I Played Three Hours of ‘Fallout 76’ and I Can’t Stop Thinking About Its Story

Bethesda’s new game isn’t quite Fallout 5, but it’s pretty damn close.

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Oct 8 2018, 2:11pm

Image: Bethesda

Last week, I played Fallout 76 for three hours and I am excited to play more. In three hours, I died in a nuke-dragon attack, walked through a field of irradiated corpses frozen in time like the victims of Pompeii, fought the scorched (a new kind of feral ghoul) in an abandoned waterpark, snuck through a cranberry bog full of grotesque high level mutants, and for the first time in the series, shot other human players at a fancy hotel protected by angry robots.

It was all a fun and it all felt like a Fallout game that happened to contain other human players. But the biggest reason I’m excited to play Fallout 76 again is its story.

In three hours, I got just a taste of it and I want to know more. I did not expect to feel that way when I sat down to play. Fallout has long been a standout single player experience and it’s one that’s dear to my heart. So when Bethesda announced that Fallout 76 would be an online survival game without any human characters, I worried it was taking a franchise I loved and making something I wouldn’t want to play. I’m not the only one. Conversation and story are such a big part of Falloutyou can literally beat many of the series’ boss encounters with persuasive dialogue—that cutting those elements felt like altering the nature of the game.

We needed developer help to kill it. Image: Bethesda

I tend to hate survival games like The Forest and 7 Days to Die and the only reason I play Fallout is to experience the world and its stories. Without a driving narrative at the center of Fallout 76, I assumed I wouldn’t enjoy it. Worse, I wasn’t particularly interested in exploring an irradiated wasteland with a party of other human players. I wanted to go out on my own and explore the wastes, not build bases with other people. So it was, heart full of reservations but a promise to keep an open mind, that I sat down to play Fallout 76.

Fallout 76 is set just 25 years after the bombs fell during the Great War. The dwellers of Vault 76—the players themselves—are the first people to venture forth from the irradiated wastes and reclaim civilization from the mutants and fallout. I spent a little time in Vault 76 messing with Bethesda-style character creation sliders and ventured forth into the wastes.

The only humans in Fallout 76 are players. There’s no Brotherhood of Steel imposing order, no raiders making life hell, and no settlements or trading posts. It’s a lonely wasteland, but one still populated by story, lore, and quests. It just tells that story without dialogue trees, and at the end of the day Fallout 76 might be a better game for it. “The storytelling is like archaeology,” lead quest designer for Fallout 76 Emil Pagliarulo told me.

The main quest, or at least its beginning, has players following Vault 76’s Overseer—the vault’s leader—and listening to recordings she left behind as she explored West Virginia after the bombs fell. The Overseer grew up in Appalachia, Bethesda told me, and the journey through her ruined homeland is the emotional core of Fallout 76. That journey, Bethesda reckons, will take most players around 40 hours—provided they don’t get distracted by all the sidequests and exploration.

Threads of the story. Image: Bethesda

And there’s a lot to distract a curious player. In a small town called Helvetia, I wandered through the ruins of a community in the middle of a very important election. Campaign posters for something called the Prosperity Act, and the vacant seat of Senator Sam Blackwell littered the walls. In one of the abandoned buildings, I found voting machines where I could cast my own ballot for an election that no longer mattered. “The senator was a controversial figure and his story is central to the plot of Fallout 76,” Pagliarulo told me.

The Fallout series has always been a game about subverting Cold War fears of nuclear Armageddon. The defining feature of its alternate history is that the worst thing that could happen finally did—a nuclear war between China and the United States devastates the planet. Developer Interplay released the first Fallout in 1997, six years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and its aesthetic has always been a darkly humorous take on the kind of ultra nationalist attitudes that led to superpowers to trade nuclear blows. In the 1990s and early aughts, it was easy to make fun of those potentially world-ending attitudes because they seemed so far removed from reality.

But things have changed.

“Three years ago, we were in a different place.” Jeff Gardner, the design developer for Fallout 76 said during a roundtable interview at a preview event when I asked him about designing a Fallout game in a world with renewed nuclear tensions.

“It's definitely awkward to be joking about this stuff, I'm not gonna lie,” Gardner continued. “But at the same time, Fallout’s universe is one of dark humor. It plays on these themes. It isn't like it's a new thing for Fallout. In [ Fallout 3], we dropped a nuke on a city. We’re always aware, and there’s always an internal debate. We’ve actually had to rethink some content that’s not just related to nukes, based on the new environment we all live in.”

Bethesda's solution for dealing with this issue in the current political climate was to take a less serious, more satirical approach, which is not a departure for the series. Fallout games always alternated between objectively dire situations and slapstick. In one moment you're desperately trying to supply a community with clean water or rid of it of cannibalistic bandits, and in the next you're cracking jokes with an irradiated ghoul in a casino or pretending to be a Golden Age Comic super hero. That line, it seems, is just a little harder to walk in 2018.

