It’s possible but difficult to enjoy Fallout 76 alone

You likely already know this about me, but, just to be clear, I really really really really like Fallout. It’s a firm contender for my favorite game series of all time.

When Fallout 76 was announced just before E3 this year, my first thought was, of course, “I’m going to buy this.” It wasn’t even a matter of waiting to see if it was any good. Each dip into the various corners of the Wasteland has been worth it, even in the disappointing entries. (Which vary, depending on who you ask.)

And so, fine. I could wait for reviews and find out the story stinks, or the game was buggy, or some feature we all wanted was missing…but none of that would prevent me from enjoying it overall. Fallout, to me, is about forging your way through an unforgiving hellscape and having your personal sense of ethics challenged as you struggle to survive. Oh, and some dark comedy and an ironic old-timey soundtrack. Give me that basic experience, and I’ll find enough to keep me busy.

Then it was revealed that Fallout 76 would be a multiplayer game, and multiplayer would be mandatory.

This had me worried, and I was far from alone. Fallout has, as long as the series has been around, been a game with a strong emphasis on solitude. This is reflected in the official descriptors for the main characters in the series: The Sole Survivor. The Lone Wanderer. The Chosen One. You get to leave your mark on the Wasteland, for better or worse, and you’re going to do it alone. Sure, you can find a companion character to serve as a pack mule, and that’s nice, but the game is as clearly about your destiny as it is clearly not about theirs.

In a multiplayer game, you matter less. Arguably, you don’t matter at all. I don’t play Fallout to feel important, but your character’s importance is a defining aspect of the experience of playing.

Fallout 76 has recently been experimenting with an invitational beta period. I planned on sitting it out and waiting for the refined official release, but a reader was kind enough to offer me a beta code, and I figured I’d give it a shot.

At the very least, I’d be able to know for myself whether or not Fallout 76 could be played solo.

Or, rather, scratch that. Of course it can be played solo. But can it be enjoyed solo?

I imagined it could. Maybe it’s easier or more fun to take down giant monsters with a group of people, but what I always enjoyed more than combat was digging through the ruins of civilization, piecing together stories untold and lives ruined, finding settlements that rose and fell in the aftermath and learning what went wrong…or what is very close to going wrong.

Then there are the Vaults…the ostensible fallout shelters that secretly double as cruel experiments on their residents. Nearly every time we discover a Vault in our adventures, the experiment is long over. The residents are long dead. Their tragedy echoes in the halls, and we can pore over terminals, documents, and environmental details to learn what specific flavor of hell these people were fated to endure.

If that’s what I enjoy about Fallout, would it matter if I wandered around alone? In fact, could my ideal experience even work in a multiplayer arrangement? What would the rest of my team do while I slowly read and interpreted terminal entries written by characters we’d never meet?

Anyway, I’ve played the beta for around five hours in total, and I’m conflicted.

On the bright side, I’m pleased to report that it seems like you can indeed play through the game alone. It’s very possible that later in the game (or in certain areas) that is no longer a realistic option; I can’t vouch for that. But so far, yes, Fallout 76 is an experience that can be enjoyed alone.

But that’s not quite the whole story.

Back when this was announced, I had a brief exchange with reader Jerod.

“I’m happy enough to let the series experiment,” I said, “and I’m sure I’ll check it out, but I’ve never once wandered the wasteland and thought the experience would be improved by screaming trolls.”

Jerod replied, “Hopefully it’s optional co-op or something similar, and not being stabbed and called a cuck every time I log in.”

I was exaggerating for effect. I’m sure Jerod was, too. I’m bringing all of this up because it’s important to me that you understand just how far my heart sunk when I started playing and the very first things I heard were two or three other players (I couldn’t tell) repeatedly shouting “nigger” into their headsets.

The game opens with your character waking up in Vault 76. Each player begins in his or her own room and I hadn’t yet left mine, so I know they weren’t shouting it at me or anything. They couldn’t see me or know I was there. They just thought it would be fun to say “nigger” over and over to each other. That was small comfort, though.

