Fallout 76 has arrived not just as a middling title in a storied franchise, but as possibly the worst-reviewed major release of the year. Of the last few years, in fact, with a current Metascore current hovering around Duke Nukem Forever low-50s levels, a smidge of irony for Bethesda, who once famously denied Obsidian bonuses because Fallout: New Vegas was one point below an 85.
I posted my own review yesterday, which did little to bring its average up, and I thought it might be appropriate to go back to where this all starter, to 2018’s E3 reveal of Fallout 76, where a lot was promised and a lot of questions were left unanswered.
You can watch the full 20+ minute presentation video for yourself below, but I’ve pulled out a few of Todd Howard’s quotes that seem particularly relevant now.
Todd Howard: “All new rendering, lighting and landscape technology, it allows us to have sixteen times the detail, and even view distant weather systems across the map.”
While Fallout 76 can occasionally look decent, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything that looks sixteen times more detailed than past Bethesda games, and many times, it feels like it might even be a step back visually. I have, however, seen some of that fancy new lighting randomly shining out of the side of cliff faces rather than the actual sun. And even if you can see weather systems miles away, that doesn’t seem to stop objects a few dozen feet away from popping into frame constantly.
Todd Howard: ”We have always wanted to tell that story of what it would be like for you and the other characters who were first to leave the vaults. But there is one big difference with this game, each of those characters is a real person. (audience cheers). Fallout 76 is entirely online.”
Here’s where things started getting confusing. There was actually a huge audience pop when it was announced that Fallout 76 would be online with multiplayer, but I think the automatic assumption at that moment was that F76 was either a Fallout MMO or a traditional Fallout game with co-op, both exciting ideas in their own right. But it’s obviously neither, which wasn’t made clear, and nor was it obvious that “each of those characters is a real person” meant “we have removed human NPCs from the game entirely.’
Todd Howard: “Of course you can play this solo. But like many of you, we have wanted to see what our style of game could be with multiplayer.”
This one actually panned out because it is possible to play Fallout 76 solo, although doing so is rather punishing because of the lack of a save system like traditional Fallout titles, and many encounters seem balanced for teams. And while yes, players have wanted to see what Fallout was like with multiplayer, again, that was mainly a request for co-op within the existing structure of Fallout games.
Todd Howard: “It’s more “softcore” survival.” Death never means the loss of progression or your character. You’ll be in a world with dozens of other players, not thousands.”
Dozens of players ended up being exactly two dozen, 24 players, which means the vast majority of the map is unpopulated by players at a given time. And the death penalties are so inconsequential that you can actually die and just use it to essentially heal up and keep fighting, especially in PvP encounters. But abuse that too much and all your gear will break. It’s a bizarre system from start to finish.
Todd Howard: “When we think about games, we think about worlds, and the choices you can make, the stories you create and tell yourself. We have a game, more than any game that we’ve ever done, where the choices are yours, where you’ll decide what happens. You’ll decide the heroes, and you’ll decide the villains.”
Traditionally, Fallout choices have yielded big consequences in the world, but here, in hindsight, it’s clear that Howard is talking about you choosing whether to attack or aid players, creating “heroes and villains” in that regard. But the player has no real effect on the PvE story, no actual choices to make for the most part because of how threadbare that content is. And I don’t think you can call its multiplayer aspects “choices” either, as deciding whether or not to kill that one dude taking over my workshop has no lasting impact on the game whatsoever. When workshops and bases and players are wiped and reshuffled every time you log in, nothing matters, there’s no permanence to anything, alleged “choices” included.
Todd Howard: “We are having a beta. The Break-It Early Test Application. Apparently these online games are hard, they can have some issues, I read on the internet that our games have had a few bugs.”
Ha ha, good one. And then a few months later they had a beta pretty much days before launch, had time to change nothing, and released a game so full of bugs and server problems it can often be unplayable.
I’m not doing this purely to dunk on Bethesda or beat a dead horse further, but I do think it’s important that we recognize the disconnect between what can happen or be implied at stage shows like this, and then the reality of release. The gap isn’t usually this wide, and I think a lot of red flags were there at the start, but looking at all this in hindsight really is something, given the events of the past week.