This week, Yahtzee reviews Fallout 76.
Fallout 76 is a new Fallout game thoughtfully named after its predicted average review score. That was the joke I was going to go with, on the assumption that it would be the usual Bethesda fare - nice-looking, but bland and inexplicably popular, like most American television presenters - but goodness gracious, Fallout 76 had taken a drubbing in the user reviews! The Metacritic page has produced more red circles than the average venereal infection!
Don't tell me that those dastardly unpleasable fanboys who ruined Diablo Immortal's big day in the spotlight have struck again; how dare those horrible nerds make such spoiled, entitled demands from reasonably-priced franchise installments targeted at the people who made that franchise popular in the first place! It's just bullying, really, isn't it? If only these dissatisfied consumers with very little actual power and influence would stop bullying the poor, innocent, massively wealthy corporations and leave them in peace to hack out inferior garbage designed to siphon money from idiots and exploit what positive emotions remain un-strangled out of existence! Yeah, push that narrative, games industry! It worked for the Ghostbusters reboot!
So what is it about Fallout 76 that's teabagging everybody's grandmas? Well, for one thing, it's angling rather blatantly for the open-world survival-crafting thing that strangely, for such an ambitious concept, has always been more the territory of your smaller developers: your Rusts, and your Ark: Survival Evolveds, and your Minecrafts if you're of an archaeological bent. At least it was, back when survival-crafting was a hot trend. Fallout 76 is jumping on this bandwagon way too fucking late; the bandwagon pissed off months ago and is currently touring the South Coast. But that's development times for you, and hey, never say "die"; you could always patch in a battle royale mode.
But the reason lower-budget developers were doing the survival-crafting games is because such things don't really need anything except a world; no obligation for deep storytelling or complex gameplay, just a bunch of crafting rules and leave the players to find their own fun, building working computer processors with golden cocks coming out the top. Accordingly, Fallout 76 lets you loose on the map with a slap on the bum and a hearty "Get building those cocks, and remember to take lots of pictures for social media, you little word-of-mouth money-spinners, you!" But sadly, Bethesda couldn't leave well enough alone - presumably because there were a lot of employees who had to look busy at least until they'd covered this month's mortgage payment - and Fallout 76 tries to be a Fallout RPG as well, ultimately satisfying no one but the Blandness Preservation Committee that doesn't exist.
The story is, you were in a nuclear bunker and got let out into the post-apocalyptic wasteland, blah, blah, blah. But the bunker was entirely on the level, wasn't subjecting its residents to weird experiments, and the overseer seemed to be a perfectly-reasonable human being, which made me wonder if the storywriter had ever fucking played a Fallout game before. The game has no human NPCs, a fact that the marketing blurb is weirdly keen to point out - "Hey, look at all this work we didn't do!" - the implication being that the human players create the content. Fair enough, but sadly, it's a lie; there are NPCs. No humans, just robots and disembodied voices, but they still talk to you and give you quests, so the "no human NPCs" thing just feels like an arbitrary self-imposed restriction that doesn't do much more than make the game world feel empty, for the other players don't make their presence felt very much.
If your browsing history is anything like mine... well, first of all, delete your history, you sick bastard! And you've no doubt been seeing that live-action Fallout 76 advert with tiresome frequency; it's been constantly popping up like a nervous orgy hostess, that one. It depicts achingly diverse groups of players having communal wasteland fun times, with the tone of an online dating advert dishonestly depicting smartly-dressed attractive people meeting in romantic locations with neither party trying to eat the other one's skin. Yeah, that wasn't representative of my experience when, at any time, there'd be, like, ten players scattered across the entire map; I only interacted with someone once, when I was curious to know what was making the sound of a baby crying and a couple having an argument. It turns out that any slightest noise your mic picks up will be fucking broadcast over a 200-yard radius, so bear that in mind before you start jerking off to something on the other monitor, lest you attract hordes of players curious to know what's making a sound like a small dog enthusiastically eating pancakes.
The deliberate emphasis on multiplayer means that the solo RPG experience has had a lot of the air let out of it, and the result plays like a version of Fallout 4 that was partially taped off of cable TV by a dodgy VCR. Combat is a repetitive affair, with limitless quantities of Fallout-brand zombies whose AI just about permits them to move towards you and then slide back and forth like a frozen hot dog on the floor of a moving bus. Gamely, the developers attempt to adapt the V.A.T.S. system to the new format, but as our nagging mothers ever-persistently fail to understand, you can't pause a multiplayer game, so enemies can keep moving while you're choosing what to target; rather than have the chance to strategically plot your next few actions, the V.A.T.S. is now a cheat system for people who can just about summon the effort to vaguely point at the enemy but can't be bothered to finish the job. "Hey, I let other people work the fine details out; I'm the ideas gunman!"
As for the survival elements, such things hinge on resources being limited, and in accordance with my usual experience with Fallout games, the issue was not so much finding a steady supply of wasteland Mars bars as it was finding room for them all in my wasteland bum-bag, alongside the free ammo that spurts from fallen enemies like apologies from a Canadian teenager after their first sexual encounter. So the people wanting a Fallout RPG will find a heavily watered-down one with no strong plotline to keep it interesting, and the people wanting a multiplayer survival-crafter will find a load of Fallout RPG stuff getting in the way.
So once again, a play for broad appeal ends up appealing to no one. And while my grousing about CoD: BlOps 4 lacking single-player was shaky when the story campaigns in such games always hang off the main drawer of multiplayer like a bunch of balloons tied to a doggie's hind legs, those expecting a strong plot and solo RPG experience from a Fallout game are on much firmer ground for complaint.
People ask me if I worry about the future of the interactive arts in this era of AAA being a constant stream of soulless, exploitative knockoffs, but I'm not worried, because we've been here before. At the end of the 90's, games like Quake III and Unreal Tournament tried to convince us that we didn't really want artistic single-player PC games when we could just pay to run on hamster wheels all day, and look what the 2000s brought us: Deus Ex, Thief II, BioShock, Portal! It's always a phase! In the long run, the only "eternal" guarantor of success is a quality product well-made; ideally, with tits on the front. The money to be made from knocking off what's popular and exploiting the stupid always dries up eventually, if only because the stupids die out from daring each other to headbutt the ceiling fan.
- Proponent of the nuclear family: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I figure loot boxes will stop being so profitable as soon as the American education system receives some much-needed funding
- Hydrate regularly