Being a child of the '80s and early '90s video games were kind of a big deal. I put many childhood hours into NES classics (I vividly remember the excitement the Christmas I got Super Mario Bros 3), I was there at the birth of Sega, Super Nintendo, N64, Gameboy and my grandpa even let me play Doom on his work computer.
But in late '90s/early aughts I slipped into the comfortable suit of the casual gamer. Halo brought me back to consoles, but it wasn't until Fallout 3 that my mind opened on gaming as an art form. Part of the reason for this is that I was a late-comer to RPGs. I played a little KOTOR, but at the time I couldn't quite wrap my mind around the gameplay. Keep in mind I was young and dumb and a little too impatient with things that were unfamiliar.
So, I missed Oblivion and would have missed Fallout 3 if it wasn't for the overwhelming hype surrounding the title. Thankfully I gave it a spin on my 360 and my first true open world experience blew my fuckin' mind.
The moment I stepped out of Vault 101 and took in the wasteland before me I knew something had changed. Where do I go? There's no waypoint, there's no voiceover guiding me to my next spot, there's no cut scene hinting at what I should do. I was off rails in a way I had never experienced.
It's quite brilliantly designed. I didn't know where to go so I followed a road past a burnt-out playground and the skeleton of some old buildings and eventually found myself in Megaton. It led me to the next area it wanted me to go by playing on the immersion element. Where would I go if I was actually there? Not off into the brush, I'd stick to the road.
Fallout 3 gave me a wow moment that I had only really experienced in movies before. I also remember talking to a friend who was playing at the same time as I was. We were both pushing a hundred hours at this point and I asked him what choice he made at Megaton. Did he blow up the town and get his lofty penthouse at Tenpenny Tower or did he do the good thing and deactivate the bomb?
His response: “What's Megaton?”
He had finished the game, done a hundred side quests and still never managed to stumble across one of the biggest landmarks on the map. That astounded me even further. If he missed something as huge as that, what'd I miss?
Hundreds of hours and many replays later Fallout 3 is still is a game I go back to from time to time. I dug New Vegas and Fallout 4, but to me Fallout 3 remains the gold standard. It might be a nostalgic view since that game was my “first time,” but it's how I feel.
Needless to say I fell in love with the world then and there and have been crazy for it ever since. Naturally when the opportunity came up to travel to West Virginia to play Fallout 76 early I was so, so, so in.
Especially for this peculiar entry into the series that I love so much. Listen, if this was simply Fallout 5 I'd be there for it, but since this is Bethesda's first foray into a multiplayer space (with this franchise, I'm well aware of Elder Scrolls Online) I had so many questions about what was in store.
First thing I can tell you is that Bethesda and Fortyseven Communications, their publicity company, know how to throw an event. They chose the location of this massive junket to be the Greenbrier Hotel, a crazy huge resort in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia that not only is a major location within the game itself, but also carries with it an incredibly on-point little known secret: There's a real deal nuclear fallout shelter underneath it.
And I mean real-deal. It was secretly built by the US government in the late '50s and early '60s as a continuity of government project. Intended to be used by the entire Congress should the bombs fall, this bunker was built underneath a new wing the Greenbrier was adding on to their already gigantic hotel. In the early '90s The Washington Post outed the secret government location and since then it has been decommissioned and is a tourist attraction for resort guests.
So naturally the first thing we did when we arrived at the hotel was take a tour of the fallout shelter. A lifesized Vault Boy was waiting for us at the entrance and Mickey Mouse-style marched us through the front door.
The long, concrete hallway was exactly what you'd imagine entering something like this and I can tell you the claustrophobia is very real. When that 25 ton blast door closed behind us the reverberating thud could be felt deep your chest. I was maybe 200 feet into the bunker when the door closed and it was like getting hit by a shockwave.
We weren't allowed any cameras or other recording devices during the tour, so apologies for the lack of photos. Just know that they kept much of it as it was. From green lockers to bunk beds and old clunky computers it felt super Fallout accurate. I wanted to search for caps, but the tour guides wouldn't let me.
