Fallout 76’s Identity Issue

The Fallout 76 B.E.T.A. concluded this weekend, and players got to spend quite a bit of time with it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Bethesda’s multiplayer spin-off is meant to be. It feels like it’s trying to be everything at once, but it ends up being lackluster in every regard. Fallout 76 is a game that’s full of potential, potential that is ultimately stretched way too thin among the game’s core pillars.

Fallout 76 takes a traditionally single-player narrative-focused RPG series and attempts to transform it into a multiplayer survival game. While this isn’t an inherently negative change, it does make the game suffer because it won’t commit to the idea fully. The storytelling, quest design, and world suffer at the hands of the multiplayer component, and the multiplayer doesn’t reach its full potential because the game still tries to somewhat resemble a traditional Fallout game. The result is a game that is sorely lacking in direction and one that I find myself losing motivation to play.

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In a core Fallout entry, the player is typically given a reason to leave the Vault and brave the unknown wasteland. Fallout 3 tasked the player with finding their father, New Vegas saw players tracking down their would-be killer, and Fallout 4 asked players to find their son. Fallout 76 follows in the footsteps of its predecessors by having the player – or players in this case – locate the Overseer of Vault 76. The problem with that is that there’s no real rush to find her. She’s dead. So is everyone else. And that’s the central problem with Fallout 76’s brand of storytelling.

Fallout 76 has no human NPCs. The only other living people you’ll come across are other players. What would be a colorful cast of characters and companions in any other Fallout game are rotting corpses in Fallout 76, and because this is a Bethesda game, every corpse has a holotape or a note next to it. You leave the Vault and head to the Overseer’s initial camp. Holotape. You’re directed to sign up for the Responders, a group of survivors dedicated to helping those affected by the bombs in a nearby town. Terminal. Your next quest is to find missing people listed in the terminal directory. They’re all dead, and each one has, you guessed it, a holotape. You get a quest marker sending you to the airport. Holotape and Terminal. The tape guides you in the direction of the fire station. Terminal. This how all the quests play out in Fallout 76. You’re sent to find someone. They’re dead. Listen to a recording. Quest complete.

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This wouldn’t be a problem if the tapes were actually interesting. All but a few of 76’s holotapes drag, but there are a few standouts. I found myself on the roof of a church and noticed a skeleton at what appeared to be a lookout post with a holotape on a table nearby. I put the tape in my Pip-Boy and what followed was a surprisingly heavy audio log.

“My name is Colonel, and I’m 13 years old.

I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything… um… the bombs and the messed up people and the cows with two heads. All of it.”

This poor boy went on for almost five minutes apologizing for his misdeeds.

“I was bad… just bad. I cheated on my spelling test, I kicked Chip Wilkins in the shins until he cried, I pushed Rosie McCloy down the stairs…”

The voice acting was stellar and I found myself getting absorbed in this boy’s story, even though I knew how it ended. I felt for him and I looked out at the desolate, abandoned town, realizing that every skeleton, every scorched body frozen in place due to the nuclear blast, was a human being once.

“And um… I just wanted to say I’m sorry about everything… because my dad said if I wasn’t this way that bad things wouldn’t happen…”

This poor kid blamed himself for the nuclear apocalypse. His dad was nowhere to be found either, presumably because he was lost to the blast, and the boy begs for him to come back. Listening to that tape was an unexpectedly solemn experience in an otherwise silly game, but the mood was quickly ruined before I even finished the tape. My friends were asking me where to find certain materials or how to craft certain weapons, people in jumpsuits and party hats were jumping on tables and emoting in the streets below, I couldn’t focus on the story I was being told. It was like trying to watch a serious scene in a TV show only to have your living room filled with a bunch of people messing around. Unfortunately, most of Fallout 76’s holotapes are not as interesting as Colonel’s story, and they’re usually a lot longer. The Overseer’s logs, which you’ll run into as you progress through the main questline, are upwards of 10 minutes each, and they’re just boring. I felt no connection to her and I felt in no rush to find her, even if she was alive, and I already knew she wasn’t because of the whole “No human NPCs” thing. Any chance this game had of telling a compelling story is gone because of immersion breaking moments like these.

