On the release of Bethesda’s Fallout 76 on November 2018, it was in a largely indefensible state. Underdeveloped gameplay, teeming with bugs, and pretty much everything about it drew in well-deserved criticism. It displayed Bethesda at the forefront as a money-hungry corporation: charging full price for a game that had fewer features than its brilliant three-year predecessor, Fallout 4; while also being rushed out to consumers before reaching an acceptable level of completion. It was a monumental gaming failure, one that Bethesda hasn’t quite shaken off yet. However, with the introduction of the free Wastelanders DLC and the commitment to improve the functionality of the game and the fact that despite all its issues it’s still somehow… fun? Fallout 76 may be a gaming tragedy but one that’s somehow hard not to love.
At launch, the game managed to anger a lot more fans that it managed to please, reflected in its poor sales and a quickly decreasing price tag. It was clear that fans weren’t buying Fallout 76, and why would they? Not only was it fundamentally broken, but all the “new” features included (weapon deterioration, storage boxes, perk cards) were either obnoxiously stingy or poorly optimised for player interaction. Then you had all the features that Bethesda ditched (human NPC’s, dialogue options, companions, plus much much more) and Fallout 76 felt like a half-hearted approach to what could have been a truly spectacular game. Somehow, the vast expansive world offered you the freedom to explore while simultaneously restricting every action you considered doing, making every hurdle of the game become a taxing worry that ultimately killed the enjoyment.
However, this was the state of the game upon release and isn’t reflective of where the game is now. When fans cried out, Bethesda listened and relatively quickly tried to action improvements. Slowly large bugs and glitches were phased out and created acceptable stability in the game-world. Within weeks of release, they doubled the storage box capacity, slowed weapon deterioration, and introduced the quality of life improvements across the whole game. Bethesda recognised gameplay elements that were more restrictive than fun and worked on breaching a harmony that equalised the playground for all players.
Plus, Bethesda didn’t stop with those improvements though and continuously made adjustments across the whole game as well as adding new features. A pacifist mode meant players who didn’t enjoy fighting other players (a delight to the PvP incompetent like myself) could explore the wasteland in harmony, as well as adjustments made to make coop an added feature rather than a necessity. Whether you chose the ‘Lone Wanderer’ perk card and journeyed by yourself (my preferred way to adventure) or maxed up you Charisma stat with cooperative based cards for you and your mates; Fallout 76 slowly optimised itself for different styles of playing that eventually felt natural and fulfilling. I no longer felt discriminated for playing by myself, and Fallout 76 started to become the playing experience that ambitioned for it – but it still had a way to go. Slowly, as they made tweaks to the game’s journey, Fallout 76 rectified many of its issues which brought it through its rough, mostly unplayable phase, to a state where people could begin to binge hours into the game world.
However, I put down after a couple of days having it. I reached level 20 before bugs and crashes inevitably steered me off, but I kept the game in the hope that after a period of dormancy, Bethesda would rectify the issues brought to light. I eventually returned to Appalachia about a month before the Wastelanders DLC release, and the changes were astronomical. Finally, I began to derive a lot of the same enjoyment I achieved while exploring Fallout 4 and appreciate everything that Fallout 76 was doing well. For all its faults, Fallout 76’s extensive world of notes, holotapes and even on the placement of corpses all give way to an unmatched type of dynamic storytelling. Bethesda steers away from spoon-feeding the narrative through exposition-based dialogue but through level design and placement of items that is more akin to the real world. Fallout 76’s harsh and unrelenting style relies on the players journeying across Appalachia to piece together the individual stories of its inhabitants that form a bigger picture of the tragedies and lives lost. In a way, this was more in line with what you would imagine in a real nuclear apocalypse – the breakdown of society, the hardships of surviving, and the warped landscape that hides a multitude of stories that people can no longer speak of. In its way, because of Fallout 76’s core focus on this type of storytelling, it raised that bar to a whole new level, delivering some shocking moments and twisted characters to those who were willing to delve deeply enough. From stories of kidnapped children, genocides and betrayals – many poignant moments are hidden for those who delved into the role-playing aspect of the game. Admittedly, quests were mostly simplistic, many resulting in nothing more than heading to different locations, killing creatures and finding lost items by looting or searching. But if you were willing to search high and low, discover all the hidden narrative elements that gave way to a world that once felt teeming with life, then you have the feature which excited the massive book-nerd inside me. I would argue it is unfair to say that the writing of Fallout 76 leaves something to be desired because it is single-handedly its best feature – if you’re willing to give it time. Its only flaw was the lack of moral ambiguity and player decisions that previous games maintained.
However, Bethesda tried to fix this flaw by implementing a free DLC that added a wealth of content for its players. This DLC wasn’t the “typical” free expansions of costumes, clothes, aesthetics, or even the addition of few new creatures. Instead, it was a genuine addition that expands the continuing story, taking place a year later with humans once again arriving in Appalachia. Included was the return of the aforementioned dialogue-options, NPC companions (kind of), factions and even the morality of player choice which made previous Fallout games so compelling in the first place. In an attempt to console players, Bethesda acknowledged their failures and didn’t try to ply more money from consumers but instead repair their mistakes and give them the game that many thought they were purchasing in the first place. Finally, Bethesda had brought the Fallout 76 experience in line with the base game of Fallout 4. When I first played Fallout 76 with the Wastelanders DLC, it reminded me of why I fell in love with the Fallout series to start with. There had been bumps along the way, but I found myself appreciating the game as it stood now. Granted it’s the weakest of the Bethesda produced Fallout games but by no means is it a bad game. I would go as far as to say it’s a good game, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in its world, especially now it has had much of its identity returned to it.
It’s also important to note that Fallout 76 stands for much more than just a game but as a representation of AAA developer trying something different. All too common is it to see AAA developers stick to a format that made them rich, never pushing the boat out far enough to offer something genuinely new. While some AAA developers are constantly pushing boundaries in what they can offer like CD Projekt, there are other AAA developers like EA that adds one new feature to a game in order to sell it next year. For Bethesda, they tried something that wasn’t a sure success (even if they had developed it to completion), and in its own way, it’s an admirable misstep. However, instead of ditching the project, they’ve stuck it out, honouring the faith that fans put in them and revitalising the game-world that was born still. While there have been many mishaps along the way, it’s a testament that even if a risk doesn’t pay off, the experience of failure can shine a light on where issues may be and potentially paving the way to the next great game.
It’s unquestionable that Bethesda made mistakes along the way. Fallout 76 could have easily benefited from another year in development as well as including the Wastelanders DLC at launch. However, Bethesda is constantly trying to move past their mistake, a misstep that even Todd Howard acknowledged. Why some of their practices remain shady (Fallout 1st, I’m looking at you), Fallout 76 is finally in a good place where I can be proud of the enjoyment I get from. Simply put, it’s my guilty gaming pleasure.
Fallout 76 is available to play now on Pc, PS4, and Xbox One. Catch the official trailer below: