Gaming

Hands-on: Fallout 76 lets you bring some company to the Apocalypse

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Enlarge / I’m glad I got to see this with you.

After Bethesda revealed the “entirely online” Fallout 76 at E3 earlier this year, some franchise fans worried the new game would feel uncomfortably different from the story-driven, single-player post-apocalyptic action they know and love. After playing the game for about three hours at a preview event last week, I came away feeling like I was playing an elaborate Fallout 4 mod with some basic online features grafted on top.

Our preview experience started inside Vault 76 itself, an extremely messy space still reeling from a party celebrating the residents’ impending departure into the post-nuclear wasteland of West Virginia. In the vault itself I could only see and talk to my three fellow team members as we all got our gear and viewed some basic tutorial content.

Once we stepped out of the vault, though, there were dozens of other survivors, all on their own teams, milling about and throwing built-in gestures to each other before setting off. Those gestures turn out to be the only way to directly communicate with players that aren’t on my team, making the presence of so many other survivors feel like more of a nuisance than a meaningful addition off the bat (Bethesda developers on hand said voice chat with nearby non-team members was being worked on for post-launch).

Teamwork makes the dream work

To start, our team mostly ignored our fellow survivors and hiked into the West Virginia wilderness on our own. While the entire world was wide open to us, we generally hewed to the breadcrumb trail of a main quest line, which focused on finding a mysterious “overseer” leaving cryptic clues to her location. On the way, there was a lot of the usual foraging for survival materials, battling with mutated animal and zombie-like human antagonists, and discovering distracting side-quests.

While the basic gameplay will feel extremely familiar to anyone who has played Fallout 4, working together as a team brings its own particular quirks. In battles, for instance, experience points are shared between all players who were able to get at least one shot in on the enemy. Every team member will be able to loot that dead enemy (and other item storage locations) individually, and each one gets their own semi-random set of items from that looting (based on their character level).

Having a full team of characters with different skills opened up the gameplay in some interesting ways at points. If one player had a strong lock-picking skill, for instance, they could unlock a safe and give everyone else access to what was inside. If another player buffed up their charisma, they were able to share perk cards with everyone on the team.

In one memorable dungeon, a mindless Super Mutant started firing at us from inside a locked cage, and we couldn’t fire back until we unlocked it. The entire team started scrambling to look for the hidden code to unlock the door. When one team member found it, he read it off to another near the door, who opened it to allow for a third teammate to get the immediate critical headshot. Go team!

Working as a team has an effect on how you get around as well. Each team member can build their own Fallout 4-style camp, complete with places to rest, fires to cook food and purify water, and workbenches to convert foraged scrap items into useful items (not to mention fences and turrets to protect against antagonists). Team members can fast-travel to anyone else’s camp for free, encouraging teammates to spread out their bases around the massive map. You can fast-travel to the team leader for free as well, but warping to other discovered locations (or fellow teammates) requires spending in-game caps.

Playing live with other people also brings changes to the V.A.T.S. system, which now operates in real time. Tapping the V.A.T.S. button in combat still brings up the usual green-highlighted limb-targeting system (using the right stick to change your aim), but both you and the target continue to move at full speed as you try to maximize the displayed chance at a successful shot. In my short time trying, the whole thing felt pretty cumbersome, and it was a lot harder than usual to get those high-percentage shots off. In any case, players who want to slow down and consider their shots are out of luck here.

In general, though, wandering around the wasteland with three other people is a lot less lonely than the usual Fallout experience. Everything from multiplayer battles to scrounging for items or figuring out clues feels more dynamic and engaging with other people joining in. While it feels like you could play Fallout 76 by yourself, I’m not sure I’d really want to after playing with a group.

Apocalypse is other people

Outside of my three teammates, the presence of all those other people on the server became most relevant during a few timed, server-wide events, which tasked everyone in the area with taking on a huge horde of enemies in a marked section of the map. The idea is for everyone from disparate teams to come together against the challenge and share in the big dump of experience points when complete. It all felt a little hollow, though, thanks in part to the limited communication options between teams.

Players from different teams can trade items with each other via in-game menus, and there were a few high-level Bethesda developers on the server that were eager to essentially gift us some wacky in-game outfits for the event. In the live game, though, I’m guessing the player base will have fewer benevolent traders and more determined griefers eager to try to ruin the experience of their fellow players.

Combat between players doesn’t unlock until level 5, thankfully, so the initial moments out of the vault aren’t a deluge of experimental bullets. Even after that point, shooting another player that’s not on your team only does extremely minor “chip damage,” regardless of the weapon or relative character levels of the two players involved. This makes it quite difficult to outright murder another player that doesn’t want to be killed. When that does happen, however, the murderer gets marked prominently on the map and becomes susceptible to lucrative revenge killings from anyone else on the server.

True PvP combat only starts if the griefer’s target fires back at their assailant, at which point it’s kill or be killed with full damage potential. The stakes for these PvP battles seem pretty low, though—the victor simply gets to pick up a bag containing whatever scrap the killed player was carrying at the time (the stakes of death against the environment seem similarly low—it seems relatively easy to simply respawn to your team leader, pick up your scrap, and move on as if nothing happened). There’s also a default “pacifist mode” to prevent players from accidentally shooting back at their assailants and inadvertently initiating a battle.

Bethesda seems to have put a lot of thought into preventing trolling, but we’re sure determined players will still find a way to be a nuisance to fellow players—setting off nearby enemy sentries during stealth sections, perhaps. The potential for these kinds of negative experiences, combined with the general lack of positives we can see from having a wider server population, already has us looking forward to the planned post-launch rollout of private servers that we can roam alone in small, unbothered cooperative teams.

What’s the story?

A three-hour preview isn’t enough to get a feel for the grand sweep of Fallout 76‘s story, which the developers said will take dozens of hours to complete. That said, we did get a feel for how the online game would change the series’ storytelling structure.

The most striking difference is the lack of other non-mutated humans in the game. Since the players themselves represent the first vault-dwellers to ever leave the safety of a shelter, there’s a distinct lack of non-player characters to move the story along. Instead, there are a lot of Bioshock-style holotapes to find, telling the stories of the people who survived the war initially but eventually perished to the fallout.

There were a lot of nods toward this kind of environmental storytelling in our short preview. You’ll stumble on a town and slowly unravel what happened to its citizens in the wake of nuclear war by listening to tapes and finding bits and pieces left behind by the long-gone citizens. Robotic shop-keepers and assistants are also around to help fill in the gaps, as are the usual messages and other detritus found on terminals.

At the end of our preview, we got to see a sample of what a nuclear launch looked like in the game. High-level characters will eventually be able to launch these on the maps themselves, irradiating a sizable portion of the map for three hours (and killing anyone not smart or fast enough to get away from the telegraphed blast). A lot of the end-game content will focus on these nuclear blasts, the developers on hand said, with those strong enough to survive the radiation zone hunting powerful Scorch Beasts and finding the most powerful weapons and gear.

The developers were also quick to note that this is not Fallout 5, a game that is still being planned as the traditional single-player, story-driven adventure. The implication, it seems, is that not everyone may enjoy the additional focus on survival and teamwork of this online experiment. After this quick preview, we’re looking forward to seeing more fully how that experiment shakes out next month.

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Gaming & Culture – Ars Technica

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