After just a few Fallout 76 beta sessions on Xbox One, I've already put more time into this wasteland than any other game in the Fallout series. It's not that I was ever opposed to Bethesda's mega-popular open worlds, or the Interplay RPGs that predate them; I've always adored their retro-future stylings and old-timey music. But I bounced right off Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4 like a makeshift bullet off power armor, whirling away to other games after just a few short hours. Now that I've dabbled in - and come to adore - Fallout 76, I think I know the reason West Virginia has sucked me in: there aren't any NPCs populating the countryside. And though some find themselves missing quest-givers and chatty townsfolk, I'm delighted to finally live out the fantasy of the truly lone wanderer.
It's amazing how the presence of virtual people can frame the way you spend your in-game time. When an NPC is desperately pleading for your assistance, or you're on a rescue mission after receiving a distress signal, there's a definite urgency to your newfound quest. But the many audio logs and hand-written notes you'll recover in Fallout 76 lack any kind of time-sensitivity, because - morbid though it may be - whoever recorded them is already dead or gone. Without any pressure to come to the aid of your fellow vault dwellers or a potential new ally, you're free to explore the wilderness at your own pace. In my case, that personal pace is glacially slow, as I run off in random directions chasing curiosities. I wonder what's in that building? What kind of enemy is darting around in the distance? And will I be able to kill it?
Speaking of killing, wanton violence takes on a different tone in Fallout 76; unless you're griefing other players, you really can't harm the innocent. That's less a philosophical musing and more a realization that pretty much every humanoid enemy type out there (I've encountered charred Scorched and menacing Ghouls so far) will try to terminate you on sight. Call me naive, but I didn't see the need to immediately attack every raider I saw in Fallouts past. Maybe they were scrappy survivors pushed to the brink by the bombed-out state of the world, and didn't deserve to die by my hand. But when a Scorched cries out and starts gunning at me the moment I approach, they've given me every right to end their miserable existence. Like the Splicers in BioShock, it's hard to feel too bad about blasting these poor souls in self-defense. The unfortunate circumstances that brought them to their current, grotesquely mutated state are ghastly - but when they're trying to rip out your throat just for inching towards them, what choice do you have?
Free for the taking
Fallout 76's lack of karmic good or bad also has a profound effect on one of the wasteland's most prevalent past times: looting everything that isn't welded to the ground. While leaning into the roleplaying of Fallout 4, I had a hard time justifying ransacking each and every abandoned encampment I came across. What if I had stumbled onto someone's makeshift home while they were out foraging for food, or answering nature's call in some nearby bushes? What gave me the right to snatch up every edible morsel, comic book, weapon, Nuka Cola, and teddy bear they had lying around their humble abode, before booking it with my pockets full to the brim? But if you grab something in Fallout 76's long-ago lived-in locations, no one's going to miss it. It's not stealing from the dead - it's survival. I can play into my packrat sensibilities guilt-free, picking every place clean so I can scrap the junk and convert random knick-knacks into precious crafting materials. Relatedly, the way Fallout 76 simplifies crafting is a godsend, as it's far more intuitive to break down items in bulk at a crafting station rather than storing junk that's somehow converted into raw materials behind the scenes.
As for a lack of companions, I'm perfectly comfortable exploring the post-apocalypse on my own. No shade to Fallout 4's cast of supporting characters, but I've a certain compulsion to hear everything my AI compadres have to say, even at the expense of my own forward momentum or moment-to-moment entertainment. Without any backstories to absorb or chitchat to wade through, I'm free to focus on taking in the lay of the land and soaking up the purposely desolate atmosphere. On the rare occasions that I've run into other players during the beta, we would typically glance at one another, possibly emote, and then simply move on with our own adventures - and I intend to keep it that way on the path to max level. Plus, with no one to talk to, there's never any interruption of all the wonderful tunes playing 24/7 on Appalachia Radio.
With such minimal series experience, I've no context for how Fallout 76’s online world is the perfect way to explore its prequel setting - I'm just glad that you can effectively enjoy Fallout 76 single-player by evading events. And with nothing out in the world that requires my immediate attention or action, I'm free to play how I please, which is what I come to RPGs for. If the mood strikes, I can boot up a HoloTape game of Nuka Tapper, attempt a treehouse obstacle course, or gaze in horrified awe at a mothman shrine, taking all the time I need. No one will be returning home dismayed that all their irradiated possessions have gone missing, or anxiously tapping their watch while they wait to be saved from a pack of mutated wolves. To quote the melancholic melody of 'We Three' by The Ink Spots, Fallout 76 stars "my echo, my shadow, and me" - and I wouldn't have it any other way.
To make sure you survive out there, check out our 16 essential Fallout 76 tips to know before you play.