Fallout 76’s online world is the perfect way to explore its prequel setting and tell a fresh story

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the Fallout 76 beta this much. I mean, I thought I’d like it, but I wasn’t expecting a weird feeling of almost childlike wonder to well up as the Appalachian mountains unfolded before me. More than ever before in the series I felt a very specific thrill: ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’ I’ve only played the first four hour beta slot at the moment (basically the full game but only available at specific testing times) but already Fallout 76 is an exciting mix of the familiar but, importantly, with new ideas introducing something else: the unexpected.  

Previous Bethesda Fallout games have always had an element of similarity about them. There’s only so much you can do with a scorched nuclear desert - wander dusty roads, meet strangers, find a cool mission, repeat. Once you’ve played Fallout 3 you’ve basically got the gist of New Vegas and Fallout 4. However, Fallout 76’s setting - just 25 years after the bombs drop - throws a massive spanner in your expectations in the best possible way. 

It’s undeniably Fallout: the cracked, overgrown roads, rusty cars and crumbling infrastructure almost comforting familiar. The moment you start taking hopeful pop shots at enemies with a rattly pipe pistol you’re back in that world of 50’s atomic optimism, and the melty-faced children of those who didn’t stop, drop and roll when it all went wrong. 

In the beginning...

Except you’re not really in that world right now, the games you know haven’t really happened yet. Fallout 76’s 2102 time period is nearly 200 years before Fallout 4’s 2287 setting, and still basically in the echoes of the nuclear armageddon that shaped later games. This is all about that shaping, creating a much more blank slate as a result, as you explore a period of Fallout lore we’ve only usually read about. (2102 is the year Richard Grey falls into a vat of Forced Evolutionary Virus and becomes the Super Mutant creating Master, who is eventually encountered for the first time, 60 years, later in the original isometric Fallout.)

It’s actually the first time I’ve played a Bethesda Elder Scrolls/Fallout game in ages and not been entirely sure what to expect. Sure, the combat is more or less the same but there are weird new enemies, like the Scorched - fungus hive mind proto-Ghouls - and, while there are normal Ghouls as well, they’re still wearing recognisable pre-war clothes, their former lives visible despite their rad-rotted brain. It’s one thing to headshot a radioactive zombie in rags, but it’s another entirely to shoot something more recognisably human. Ish. 

There’s clearer evidence at every turn of this world becoming the one we know in previous Fallout games. And that’s what makes things so much more interesting - evidence of the life the atomic war burned away is everywhere, from its buildings to the more or less intact bodies instead of bone-white skeletons. The first, failed attempts to save this unsavable world is still evident everywhere - a debris field of rescuers and first responders fighting a toxic losing battle to preserve survivors - every effort frozen in the moment and illuminated via unfinished messages, or bodies; dead but still mid-treatment. The houses, buildings and other locations all looking like a lick of paint away from being ready to live in again.

World building 

Except that lick of paint never comes. We know that. Instead of renovation there are hundreds of years of rebuilding, something that ties in surprisingly well to the more open ended online play. There’s no immediate obvious plot arc here - no Vault to save, or child to rescue. Just a world to reclaim. It’s a more open ended goal that suits more open ended missions: so far focusing on finding your Vault Overseer, and restarting the first responders attempts to purify water. The world is your objective here, and creating an online game suits that perfectly. I’ve seen plenty of other players but so far we’ve all kept ourselves to ourselves. These early hours have been a very selfish survival effort in an unfamiliar new home. (Save for the public events where everyone piles in to kill rogue robots or protect messengers before all dissipating with loot.)  

After only the first beta slot this this already feels 100% like a Fallout game, and something completely new at the same time. That early, basically prequel setting makes so much more sense once you experience its online ambitions and see how neatly the setting and online gameplay fit together. There’s a Destiny feel to its online single-player meets multiplayer world that works far better in practice than I would have ever believed possible on paper, and has me more excited than ever to see what’s out there.