That being said, from the three hours I spent with Fallout 76, I couldn't tell that Bethesda was holding back. It takes place just 25 years after the Great War that ruined the world, and the scars of that war are still scattered around the wasteland. The first mob I encountered coming out of Vault 76 was a little attack robot bearing the Red Star of communism. Anti-communist posters scattered around asked me to keep a watch out for Red Joe and detailed what to look for. As I explored the wastes, listening to the radio, a song came over the airwaves and told me to praise the lord and pass the ammunition. At the time, my squad was fighting a scorchbeast—basically a nuke-dragon—and they needed all the help they could get.

Bethesda tossed me and the other journalists at the preview event into premade groups of four, but I broke off from my battle buddies and wandered north on my own. There was a waterpark I wanted to explore, but before I got there I found a town run by a computer mayor who squawked over my radio and demanded help. Poking around the computer terminals in city hall, I learned that the computer mayor had deposed the human mayor through trickery. When I asked the computer what it wanted, it sent me on quests with the aim of getting the town ready for a tourist season that would never come again. An old machine, running old programming, not aware super mutants had taken over the town.

As I wandered the wastes, I got a handle on real-time V.A.T.S. and the new leveling system. Fallout 76 still uses the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system—an attribute system that tracks, strength, perception, etc.—and perks like the old games, but it works differently. Unlike Fallout 3 and 4, where the perks are all laid out from the start, players earn perk cards at random as they level and explore. When a player gains a level, they gain a point to put into one of their primary stats as well as a number of random perk cards and slots to assign those cards to. Some of the perks are new, and others—like leadbelly—will be familiar to longtime Fallout fans. Players will have more perk cards than they can use, the perk cards themselves level up and get stronger, and players can re-assign these cards at their leisure. Bethesda told me Fallout 76 has a "softcap." Players will stop gaining traditional levels around 50, but keep earning perk cards well past that.

One of the perk cards I gained and assigned early was the ability to target limbs in V.A.T.S, the targeting system introduced in Fallout 3 that allowed players to pause combat and choose which body parts to attack—aim at the eyes to blind an enemy, their legs to slow them down, etc. If I see a super mutant 10 feet away and want to shoot his leg out from under him, I hit the V.A.T.S. button, flick the right stick to select his leg, then pull the trigger to make my shot. In previous Fallout games, the action would stop so I could safely take time to think about what body part I wanted to target. In Fallout 76, I didn't have that luxury, with enemies running around and shooting me as I tried to make those choices. It’s messy and a bit unwieldy.

Equipping perks. Image: Bethesda

Fallout 76 is a survival game like DayZ, Subnautica, or The Forest. Which makes sense, because one of the most popular mods for Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas introduced survival elements. But Bethesda has described Fallout 76’s survival elements as “softcore.” Like previous titles, players have to manage health and radiation but now they also need to manage food and water. But the meters are only on the screen when they need attention and they never felt obnoxious. This isn’t like No Man’s Sky where half a dozen different things demand the players attention and beep and cry when they aren’t sated. In my three hours of playing Fallout 76, I drank probably six bottles of water and ate two meals. It was enough to keep my vault-dweller going.

Wandering around the ruins of West Virginia, and exploring the detritus of a dead civilization, I realized something about the Fallout series in general: Bethesda's "critical path" quests that serve as the games' inciting incidents, drive its primary story forward, and bring it to a final act (such as it is in an open-world RPG) aren’t very well written. The real joy in exploring the Capital Wasteland and The Commonwealth is the fascinating side stories told through the environment.When I remember my time with those games, it’s those strange moments in the wastes that sand out, not the long dialogue trees with various, poorly animated characters

I still remember breaking into Vault 92 and learning about Vault-Tec’s attempt to create super soldiers using brilliant musicians and white noise, the horrible dark side of hallucinogens in Vault 106, and Fallout 4’s Grandchester Mystery Mansion with its spooky atmosphere and terrible mysteries. I barely recall Liam Neeson’s quest for water in Fallout 3 or Fallout 4’s intrigue around synthetic humans, and—god help me—the Minutemen’s obnoxious and cloying quests.

No, I remember wandering the wastes and exploring the nooks and crannies of a civilization that destroyed itself. That’s always been my favorite part of the Fallout series, and—with Fallout 76—it feels as if Bethesda has designed a game that’s made up entirely of side missions, exploration, and environmental storytelling, all the parts of Fallout that I love.

The Appalachian wastes are vast enough that a player can avoid their fellow humans if they want to, and that’s what I plan to do when I start Fallout 76. I won’t be building bases or chasing nuclear codes, at least not at first. Like all the other recent Fallout games, I’ll take my time to explore the ruins of America, learn its history and stories, then put it to rest once I’ve seen the sites. The map always shows you where the other players are and, when I can, I’ll give them a wide berth.

Fallout 76’s beta begins on the Xbox One on October 23, and October 30 for PlayStation 4 and the PC. The game officially releases on November 14. Bethesda told me it doesn't plan to wipe character progression between the beta and release.