It really is a Wasteland out there.
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They don't call it the Wasteland for nothing in the Fallout franchise. The series' nuclear war-ravaged world is complete with things like mutated creatures, radiation-soaked zombies, and plenty of other frightening creatures that hunt anybody foolish enough to go wandering around. But despite the hardships of the post-apocalypse, the Fallout series has also always had its survivors, whether they're farmers learning to cultivate an irradiated world, organizations hoping to rebuild society, or warlords trying to rule whatever's left.
Fallout 76 takes a different approach. Rather than the usual single-player RPG that finds players leaving an underground Vault to explore the Wasteland and meet the people who live in it, Fallout 76 removes NPCs and replaces them with other players.
The result is a Fallout game that feels a bit strange. It's hard to shake a feeling of loneliness while playing a game devoid of characters. Even though you're surrounded by other players from the start, there's a feeling that West Virginia is already dead, and you're picking clean its corpse.
The creepy feeling comes early in the game, after you leave Vault 76, where you've waited out the first 20 years of nuclear fallout. Your job as one of Vault-Tec's best and brightest is to rebuild the world. You're a little late doing that at the start of the game, thanks to over-partying the night before the Vault opens. As a result, the main quest at the beginning of the game has you following the Vault's former Overseer as she travels the world hoping to find and take control of three remaining nuclear missile silos--ostensibly to keep those weapons from ever being used again.
Tracking the Overseer's path through the Wasteland takes you the town of Flatwoods near the Vault, where you learn about some folks trying to make the post-apocalypse a better place: the Responders. This group, mostly consisting of former first-responders like paramedics and firefighters, roam the Wasteland looking to help people, and have set up several communities for that purpose. When you arrive in their town, you take part in an automated process to join up as a volunteer. It's a tutorial that has you wandering around town, trying to find the people who can teach you to cook, clean your water, and perform other essential survival tasks. The state of the town makes what you're going to find a foregone conclusion, though, and before long you confirm that none of the nice people of Flatwoods has survived.
Your Responder volunteer training continues apace, thanks to audio diaries left behind by the Responders who didn't make it, and which give you a sense of the lives they lived as they fought to survive their new world. Before long, you intercept a Responder radio signal that directs you to their headquarters at Morgantown, a larger city with an airport. The signal is pretty desperate: the Responders are expecting an attack by zombie-like people called the Scorched, and they need all hands on deck in order to repel it.
Spoiler alert: They didn't.
Fallout 76's lack of NPCs turns its setting into a ghost world, with the player arriving just after the worst has already happened. Stumble on the cabin of an old moonshiner and you might find evidence of his existence, but not the man himself. Head over to Grafton, a town where the mayor is broadcasting a radio signal asking for assistance, and you find the humans are dead and a computer is running the show. The world of West Virginia was full of people before--it just isn't anymore.
Contrast that with previous Fallout games and it becomes clear why Fallout 76 just feels a bit off. In past games, pretty much the first thing players do is stumble into post-apocalyptic civilization, where the people of the Wasteland aren't just eking out lives for themselves, but often thriving. One of the first people you meet in Megaton, the first town in Fallout 3, is its sheriff, which shows that the settlement isn't just a bunch of people barely hanging on, but one that has laws, and someone to enforce them. Places like Diamond City in Fallout 4, or the Strip in New Vegas, show just how strong civilization can become. These aren't just places where you pick up quests, they're evidence that Wasteland life continues. They make the world feel substantial and lived-in, and they give your actions in that world stakes.
Fallout 76 makes its approach a little more uncanny by constantly supplying audio diaries and information about those lost souls in whose wakes you follow. A group of audio tapes left by the Responders called Survivor Stories gives the characters just enough backstory to make their absences more haunting. Your path following the Overseer is similarly replete with bits of character-building audio, as your leader visits the important places from her pre-Vault life and talks about her memories. All these tiny stories are well-written and well-acted, which makes them stand out even more. There was life in the Wasteland in Fallout 76--we just missed it.
Adding other players to Fallout 76 at the expense of NPCs is a trade that sacrifices something essential about the Fallout games. The series has always been both somber and satirical in equal measure, but at its heart it was at least a little bit hopeful. The world didn't end when the nukes fell, it just changed.
Filling the Wasteland of Fallout 76 with players doesn't make it feel any less dead. We might build camps and buildings, but it's likely we'll all eventually put on party hats and aviator sunglasses, flash goofy emotes at each other, and try to murder each other. There's a transitory lightness to the multiplayer side of games like this that no amount of audio logs can overcome.
Without characters, Fallout 76 has no narrative balance against the people just screwing around in the Wasteland, and therefore, nothing to make the world feel substantial. It's sad, because the fascinating, engrossing stories of the people who once populated Fallout's West Virginia are there. They're just not around to make you care anymore.