Whether or not you're on board, Bethesda's decision to make the next entry in the Fallout franchise an online-only game is bold. But just because it's an online endeavor doesn't mean you're forced to play with others. Among all the questions I had about Fallout 76, the most important one that came to mind was: can the game work as a single-player experience? So, when the first beta launched, I played entirely as a one-man party. After about four hours of exploring, looting, and shooting, the foundation of Fallout seems readily apparent, albeit diluted. Of course, you'll be missing out on an important aspect of Fallout 76 by going it alone, but its features that require a bit more patience make themselves clear. As a result, lone wanderers are likely to be rewarded in ways full parties may end up glossing over.
From both past experience in other games and watching my colleagues play Fallout 76 as a group, I understand there's a tacit agreement to move at a rapid pace, going from one area or quest to another in search of action and high-level equipment. While that's not exactly what the Fallout series has traditionally been about, it comes part-and-parcel to this style of game. That doesn't leave much room for carefully listening to audio logs nor reading through notes left behind, let alone soaking in the environments in relation to those narrative pieces. Playing alone affords you the opportunity to do that.
Environmental storytelling has become a bit of a cliche when describing how games embed a narrative in the actual game space. It's an indirect approach to story, and one that Fallout 76 has to rely on given the absence of NPCs and dialogue trees. Audio logs serve to paint the picture of how townships tried, and failed, to survive the harsh wasteland while simultaneously being a guide through the game's world and systems. Audio logs are also the crux of unraveling the mystery of Vault 76's overseer--the seemingly "main" questline. It's your avenue to understanding the past and present of West Virginia. Admittedly, these vary in quality in terms of how interesting they are, but they're critical to worldbuilding.
The wonder of discovering and rummaging through a new location, or taking in the scenic views after trudging through brutal swaths of the wasteland, has an intrinsically rewarding feel.
We've seen other games use these narrative techniques in the past. Much of the original Bioshock was built on the premise of listening to recordings from Rapture's citizens as you navigate the desolate underwater society. Some of the most impactful moments in The Last Of Us came from a series of handwritten notes that communicated the desperation and humanity in the face of a zombie outbreak. Fallout has used these elements in previous entries, but they matter now more than ever.
While what's missing are the societies and factions that made previous games' roleplaying dynamic, it's thematically fitting given that the setting predates the lore established from past games. And it's strikingly lonely out there despite being an online game--only 24 players roam around West Virginia in the same instance. There's so much ground to cover that it's hard to see a collective of online players emerging from it; very rarely did I run into other parties. West Virginia is huge. It's been in headlines that Fallout 76 contains the largest map in all the franchise; about four times the size of Fallout 4's rendition of Boston. It sometimes feels too big for its own good, as there's a noticeable lack of density. However, like any other Fallout game, the world naturally instills a sense of curiosity to see what's just beyond in the next town.
The wonder of discovering and rummaging through a new location, or taking in the scenic views after trudging through brutal swaths of the wasteland, has an intrinsically rewarding feel. After getting a grip of the game in the areas near Vault 76, I wandered to the Northeast and stumbled upon Grafton--a snowy town populated by Super Mutants, Protectrons, and the high-level blob-like Grafton Monster. It was a definite highlight digging up the town's history and how it came to be run by Protectrons, and getting into tense firefights with enemies above my level. Unfortunately, I had to move on. Over the next northern range was an abandoned amusement park where I dabbled with the photo mode to take selfies with its alligator mascot on a broken rollercoaster. All the while, my radio is playing the undeniably catchy tunes of old-timey Americana (many of which are reprised from earlier games). These moments are, of course, available if you play in a group, but they make the single-player approach more meaningful.
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Catastrophic events and inter-player tension very much seem to be integral to the end-game, so it's tough to speak on the sustainability of exclusively playing alone. So far, quest structure and public events haven't been much more than killing a certain target or finding an item in another town. And by virtue of axing traditional RPG interactions, combat becomes a bigger portion of what you do. Fallout 4's shooting mechanics are the basis here, and while it's more fluid than Fallout 3 or New Vegas, it doesn't stand with the best modern shooters (and VATS won't slow down time for targeted dice-roll shots)--it sometimes feels at odds with the type of game Bethesda's trying to create.
Fallout 76 is a little unceremonious in its early hours, but I'm willing to give new approaches to long-running franchises a chance. It still has that distinct charm, where both the delightful and disturbing aspects of a bygone era in American history are frozen in time amidst post-apocalyptic retrofuturism. As more beta windows open up, I'll be continuing to search for the game's story and trekking along to see what's beyond the wide forests and mountain ranges. Also, there are just as many questions left even after four hours. I can't say that the single-player experience will hold up entirely, and we shouldn't expect it to contend with the likes of New Vegas, but there are signs that it can work, and I'm hopeful. I'm also not sure where it's leading me, and that seems to be exactly what Fallout 76 is about.