I’d heard that players could mute others, but I didn’t know how. I fumbled around with the controls hoping to find some sort of setting, and I found nothing. I’m pretty sure the setting doesn’t become available until you’ve passed a certain point in the tutorial. I could be wrong, but at the very least I wasn’t shown that I could do it until I left the Vault, dozens of “nigger”s later.

This was my introduction to the game, and it set a very sour tone. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who had (or will have) a similar first impression.

All I wanted to do was immerse myself in the game world, but without the immediate option to silence anyone, I was stuck listening to them. The Overseer made a series of announcements I couldn’t hear because other folks on the server were cursing at each other and slinging “nigger” around, followed by bursts of laughter, and then the cycle would repeat. Fallout 76 was trying to tell me one thing about playing the game, and the other players spoke over it, telling me something very different.

I started out by tracking down terminals, as I usually would, and found myself skimming instead of reading and enjoying. I still couldn’t turn off the hooting teenagers that I guess were destined to become this game’s soundtrack, and it’s difficult to focus on reading when you’re being bombarded aurally.

I could have muted my television, but I didn’t want to lose all sound. I wanted to hear the howls and scuffles of approaching enemies. I wanted to enjoy the in-game radio station. I…y’know. Wanted to play the game.

Eventually I gave up and left the Vault figuring I would come back later, when it was empty, and do my reading and exploring then. Unless I’m missing something, though, Vault 76 is the first starting Vault in the entire series that doesn’t let you back in after you’ve left. So, great. The very first thing I was looking forward to doing is already gone for good.

The game told me how to find others on the server, and this is where I learned how to mute them. I couldn’t find an option to mute everyone at once, so I had to go through the entire list of all players on the server, line by line, and mute them individually. It’s a deeply tedious way tell the game you’d rather not hear teenagers shout “nigger” all the time.

Outside the Vault, with the rest of the community muted, I could start playing the game solo. And…it was pretty fun, actually. It would be a lie to say I “rarely” came across other players, but I also wouldn’t say I did so frequently.

One of them was fighting off a crowd of Scorched — new ghoul-like enemies — and I ran into the fray with my junky knife and maybe (possibly) helped him take them down. Much later, that karmic favor was returned when I was being attacked high-level Scorched and two completely different players came to my aid. I actually bumped into these two players a few times in my session, so I guess we were working through the game at similar paces.

A few times players came up to me and did little dances or jumped up and down. They may have also been speaking to me, but in muting the trouble makers I had to mute everyone (the game doesn’t identify who is speaking), so I never found out what they wanted. Once I found a player waving to me from the top of a small building. There was an icon above him indicating he wanted to trade. I approached the building and was ambushed by a bunch of angry robots, who were much stronger than anything else I’d fought so far.

I survived, barely, and couldn’t find a way onto the building to trade with the guy. He may have lured me into a trap. If so, I’m far more impressed than I am angry.

Typically when I play these games, I create a character that looks somewhat like me. That is to say, I try to make a character that looks like me and eventually give up. This time I did get a character-creation screen, as everyone does, but it winked away as quickly as it appeared, leaving me with the default look: a handsome black man with very short hair. I’m assuming this was some kind of glitch, because within Vault 76 I saw a few other folks who looked exactly the same as me, and one female who was pretty much me with breasts. Same haircut, too.

This may have been why the kids got started with the “nigger” business, but I think you’ll agree that doesn’t justify it in any way.

There were definitely a few glitches I encountered, but aside from skipping character creation, nothing really bothered me. There was a Ghoul standing in a doorway, looking back and forth, doing nothing. He was marked as hostile, but never fought me and I couldn’t kill him. Later on I saw two other players trying to kill the same Ghoul, who just stood there, blinking.

Fighting the Scorched, possibly because they’re so fast they outrun the server’s latency, I found myself striking them without doing any damage. I’d hear the sound of my knife connecting, see the spurt of blood, and their health wouldn’t decrease at all. Another time I reduced one of them to zero health and the game wasn’t sure what to do, I guess. The Scorched stared at me for a bit and then went slowly into a T-pose, where it stayed for a long time. I was about to take a screenshot but then it launched itself into the air like a rocket and finally fell dead to the ground.

