There’s a new trend among gamemakers these days: dragging their successful franchises away from offline play and blowing things out on a much bigger scale online. After all, if fans are enjoying a small, offline single-player world on a console, just think how much more they’ll enjoy a huge, expansive multiplayer world hosted on web-based servers.
Bigger is always better, the reasoning goes. And an online game can stretch on, well, forever. But the big question for the new game Fallout 76 is whether or not Bethesda Softworks online construct is a place someone would want to spend time … at all.
Like other games in the Fallout RPG series, the story here centers on an apocalypse. In an alternate-reality future—one that’s an appealingly quirky blend of 1950s, pipe-in-your-teeth nostalgia and floating-robot-butler futurism—nuclear war has erupted.
This atomic annihilation blasted the world 300 years after our nation’s founding. The best and the brightest were hustled into Vault 76 for protection. And here we are in 2102, stepping free from that underground life, ready to reclaim West Virginia and jump-start what’s left of the good ol’ US of A.
Gamers can choose their avatar’s gender and appearance. Then they sally forth into the dystopian carnage left on the surface. While trying to forge a way past radioactive disease and deadly, flesh-craving creatures—and perhaps start building basecamps for themselves and for other emerging humans—players upgrade and manage their characters’ constitution in the areas of strength, perception, endurance, intelligence, agility and luck.
Characters can pick locks, scavenge weapons, piece together suits of armor and uncover resources. For the most part, that’s all pretty standard fare for a Fallout game. But when you layer on the gamemakers’ desire to force play into a multiplayer mold, things change pretty radically.
As you emerge from the vault, so do other online players. You can proceed on your own, but 76 wants you to face this world’s deadly threats and to reclaim the land in cooperation with those other gamers. To do that, this title eliminates any other living AI humans that might have once survived on the surface.
That’s a big step, because with past games most of the information you discovered and the storylines you followed came courtesy of those non-player AI characters. Now you have to glean what you need to know by listening to discarded recordings you find, scanning notebooks or paging through reams and reams of data stashed in antiquated computer terminals. There are some good trails to follow, but the process can be an incredibly dreary grind.
The game also paints a picture of a world where survivors tried to band together and endure the dystopian devastation around them. But those survivors all died. And without those folks being present to tell their tales, there’s nothing to make you care. Everything seems to be all about searching, reading scraps and killing diseased, slavering monsters that leap at you.
76 also tries to force you to work with other online players by making those attacks—by zombie-like fiends, laser-zapping robots, feral ghouls, and screeching beasties—so overwhelming and difficult that it’s nearly impossible to make it through without someone watching your back.
Of course, when I say “attacks,” that doesn’t really paint the full bloody picture. This isn’t just a search-for-a-story romp with a bit of light target practice tossed into the gaming mix. Depending on the club, machete, copper pipe, rifle, cutlery or cannon you find or cobble together, things can get very messy indeed. Body parts fly, heads get lopped off, gore splashes in buckets, and chunks of flesh flop to the ground. And your Vault-Tec aiming assistance can slow that butchery down to a slo-mo gush.
On top of that, we’re exposed to a sprinkling of f-words, s-words, as well as crudities such as “d–n” and “h—” (profanities which are both read and heard), even without any living survivors walking about. And your character can also consume different drugs and tobacco products to get bodily effects. Some boost your strength or perception, while others just leave you in a haze.
The fact is, Fallout games have always had a dark edge to them, a sense of ugly corruption that tended to seep in like a radioactive burn as the story waned. But the games also tried to counter that negative feel with a creative flourish. Moving to a broader online space has seemed to suck even that small plus away, leaving players with an enormous crumbling world and a vacuous husk of a game.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.