While I did not particularly enjoy my time with Fallout 76, I was not expecting the critical and public reaction to it to be quite this harsh. Fallout 76 may be the highest profile release with the lowest review scores I can remember seeing in at least a decade, or really since metascores became a thing. It’s Bethesda’s lowest rated game by a huge margin, it’s scoring worse than No Man’s Sky, Mass Effect Andromeda, vanilla Destiny and all those other big titles that were high profile critical disappointments at launch. It’s hovering around Duke Nukem Forever territory in terms of its scores, and the only “bigger” game I can see that has scored lower might be the barely functional Aliens: Colonial Marines in 2013.
All this is to say, what happens now? We have heard nothing from Bethesda about this reaction so far, as the Fallout twitter just keeps merrily posting fan screenshots. And yet Fallout 76 is already being heavily discounted to $40 at most outlets, before Black Friday sales even began, so it would seem sales may be lagging as much as the review scores.
I was reminded about just how much a “bad” game can turn itself around when No Man’s Sky released yet another great-looking update on Thanksgiving Day, one of close to a dozen now it’s had in the last two years since launch, desperate to turn itself into the game everyone wanted at launch years ago. We have seen other games do the same, Diablo 3 and Destiny (1 and 2) had to put in some serious work to get past their launch window woes, and yet those games turned into something great after enough effort was exerted.
And yet I wonder how committed Bethesda will be or should be to fixing what ails Fallout 76. They’re starting at a much, much lower base, a worse game than any of the ones I’ve mentioned here, and they have a much steeper hill to climb, as most of the problems people have with Fallout 76 seem linked to the core of what the game is, and that’s pretty tough to change without essentially committed to a total reworking of the project.
At the very least, the game needs to stabilize itself. Bethesda needs to ensure servers aren’t booting people out left and right, causing them to lose progress. They need to keep fixing bugs, the big, gamebreaking ones, but the little ones too, polishing this game into what should have been its proper state at launch.
We have already heard about future plans for Fallout 76, increased stash size, PvP factions, new vaults opening and more. But this would not be the first release to see its plans cut short because of a negative reaction and poor sales, as Mass Effect Andromeda not only had its potential sequels axed, but it also scrapped the single player DLC that it was clearly setting up in its main storyline.
But Fallout 76 feels more akin to No Man’s Sky, a game that slowly added layers and layers of free updates to turn it into something players actually wanted to play. The larger challenges of Fallout 76 would be massive. I’ve requested an offline mode for the game which would restore VATS to its proper form and give us back a save/load system, and yet when the entire game was built for online play, that would be a massive undertaking. So would changing the core premise of the game that’s built on the lack of NPCs, as it would be hard to change the entire story to suddenly throw a bunch of AI controlled humans in the mix. And the PvP system is so bad right now it would take nothing short of a top to bottom redesign to turn it into something remotely worth participating in.
These are huge challenges, but I do wonder how much time, manpower and money Bethesda will commit to it. Hello Games is a much smaller studio and No Man’s Sky was essentially their entire world and reputation. Bethesda is much larger, and Fallout 76 is more of a side project for them that they wanted to get out before turning their full attention back to Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI, their huge upcoming titles. But even if Fallout 76 isn’t Bethesda’s everything, I don’t think they should discount how much damage this has done to the studio’s reputation. They have largely been given passes on things like the aging look of their games or their frequent bugs in their releases, but now many view the launch of Fallout 76 as a new form of arrogance, releasing a game in this state that fans are just supposed to lap up because well, it’s Fallout and Bethesda. In that sense, Bethesda does need to put in the work to regain the trust of fans, even if F76 is a relatively “minor” project in the grand scheme of things.
But another factor here is that Fallout 76 actually does have its fans. Despite all critics and most players hating the game, there is a core group that is having fun with it, as my twitter feed constantly reminds me. Because of that, just stabilizing the game and fixing bugs may be enough to satisfy the crowd that is tuning out all the criticism and just enjoying themselves already (which is great!). But that group may be too small for Bethesda’s liking, and if they want to sell more copies and microtransactions, they would have to put the work in to attract a larger playerbase.
Again, it’s hard to know if it’s worth the effort. Fallout 76 is getting hammered in the press and on social media more than any major release I can remember seeing. It’s incredibly hard to come back from that, and if I’m having enough trouble convincing players to give Destiny 2 another shot, a mediocre game that turned into a great one, I have to imagine it will be much harder to convince players to give Fallout 76 a chance, a bad game that could turn into…a slightly less bad game with enough work? It’s a huge uphill climb, and one that Bethesda may not want to make.