Video Game Review: ‘Fallout 76’

A humdrum Skinner Box set in the end times

At the beginning of “Fallout 76,” you emerge from a shelter beneath the earth and venture outwards onto a planet destroyed by bombs. Survivors lived outside for a time afterward, but they’re all gone now. It’s just you, the wasteland monstrosities, other ex-vault dwelling players and a lot of scrap — which can be used to build weapons, bases and whatever else is required to fend off the unending death and radiation.

On the exterior, “Fallout 76” recycles the tropes of the series: jingly retro tunes, pipe-bolt pistols, and giant irradiated roaches, but without the humor and quirkiness of its predecessors. Although there are glimpses of the previous tone, it’s not enough to overshadow the sense of overall dreariness. In a similar vein, “Fallout 76” also has none of the apocalyptic commentary, gritty nastiness or plain out weirdness of its forebears. As such, we are left with an impersonal universe bereft of color, which proves problematic in a game that relies solely on environmental storytelling.

Lacking the strange settlements, cultists and roving bands of maniacs seen in previous installments due to a complete absence of non-player characters, “Fallout 76” feels more like a map populated by clones of abandoned buildings and slavering mutants, as opposed to the dark, savagely fun remains of a world torn apart by nukes.

It constructs its vague narrative via found audio diaries, robots, computer logs, and radio broadcasts. The people relaying the messages are ghosts you will never meet. Their recordings bear little relevance to current circumstances, and the lack of communication lends the game a repetitive tone: efforts feel futile as they have little in-game effect. A disconnect exists between you, the world, and other humans — real life or long gone. The red-pine forests, toxic lakes and deserted towns of Appalachia can be beautiful but are ultimately devoid of any meaning.

From the outset, quests are cookie-cutter assignments that rapidly devolve into chores. While a handful of assignments direct you towards slaughtering two-headed cows and beating infernal obstacle courses, the bulk follow an arbitrary find, kill, loot and return format. Many entail coming back to the same place several times, wherein identical monster hordes spawn and everything is actually the same as before you left it. This absurd sequence of events highlights just how inconsequential your in-game actions really are.

“Fallout 76” wants you to create tales for yourself in absence of its own, but the sparse server maps and redundant benefits of teaming up means player stories are hard to come by. Being part of a team in “Fallout 76” predominantly involves completing the same rote tasks side by side. It’s still a grind, regardless of how many people participate.

The monsters contain the usual culprits from Fallout lore, and plenty of new abominations spawned in the radiated wastes. Although the beasts are menacing and disgusting, with little to know of them unlike in previous titles where their existence often had a vividly realized context and the fact that they tend to attack en masse in mobs, turns them into meat for the meat grinder. They all charge toward you in the same grim formation on an eternal loop. Kind of like “Doom” without the exhilaration or breezy mechanics.

As a survival game “Fallout 76” fails to create a sense of peril beyond the heady menu-based admin you’ll be doing in order to set up camp and prepare water and food. You spend chunks of time boiling liquids, cooking irradiated meat and fixing weapons, but when you complete a quest a slew of goodies magically materializes from thin air. It’s a game at odds with itself.

The sense of stakes is low, with HP recovered via a quick snooze, Meanwhile, death carries only an in-game currency penalty and forlorn trek back to where you died, if your accumulated scrap is worth the effort. As such “Fallout 76” captures the rote admin of a survival game, without the tension and unpredictability.

Blasting horrors with big guns in a huge world can be fun at points, but the combat system is ultimately a subpar first-person shooter. It’s missing the tight battle mechanics that make combat-heavy games compelling, and the stakes to be a true survival experience, which turns the endless crafting, base-building and mindless slaughter into a nightmare Skinner Box of unyielding vastness.

Most decisions revolve around where you stack stats, but as “Fallout 76” seemingly levels up ad infinitum, where you place your points is a choice that bears little weight. The level-based perks system also lets you change out abilities at will. While this allows for flexibility, it also removes any of the satisfaction to be gained from building a unique character with a customized skill-set. Instead, you have something closer to an avatar, whose appearance and combat-style you can change on a whim.

“Fallout 76” is game of great dissonance, it mingles many disconnected elements to create one shoddy, vague whole. Namely, compromising mediocre survival and combat mechanics crammed under the vague sheen of the Fallout universe — which really deserves better. In addition, the rewarding progression, co-operative mechanics and active community seen in the most successful online games, is also sorely missing.

Stripped of the series’ trademark color and hi-jinx, “Fallout 76” turns into a heartless trek through a barren wasteland filled with mindless enemies and arduous, inconsequential quest lines. Although there are some curious set-pieces, the lack of interaction with the world means even the most detailed of its environments fall flat. You shoot mutants, collect scrap, build things and repeat, all under the guidance of cosmically vast reams of recordings left by dead people. Despite its colossal size, “Fallout 76” stretches out into a whole lot of nothing.

Video Game Review: ‘Fallout 76’

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