I’m a long-time Fallout fan, so Fallout 76 has baffled me essentially from its announcement.
Since Bethesda acquired the license and published Fallout 3 back in 2008, the series has increasingly moved away from its roots as a stat-driven, story-heavy tactical RPG, and into the action FPS realm. I don’t object to that development in a general sense – Fallout 2 might be a classic and deservedly so, but revisiting it in 2019 is a tough experience. It is, to put it charitably, a slow burn. To put it less charitably, it’s a bloody slog, with an interface that’s aged like milk. Fallout 3 was a radical upheaval that wasn’t received well by everybody, but it did what it needed to, and brought a franchise that was at risk of death into the modern era.
Bethesda made the transition work with some clever tricks learned from their previous first-person games, the excellent Morrowind and the generally-fine Oblivion. Fallout 3 didn’t offer as many options for personality customisation as its predecessors, but it managed to preserve the fun of role-playing by keeping the player’s point of view firmly inside the character. There are no cut-scenes in Fallout 3 beyond the opening and closing narration – at the beginning of the game, you’re put into your character’s head and kept there, in control of your actions until the game’s final decision. Story scenes play out around you, and you have agency within them, both in dialogue and in mechanics. It all contributes to the sense that you exist within the world, that you are embodying a character having a tangible effect on your surroundings. Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas took this even further, using the same mechanics to convey that feeling while placing a greater emphasis on character interaction and dialogue, allowing the player more moral agency within the story.
It was the fourth mainline game that really began to distance itself from the role-playing aspects of the series. Fallout 4 streamlined a lot of the stat-building and specialisation, and all but removed the dialogue system, replacing the wide and varied responses possible in previous games with a system that gave you four pre-decided options for any given reply, three of which were usually rephrasings of each other, designed to guide the player down a determined path. The vanilla version of Fallout 4 disguised this by hiding the line that your character would actually say behind a descriptive summary, but a popular PC mod reverted the game to the old system of showing every potential line in full before you selected it, and laid bare just how little choice the player was actually being given.
In parts, Fallout 4 actively seemed to resist roleplaying. Fallout 3 and New Vegas had essentially given you full freedom over your character, allowing you to make whoever you liked, whether that be some version of yourself or a new creation, and then to get out into the world and do your own thing. Fallout 4 imposes limits on you right at the beginning. You can pick your gender and your appearance, but after that, the game takes the reins. Your character is married, heterosexual (or at least in a heterosexual relationship), has a child, and the child is the most important thing in their life. The entire plot of the game from beginning to end hangs almost solely on that assumed emotional connection, and if you’re not into it, then tough, because that’s what the plot is, and that’s what all of your dialogue options are geared toward. The game is so insistent about it that for me it became alienating, and while I ended up enjoying Fallout 4 on its other merits, I came away from it disappointed in the story and the neutered RPG elements. Fallout 4 was a good game, but it just wasn’t a good Fallout game.
Enter Fallout 76. A multiplayer Fallout could have been great – while Fallout has often focused on the idea of being alone and surviving in a barren wasteland, there have always been NPC companions. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could team up with your friends and experience a fun, classic Fallout storyline co-operatively? Bethesda had an answer – no. Even from the announcement, things seemed fishy. There would be no NPCs in the game – nobody to interact with except other players. Rather than design the game around a co-operative experience, 76 would function more like an MMO – except with only eight players per instance of the massive world. In contrast to the anti-nuclear and wasteland survival themes of previous games, one of the core goals in Fallout 76 would be to find and launch a nuclear missile. The satire of capitalism present in the good Fallout games was undercut slightly by an online store charging obscene amounts of money for cosmetic upgrades (never let it be said that Bethesda learned anything from Oblivion’s Horse Armor debacle). And there would, for some reason, be dragons in the game. Fallout fans were, to say the least, sceptical – and, oddly enough, they were all absolutely right to be. There were no silver linings – all of the odd choices turned out to be just as bad as the naysayers had predicted. Fallout 76’s world was vast, empty, and boring. Player interaction was rare and unrewarding. The nuke quest was thematically wonky and unsatisfying, and the dragons were dragons in a Fallout game. Add to this the fact that 76’s world was one of the most glitchy, unstable environments in a series that was already known for being more than a bit buggy, and you have the whole disappointing package. Fallout 76 was a critical disaster, sold badly, and despite maintaining a small cadre of dedicated players it became a running joke until we all got bored of it.
Until this week, when Bethesda announced that they were launching a subscription service for Fallout 76, to widespread cries of “Er. What?” The service will cost $12/£12 a month, or $100/£100 a year, and grants you access to private game servers for you and your seven friends who are still for some reason playing Fallout 76, and a few other features, including a stashbox that removes your item carrying limit, some digital currency to spend in the microtransaction shop, a portable fast travel point, and some emotes ‘n’ skins. The reaction to it has been… well, negative, obviously.
Here are a few better ways you can spend £100 this year.
- Buy 41 copies of Fallout: New Vegas, the last good Fallout game, currently on sale on Steam for £2.39 a pop. Play one of those and distribute the rest to the needy, that they might also find out how good it is. You could also get the Xbox 360 version pre-owned on Amazon for £1.18, giving you enough of a budget for 81 copies, increasing the amount of happiness in the world yet further.
- Buy The Outer Worlds, Obsidian’s spiritual successor to New Vegas that came out today and is, so far, excellent. If you don’t want to buy it, it’s included in Microsoft’s Game Pass for PC, which is £7.99 a month, and therefore significantly cheaper than subscribing to Fallout 76.
- Play Bigfeet of the Endless Forest, a small narrative game I made this month in Bitsy for a game jam. The main advantage of this is that the game is entirely free, so you can buy it infinite times and still have £100 left over.
- Mail me £100.