A giant portion of the bunker is now being used as a backup data server location, mostly for Fortune 500 companies, which is the real reason we weren't able to bring any electronics in. I suspect if someone snuck in, Mission: Impossible style, and plugged directly into these servers they could have made out with some hugely valuable information.
They did give us our phones back when we reached the kitchen/dining area where Bethesda was throwing a reception. Booze, party balloons, tinny old timey music ringing through speakers... It was about as immersive as you'd expect and just about the coolest goddamn thing I've gotten to do in a long time.
That was followed by some statements by everybody's favorite video game spokesman, Pete Hines, against the backdrop of Fallout 76 flags at the podium where the new Congress would have been run should the commies have bombed us back during the Bay of Pigs days.
He gave us a rundown of what to expect in the next couple of days and then we got to actually go to the opening night party.
Still in the bunker, but in a more modern room just off the secret entrance to the actual hotel, the dining hall was covered in Fallout iconography. Donuts in the shape of the Vault-Tec logo, giant Vault Boy statues in the corners, penny pressing machines that spit out Fallout 76 designs, a six foot tall glass nuke filled with bottle caps and a dinner comprised of dishes from the Fallout Cookbook. (The Blamco Mac & Cheese was delicious).
So the presentation was A+, but what about the game itself? All the glitz and glamor and brilliant marketing doesn't mean anything if the game doesn't work.
The way this was set up is they had dozens of squares made up of four monitors connected to X-boxes in a big ballroom. These were our Fallout 76 teams. Three people were visitors, one person was a Bethesda employee whose sole job was to shepherd us through the three hours of gameplay we were going to get.
I was in a group with my buddy Scott Wampler, a fellow Fallout fanatic who writes for Birth.Movies.Death. and we were all on headsets communicating with each other.
My goal going in was to touch on a lot of different experiences. I wanted to experiment with the PVP system, I wanted to roam as a group and see how co-op worked in the Fallout universe, and I wanted to branch off and see how solo exploring felt. I also wanted to get a sense of the scope of the map and toy around with the C.A.M.P. system.
That felt doable in three hours, but damn... there's so much to explore and the map is legitimately massive I felt rushed. When they say this map is 4x bigger than Fallout 4 they're not kidding. They're also not padding it out with large expanses of nothing. There's always something, whether it's a turned over car or shack with some loot or a bunch of low level bad guys or simply a gorgeous vista. It's not just empty space.
The main quest seems pretty straight forward. Your overseer at Vault 76 ventured out before Reclamation Day and you're following in her footsteps. It's a little Fallout 3 in that way. You always feel just a few steps behind her, finding her camps (which always have good materials, workbenches and items, by the way) and her logs giving you hints at where to go next.
Fallout 76 leans heavier on survival this time around, something I was concerned about. I'm the kind of player that doesn't want to worry about eating and drinking and all that shit. I max out my carry weight perks early because I hate being over-encumbered, so the idea that I have to travel with food and that ammo and health have weight isn't my favorite thing in the world, but I didn't find it to be all that much of a burden in the three hours I played.
One of the most helpful tips I got from the Bethesda devs was to constantly break down your junk into their base materials. You can do this at any work bench or chemistry station you come across in the West Virginia wilds and they made sure to make them pretty abundant. This significantly decreases the weight of the materials.
It's dangerous to travel with this
junk, though, even if it's deconstructed because if you're killed it
drops. If you're killed by a real life person they can collect your
junk, if you're killed by a robot or creature you can go back to
where you died, get your sweet revenge, and reclaim your stuff. Note:
you never drop your armor or weapons when you die, but the devs
wanted there to be some penalty for dying, so you do drop your
well-earned for junk, which you need to fix weapons, armor and build
up your C.A.M.P.
Not as common as workbenches are
storage lockers and boxes (bright blue and yellow, hard to miss)
where you can deposit anything you have and it automatically saves
and can be accessed by any such storage.
So a good thing to do is loot, deconstruct, bank and then do that over and over again. You don't want to be caught with a bunch of rare mats you spent hours exploring for when a Deathclaw comes out of nowhere.
