TLDR: the game's a beautiful, Fallout-themed Skinner box, made to delivers frequent rewards in detriment of everything else.
Disclaimer: The feedback upon FO76's launch was terrible, as everyone knows, and watching videos and reading reviews of it was, to me, a delicious activity. I thoroughly indulged in, vicariously, trudging through this terrible, triple A videogame. That was then. With the post-E3 free trial Bethesda offered, it was my chance to have a taste of this, presumably patched. Having been spoiled about the "plot" and that there are no NPCs, I was genuinely looking forward to trying out the open world aspect of the game, with hope of relieving some of the buzz Fallout 4 sparked in me.
As of today, I'm level 19 (I think, the free trial ended and I can't log in again), and, last time I played, a challenge told me I had played for 18 hours (the Bethesda Launcher doesn't count your play time, unlike Steam and Origin). I began playing Tuesday, 6 days ago, but unfortunately I couldn't finish the main quest (can we call the overseer's quest the main quest?); I went as far as arriving at the Top of the World and buzzing the robot on the observatory. I tried to make the most of the trial.
First the good:
Appalachia is a wonderful sight, and as the stage for an open world game, it's a great place to be. The sprawling hills and forests – although the colour palette of the trees is too wild for my taste -, the quiet houses and ramparts in the distance, the sun beaming through foliage, the awesome buildings stuck like huge flagpoles on top of far away mountains, they're all a treat to the eye.
Going outside the initial biome – the Forest – offers a huge change from what you've seen so far. Hiking the ashlands brings you a new host of feelings, with its mounds of burned land, the sun hidden behind the ash fog and all the mining machinery about. However, I must be honest with you, I didn't get to discover the other places; the most I know of the Savage Divide is the Top of the World building, and I didn't get to go further north beyond Morgantown airport nor the southeast region.
Fallout 4's core is intact here: Combat remains snappy and satisfying, and it's a joy to put your arsenal of customized weapons to good use. The dynamic of Exploration – Combat – Crafting (as observed by
) is well and fine here: go to a new (or not) place, exterminate anything that moves, make use of what you find there, and repeat. Anyone can agree that it's a simple setup, ripe in rewards for the player. A complex Skinner Box, by the end of the day.
I was surprised with how much I liked the perk system. Playing Fallout 4 I came to peace with the fact that Bethesda is scrapping RPG systems of its games in favour of casual gameplay. With this attitude, it was always a pleasant surprise to receive random, varied cards, and to be able to move them at will.
There's great creativity in the weapon department. Ski swords, flintlocks, those are nice additions. And nice to see the 10mm submachine is back.
Having PvP optional, plus player camps accessible, puts you in a leisure mindset, which feels comforting. Having played Rust, the fear of player interaction – killing you in sight, 99% of the time – was to me almost physically nerve-breaking. But here, the casual atmosphere is warm even.
The itinerant task of following the overseer's tapes was interesting, mainly because of the thought of relocating my camp as I went. I didn't care for building a house proper, but establishing my bed, chest, water pump, fireplace and crafting stations was a nice landmark in my simple quest.
The soundtrack is nice too, however lonely it sounds. Like Far Cry 5, the game pays good homage, through music, to the real life American state it's set in. I remember seeing posts of people happy to see their homestate in a videogame, and it's true, West Virginia is not represented at all. I must say that I'd be delighted at a chance to meet this place in real life.
On the technical side, I was disconnected twice, which is frustrating but not a deal breaker. However, I don't think I ever played in a server in my country (Brasil), and because of that there was a always a bit of a lag in some actions, like drinking water, shooting and being shot at. Bugs were rare, really.
The new radio songs are very good. Heh, Country Roads has become too much of a meme to be appreciated. However, there still are a bunch of songs from Fallout 3. What's wrong with Bethesda? Fallout 4 and now 76 all have songs from 3, are they scared of betting on new things?
I said the soundtrack earlier was lonely-sounding. Boy, does the game gets lonely. Having only audiotapes and idling robots for (in-universe) interactions is dreadful. Oh, lovely voice acting in this Colonel tape here! Well, tough luck, the kid's been dead for years now. The conscience that you won't find anyone anywhere is crushing.
Also, it's barren of enemies. Walking from Flatwood to Welch, you encounter enemies at big intervals. You mostly run, run and run towards the objective mark, following that lonesome road. Plus, enemies are very easy in the central, initial area of the map. Shooting at them is mostly a formality. Only this weekend – my last days of play – did I meet more challenging things. I've only died three times: twice by super mutants with grenades, and once (fighting supermutants) when my molotov blew up in my face.