Technically the game is a mess. Fallout 76 uses a heavily modified version of the Creation Engine, the very same engine Bethesda has been using for their open-world RPGs for over a decade at this point. It was buggy and broken for single-player games, so for a multiplayer game like Fallout 76, it’s even worse. I know the game is in beta, but this is really just a server stress test because it’s only open for certain times and it’s the full game with progress carrying over to next week’s release. Don’t let anyone fool you, this is practically the full release, and it’s unacceptable for a game to be releasing in this technical state in 2018. Framerate rarely stays at the target 30 FPS. Performance is not great, even on a PlayStation 4 Pro. The game has beautiful art direction but graphically it’s still basically Fallout 4, which didn’t look too hot on its release 3 years ago. Load times are atrocious and my game crashed on me multiple times. Enemies have spawned in the floor, in walls, didn’t have their animations load, attacked me while T-posing, and more. The base building system is buggy and doesn’t work like it should sometimes (no Bethesda, this wall isn’t floating it’s clearly attached to the foundation just let me place it down PLEASE), and sometimes textures just don’t load. An entire river was missing one time. Like the whole river. I could see below the map. I stared down into the abyss, and believe me, it stared right back.

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Fallout 76’s gameplay fares better, but not by much. Playing with a group is a blast. Shooting, looting, and exploring are all a great time if you’ve got friends coming out of the Vault with you. West Virginia’s locations and creatures are all incredibly interesting. My friends and I found a ropes course that we spent upwards of an hour trying to complete. In the end, I was the only one able to clear it, and I was rewarded with supplies, a Vault-Tec bobblehead, and bragging rights. Later we found ourselves in a dark, dank mine, flooded with both water and radiation. One of my party members popped a Rad-X and swam through a secret passage where they found some rare weapons. We spent hours searching for the elusive Mothman and even had a spooky run in with the elusive Flatwoods Monster. After spending so much time with the B.E.T.A., we had reached a high enough level to start using power armor, and hunting for missing pieces and components alongside the search for better weapons while also keeping ourselves fed and hydrated provided a satisfying enough gameplay loop to keep us entertained for hours. Playing solo isn’t as fun, but there’s still some enjoyment to be had. At least then you can enjoy the holotapes in peace.

Multiplayer isn’t perfect, though. Thanks to the incredibly weak narrative offerings of Fallout 76, my group often found ourselves wondering why we were doing what we were doing. Sure, we had a a main questline to work our way through and a bunch of side quests, but we all knew how they would play out. At the end of every quest was a corpse and a note, and none of us cared particularly enough to find them. PvP is also not as much of a focus as Bethesda initially implied. You don’t do full damage to other players unless they fight back, so it’s nearly impossible to kill someone unless it’s a mutual engagement. My group of three found a solo player without much armor and half health remaining, so we jumped him, firing at him with our best weapons. He got away. Think Borderlands duels as opposed to The Division’s Dark Zone. Even if you do kill someone, they spawn nearby anyway, and they can choose to get revenge on you, spawning them in PvP mode so they can get the jump on you. The reward for revenge is small, something like 5-10 caps, and if they do get you, you can do the same, trapping you both in an endless cycle of pointless PvP. Defending workshops is where PvP is meant to go down, but the resources provided by these workshops can be acquired elsewhere. PvP doesn’t have much meaning overall.

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Because of all this, Fallout 76 is in a weird spot. I do want to play more, but I don’t know if I’ll be putting as much time into this as I would another Fallout game, which is strange considering this is a multiplayer title designed to be a time sink. As someone who really enjoys Fallout’s narratives, I don’t see myself caring that much about the story Fallout 76 is trying to tell. The gameplay doesn’t hold up that well either, being lifted directly from Fallout 4, which had dated shooting even back in 2015. It’s fun with friends, but even then I can see my interest waning quickly. The only truly compelling thing about Fallout 76 is finding new gear to take on new monsters and craft new things, but for what purpose? There’s only so many times I can kill the Grafton Monster and get a leather left leg with some mods on it before it gets old. The game is still in beta and some people are already getting tired of it. With other, stronger multiplayer offerings out there like Fortnite, Black Ops 4, and the upcoming Red Dead Online, I don’t see Fallout 76 having much longevity after its release. It wants to keep its single player roots while fully embracing online connectivity. It’s just a shame the game suffers for that exact reason.

