I have a confession: I've never played a Fallout game, at least none of the modern ones. It's not a deliberate hole in my gaming backlog, but just one that grew out of timing and circumstance. And given that I'm engaged to a devoted Fallout fan, who probably would have finished Fallout 4 if she didn't do something as silly as get into a relationship with me, it seemed like a good time to venture into the wasteland.
So over the weekend, I've been familiarising myself with Fallout 76. It's left me wondering why I didn't play Fallout 3 or New Vegas sooner, but it's also reminded me of MMOs and the parts I like about those so much.
Back when Fallout 4 was in pre-production, Bethesda mapped out some potential multiplayer modes. They couldn't get a model to stick, however, and fans have been pleading with Bethesda to add at least co-op, if not full multiplayer, to Fallout ever since.
And that's partially how I've been thinking about Fallout 76 over the last few days. Structurally, it feels a lot more like an MMO. Your event log gets repeatedly filled with daily quests and miscellaneous tasks randomly popping up every time you jump into a new area. Regular events pop up every couple of hours; it doesn't take long for your quest log to fill the right-hand side of the screen.
Fallout has always been like this, the veterans amongst my friends tell me. There was always quests and things to do every time you hit a new town. The game just wasn't quite so "in your face" about it.
It's fascinating that the screen is so visually busy, because so often I've found Fallout 76's world to completely lonely.
Case in point: after being flooded repeatedly with daily quests and the minutia of building our camp, farming resources and just wandering around looking for wood, Tegan and I decided to make some progress on the main story quests. The game had been telling us about a journal in Welch for days, but it was at the arse end of the map, with nothing of interest nearby, so we'd let it be.
But we wanted to level up a little faster. So we found the nearest fast travel waypoint down south - which was still a good ten minutes in-game jog, if we were completely uninterrupted - and made our way to Welch.
It's a completely unremarkable route, for the most part. The environment gets gradually darker as you inch closer towards a mining mountain, the air and ground filled with soot from above.
Even the area on the map looks charred.
There's little in the way of enemies, and much less in the way of life. We ran into a pack of wolves, a few low level ghouls, but for the large part navigating the contours of the mountain proved the most time consuming.
After trekking around the mountain, running into a few mole miners and super mutants guarding some abandoned houses, we eventually reached Welch.
It took almost 40 minutes.
Our reward for getting there, besides a protracted fight with mole miners perched on roof tops shooting us with 76's equivalent of BB guns, was a series of abandoned houses with next to no loot.
A miscellaneous side quest, "Find Duchess's Stash", appeared. Located at the bottom of a broken down third story house, the reward for all that toil was a Rad-X, some mentats, an X-Cell, Calmex and some Psychotats.
No other players to maybe get into a quick skirmish. No terminals underscoring the history of Welch. No robots wandering the ashen houses looking for lost children, and no immediate pointers to notes illuminating why the mole miners were holed up here to begin with.
Maybe there was more to be found. But this whole journey had taken up nearly an hour, with no levelling save for the mole miners felled by our shotguns and pipe rifles.
Unimpressed and with little inspiration or provocation to explore further, we ported back to build our camp in the resource-filled forests near Vault 76.
Where the MMO comparison falls apart with Fallout 76 is that so much of your time is spent doing anything but levelling. You're given trace amounts of XP for miniscule things - discovering a location, crafting some water, looting a plant - but it pales in comparison to how much you'd get for the main and side quest lines.
Even the daily quests don't offer that much XP. They're more an opportunity to group up with the 23 other players in your server. And it's not until you leave an unusually trafficked event that the emptiness of the rest of the world becomes apparent.
As I trundle throughout the wasteland, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, I'm left wondering whether this is what Fallout was meant to be like. Games that play on the ever-increasing XP bar don't let you alone for quite this long. There's more stimuli.
But it also reminds me of the few times I've happily binged on MMOs, and precisely what I liked about the genre.
In many instances, I'm the kind of person who truly, genuinely, prefers to be alone.
