Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
There was exactly one moment, in my initial two hours with the Fallout 76 beta, that got to me: As I was walking down an empty stretch of West Virginia road, eyes scanning the horizon for the next mutant dog or angry propaganda robot to gun down with my jury-rigged pistol, a cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” started crooning out of my Pip-Boy’s radio. Basking for a moment in the pure, autumnal Americana of it all, I let the music, and the moment, wash over me. Say what you like about Bethesda Studios—and as a serial agnostic toward their head-crackingly popular Elder Scrolls games, I’ve said a lot—but they can make a hell of a world.
And then, just as I was letting myself be transported, some other random player came running up the road behind me, hot mic blaring the sounds of what was apparently a very busy conversation happening in the background of their living room, and the magic all went up in nuclear flames. Fallout 76 is, after all, a multiplayer game first and foremost, and getting to hear the intimate details of a complete stranger’s nightly pizza order is just one of the things Bethesda has bought with that decision, selling off a lot of things that I hold dear in this particular franchise in the process.
The biggest of these late, lamented features, ironically, is conversation. I may have hated the truncated dialogue system that the franchise’s last outing, Fallout 4, was saddled with, but that didn’t mean I wanted it removed entirely. You can keep your mini-nukes and your melee builds. For me, the real game of Fallout happens when the dialogue window is up, navigating the loyalties, greed, and occasional outright idiocy of one of the best pantheons of non-player characters an RPG series has ever been lucky enough to host. But Fallout 76 has ditched the entire system (and the characters), replacing it with static audio logs, unresponsive robots, and, of course, the conversational stylings of WeedAndPizzaMan420xXx.
But there’s only so much time you can spend mourning a game for what it’s not, before you have to consider what it actually is. So, based on the brief window of time that Bethesda had the game’s PS4 servers turned on this week, we should probably shake the magic 8-ball and ask, is Fallout 76 any damn fun?
Tentative yes; ask again later. The shooting is satisfying enough, and the game’s survival aspects are less onerous than one might expect from all the comparisons it’s been drawing from more hardcore sims like Rust. The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat system has been given another revamp, tying it more directly than ever into the beloved perk system. (It’s 2018, so obviously those now come in the form of collectible cards.) Periodic events go off on the map at regular intervals; following one, I found myself banding together with a bunch of other survivors to protect a robotic food factory from waves of attacks by feral ghouls. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t done before in a lot of other games, but combine it with Fallout aesthetics—and a legitimately clever real-time version of the series’ aim-assisting V.A.T.S. system—and it had its charms.
But really, one beta period in, it’s impossible to tell what this game might eventually be. No one I encountered was interested in trying to kill me, even after I (quite quickly) got past the protective level caps for PVP. At one point, I even teamed up with a stranger to clear a very Elder Scrolls-esque dungeon, emerging (silently) on the end with a treasure map that I quickly used to fill my pockets with loot, and my head with the thrill of discovery and stuff. Fallout 76 has those feelings in abundance. It remains to be seen whether it has much else.