Have you been enjoying Fallout 76 so far? Be sure to let us know down below, and keep it here at Circle Square Games for all things Fallout.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game about details. You have to recover your hat if you lose it in a fight, you have to eat to make sure you’re strong enough to continue your journey, you bond with your horse as you ride it. All of these touches, along with a multitude of others, combine to create one of the most immersive and grounded open world experiences in any video game ever.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar’s first foray into the current generation of consoles. While Grand Theft Auto V is available on and touched up significantly for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it still is a seventh generation game at it’s core. Red Dead Redemption 2, on the other hand, utilizes the entirety of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s power, looking beautiful on the base systems, gorgeous on PlayStation 4 Pro, and especially stunning on Xbox One X. Environments are sprawling and draw distances are expansive. Character models, lip syncing, and animation are all top-notch, as one would expect from a Rockstar production. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the prettiest game I have ever laid my eyes on bar none, and I found myself stopping several times as I rode up to a cliff or along certain trails, taking in the jaw-dropping vistas and magnificent sights.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 takes us back to 1899, a full 12 years before the events of the original Red Dead Redemption. While Red Dead Redemption had players controlling John Marston in his adventure to hunt down his former gang members, Red Dead Redemption 2 gives players control of Arthur Morgan, right hand man to Dutch Van Der Linde, leader of the gang Marston used to run with. Being set over a decade prior to the first game, Red Dead Redemption 2 offers a very different snapshot of the west. In the first game, the wild west was basically eradicated. The few gangs and gunslingers remaining were hunted by an ever-growing and seemingly omniscient government. Red Dead Redemption 2 shows us the beginning of the end, the time when civilization had just begun to overtake the west, and this is where the story begins.

After a botched robbery in the town of Blackwater, the gang is forced eastward into snowy mountains, harsh conditions which they are ill prepared for. Red Dead Redemption 2’s opening chapter is slow and extremely linear, but deliberately so. Unlike GTA V’s opening linear segment, which lasted about 20 minutes, Red Dead Redemption 2’s first chapter takes around 2 hours to complete. Asking players to sit through the average runtime of a movie for an introduction is usually reserved for JRPGs and the like, but Red Dead Redemption 2’s opening hours are filled with interesting dialogue, character building, and tutorials for the game’s complex simulation mechanics.

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The opening act also introduces you to the game’s method of storytelling. While the game features some of the most well-acted and well-produced custscenes I’ve ever seen, the majority of the exposition and character building happens through the dialogue system. Holding L2 lets you lock onto any NPC and have a conversation with them. While not as deep as something like Mass Effect in terms of what can be said (you’re usually only offered a “greet” and “antagonize” option), you can actually carry out full conversations with just about anyone by pressing any of the dialogue options more than once. Voice lines usually don’t repeat, and the conversations flow surprisingly well, although you can start to see the seams in the system after a couple conversations. Long horse rides are a staple in Red Dead Redemption 2, but talking to your fellow gang members helps to keep things interesting. These are scripted for the most part, but after the essentials are covered, the dialogue system can be used to ask more personal questions about the gang. There’s a lot of talking in Red Dead Redemption 2, but the writing and production values make it just as entertaining as the shooting.

The game’s pace is slow. That’s not to say nothing happens (some of the most critical plot points and reveals happen during down time), but you’ll spend considerably less time shooting a gun in Red Dead Redemption 2 than say, Grand Theft Auto V, or even the first Red Dead Redemption. If you can’t make it through the first chapter, then you most likely won’t make it through the rest of the game. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a slow burn, but it pays off in incredibly rewarding gameplay segments and story beats. Luckily, the game opens up in Chapter 2 and even more so as the story progresses, and this is where Red Dead Redemption 2 shines.

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Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world is the most fully realized and detailed map I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. While not exactly dense, the game’s world remains interesting throughout the story’s 65 or so hours. You spend a lot of time riding in Red Dead Redemption 2. A lot of the map is empty fields and plains, and towns are normally a couple minutes apart by horseback. To keep things interesting, Red Dead Redemption 2 features random encounters, or “chance encounters” as the game calls them. These range from the basic “I need a ride back to town” and “I’m going to pretend being hurt so I can steal your horse” quests to more intriguing ones I won’t spoil. Surprisingly, in my dozens of hours spent with Red Dead Redemption 2, I didn’t encounter a single repeat. Not a single one. Well, except for one.

Early in my adventure, I had helped a man who had been bitten by a poisonous snake. I gave him some medicine and was on my way. Two chapters later, I was riding along a path when I heard a man cry for help from some nearby bushes. He had been bitten by a snake, and it was the same man from before, same character model, same voice, same everything. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “the game finally cracked. I finally got a repeat.” I was about to dismount my horse and give the man medicine like I had before, expecting the exact same scene to play out just as it did before. Much to my surprise, the dialogue was a little different than I was expecting.

