Trust Fallout 76 to take the fun out of launching a nuclear weapon. To get into to the launch site I had to get a keycard from a flying cargobot by shooting it for about 30 minutes (halfway through I got mobbed by ghouls on a golf course, and when I looked up the drone had recovered all its health), which gained me entry to what turned out to be a megadungeon full of angry robots and turrets. The turrets were hackable, but only if you've lucked into the right perk cards to have maxed out that skill. I could have brought a gang of allies with me, but it turns out doing so actually increases the number of robots you have to fight, making it even more of a slog.
It was not a joyous experience, is what I'm saying. Deep inside that nuclear complex, low on ammo and swinging a melee weapon at a roof-mounted turret for the eight or ninth time, I realized how far I was from the fun I'd had at the start of Fallout 76.
The area around Vault 76 is called The Forest. Beyond it there are radioactive wastelands, swamps, and mountains of ash, but the starter area is leafy and autumnal. It looks more alive than any other place I've been in a Fallout game. You still shouldn't drink the water or befriend the mole rats, but with the light filtering between the trees and reflecting off your Pip-Boy it's a nice place to just wander through.
And it's worth looking closer at. My first time in The Forest I didn't notice the moonshine still that had been taken over by mutant tics, the crashed vertibird half buried in the dirt, the teddy bears set up as if filming their own cooking show, or a dozen other dioramas that exist just to make it a more interesting space.
In the podunk town of Flatwoods one of the first quests for the Responders faction is to track down the body of Delbert Winters—a reverend who let his church be used as a hospital after the war. There's a terminal listing that tells you his address, alongside details of another eight members of the Responders. Though they won't appear on your questlog, every other Responder on that list is out there to be found, bodies with their own Survivor Story audiologs and a little bit of loot. It's a scavenger hunt that's not signposted, but if you slow down and pay attention to the environment it's there to be found.
It's easy to miss stuff like this, though. The received wisdom about online games is that the endgame is where it's at and everything between logging on and hitting the level cap is just hours of guff. Assuming the same of Fallout 76 saw me sprint through questlines to join the Enclave and get ready to take part in the nuclear loop—whether using a warhead on the Fissure to draw out the scorchbeast queen raid boss or just dropping one on Whitesprings Resort for the sweet loot like 90% of players seem to—and that led me to a high-speed collision with the wall of No Fun.
High-level bulletsponge enemies with damage resistance. Bugged-out quests like the one to kill a specific ghoul who has inevitably been murdered by another player by the time you get there. Storylines that keep building to the same revelation that every NPC involved is dead or a robot. A crafting treadmill that involves murdering endless mole miners for their scrap to turn it into black platinum and hoarding clipboards because they're a good source of springs and valuable as gold. All these things were bricks in that wall.
So I made a new character and started over, abandoning my rush for the endgame in favor of a gentle stroll through the noob zone. I gradually rinsed each location, finding oddities like a dog kennel with the periodic table of the elements written inside (maybe by a genius dog?), and a holiday camp with a computer that sets off spooky noises and makes the paintings on the walls spin around. I explored the connected rooftops of Point Pleasant and revisited all its Mothman-themed tourist traps.
Fallout 76's best cryptid, the Mothman has its own statue, museum, and riverside shrine with eerie bone replica, which is how I'd like to be memorialized too. But Mothman's threaded into the whole area more than I realized, a layer of geologic strata to uncover wherever you dig. One house has a basement Mothman shrine with an effigy made of twigs lit by candles, there's a Mothman episode of the Tales from the West Virginia Hills holotape drama, and an audiolog in the landlocked lighthouse reveals the building was part of a plot to summon the creature the traditional way moths are summoned—by turning on a very bright light.
Fallout 76 has transformed into a chillout game for me, one where there's no need to rush and exploring is fun. My first character was based on Tank Girl and she zoomed through every fight in a berserk frenzy. My new character's modeled on Jimmy Stewart and he ambles through encounters, nothing fancy or special. I hang onto spare recipes and med-x, dropping them in front of new players while doing an emote pantomime to explain this paper bag's for them. I've got time to help anyone who needs it.
Every now and then there's a warning that someone on the server's about to drop a nuke. It's never anywhere near me. I don't even bother looking up from the crafting table to check where the red circle's going to be on the map any more.
There are always people looking for sticks to beat Bethesda with and Fallout 76 sure is a pointy one. But I've been having a real nice time ever since I decided to stay here in West Virginia's equivalent of the Hinterlands from Dragon Age: Inquisition, doing favors for new players and following every ridiculous sidequest that pops up even if it's just to find Jangles the Space Monkey because he got lost at the fair. Every now and then one of those level 50 scorchbeasts spawns overhead and screeches up a storm, a random encounter that exists to foreshadow the endgame. I let them pass by in peace every time. You do you, scorchbeast. I'll be down here relaxing with the noobs and the teddy bear who's cooking up a barbecue.