By Staff Writer Thomas Griffin.
Up to the release of Bethesda’s Fallout 76 this past month, the Fallout series had strayed dangerously far from the formulas that made the first games successful and revered.
Game development company Interplay blessed the world with Fallout 1 and Fallout 2, two early role-playing computer classics heralded for their immersive storytelling, engaging character dialogue, and heavy influence on building personalized characters with special niche abilities. Fans of the series fell in love with the intense amount of detail that comprised Fallout’s post-apocalyptic world-building, right down to player characters with low intelligence not quite understanding how language worked while in dialogue trees with other characters. Project lead Tim Cain knew exactly what sort of game he wanted to make, and he wasn’t pulling any punches to get there.
This much was true, until April of 2007. Interplay, having sat idle with their now ten-year-old franchise, hadn’t produced a true third installment to their flagship series. As a company, they were encountering money troubles, with the threat of bankruptcy looming over them. While their backs were against the wall, Bethesda proposed to buy the rights to the Fallout franchise, making them an offer that they couldn’t refuse.
Bethesda seemed to be unlikely candidates to take up Interplay’s torch. The fast-paced, hack-and-slash mechanics of their first-person action-based role-playing games clashed like oil and water with Interplay and Fallout’s slow, calculating turn-based strategy. The core mechanic V.A.T.S, a targeting system allowing players to focus their attacks on specific enemies’ body parts, was translated into Bethesda’s later fallout installments in the form of a clunky aim-assist that slowed time. The once interesting and character-defining player perks of the Interplay games were reduced to simple numerical boosts to damage output. And, for added measure, you could no longer make a character too dumb to speak.
But at least the players still had the well-written story. As they wandered Bethesda’s new post-apocalyptic wasteland, they would encounter other characters who could be stern, threatening, friendly, snarky, or anywhere in between. The varied dialogue trees and compellingly well-written dialogue allowed players to create personality for their characters and play a role within a role-playing game. The mechanics might’ve been axed, but the players could find peace in how, on paper, the new games were still Fallout.
Unfortunately, this peace was short lived. Flash forward to the release of Bethesda’s Fallout 4 in late 2015. The sprawling, multi-directional dialogue trees were reduced to a maximum of four emotional responses. Press this button to act concerned. Press this button to act sarcastic. Press this button to make everyone hate you. Of the remaining core tenants to survive from Interplay’s Fallout, Bethesda had managed to kill or stifle every one of them.
Fallout 4’s review scores took a hit and fans were upset. The series they had loved was starting to look increasingly unrecognizable with each passing installment. While some lost faith in the series and its new developers, others clung to the hope that Bethesda would eventually revert the changes they brought, letting players experience more of the Fallout they were missing.
What follows is possibly one of the pettiest game design choices imaginable: “Well, if they’re not liking interactions with our non-player characters, what if we just remove the non-player characters entirely?”
Instead of creating another one of Fallout’s bread-and-butter single-player role-playing games, Bethesda built Fallout 76 into a strictly online, strictly multiplayer, and strictly NPC-less experience. While I say ‘experience,’ I feel that the word ‘emptiness’ better fits Fallout 76’s gameplay cycles. Players approach computer terminals to begin arbitrary quests, fight waves of respawning enemies to complete the quests, then return to the computers to turn them in for rewards. The whole affair is about as remarkably boring as it sounds.
The computers can’t talk, eliminating any reason for the game’s writers to even create dialogue in the first place. Better yet, they’re incapable and devoid of the character development that makes a story compelling. The only ‘interaction’ to be had in Fallout 76 is chatting with the occasional passing player, and while these interactions are peer-to-peer and can go in any direction that the players so desire, I personally don’t find having the average teenager shout expletives into a low-quality headset microphone to be a compelling reason to buy and play a videogame.
Needless to say, the game has been performing poorly on a critical scale. With a current Metacritic score of 54/100 and a 4/10 on GameSpot, Bethesda has entered damage control and lowered the price of their messy product from $60 (the industry standard for AAA videogames) down to $35. Realistically, who could blame them?