“That the snake bite feller? Again?”

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That’s how unique and varied Red Dead Redemption 2’s chance encounters are. I didn’t get a single repeat during my entire playthrough, and the one time I thought I did, it was intentional. Not only that, I remembered exactly who I had saved from the snake bite the first time. Why? Because Red Dead Redemption 2’s random encounters rarely end after you and the stranger part ways. When I saved that man from the first snake bite, I found him hours later, sitting outside the gun store of a local town, telling the story of the man who saved him to a friend. When I walked by, he flagged me down and told me to choose anything I wanted from the gun store as thanks. I went in and chose a new rifle. There was unique dialogue with the gunsmith about the snake bite victim, too. I always felt compelled to stop for everyone while traversing Red Dead Redemption 2’s massive map. I never knew if I was getting myself involved in just a simple act of kindness or a longer narrative that would play out as I progressed through the story. The rewards are worthwhile, too. You don’t just get invisible points added to your honor meter like you would in other games. You usually get some money, a food item, or even a freebie from a local shop, things that have a tangible effect on gameplay and are of some use to the player.

While chance encounters are memorable in themselves, the real shining side content of Red Dead Redemption 2 are the Stranger storylines. Returning from the first game, Strangers are unique side characters with stories that develop as you progress through the game’s main narrative. Usually episodic in nature, these missions will have Arthur running into colorful characters from around the game’s world again and again. They range from hilariously funny to surprisingly somber, with Arthur encountering a broad spectrum of people from eccentric French artists to lonely Civil War veterans. None of the Stranger missions felt like a waste of time, and, like the chance encounters, they offer tempting rewards, some of them even being unique to their quest lines.

Whether you’re exploring the small livestock town of Valentine or roaming the bustling, smoggy streets of Saint Denis, you’ll have to remember to keep Arthur fed and groomed. Food plays a key role in Red Dead Redemption 2 thanks to the way the game handles health and stamina. There are traditional bars to manage these things, but the game introduces a core system in which you have to consume certain snacks or drinks to increase the rate your bars increase, otherwise they won’t regenerate quickly, or even at all. Luckily, this isn’t obtrusive. The cores don’t drain that fast at all, and when they do, you can remedy it in a matter of seconds. Grooming is another matter entirely. Arthur needs to stay clean or people will react poorly to him and even try to avoid him outright. At one point I went a little longer than normal without bathing, and one of my gang members took me aside when I came back to camp and made me wash myself. All of this applies to your horse as well. It needs to be fed and brushed to maintain peak performance.

Speaking of horses, there are a lot of them in Red Dead Redemption 2. The game features 19 breeds of horse, each with its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Because the frontier can be lonely at times, you’ll develop a strong bond with your horse. Your horse is unique. You name it, you have to spend time riding it to increase your bond level which unlocks new tricks and techniques and makes it so it won’t run off on you so often, and if it dies, it’s gone. That’s right, Red Dead Redemption 2 features horse permadeath, and losing a mount you’ve spent the majority of the game with is gut wrenching, especially if you’ve put a lot of money into it. The horse customization is extensive, allowing you to personalize everything about your equestrian companion from mane length and color to saddlebags to blankets.

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Customization options for Arthur are immense, too. There are preset outfits like the first game, but you can also mix and match individual clothing pieces to create your own personal brand of cowboy couture. All 50+ of Red Dead Redemption 2’s weapons can be fully customized down to every minute detail. There are several metals to choose from, from silver, to gold, to blue or black iron, that can be applied to any individual part of any gun, from the barrel, to the trigger, to the hammer. There are also a handful of different engraving patterns with a range of colored metals to fill them in with, along with leather wrappings for rifles and repeaters. Everything down to the grain of the wood on your shotgun can be customized in Red Dead Redemption 2, and it’s very easy to make a stock weapon you just purchased from the local gunsmith into your own unique tool of destruction to carry with you on your travels.

