Fallout 76 is growing on me, but I really miss human NPCs

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During yesterday's Fallout 76 beta session, my character got the marsupial mutation at just the right time. My objective was to enter a theme park that was swarming with feral ghouls and switch on the power for a nearby town, and I'd already died twice trying to get in there to complete the objective—once before I'd even entered the damn place. Some of Fallout 76's standard feral ghouls carry firearms, and I'm still fighting them with a pipe pistol, while two army-branded Mr Handys are hunting me down too for some reason. 

The game notified me that I was irradiated enough that I'd mutated, and when I hit the jump button, I realised my character was doing some serious Jedi shit. I walked around to the wall nearest my objective and hopped over, hit the switch then hopped back again without having to fight anyone. I felt like I used my new condition, the result of drinking lots of irradiated water and being too lazy to select Radaway in the Pip-Boy menu, as a strength. 

This is when Fallout 76 started to click for me, and I realised I was enjoying myself. I've played about five-and-a-half hours of the beta on an Xbox One X over the past week, and it's just in the last couple that I've started to like hoovering up quests and exploring its world. I do plan on playing Fallout 76 with friends on PC, but for now I've been seeing what it's like solo, since most of my pals had their heads stuck in Red Dead over the past weekend. My first impression is that singleplayer probably isn't the ideal way to play 76, but I love its generously-sized world, and I'm acclimatising to its mix of Fallout and light survival systems.

People person

The thing I miss the most in Fallout 76 is human NPCs. Chris noted this in his impressions from last week. I think the absence of living NPCs leaves the world feeling a little blank, even though almost everything else I love about a Fallout world is here: the variety of locations, the scale of the world (the map feels unbelievably big), and oddball robots. The logic of having no human NPCs seems to be that other players make up for it, since the point is you're all leaving the vault to rebuild the surrounding world. But it loses a layer without living NPCs, to me. It's a lonelier world. 

I've gotten accustomed to the excitement of finding a new place in 3D Fallout games, and NPCs play a key role in that. In Fallout 4, discovering the gated community of Covenant was exciting, for example, because you wanted to find out what the secret was of the people living there. If that story was told just with audio tapes and letters from dead bodies, which are the main ways Fallout 76 has delivered story in what I've played so far, it wouldn't have left the same impression. 

Perhaps I lack imagination and have forgotten what RPGs were like before voice-acting and motion capture, but meeting survivor NPCs underlined the feeling that humanity is on the brink in the Fallout universe. Without other humans, it feels a little too quiet, and I can't really work out what Fallout 76 would've lost by having them around. 

With other players in my group, I might spend less time thinking about that. It does make me feel like I'm unlikely to encounter the sort of memorable quests I consider 3D Fallout's greatest strength, though: 'The Silver Shroud', or 'Oasis' from Fallout 3. I guess time will tell on that. 5.5 hours is a tiny fraction of a Fallout experience, and the game's audiotapes are mostly well-written from what I've found so far. 

None of this was unexpected, of course. Howard made the no human NPCs point clear during the game's reveal at E3. It's just taking some time for me to get used to it.

Going it alone

I like exploring the world by myself. I've barely made a dent in Appalachia, but it's generously packed with landmarks and varied in its types of landscapes. The autumnal surroundings of the Charleston area, for example, are beautiful. Seeing what's over the horizon and investigating silhouettes in the distance are appealing elements of 3D Fallout's design, and they're retained in 76. Listening to the radio while rifling through abandoned buildings for loot feels nice and familiar, too. If the rest of the map—which is apparently four times bigger than that of Fallout 4—is as lovely to look at as what I've seen so far, I will keep playing until I've seen all of it. I can't wait to see how the game looks on my PC when the beta arrives tomorrow. 

I see how travelling with friends would really benefit me, though. I'm just starting to get some better weapons, like a decent shotgun and a laser pistol, but entering a feral ghoul-infested town with just a combat knife and pipe pistol makes exploring pretty gruelling in the early game. Fallout 76 has a version of VATS, but since it doesn't offer the tactical slowdown we've come to expect from the singleplayer games, it means the combat feels frantic, scrappy, and honestly, not as enjoyable. With better guns, heavily-armed pals and group-focused charisma perk cards activated, I'd bet clearing out a town feels nice and empowering. 

I didn't really do loads of crafting or settlement stuff in Fallout 4, so I'm adjusting to how important these things are in 76. With settlements, I felt like anything I built looked like a filthy shed where a serial killer might live, so I haven't really bothered with this yet in 76, especially knowing that my Xbox save data will be useless when I start playing the PC version. Camps are a handy way to store leftover weapons and junk, since you can move them everywhere with you for a small caps fee.

As for other players, I haven't seen them much since the beginning of the game, when loads of level two players in Vault-Tec jump suits ran around the same camp site like we were in the army cadets or something. A lot of people appear to be doing their own thing, sharing a world but playing out their own story. As players grow more comfortable with what Fallout 76 is and acquire better gear, I imagine co-op groups and PvP play will become a more common occurrence on each server. I've participated in a few events with other players, including one I didn't even know I was a part of until it ended and I got a bunch of experience points. The only thing I contributed during that one was hiding from a group of super mutants. 

I agree with Chris's sentiment that this isn't a proper Fallout game, but that it's fun anyway—enough of what I like about regular Fallout has made the transition to 76 that I want to play more. I can also see a ludicrous range of things to do opening up around me, so many that I have to keep going into my Pip-Boy to turn the smattering of quest markers off. It's not enough of a survival game that I find it daunting, which is a relief. What I'm curious about is whether it's enough of a Fallout game that I'll love it after tens of hours.

So far, I miss the pretend people in Fallout 76, but I can't complain about the place. 

Check out Fallout 76's PC beta times. The first one begins on Tuesday, and it's available now for pre-loading to anyone who's pre-ordered the game.