This week during E3 2019, Bethesda announced an official battle royale mode for Fallout 76. Entitled Nuclear Winter, it’s available now for all players through June 17 as part of the game’s preview week. Taking place over a much smaller version of the Appalachia map, it features a few familiar locations on a truncated playing field with 52 other survivors. Survival mechanics that are integral to the base game like crafting, hunger and thirst have been removed, while approaching nuclear storms tighten the available space and draw players together until proximity prompts confrontation and only one is left standing. It’s not so much a battle royale mode in a Fallout game as a Fallout-themed battle royale game. The rusty, irradiated post apocalyptic trappings of Fallout are there, packaged over a different experience.
Nuclear Winter comes at a sensitive time for Fallout 76, which several months after its initial release is still struggling to find its footing. As more content has come to the game, it’s become clear that Bethesda’s focus is on adding to the experience they’ve already built rather than refining it to better fit the series. Nowhere is that more evident with this new inclusion, which (like Fortnite and Lawbreakers before it) seems to be the hail mary that Bethesda hopes will buoy the game’s numbers. But while the greater shift to battle royale makes sense on an industry level, Fallout 76 is a different story. From a thematic standpoint, multiplayer is already a poor fit, and there are a lot of issues in the game that have yet to be addressed. As such, battle royale mode isn’t exactly high on the list of player demands. There are a lot of things that fans might have requested first.
But Bethesda seems determined to make Fallout 76 successful on their own terms whether we really like it or not. And so, we have Nuclear Winter. In this version of battle royale, players are placed on small teams that work together towards last man standing. In order to accommodate the format, mechanics integral to the base game have been removed; players do not have to worry about thirst, hunger or building a camp (though certain schematics can be picked up and used from the weapon wheel to provide on-site fortifications and defenses). Overseer XP is also earned for each match based on performance factors like end-game ranking, number of kills, and teammate revivals, while ascending through the Overseer Ranks will open up new content in the hub of Vault 51. It’s a lot like playing a simplified version of Fallout 76, but with the added promise of conflict, instead of the mere question of it, at every turn.
I’ve spent several hours with Nuclear Winter over the past few days, and came away with mixed feelings on its place within the game. While its addition to Fallout 76 is emblematic of the tone deafness throughout the game’s design, Nuclear Winter demonstrates a clear knowledge of what makes a battle royale work. I’m actually impressed with how little it lets me get away with. While usually I take an evasion based strategy, stealthing my way around the map until other players die off, the shrinking playfield combined with the Overseer Rank leveling system encourages a proactive role in eliminating the competition. It makes the matches go faster, but more importantly, it makes me actually appreciate and engage the multiplayer aspects of the mode. There’s an immediate sense of camaraderie with your assigned team that makes the forced cooperation enjoyable in a “we’re all in this together” sort of way.
Aesthetically, Nuclear Winter is also another occasion for Bethesda to showcase their talent for executing a visual theme. The map has a certain outdoorsy, Boy Scout type look to it that really fits. And while I dislike the antsiness of waiting in a games lobby for a match to start, Vault 51 is beautifully designed, giving us another rich and imaginative look at what life would have been like in a functional control vault after the bombs fell. I like to spend the few minutes before each match just wandering from room to room, taking in the pleasant sights of post apocalyptic domesticity until I eventually find the auditorium and settle in to play some stand up bass. There’s something almost heartwarming about having an impromptu jam session with strangers before you head out to slaughter each other. Despite my misgivings about playing with other people, I find the shared, strained idleness almost cozy. The excitement of waiting for a match to start has the comforting intoxication of backstage jitters on an opening night.
Nuclear Winter, of course, does not substantially solve or address any of the game’s problems. If anything, the simplified objective of the mode highlights how disruptive the multiplayer experience is to Fallout as a whole. But what surprises me is that I like Nuclear Winter a bit better than the vanilla base game. I think because it not only restores a lot of danger to the environment and adds a tentativeness that suits the original feeling of Fallout, but also because it takes the guesswork out of the gameplay. Instead of worrying I’ll run into a hostile player, I just take conflict as a given and maneuver strategically from the get go. I’ve become better acquainted with the land because I’m forced to take it methodically. In that sense, it weirdly restores a bit of what the series lost in a multiplayer setting.
Playing Nuclear Winter is not unlike hypothermia. My irritation with the game’s creative direction has now crossed the threshold into a sleepy acceptance that, as I sail further and further away from consciousness, will resign me to its fate. With so many key, Fallout-defining features absent from the mode, you could argue that Nuclear Winter, like Fallout 76, is not even Fallout at all. But this isn’t the first time Fallout has been watered down as it’s changed hands, and the mode’s separation from the base game as a stand alone experience makes the whole game a bit more palatable. I no longer have any expectation that the series will remain true to its core sensibilities. And with that, I can just enjoy the warmth as it overtakes my body and I slip into the sweet release of death.
Nuclear Winter will remain free to preview for Fallout 76 players through June 17. No official release date has yet been announced.
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.