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I Played Fallout 76 All Weekend And Kind Of Loved It

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A screenshot of my friends and I playing instruments at the Wayward bar.

I finally caved. After years of being petitioned by my friends and spurred on by the new TV show, I spent this past weekend largely playing Fallout 76, Bethesda’s survival MMO based on the open-world RPGs. When it first launched in 2018, Fallout 76 couldn’t have had more working against it. Not many seemed to want it to exist in the first place, a special edition of the game overcharged players for a shitty bag, and it was launched unpolished and empty. Its development was a harrowing failure of management, and it seemed like the game’s population had all but given up on Fallout 76 within a few months. However, Bethesda refused to give up on the game, and in 2020, a sort of miracle happened. Fallout 76’s Wastelanders expansion more or less overhauled the game, introduced human NPCs, and brought a new story that breathed some life into its rendition of the post-apocalyptic Appalachias. Slowly but surely, Fallout 76 got better.

Flash forward several years (and expansions) and we arrive in 2024 where, after finishing the wonderful new Fallout show, everyone’s been left clamoring for the games it’s based on. Some are picking up Fallout: New Vegas and modding it into proper shape, but even more are picking up Fallout 4, the last mainline single-player installment in the franchise with an intact reputation. And then, somewhere between the two are folks like me, who’ve never played past Fallout 76’s intro before, heard it got rehabilitated over the years, and are checking in now to see what the hubbub is all about. Well, after spending several days straight playing, I’m happy to report that I kind of get it.

Fallout 76 is obviously built from the bones of Fallout 4, emphasizing customization and base-building to foster communities in an online environment. It was with that in mind that Bethesda seemingly launched the game with no real characters. Players, the developer ambitiously believed, were meant to be the characters in each other’s stories. Wastelanders seemingly course-corrected after that immense stretch, adding a treasure-hunting plotline and proper characters that did a better job directing me around the world than my friends were offered when they first played.

What was most apparent and interesting about my time with Fallout 76 was the tension between the new and old parts of the experience. I grabbed two of my friends who’d played the game before it was updated (the very ones who tried convincing me to play for years) and dove in. While my character was fresh, they’d racked up many hours in Fallout 76 over the years, and were charitable enough to replay some of its early content with me.

Throughout our adventures, which consisted of a mix of a new Wastelanders storyline and the base game’s introductory quests, I kept hearing some derivative of “that’s new” every other hour from them. They’d highlight quests and characters that hadn’t been around when they first played the game, especially all the people there were to talk to, and at one point one of them gestured to a box called an Overseer’s Cache and told me, “That was the whole quest before.” Inside of the box was the latest in a family of notes from a Vault Overseer that I’d been tasked with tracking down since Fallout 76’s outset, suggesting that the experience consisted of you picking up notes littered across the wasteland with little to no interaction with actual characters.

This Overseer hangs like a specter over Fallout 76’s main quest, and this cache was indicative of how it used to tell its story. Holotapes, left-behind notes, and other breadcrumbs were the only signs of life outside of other players when Fallout 76 launched. Now though, much of this content sits alongside more dynamic quests and storylines introduced in its expansions, meaning both versions of the Fallout 76 experience vie for your attention in the early hours. Contrasting those fetch-quest leftovers, I began the game with directions towards the Wayward—a bar erected in the Wastelanders update that is meant to act as a secondary introduction of sorts—where I was immediately brought into a turf war with a raider faction. Throughout the brief introductory storyline, I met a slew of actual characters, made dialogue choices that appeared to be consequential, and dictated who lived and died by the end. Not to sound too inflammatory, but I think I did more roleplaying in those early hours than Fallout 4 allowed in a similar timeframe.

My friends had a rougher go of it when they first picked up Fallout 76. The absence of characters and any real direction in its initial quests ping-ponged them around the world with little to no context and precious little depth. I know because I’m also going through these remnant quests now, which feel like they should’ve been axed or reworked at some point. The Wastelanders expansion introduced human NPCs and more compelling storylines, which my friends have gladly welcomed, though the Wayward bar has proven a bit of an inconvenience. One of them had previously built his in-game camp in what was once a remote location, but was now the site of the new bar. He jokes that the Wayward and its inhabitants are “gentrifiers,” having forced him to have to move his camp a respectable distance away. The point is they’ve managed to enjoy themselves in spite of the game, not necessarily due to it.

Screenshot: Bethesda Softworks / Kotaku

By and large, this early material sucks ass, and I’m effectively grinding it for XP before moving on to the real meat of Fallout 76. For my friends though, this was all there was when they first picked up the game, which is terrifying to think.

And yet despite the obvious discomfort of the two experiences slammed against one another, I’m enjoying myself and so are my friends. Fallout 76 is, evidently, baby’s first survival sim, making it a remarkably low-stakes world to drop into every now and then and just hang out with friends. It is like if DayZ has its edges sanded off and everybody in the world were the nicest person you ever met.

A friend was tackling a dungeon (the absence of a surplus gas mask barred me from helping him out) and I was waiting outside, wearing a skimpy swimsuit I found. When another player came across me, we flashed some emotes at one another, and they gave me 20 stimpaks before going about their own business. Sometimes my friends and I have gone questing, sometimes I’ve just gone exploring while they basebuild, and other times we all sit onstage at the Wayward, pick up some instruments, and daydream about being a post-apocalyptic traveling band, ala the troupe from Station Eleven. Okay, mostly I dream of that specifically, but they enjoy the music and singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” out of tune.

It turns out that, after finishing the show, what I needed was less of a Bethesda-authored Fallout story (your mileage might vary there) and more of just a familiar apocalypse to faff around in with friends. Somewhere I could make my own hijinx with the irreverent characters of my own life. And, while no one was looking, Fallout 76 quietly became the most competent game for that exact purpose. You might need to occasionally wrestle a good time out of it, but there truly hasn’t been a better time to drop into Appalachia.

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