Republished on Wednesday, 28th December, 2022: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of January 2023's PS Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Fallout 76 will be remembered as a defining moment for Bethesda Game Studios, and not in a good way. This entirely multiplayer take on the Fallout franchise is a technical failure stuffed to bursting point with bugs and performance issues. The real kicker, though, is that even without all of its glitches and frame rate problems, Fallout 76 would still feel like a janky, hollow cash in that fails to justify its existence on almost every level.
The core of Fallout 76 is taken from Fallout 4 – an open world title that we rather liked. Although Fallout 4's role-playing elements were disappointingly dialled back, its gameplay loop of exploring, shooting mutants, looting, completing quests, scavenging for resources, levelling up, and crafting was well done and addictive. This same gameplay loop is present in Fallout 76, but it's placed in an open world that, in 2018, is woefully outdated both visually and mechanically.
The bottom line is that Fallout 76 feels like a fan-made multiplayer mod for Fallout 4, but it's obviously a full price retail release. So similar is it to Fallout 4 that many of the same bugs and glitches from the 2015 title remain, and taking the experience online has only increased their frequency. What's more, the engine, upgraded though it may be, still can't deal with large groups of enemies or particularly busy areas. It stutters constantly, both in and out of combat, and struggles to maintain 30 frames-per-second on a regular basis. It's an absolute embarrassment on a technical level.
But as mentioned, even if, by some miracle, Bethesda manages to fix all of the game's technical faults, Fallout 76 would still be a multiplayer experiment that completely misses the mark. Set in West Virginia just several decades after the nuclear apocalypse, this is a uniquely vibrant Fallout game. Abundant plant life gives the title a certain charm – the setting is more The Last of Us than it is Fallout as we know it – and that charm's just enough to make the game's world seem interesting on a surface level.
At this point Bethesda is generally regarded as one of the best in the business when it comes to creating intricate open worlds, and Fallout 76 is another title that practically begs you to explore every nook and cranny. Exploration is undeniably the highlight of the experience, even if the sense of place is marred by noticeable texture pop-in and various other visual hiccups. It also doesn't help that it barely looks any better than Fallout 4 – a game that already appeared dated when it launched three whole years ago.
Still, discovering decidedly weird locations and combing them for secrets is what kept us playing Fallout 76, because lord knows the quests didn't. The game is packed with throwaway fetch quests that see you zig-zag across the map just to find another note on a dead body, or a holotape that drones on and on and on, conveniently explaining the entire backstory of a certain character. And by the way, you'd better get used to seeing partially rotted bodies, because other than robots, there are no non-playable characters to interact with.
Bethesda made a point of this when the game was first announced. A potentially interesting concept that falls flat almost immediately in practice, every living human that you meet in Fallout 76 is another player. Except that with only 20 or so players populating each server, the chances of you actually running into another survivor from the vault are slim. You can go hours without seeing another soul, and this complete lack of human interaction makes finding another dead body seem comical. How is it that every human in West Virginia happens to be dead? Why are their bodies still there, perfectly placed next to the quest objective? How is it that you'll see Brotherhood of Steel aircraft engage in combat with super mutants, but you'll never see its soldiers on patrol? It's extremely poor world building.
And on top of all this, you've got the clunky moment-to-moment gameplay ripped straight from Fallout 4. Barely upgraded combat mechanics make Fallout 76 feel very wonky and unsatisfying by today's standards. When stuttering isn't throwing off your aim or forcing you to press buttons more than once so that the game actually registers your action, you're swinging melee weapons in the general direction of enemies in the hope that you'll make contact despite their dodgy hitboxes. And it's a shame, too, because some of the new foes that pop up in this irradiated West Virginia are nicely designed and reasonably exciting to discover.
Not even V.A.T.S., the slow-mo automatic targeting system from past Fallout titles, can save this janky farce. Entering V.A.T.S. in Fallout 76 simply highlights the enemy and presents you with a percentage chance to hit, all in real time. It's essentially auto aim, but the chance to hit fluctuates wildly as you and your opponent move, to the point where you're better off just aiming manually. It's a borderline broken mechanic, and you wonder how it ever got through testing, but then this whole game got through testing, somehow.
Moving on, survival mechanics aim to keep you engaged, with hunger and dehydration damaging your stats if you're not looking after yourself. While there's nothing strictly wrong with survival elements in general, they need to be well implemented. Unfortunately for Fallout 76, keeping your hunger and thirst in check comes across as little more than a chore. Food is plentiful and almost every beast that you kill has meat on it, so cooking is always an option. Drinks are a little less common but you'll still find plenty of water containers strewn through just about every old building or camp that you come across. In the end, it just feels like the game's wasting your time by asking you to hop into your poorly organised inventory menu and chow down.
And then you've got bloody weight limits to worry about. You're going to be wrestling with your inventory space a hell of a lot in Fallout 76, and there's no effective way to determine what's weighing you down. Is it your collection of stimpaks? Is it all the ammunition? The only way you're going to find out is by meticulously working your way through each individual item that you're holding. What's more, constant trips to your stash will be required in the opening hours as you work out what's worth carrying, and eventually you'll come to the realisation that you're probably spending more time fiddling with menus than you are playing the game — and that rings even more true if you're the type to build your own house.
We've barely touched upon the game's multiplayer aspects in this review, but that's mostly because Fallout 76 doesn't really feel like a multiplayer release. As noted, you're not going to be running across many other players, and when you do, most are happy to just ignore you and go about their business. The only way to guarantee any kind of interaction is to play alongside a friend or two, and this is honestly one of the few things that makes Fallout 76 enjoyable. Fallout titles have always been solitary experiences, conveying a sense of desolation and loneliness, so having a human companion by your side certainly adds a different dynamic.
We definitely recommend teaming up with a pal, because slogging it through West Virginia alone is asking for trouble, and not because the wasteland is particularly dangerous. Indeed, the issue with playing solo is that everything takes twice as long, and the gameplay loop is already more than enough of a grind. Some enemies, for example, have massive health bars, and thanks to brain-dead artificial intelligence, fighting them by yourself is just a question of whether you can be bothered repeatedly shooting them in the head for five minutes.
It's not even worth going into detail about player-versus-player combat, because it never happens, and when it does, it's an unbalanced, pointless mess.
On the flip side, there is one thing that we genuinely loved about Fallout 76, and that's the musical score. There are some fantastic ambient tracks on offer here, with brilliantly named composer Inon Zur crafting superbly atmospheric music that deserves to be used in a much better game.
Fallout 76 is a seriously shoddy attempt at trying to cash in on the multiplayer survival market. Fallout with friends is an intriguing concept on paper, but we can't think of many more ways that Bethesda could have screwed it up. Every online aspect of the release is half-baked and poorly implemented, but even as a single player experience, Fallout 76 would fall flat thanks to its archaic design and astoundingly poor world building. If you really, really enjoyed the gameplay loop of Fallout 4 and want to share it with friends, you might just find nuggets of fun scattered throughout, but even then, you're better off waiting to see whether Bethesda can fix the game's unforgivable technical performance. Fallout 76 is a stain on the developer's record, and one that won't be easily scrubbed clean.