However, the game's not centered on the theme of post-apocalypse loneliness or extinction (as all human factions are dead), as you'll be seeing a lot of hopping vault dwellers, with their pipe pistols tirelessly aimed ahead, plus you can teleport to any player shop and to events (I think). At first, contact feels wonderful, but to me, who doesn't have a microphone and isn't interested in speaking to other players, it becomes just another happening. I suppose it's like this for other players as well, because few people registered my presence. I tried trading a new laser rifle I had found with players my level, but none were interested; it dawned in me that maybe this game is made to be played with friends.
The game is immersion-proof: sudden collective events popping up and busywork pilling on your screen, other players running haphazardly about, conteiners "loading" their contents every time, and sometimes taking a bit longer, containers and bodies that you previously looted have been refilled, bullets not registering upon impact on enemies. A lot of little sensorial things will not allow you to immerse yourself into the gameplay. Anyone who tells you that you can "play it like a singleplayer game" does not have standards.
Open ended gameplay from the get go. This is not as yummy as that sounds. The game offers you a breadcrumb trail to follow – running after the overseer, which would be a memorable sidequest in a better game -, but beyond that, is just locations with loot. Robots and terminals will be waiting for you, like clerks in an amusement park, to dispense missions, but these will only send you off to do meaningless busywork. Since everyone's dead, there's no one with motives, there's no conflict between persons, there's effectively no sympathetic reason to do anything, nothing to be invested in except yourself.
Oh did I say loot back there? I meant JUNK. The game is about junk, it's junk all the way down. Anywhere you go, you can rest assured that there will be junk to be found. Not characters, not a unique weapon (like the ones in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, which were a mighty reward for exploring), but JUNK, for you to develop a new pistol grip or whatever.
Actually, I felt like I was beta-testing a MMORPG. The game's past tinkering with the engine, with graphics, with mechanics. OK. But what is there to do here? Shoot the occasional monster here, scrounge the self-generating junk there, and…? The question comes both rethorical and desperate: when are they going to implement the content, (real) quests, real characters? In my last hours of play, walking up to the Top of the World, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was pushing myself onwards, for completionism sake.
I compared it to Far Cry 5 earlier and I'll have to compare it again. I hated the "plot" here. Having the Responders be do-gooders against the evil evil Scorched is just too simplistic. Sure, it's useful: the game is player-focused, it just needs moving targets for the players to shoot at, but it feels entirely unengaging. I think these two games have so much respect for the place and the culture they take place in, that any moral ambiguity would be insulting. Also, I hated the damned pistolero pose EVERY scorched does while shooting.
Having said this about the game at face value, it goes without saying that this is a Fallout game. Unfortunately, beyond the signifiers that identify it with the franchise – Vault-Tec paraphernalia, old time music, brahmin, power armor et cetera – there's nothing here that will advance the lore forward, no sign of developing any themes. The game is self contained (both chronologically and geographically), so it doesn't interact with anything from the other games. You ask me, I can't shake the thought that Bethesda holds contempt for the lore developed outside Fallout 3 and 4. They just want to do an ironic post-apocalyptic action romp, no fussing with stuff like politics, morality and character arcs. Even the actual nuclear warheads are toys to them.
FO76 is, for all intents and purposes, a FO4 spin-off. Recalling the 100 hours of playtime in the latter, the combat, exploration, the quests, the crafting, they fit nicely with one another. Now, playing FO76, I can see, in hindsight, what held everything together in the predecessor: living and breathing characters. In FO4, the very same gameplay cycle was there, but you did it for people, for factions (and honestly, even then it was barebones, compared with New Vegas). To me this made sense while I worked for people and factions, UNTIL I ended the main plot and did a fair share of sidequests, then it became senseless. In FO76, I'm already at this last stage. Why upgrade my gear? Why find new stuff? Just for the thrill of the next dopamine rush in my reward system? I felt something I feel while playing Mass Effect Andromeda, with its ton of useless busywork quests (which I refuse to do): that the game wants to keep me busy, like an adult handing a child a load of empty cardboard boxes . FO76 thinks that an open world with crafting is enough. It's "what kids want these days". If all else fails, push Battle Royale in there – prophetically foreseen by Yahtzee.
This is not an anomaly. Bethesda, from Morrowing to Fallout 76, has been walking its own self-development path. It has discovered, one game at a time, that its thing is streamlined gameplay, is making players have fun; let "lore" and "worldbuilding" for the nerds. However, FO76 tried the trick of the century: "The Players will be their own NPCs". The failure of this fundamental design choice haunts the entirety of Apalachia.
Is Fallout 76 for me? No. Like I put in the title, it can be successfully identified as a faux-MMORPG (I just invented the word, all rights reserved to me). You sign in for a loop of killing mobs in return of leveling up/getting loot, which will serve for killing more mobs, which will level you harder/get your better loot and on and on. I'm not into this. I see people in this sub and over at r/fo76 having a ball, and hey, all power to them, but it's not for me; although I can see where the thrills come from. If someone were to buy it for me and we were to play it together, hey, super; playing with someone is always great.
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