We go hands-on with Fallout 76 to discover the apocalypse is better with friends

Jumping into the wasteland as part of an online foursome I had one major worry: was Fallout 76 actually going to feel like Fallout? Having spent three hours in an irradiated West Virginia, I can say yes. Just a Fallout that's slightly weirder and livelier than usual. You might be having a classic Fallout moment, injured from a battle with a super mutant, dehydrated, and a little deflated - when suddenly, a bald man dressed only in underpants and a party hat will run past, off on his own beautiful journey. 

Unlike the previous games in the series, Fallout 76 has no human NPCs, so every other non-ghoul or super mutant you're going to see is a real person. Forget dialogue options - the language of Fallout 76 is emotes, from heart hands to dramatic vomiting. 

The Fallout Four 

For my trip into Appalachia I was part of a ragtag squad, all of us experiencing our first steps outside Vault 76 together. Sort of. Despite letting you group up, Fallout 76 doesn't force you to stay together, so while some people were still exploring the vault and preening in the character creation menu, I was already looting corpses for weapons outside the blast door. There's voice chat among your team no matter how far you stray - so I could let my new buddies know where I'd found some purified water and where I was headed - and while it wasn't in place for this hands-on demo, proximity voice chat chat will be available too. Your teammates are also visible on your map - along with any map marker they've paced - and you can fast travel to your friends at any time. 

The faces of Fallout 76

The character creation is as deep as ever - though all the female hair options are still annoyingly unflattering - and you can access it at any time. No more restarting your game just because that nose just doesn't work in wasteland lighting. To make the post-apocalypse look a little more fashionable, any cosmetic outfits will go over your armor too, so you can wear a red cocktail dress and still be protected from mole rat bites. 

At times, it felt like I was playing a traditional, single-player Fallout, like when I wandered away from my group to investigate a lonely looking bed and breakfast on a hillside. Inside, I found ghouls running rampant, a safe to hack, and audio logs to enjoy, so I took my time looting every drawer and crevice. As soon as I started feeling lonely - or, more truthfully, suspected my team had come across something cool in the wasteland thanks to their excited chatter - I just fast-traveled right to one of my gang. If only real-world socialising was this easy. 

Making of a murderer 

Of course, while each team can have up to four players, the Wasteland you play in can be home for up to 24 - and by the law of arseholes, some people aren't going to play nice. The system that Bethesda has come up with for dealing with in-game griefers is the sort of solution that comes to you when you've spent way too long watching people be total dicks in games. If you attack and kill another player, and they didn't fight back, you'll be branded a murderer. A bounty will be placed on your head (which you'll pay out of you own pocket when it's claimed, or if you're broke, suffer a harsh debuff), and you'll be marked on the map in red. It's a way of making people who want to start trouble really work for it, while still keeping them part of the game for everyone else. I'm too much of a goody-two-shoes to be a murderer, but I like the idea of turning bounty hunter when I need some caps. Griefers gonna grief, and I'm sure there are other ways they'll find to troll other players, but the murderer mechanic gives me faith that Fallout 76 will find a creative way to deal with whatever mischief comes its way. 

Our band of four misfits eventually got into an altercation with another on the road, and there were a few casualties. Things were escalating until, as if on cue, a scorch beast (i.e. giant bat thing) started attacking the whole lot of us. Suddenly our deadly bickering was forgotten as we all raced to the giant monster to get our shot at bringing it down. Now we got a sense of why it can be handy to have other people all up in your wasteland. You can revive downed strangers with your stimpack (or if you have the right perks, food) and I was saved more than once. Despite being a bunch of low-level babies still shiny from the vault, we picked off points of damage until the beast came down. Then, of course, everyone took turns grabbing a selfie in front of the corpse with photo mode. 