Shooting these guns, however, is where Red Dead Redemption 2 falls a little short. The gunplay is lifted directly from Rockstar’s previous works, featuring a heavy lock-on auto aim system. Free aiming is clunky and slow, and hitting targets without utilizing the extremely generous targeting assistance is incredibly difficult, especially on horseback. Arthur also controls a bit awkwardly, just like previous Rockstar protagonists. Navigating tight corridors and indoor spaces can be a mess with Arthur’s wide turn radius and general unresponsiveness. Over time, I grew more comfortable with how the game wanted me to play it and the navigation issues lessened in severity, but the clunky shooting problem did not go away, and it lead to some frustrating moments.

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Red Dead Redemption 2’s main story is a gripping tale of loyalty, betrayal, and change. Over its 6 chapters and 2 part epilogue, Arthur and the gang will undertake high stakes heists, daring escapes, tense shootouts, and even a standoff or two. The game’s production value elevates these missions to the next level. The animations are varied and have weight to them, guns sound loud and imposing, and there’s plenty of smoking barrels and exploding oil lamps. There’s also a slow motion kill camera ala Max Payne on some kills. The large scale gunfights in this game are visceral and are some of the best set pieces I’ve ever seen in a game thanks to masterful cinematography and sound design alongside a perfect balance of storytelling and interactivity. Rockstar knows exactly when to take control away from the player and just when to give it back to them for maximum effect.

The audio design is equally impressive. Bullets ricochet with a satisfying twang. You can feel every bullet slamming into a revolver’s cylinder. Floorboards creak and spurs jingle. Headphones are definitely a must. The score is varied and effective. Instrumental tracks kick in at just the right time and get you pumped up for a gunfight. Music is used sparingly enough to be impactful when it’s played, and each track is memorable. When the strings swell up and a guitar starts to play, you know things are about to go down.

Part of why Red Dead Redemption 2’s story hits as hard as it does is due to how likable the cast is. Each member of Dutch’s gang is fleshed out through main story missions and side activities alike. The gang is a family, and the game doesn’t let you forget that. Conversations, arguments, fights, poker games, fishing trips, all of these and more happen as you walk through the game’s various camps, and each gang member has unique dialogue depending on who’s present and where you are in the story. It’s cool sitting down with John, Bill, and Lenny to play some poker and then having John give his thoughts on a job the gang pulled a few missions earlier. The gang celebrates after big successes and the parties are some of my favorites parts of the game. I found myself sitting alongside my crew huddled around the fire, listening to Javier strum his guitar and sing while other groups of people have their own conversations nearby.

Details like these are what make Red Dead Redemption 2 stand out among other open world titles. Rockstar’s typical level of polish is on display here along with substantial improvements across the board. Weapons get rusty and dirty over time and you have to clean them or their stats will suffer. Different gang members stand guard and welcome you back to camp. I bought a sniper rifle from a gun store and returned hours later. The clerk asked how my new rifle was treating me. Little things like these make the world feel so alive, like everything is truly dynamic. Everything about Red Dead Redemption 2 is meticulously crafted. The shop catalogs are filled with advertisements and text for each product. If you don’t want to shop from a catalog, you can take things right off the shelf and buy them that way. The attention to detail here is pretty much unmatched.

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Red Dead Redemption 2’s plot is easily the best story Rockstar has told to date. The writing is consistent and full of twists and turns. While the original Red Dead Redemption isn’t required to understand the sequel, clever callbacks and foreshadowing make knowledge of the original strongly recommended. Some of the plot’s strongest moments and best lines will go right over your head if you haven’t played the first game. Regardless, it’s still a gripping tale that will easily hold your attention until the credits roll. The performances are fantastic, and watching Dutch’s gradual descent from a charismatic leader to the cold-blooded killer Marston hunts down 12 years later is a pleasure thanks to an incredibly nuanced performance. Even more intriguing was Arthur. Watching him slowly come to grips with the inevitability of change and facing the fact that the time of outlaws is nearly over is highlighted by poignant writing and phenomenal acting. The entire gang is interesting, but over the course of the game, Arthur, Dutch, and the brewing conflict between the two absolutely stole the show.

Overall, Red Dead Redemption 2 is simply massive. After completing the epilogue, there is still a significant chunk of the map left unexplored. I still have fish to catch, hideouts to clear, and strangers to talk to. There is so much in Red Dead Redemption 2, and so little compromise. A fantastic story, gargantuan world, and compelling side content make Red Dead Redemption 2 one of the best games in recent years. Many people consider the original Red Dead Redemption to be one of the defining games of the last generation. I think it’s safe to say many will look back at Red Dead Redemption 2 in the same way.

Final Score: 9.5