You know what’s great about the digital era? Just because a game is bad doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. While it’s definitely a cop-out when an unfinished game is put out before it’s ready and then cleaned up later in updates and patches, at the same time, there are some titles out there that got a false start but were able to make a strong comeback with a few post-release tweaks (Diablo III comes to mind).
This can especially be true for a multiplayer game, where many elements that can’t be predicted within a small base of QA testers start to reveal themselves after being delivered to a broader audience. The past few weeks, I’ve been playing Fallout 76, an MMO entry to the long-standing post-apocalyptic RPG series, and observed how the developers are struggling to fit the core elements of Fallout into this new format and fully adapt to key MMO conventions for ease of play. With some dedicated and continuing changes, though, I actually think Fallout 76 has potential for some course-correction. In light of yesterday’s new patch release, here are seven things that I think could be addressed to make the game a more methodical and less frustrating play.
The earliest stages of Fallout 76 don’t necessarily make it clear how or when the players are supposed to start building a base camp, making it confusing how exactly the game is meant to be played. Are we supposed to rally together a bunch of friends, choose a build site, and then treat the game as a series of scrap runs that just happen to have a story? Or are we supposed to progressively build up our base bit by bit, moving and reconstructing and adding to it as needed as we progress through the map? Whatever the case, so far I’ve mostly ignored the feature in favor of trying to get to know the landscape before settling down in any one place, which is taking a while because Appalachia is massive. On top of that, there are several Workshops that can be claimed and defended, which just makes things even more confusing—if we’re building camps, what’s the point of claiming a Workshop? I don’t feel like making massive improvements on a lot that will just be taken over by another team anyway.
The base camp building is in conflict with Fallout gameplay itself, and for it to work, there needs to be some structured emphasis on the feature so it is integrated into the experience in a more meaningful way. Right now it doesn’t feel like it carries any weight.
If you’re going to force the player to constantly use workbenches to create and maintain their weapons, armor and ammo, it’s only fair to provide some way for them to find those items on the map. There is nothing worse than finally remembering where you can pick up or stash a load of crafting components, clearing out newly respawned enemies and then spending another twenty minutes searching to find a place to store items or scrap junk. The ability to switch to a local map would help a lot, or at least a Pip-Boy menu item that would navigate you to the nearest workbench of your choice. It would cut down on a lot of time consuming and unnecessary confusion.
Fallout 76 taps into some of the rules of Fallout 4’s hardcore mode by requiring the player to regularly eat, drink and avoid disease in order to stay alive. While this makes sense in terms of Fallout’s focus on post apocalyptic survival, in practice, an enormous amount of time in the game is spent collecting, cooking and purifying food. Combined with the punishing deterioration rates on weapons and armor and the scant amount of ammo—not to mention the multiple and unpredictable ways to catch an illness (I once got dysentery from sleeping on a mattress on the ground)—it all feels like a hustle. There’s barely any time to enjoy the game’s beautiful environments or really absorb the story.
If they were to ease up a bit on some of these parameters, maybe make ammo, food and water more available, weapons and armors a bit more durable, and horrible diseases just a little less communicable (more safe zones would help too), it might be easier to focus on the meatier parts of the game, without getting fatigued by the slog of scrap runs.
A major problem with Fallout 76 is that it’s trying to be another MMO shooter when Fallout isn’t like a lot of other shooters. It’s lonely, and almost nihilistic; you can choose to be a hero, or a villain, or something self-interested and inbetween. This sort of take it or leave it ambivalence creates a sense of isolation that runs in complete contradiction to the atmosphere of an MMO. Whereas Fallout often views social cooperation through a lens of critical detachment, a multiplayer game like Fallout 76 demands you play well—or at least play—with others. And while quests can somewhat be done at your leisure, they’re often sprung on you in a way that makes them difficult to walk away from and return to later. All of this creates a sense of pressure that disrupts the tender Pandora’s Box-like feel of carefully combing through a forbidden, post apocalyptic world.
One way to help this problem would be to either stop using so many time-sensitive daily or event challenges (that is, the ones that pop up when you enter a new location), or at least not make them automatically trigger as you pass through the area. Sometimes a player doesn’t want to get dragged into a new mission just because they wandered into an abandoned building—tying the quest’s launch to something less passive and more voluntary reduces the sense of obligation, allowing the player to manage the multiple missions on their own terms and actually get a grasp on the game’s story. This would also have the added benefit of cleaning up the screen during longer exploration sessions.
It is not a good sign that I have almost completely ignored, and managed to live without, the SPECIAL card system in Fallout 76. Heck, half the time when I level up, I don’t even notice it until I see the Level Up (T) alert at the bottom of my Pip Boy menu, usually a few hours later. The problem with the cards, and the way they relate to character building, is that it asks the player to have fun excruciating over the minutiae of bonuses and percentages, in a series where consideration for those boosters was often more passive and in the background. The strongest character building feature arguably used to be Skills, which haven’t been seen since Fallout: New Vegas, the absence of which removes a substantial amount of the series’s depth. There’s probably zero chance that Skills will ever be brought back to Fallout, but their presence would have been extremely helpful in fleshing out the teambuilding aspect of Fallout 76—what better way to encourage forming a squad of cooperative players whose strengths supplement your own, than to use the vast areas of special interest and expertise provided by the old Skills system?
But since that will probably never happen, I’d at least settle for some better cards in the SPECIAL system. Outside of some of the big obvious perks (terminal unlocking skills, added carrying weight, etc) right now I have little motivation to actually work hard and unlock or upgrade them. If they were more compelling, I don’t think I’d find it so easy to forget that I’ve leveled up. And Charisma needs some more relevance to the system as a whole (a tall order for a game whose sole human characters are live Fallout 76 players).
Unique weapons just haven’t been the same since Fallout 4. Whereas in previous games these were rare items that had bonuses and perks unlike anything else in the game, in the last core game of the series, Uniques often had the same effects as any of the other randomly generated, generic “special” weapons dropped by Fallout 4’s boss enemies. There was hardly any incentive to pursue them specifically.
Fallout 76 does have some special weapons but what I’d like to see is the restoration of what Uniques once were—truly one of a kind—with the additional benefit of being unbreakable. Fallout 76 needs some interesting secondary goals to gameplay, something that actually makes combing through each location (in lieu of repetitive junk runs) exciting. The promise of a weapon that doesn’t need to be repaired or won’t be inaccessible due to breaking would light a fire under a lot of asses, mine included.
Another great reward incentive for both exploration and character building would be giving Bobbleheads and Skill Books (now known as Magazines) permanent stat effects, as with games past. It just bums me out to have multiple Bobbleheads with the same boosters in my inventory. Once they were a badge of pride, a sign that you’d kept a sharp eye and gone through every location thoroughly enough to leave no prize behind. Now they’re everywhere. And not only that, you can even get a card in the SPECIAL system that makes the Magazines and Bobbleheads give off a little sound that helps you home in on their locations. While it’s handy if you’re in a hurry, it also makes the searching process a lot less rewarding. Making them once again a permanent, one-time-use item would return some strength back to the exploration experience.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.