VATS, perks, and atoms 

Some of the other Fallout features have received tweaks to make them work in this brave new player-populated world. VATS (Vault-Tech Assisted Targeting System) is still there, but doesn't slow or pause time - that's just not possible in a shared world. Instead it works in real time. I got to see it in action, and in its most basic (and not upgraded with perks) form, it highlighted my target in green and let me know the percentage of getting a good shot as both me and my target moved. Todd Howard has said that this can be upgraded to let you pick specific body parts, so expect some wasterlanders to become super snipers by the end of the year. 

Perks have been tweaked too. You still upgrade your skills with the S.P.E.C.I.A.L system, and get to pick a new perk every time you level up. Only now, you'll get perk packs at various level thresholds, with a random selection of perk cards to pick from. If you upgrade your charisma, you can even share those cards with other people you meet. It feels more fluid than the old system, with the ability to change your chosen perks depending on the situation at hand, which feels the right fit for a wasteland that'll constantly be evolving alongside its players.

As an online game, there will of course be microtransactions for the wealthy and dedicated. Alongside the traditional caps currency, there are now Atoms to collect as well. You'll get these by completing daily, weekly, or lifetime challenges in-game (some are as basic as picking a flower), or by stumping up real-world cash. Atoms can be used to buy cosmetic items, so expect to see your richest friends running away from super mutants in particularly weird and wonderful ensembles.

Nuclear narratives  

While the game has some major changes to its mechanics to accommodate its new online form, the same Bethesda Game Studios tradition of Easter Eggs and strange stories remain. West Virginia is rich with a mythology and folklore all its own, and someone swears they saw the Mothman during their play through. I'd expect to see the Flatwoods Monster, and hopefully, the local Sheepsquatch.

Setting up camp

With just three hours in the wasteland, I didn't spend much time building a camp for myself, but I can see that getting really out of hand once I'm playing for real. Some of the camps we stumbled across, homes of Bethesda Game Studios devs, were better equipped that most apartments, with water purifiers, resource extractors, and work benches aplenty. One had even splashed out on some musical instruments, in case you get the hankering to revisit piano practice after fighting off some blood ticks. 

Though there aren't any human NPCs with endless dialogue options, you will get to hear stories from other people in the wasteland through holotapes. The tales have a different flavor from Fallouts past, because this is the closest to the actual war that the series' lore has ever ventured. Me, I always preferred the robots, and there were plenty of those around. In one mission I was doing military basic training for Master Sergeant Gutsy, and spectacularly failing to impress him by falling off the obstacle course a record number of times. I did much better on the patriotism test, where I had to weed out the communist child. Sometimes I worry about my skill set.

An explosive ending 

Bethesda has being doing game demos long enough to save the real showstopper for the end: an actual nuclear detonation. We were all summoned back to Vault 76 to make sure we had the best possible view of the blast, and most of us followed some primal urge and ran straight for it. In the real, live Fallout 76, players will be able to set off their own nukes, but it will take a lot of work. Would-be bombers will need to hunt down the right launch codes, fight their way into (a probably heavily guarded) launch facility, and only then can they fire a nuke at a chosen area of the map. If that makes you nervous that's probably a sane response, but be comforted by the knowledge that you'll get a warning and a chance to flee the blast zone. Or roast yourself to death as sacrifice to the atomic gods. Your choice. 

Honestly, three hours felt like nothing in the massive - as in, four times the size of Fallout 4 massive - world of Fallout 76, especially when there are so many new social dynamics to master and experiment with. My squad found a workshop out in the world and claimed it; in the full game, we'd have to fight off anyone who came to claim it. I built a camp but wasn't playing long enough to make it more than a hobo's sleeping spot; I spotted an assassin minigame mode in my Pip-Boy - called Hunter and Hunted - but was too busy fighting super mutants to explore it. What I do know is that the basic concept - "Fallout 76 but people" - works, and it's going to drag me back in as soon as the Fallout 76 beta goes live on Oct 23rd for Xbox One owners, and Oct 30th for PC and PS4 players. 

Fallout 76 will be released on November 14 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.