Sometimes the radio station seems to stop broadcasting for minutes at a stretch. Sometimes containers take a hell of a long time to show you what’s inside, allowing enemies to attack you while you stand around waiting to see that it contains a single toothbrush or something equally worthless. And the only time I died, I was nearly at full health, and one swipe from a Scorched laid me out. At least, that’s what I think happened. Every so often I’ll take damage and grunt as though somebody or something has struck me, but I look around and there’s nothing there.

Outside of the glitches and the periodic encounters with other players, the game really did feel a lot like a solo Fallout game. Nobody tried to bother me, and if they challenged me to a duel or something I didn’t hear them. For the most part, I could explore Appalachia at my own pace in my own way.

Human NPCs are absent from Fallout 76, which I know was a controversial choice, but the fact that Ghoul, Super Mutant, and robot NPCs exist means I’m fine with it. I don’t care what species a character is, as long as the character is good. Sadly I can’t comment on that, because I only ran into two NPCs in my time playing. One was a Protectron vendor, and the other was a Mr. Handy who wanted me to fix him. (I didn’t have the correct parts.)

Fallout 76 feels like a full game made of the space between plot points. Exploring the Wasteland is just as much fun and compelling as it ever was, with the added bonus that the game looks fantastic. I’ve heard people complain about draw distance and pop-in. They’re welcome to complain about it. I think the game looks great, and I have no issue with mist obscuring low-texture models in the distance.

I haven’t found any true ethical dilemmas to solve, and the main quest (which I’ll discuss momentarily) hasn’t done much more than incentivize me to visit certain areas earlier than I otherwise normally would. Fallout 76 seems to involve finding structures, killing the things inside, taking the loot, and moving on. Holotapes and journals tell you the sad stories of the skeletons and corpses you find strewn around.

But that’s it. If your love for Fallout was rooted in the exploration, you’ll have a great time here. If exploration was just something you did between compelling quests…I’m less convinced. I do still think it’s worth exploring, but I’d be shocked if anyone who didn’t already find exploration fun had their opinions changed by Fallout 76.

The draw is supposed to be teaming up with friends or strangers to conquer the Wasteland, or at least have a lot of fun getting the shit kicked out of you. And that’s fine. There’s a market for that, and it’s not the game’s fault if I’m not part of that market.

But it still feels at odds to me not just with the Fallout experience in general, but with the specific Fallout 76 experience.

How are you supposed to listen to long holotapes while a server full of miscreants carries on a conversation? How are you supposed to stumble upon a hidden location or cache of goodies when a cluster of player markers on the map makes clear there’s something there? How are the stories of sacrifice you uncover supposed to feel weighty if a big part of the game is killing each other for fun?

In my time with Fallout 76, I actually enjoyed the little bit of the main quest I experienced the most.

The object of the quest, at least for now, is to find the Overseer of Vault 76. Early on I found a recorded message from her in a small, relatively untouched house. Listening to that message, I learned that this was her house. Vault 76 only stayed closed for 25 years. The Overseer grew up in Appalachia. She knew it well. She saw one world when the Vault door closed, and found another very different one when it opened again.

She returned to her childhood home and recorded a message to her parents, both of whom were long dead. We find that message in what was likely her bedroom as a little girl. There’s a pair of skis against the wall. Head into the basement and there’s a poster by the washing machine for Pleasant Valley Ski Resort. The life she remembers is over.

Her message is painful to listen to. In Vault 76, she’d survive the nuclear war that claimed millions of lives. But once she leaves she goes home, lies down on her old bed, and records a message for the family she doesn’t have anymore.

That one single moment tells the same story Fallout 4 should have told, and it tells it far better.

But it’s also a moment that simply wouldn’t work if you were taking advantage of Fallout 76‘s own mandatory multiplayer.

Bring some friends along. Run into that little house because that’s where the quest marker is. Grab the holotape, ransack the place for goodies, move along to the next marker.

The Overseer laid down in that room and stared at that ceiling and reflected on 25 lost years and an entire civilization she’ll never know again.

xYeBoobieBoy420x blitzed through the room shouting “nigger.”

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