With Fallout 76, Bethesda is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
To date, I’ve played every Fallout game. I don’t include fan-made mods and expansions, or any of the cancelled games like Fallout Van Buren, but if it’s a mainline Fallout game, I’m usually all over it.
I won’t, however, be playing Fallout 76 (even though the beta kicked off yesterday on Xbox One, with the PS4 and PC beta starting next week).
That’s not a reaction to Bethesda’s decision not to release Fallout 76 game on Steam, by the way. While there are portions of the internet who get upset about these things (to be fair, there are portions of the internet who get upset about most things) I harbour no loyalty to Valve’s marketplace, or anyone else’s. If Bethesda wants to cut out the middleman (and Valve’s cut of the sale) then more power to them. As long as they can come up with a stable product people will use their launcher, regardless of how much they wail about it on social media.
That’s not because I don’t want a multiplayer version of Fallout, either. The idea, in principle, is one I can get behind. I’d love to play a Fallout game with my wife.
Here’s the thing: when I play a Fallout game, Mrs B is usually a spectator. That’s just a consequence of enjoying single-player, story-focused games as a couple. We’re used to it; particularly as games like Halo have abandoned local co-op, while games that have traditionally been good for co-op (like Call of Duty) have ditched single-player campaigns altogether.
It can be frustrating – particularly with games featuring an AI “player 2” like BioShock: Infinite, Uncharted, The Last of Us, and latterly, God of War – but it’s something we’ve long since come to terms with. Out of necessity, you develop sharing techniques. Sometimes that means taking turns and switching control. Others, it means sharing roles. The rest of the time, it means at least sharing in the decision making. And that works particularly well in games with dialogue choices and branching storylines, like Bethesda or BioWare games.
Fallout 4 adds an extra dimension to this ad-hoc co-operative play by including the Pip-Boy app. While Mrs B often plays as navigator, co-pilot, or map-reader, the ability to actively do it on a second screen – and also engage in useful secondary tasks like inventory management, healing, and buffs – adds extra fun and depth to one of our favourite RPG series.
Given that the wife and I devour co-op games like nobody’s business, then, the idea of playing Fallout 76 co-operatively seems like it’s been custom made just for us. It sounds perfect, actually.
The issue comes, as it usually does, when you introduce other people into the mix.
Take Tom Clancy’s The Division as a for instance. A third-person shooter with role-playing mechanics, that we can – with the aid of two PCs, admittedly – play co-operatively together sounds perfect for us. (Albeit a long time after the game’s release when it was subject to deep discounts because, let’s be honest, buying two of everything is prohibitively expensive.)
We played The Division for a few hours on a Sunday evening. Sunday evening in our house is for gaming, yes, but also, Sunday dinner and meal prep for the week. That means ducking out for five minutes at a time to go and put vegetables in the oven or take the roast out to rest, or put the gravy on the hob, or portion out the leftovers for the week’s lunches.
But because of the way Ubisoft designed both the missions and matchmaking in The Division, we kept finding ourselves with randoms in our squad. And randoms, as it happens, don’t take too kindly to kicking their heels for five minutes while we go and tend to our roast parsnips. They would keep running off, impatient and headlong into danger, while we were playing in our own time.
The Division. Ghost Recon Wildlands. Destiny and Destiny 2. Sea of Thieves. They all rely upon – and are entirely burdened by – the existence of other players.
Fallout 76, sadly, seems to fall into the same mould as these other service games. You play in a squad of four, for starters, which is already an issue. Mrs B and I will make up two spots, but beyond there? Dan’s not into Fallout and Josh has left us, so that leaves us with randoms. Randoms are the worst. Randoms get impatient when we go and check on dinner. That’s before you even start trying to schedule multiplayer sessions between four grown adults with jobs and busy lives.
And then there’s the persistent online nature of it all. In Fallout 76 you play on server instances of 16 players – to our knowledge – in squads of four, engaging in a combination of PvP and PvE modes, scavenging, combat, crafting, and base-building. There are even raids, to the point where Bethesda have felt the need to include a solution for overly-aggressive players. It’s starting to sound an awful lot like DayZ or H1:Z1, isn’t it?
Come on, Bethesda. Was a regular Fallout game, but you can play through it with a second – or third, or fourth – player too much to ask?
It never bothered us before. We always got by with our ad-hoc local co-op techniques and still had a lovely time of it. The option for playing co-operatively was never on the table, so we didn’t miss it. But now that Fallout 76 is here, and it’s shaping up to be simultaneously all of the worst bits of Fallout 4 and all of the worst bits of playing online with other people?
That makes it so much worse.
Fallout 76 sounds, in principle, like it should be the perfect tonic for fans of Fallout who would like to play it with friends and family. But with all of the contrivances to make it more of an MMO? Bethesda has stuffed it.
At least we’ll always have Borderlands.