When the original World of Warcraft came out, levelling was a true journey. There were no quest markers, and at launch there weren't even those fast level, guided questing mods.
Hitting the level cap was a true achievement; some people needed months of casual play. Others sped up the experience with the assistance of others, but I preferred the solitary experience.
I wanted to wander Azeroth alone. Around other people - not completely isolated - but doing my own thing, at my own pace.
Fallout 76, in so many ways, seems ideal for me.
It's not that the game is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The performance is appalling at points - it's the first game I've seen bring a 2080 Ti to its knees. One area, towards the upper edge of Appalachia, saw my frame rate plunge to 11 with just a few humans and enemies on screen.
I've mentioned the weird controls before. But that's nothing compared to how finnicky building your camp can be.
Take this piece, a simple staircase with a steel covering above. It's a single piece, that I built as part of Tegan's camp.
The game let Tegan store that as part of her blueprint and items. But when we wanted to tear it all down to rebuild, the game decided that she couldn't remove it.
I couldn't remove the staircase either, even though I originally built it. But Tegan couldn't remove it either. So it stood there, hovering as a lone concrete foundation, while Tegan wrestled with the camp controls for five minutes.
Eventually we scrapped it, losing half the resources.
It's the kind of experience that makes you ask why. And Fallout 76 does that a lot.
Why, for instance, do I need to read recipes and plans in my Pip-Boy to make sure they're saved? The recipes and plans don't come up with a piece of paper or some kind of interactable object. I've already gotten the reward by finding them. Why make me dig through a bunch of menus and scroll down only to do something that should trigger automatically once I've looted it?
Why does the "expert" version of the rifleman perk have exactly the same stats, benefits and maximum level as the base rifleman perk? Why not just have one card? Alternatively, why not do people a solid by letting them combine the perks instead of having to go through another hour or so just to level and get another perk pack?
Why is so much of Fallout 76's interface unexplained? Why bother showing people in a party the quests that party members have by default if they have to go back and complete the quests themselves to get the rewards?
Why not tell people if a side quest is going to time out, forcing them to restart the entire process from scratch?
Why is my character randomly dropping ammo, food and sometimes junk that I actually want to keep from my inventory without warning or notice?
Why doesn't the game tell people in the first hour, or at least the first two, that you don't have to carry around all your spare junk to craft stuff? You can just leave that all in your stash. Given how prohibitive the weight limit is, and how easy it is to become encumbered early on, surely that'd be a prompt worth having.
When people riff on Todd Howard when they say "it just works", or just say "it's a Bethesda game", maybe this is what they've meant all along.
Sometimes, you just have to go with it. I wonder if the developers forget that sometimes themselves, so set in their ways that the experience for a new player is forgotten completely.
That's why I'm pretty glad that I've had friends I could share Fallout 76 with. Genuinely, I do enjoy wandering the wasteland alone, combing warehouses and abandoned locations for loot and seeing the scraps humanity left behind.
Previous Fallout games have a lot more life to them, more consequence, and if we're being honest, more layers. I'm not worried about factional battles in Fallout 76. I'm not labouring over dialogue choices or NPC interactions. The camp building is complicated enough (thanks to how janky it is). Just getting from point A to point B takes enough of my day.
But it's nice to be able to share that with someone.
I like that the world is largely unoccupied, for the most part. I'll get to a point where I want a more exhaustive Fallout experience. I'll certainly tire of the suspect performance, no doubt, and I'll want something more to do than endless daily quests that constantly fill up the right side of my screen.
But this has been a fun way to ingratiate myself into modern Fallout. Fallout 76 is designed to be a shared experience, but so much of it is really just surviving the wasteland in solitude.
That's absolutely not for everyone. It may not even be the game Bethesda envisioned, or something they would uphold as a unique selling point. I'm enjoying myself all the same, and when I eventually tire of multiple nukes and helicopters tanking my frame rate into oblivion, I'll have a much better grounding for seeing what Fallout 3, New Vegas and 4 have to offer.