in creating a multiplayer world for fans to enjoy with each other, so it doesn’t really make sense from a general design perspective, either.

Probably the worst of it is that it’s a system that won’t allow players to host their own servers.  That means you can’t choose a server with rules that fit how you want to play, will make it hard for you to get away from trolls, and the major problem that the lack of player-run servers creates is that mods are going to be few, if there are any at all.  Mods are a staple of Bethesda games, so this seems like an unbelievably short-sighted design choice.

Should You Buy?

The buy or not question is a really hard one to answer in this situation.  I bought it.   I enjoyed the B.E.T.A. (which I really hate typing out.  Thanks a lot, Bethesda) and will be playing the game post-release.  My friend, who is most definitely a hardcore Fallout fan will not be playing.  Well, in reality, it will.  He returned the game, but he’ll see me playing, give in and buy the game, and then won’t enjoy it and will complain the whole time he’s online.

Public quests are really cool and well implemented, but you won’t have the pleasure of bumping into the same folks over and over.

Even with what I like about the game, I have a hard time recommending it.   When I look at Conan Exiles as they released and where they are now with a lower budget title and having to overcome some Early Access problems, and then look at Fallout 76, I don’t know that I’m very impressed.  I don’t think the advancement in graphics are up to Bethesda’s typical standard and I don’t know that the innovation that exists in the game is as impressive as they want you to think.  It’s especially frustrating when they could have borrowed so much from that “other” engine that they totally didn’t use for FO76.

Frankly, if you’re a fan of the franchise, you might even be more encouraged to give FO76 a pass.  It’s not likely to live up to your expectations of a Fallout game in a lot of subtle ways that are likely to sap your enjoyment.  Some of those things poked at me a bit, but it didn’t deprive me of my entertainment value nearly as much as it did my friend.  Most likely because I enjoy survival games more than he does.

Those that will enjoy the game are those who didn’t play Fallout for the role playing, but rather for gearing up and shooting stuff.  That aspect of the game, while also a little different, is still there and will probably appeal to you to some degree.

The survival genre folks are going to be the ones that are hardest to really answer, though.  On one hand, I enjoyed FO76 as a survival game.  The base building is pretty cool and has lots of options.  On the other hand, not being able to join a server community, get to know your neighbors, and try out different mods is going to be a pretty big detraction.

My recommendation is that you just watch some streaming of the game and decide from there.   Bethesda always kicks out a quality product and Fallout 76 is no exception.  The problem is that there are so many odd design decisions and departures from what the expected player-base of the game typically want, it’s just really hard to give the game a glowing recommendation.

I’ve been playing Bethesda games since Arena.  This this might be the first time I wouldn’t list one of their games as an automatic buy.  Now, I’m going to my room to think about what I’ve done.  When I get back, I’m curious how many of you all played the … okay, I’m calling it a “beta.”  … How many of you all played the beta and what did you think about it?  Let me know below.  I’m curious to see if I’m the only one who found myself that conflicted over the title.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.