Let's talk about PVP a little bit.
I was super nervous about this and I think this is the most concerning aspect for most Fallout fans who are used to only having to worry about the dangers of the world. I didn't run into too much PVP stuff, so I can't speak authoritatively on this, but I'll give you the details I gleaned from my gameplay.
So you're not eligible to engage in combat with other players until you're level 5, so there's some built in protection. Nobody can start any shit with you until you level a bit and when they do there's an auto-leveler that kicks in so a level 60 in power armor with amazing weapons doesn't have an impossible advantage over level 5 you. I mean, you're still probably fucked if you decide to engage, but it's not a certainty.
And you do have to choose to engage. I accidentally engaged with one guy when we were both shooting at a swarm of Feral Ghouls. I took him down with my lowly pipe pistol, but didn't have time to collect his junk because that swarm of ghouls I mentioned was hot on my ass and chased me away.
Also of note: there is no friendly fire, so if you squad up and accidentally shoot a teammate in the heat of battle it does no damage, so you can't accidentally kill someone on your team.
The murder system they put in place is a pretty great way to keep people from being griefing assholes. If you hound someone and kill them without them engaging in combat you're marked as a murderer. Suddenly you're a big bright red target on the map. Not only can everybody on the map see your location, everybody else disappears off the map for you, so you can't tell if they're closing in on you. A bounty is placed on you and the reward comes from your own caps, so there's zero upside to kill someone who doesn't want to engage. You don't get much out of it and stand to lose a lot.
We'll see how this plays out as the game is released and people progress to higher levels, but at least in early levels this was very balanced and I didn't feel like I was terrified of seeing other people.
The exploring felt very Fallout-like, the only difference is now you can do it with friends. The loot system is much the same as previous Fallouts, but I noticed caps, ammo and stimpacks were a bit tougher to find. In fact, I played a little Fallout 4 over the weekend it felt positively overloaded with ammo, caps and Stimpaks by comparison.
The loot you can get is unique to you, minus stuff that is sitting out in the open. If there's a tripwire trap, for instance, connected to a laser pistol only one person in the group can grab the laser pistol after disarming the trap. But if you unlock a safe or search a cabinet, every member of the group will get something out of it, often times very different somethings.
Same goes for defeated bad guys. If you get a hit on an enemy you will get something if you loot them. That starts getting a little frustrating if you're an explorer like me and want to thoroughly search stuff and your team goes on ahead and kills everything because then you have nothing but a trail of dead bodies with nothing on them, but it's a system that's not geared towards fucking over three of the four members of a squad, so that's cool.
Being able to play Fallout with a group is pretty badass, I gotta say. Our team explored a mine early on and while I was searching cabinets I found a security door code. At the same time Wampler found the security door and keypad, so I told him the code and he punched it in as I was on the way to him, the door opening just as I got there. Little touches like that really showed off just why being able to attack the Fallout world in a co-op way was exciting.
Another small change that was pretty
fun was the ability to wear outfits over armor instead of underneath
like it has been done previously. That means you can get a crazy
clown costume or fireman outfit or whatever and still have all the
benefits of the regular armor. I saw some Bethesda people on our
server (playing from Maryland) with some crazy outfits. One guy had
an intimidating black button down thing on and a bizarre skull mask.
You will be able to purchase cosmetic items using a new form of currency called Atoms, which you get from completing daily, weekly and lifetime challenges and for reaching milestones within the game.
The Atom Store wasn't in the build we were playing in, but the devs told us it will be exclusively cosmetic items and, yes, you can use real money to buy Atoms if you don't want to farm for them, much in the same way Overwatch sells lootboxes with their cosmetic items.
You will not be able to spend real money on Perk Card Packs since that can actually effect gameplay. You earn Perk Card Packs by leveling. Each pack has a piece of stale bubblegum (which can help hunger), three regular cards and one rare card. And a Dad joke. Can't forget the dad jokes.
Now any of these cards can be earned through traditional leveling, but the Perk Card packs might give you something you might not have picked or thought of picking and might make you try out a different kind of class, especially if you get a rarer one that is already leveled a bit.
