In the year 2102, over two decades after a nuclear war decimated Earth, you crawl out of Vault 76, a fallout shelter built to protect a select group of individuals, including yourself, from the radioactive wasteland waiting on the surface. Your goal is more or less to survive in a post-apocalyptic West Virginia, and to cobble together some foundation for a new society, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone else out there.
Well, there is that one weird guy with an awful gamertag like “headshot420” following you around and giving you finger guns.
“Fallout 76” is the long-awaited prequel to the “Fallout” series, and the excitement among “Fallout” fans has been stirring since the game’s trailer was released at E3 last summer, featuring the country classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which almost immediately earned it top tier meme status. But don’t queue up John Denver quite yet, because the beta phase for “Fallout 76” recently came to an end, and it apparently didn’t live up to the hype.
While perusing many reviews and YouTube videos concerning the “Fallout 76” beta, I noticed that a lot of gamers are either indifferent, or totally hate the gameplay altogether. There’s hardly any praise for the new addition to the “Fallout” franchise, at least in its early stages. Normally, you wouldn’t judge a game by its beta, but Bethesda has been pretty clear in saying that this one in particular was almost completely reflective of what the full version will look like, so gamers haven’t been holding back their criticism.
Just about everyone, from self-proclaimed YouTube critics to professional sources like Game Informer, have similar bits of judgement, the most considerable surrounding the game’s online-only gameplay.
Instead of including non-player characters (NPCs), a prominent aspect to the previous “Fallout” games, Bethesda has decided to make “Fallout 76” a completely online RPG consisting of servers of around 20 other players.
Phil Hornshaw at Gamespot writes in his review, “Without characters, ‘Fallout 76’ has no narrative balance against the people just screwing around in the Wasteland, and therefore, nothing to make the world feel substantial,” and he couldn’t have summed it up any better.
It sounds like an intriguing concept, but the reality is NPCs are often the only element that keep a game like “Fallout” engaging beyond the surface-level gameplay. NPCs have been an essential part of world-building in not only the “Fallout” series, but in so many other RPGs because they give you that authenticity of a narrative, that the world you must explore is actually inhabited and not just some gargantuan sandbox for you to mess around in with other players who happen to have the same role as you.
It’s not as though there isn’t any plot at all. There actually is an underlying story in “Fallout 76,” you just have to uncover it — quite literally dig it up in fact. You are required to follow the path of the Overseer, the Vault’s former leader, in search of a group called the Responders in the town of Flatwoods. As your journey brings you closer to the town, you begin to realize that, unfortunately, there are no survivors. You’re left with only the journals and audio diaries of the Responders to guide you through post-apocalyptic West Virginia.
The premise of the fragmented narrative sounds interesting, I’ll admit, but it seems to fail at actually putting players in the midst of an in-depth storyline. Without the ability to interact with characters, however, it’s simply a ghost world without any trace of life, aside from the other weirdos you’re dumped in a server with.
The idea behind the player-character-only gameplay is to team up with other players in completing various missions, gathering resources for building or even just to kill and steal from each other, which honestly sounds fun, but is problematic at its core. I mean, let’s face it, how many random people are going to help each other out when there’s no incentive to do so? I’m sure most online interaction in “Fallout 76” will continue to consist of the majority of people killing each other for loot, or otherwise causing grief for other players. In fact, I could predict that players will just find more creative ways to annoy each other as the game continues to update.
I can’t help but wonder how the fully released “Fallout 76” will compete with a game such as “Red Dead Redemption 2,” for example. “RDR2” is just such a well-developed RPG with a story fit for the movies, and you can thank the NPCs for providing that atmosphere of a believable world. It’s resulted in tremendous success for Rockstar Games, outselling the original “Red Dead” less than two weeks after launch. Rockstar also has plans to release the online beta sometime this month, which I imagine will turn out successful because the gameplay should already be perfectly balanced with its NPC-related narrative, unlike “Fallout 76.”
I think it’s safe to say that the new addition to the “Fallout” franchise won’t approach the success of “RDR2” in its visual and narrative world building. It’s a disappointing outcome for sure, especially when you think about how revolutionary games like “Fallout 3” and “Fallout New Vegas” were for technology-based RPGs.
But without actual characters to serve any roles in a story, without a balanced narrative and online gaming experience, I fear “Fallout 76” may just fall short of the high expectations set by its predecessors.