If you're not caught up on how the new Perk Card system works... well, I still find it a tad confusing myself, but I'll do my best to explain it. This is your new perk tree. When you level up you can add a point to any one of your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats. That's Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. You leave the vault with 1 point in each.
Each Perk Card has a point total. So, if you have one point in Perception and you get a one star Lockpick card you can put it in that slot. You can have as many cards with as many different abilities under each S.P.E.C.I.A.L. as long as the card point total isn't greater than the points you put into that skill tree.
It's a big change. I personally prefer
the previous ways of picking permanent perks, but the idea here is
that you don't get locked in to a specific character type. You can
change out your perk cards at will and go from someone who is a
badass melee character to a run-and-gunner if the situation calls for
it. I think they also didn't want high level players to be walking
The VATS system also got an overhaul. It's kinda worthless now, at least at early levels, unless you just flat out suck at aiming. There are cards that let you target specific body parts, but vanilla VATS targets the whole body and seems to miss more than it hits. You're better off just playing it like a first person shooter. Since VATS doesn't slow down time anymore the only real use I found early on was using it as a kind of early warning system. Highlighting an enemy in the dark helped know where the attack was going to come from.
There are also smaller creatures and robots that harder to hit when firing from the hip. Liberator bots, pictured above, in particular are tough. They're little cylindrical robots that jump around, throw out buzz saws and blare Chinese army propaganda at you. I found VATS to be useful taking those little bastards out when they get up to you, but ultimately I rarely used it.
They moved the map to the start button, so I found myself constantly pulling up my Pip-Boy when trying to look at my map. My muscle memory is screwing me here. It's a little annoying, but I'll get used to it.
Because I was on a time crunch I didn't explore as much as I usually like. I'm pretty methodical when it comes to this series. I also didn't get to play around with the radio stations much. I'm told there is a lot more varied music than there was in Fallout 4, but I haven't personally experienced it. Since I was playing in a team I needed to communicate with them so I didn't have my Pip-Boy radio blaring.
The three hours blew by and Bethesda certainly knew how to end our experience. I was out in the wilds, completely separated from my group looting an interesting looking shack when I got an alert on my Pip-Boy. A computerized voice warned me a nuclear strike was imminent. A quick look at my map and I saw they were deploying it right in front of Vault 76 so we could all fast travel back and watch from relative safety. Note: Vault 76 itself can not be nuked, so you always have a free fast travel option when the nuke
I had about 3 minutes heads up that a nuke was coming in, more than enough time for me drop what I was doing and get into viewing distance. If I had my camp set up in the blast zone I think I would have had enough time to fast travel, close up shop and get the hell out of dodge.
The nuke itself was as much of an event as you'd imagine. The impact blew debris and leaves in a red cloud toward me as the mushroom cloud formed on the horizon. I stupidly decided to venture into the radiation and see how far I could get, but I was like a little old lady who dipped her toe into a too-cold pool and noped right the fuck out the second my rad meter shot up to 60 rads a second.
In the released game nukes will be an end game activity, irradiating certain portions of the map for a certain amount of time, mutating high level creatures that drop great loot and creating ultra rare crafting materials. You'll need radiation suits and/or power armor to venture in and survive.
Final thoughts: The felt like Fallout to me and that's all I wanted. Fallout with friends. The PVP aspect could turn bullshitty, but the little I experienced wasn't awful. With only 24 people allowed on a server at any given time I expect the PVP stuff to be rare unless you specifically seek it out. That might bum out some people who really want to kill other players, but that's not the game I wanted. What I want is a giant, immersive map to explore with my friends, a ton of shit to search for and collect and some cool new enemies to go up against. In my limited hands-on time I got the game I was hoping this would be.
Maybe 76 can't sustain a 100+ hours or dickhead 12 year olds will figure out a way to make it unplayable. I won't be able to say until the game's out and I can play the whole thing, but the highest compliment I can give the game is that I've been dying to play it since the hands-on event ended. Not only do I want to start from scratch and methodically go through the area surrounding Vault 76, I want to do it with my regular buddies.