Before we get started, I am looking at the game as it stands in mid-December, there may be patches that fix specific balance issues and may help alleviate some of the problems discussed below. Now, I want you to forget the issues with the numerous bugs, failed delivery of promise with the collectors' edition bags, and the potential of evil microtransactions. I want to take an objective look at why the design of Fallout 76 is so flawed to the point that no amount of standard patches will help fix it. The only solution would be an entire rewrite of how the systems of the game work. Full disclosure here, I have worked as a designer before and been in situations where I believed that critical design choices were a detriment to the game. From that point of view, I am sure that some of the studio were rallying behind the removal of these poor decisions and probably knew what the outcome would be after players got their hands on this “dumpster fire” of a title.
From my game playing background, I have tried many genres of games, but games that I think would reflect the core design pillars that Fallout 76 needed to recreate are games like Borderlands, Destiny and Red Dead Redemption Online. I will even point to which elements they should have emulated and tried to improve upon. I will also look at previous Bethesda games, and quiz why they didn’t take the same approach to their online counterparts. Just to delve into the design lead on Fallout 76, I assumed they had maybe got someone new to design this Fallout as it felt like someone new to development, but no apparently the lead designer has worked on various titles and previous Fallout games. These really felt like rookie mistakes, and while I can see that online is new to the team, someone with this experience should be able to design for a slightly tweaked genre.
The first major issue is how the enemies are handled in Fallout 76, and without looking at the lacklustre choice of enemy types, there are more thorny problems aside from this. The first is that anywhere you go in the Fallout 76 map seems to contain an almost endless supply of seemingly respawning enemies. This makes the gameplay not only tedious but makes any interactions with terminals a minefield of when you are next going to be clobbered. Even if you do fend off the attacks and resume reading, it seems to be only a matter of time until you get interrupted again. The frustrating thing is that this totally ruins any chance of understanding what little narrative the game has to offer, and worse still stops mission progress. Some of the missions actually require you to locate data, I have taken to hammering through each item in a terminal as quickly as possible just so I can check off the mission goal and move on.
Now, I get that in previous Fallout games they could suspend time, so there wasn’t this same issue. While they don’t really have that option to freeze time, I would have suggested that enemies cannot get inside a certain zone when there is a terminal that a player uses, or if they can that the player doesn’t get attacked. Looking back on the issue of the endless spawns, you never feel safe in Fallout 76, which is a problem.
Looking deeper into the AI systems and you will find that enemies don’t seem to have sensible leashes, this refers to the limited area that enemies can give chase. Now let’s look at games like Red Dead, Destiny, and Borderlands, while we have either an open world or a large level that is dressed to feel open in design. We can be assured that when we are on a mission; that we will find a majority of hostiles to be held up in a building or base of operations. While out in the wild, we will only uncover a few smaller groups, who again hang around in gangs and often have a small settlement nearby. From this, the players understand that they will get clusters of enemies who are specific and tied to an area.
The issue with Fallout 76 is that you get enemies all over the place, with little rhyme or reason. When you are starting out on your initial trip out of the vault and have little to no weapons, you can still come up against enemies on the roads. Looking back at other Bethesda games, the roads tend to be a safe area with little resistance, leave the roads and things tend to scale up. This seems an odd choice to not adhere to this and doesn’t feel like satisfying design, with no reason for it. The world of Fallout 76 is much more vibrant than the previous titles, I would rather explore this without interruptions, rather than waves of irrelevant low-level enemies, especially when navigating between A and B.
The next issue is that while I say these are low-level enemies, they all seem to have way too much health and the level of said enemies seem chaotic. I think some of this has to do with the game trying to balance the area for players levels. A solution for this would be to have the enemies level scale be dictated on a per-player basis. This means that enemies would appear relative to the skill level of the player they are engaging, this level scaling is visible in games like Destiny.
We could go with the more MMO route, that would be that each area would have an approximate enemy level, and players would understand to avoid areas that were too high for them. The only issue with this is Fallout 76 seems to have a disregard for having missions that are level based so you can end up trampling into high-level areas when you are still a low-level player. This is of course based on my observations, but this is definitely a weak area of the design, with what feels like no consideration for players at either the high or low experience levels.
Looking back at the issue with enemies having too much health, this may not be something that does need changing, and making too many big changes is often reckless. I would focus on having fewer enemies to grind through, then having to take a couple of shots on each enemy seems more reasonable. But this leads us to another issue, with so many enemies and needing multiple hits in most cases, you often run out of ammo. This isn’t just limited to Fallout 76, I often run out of ammo for Red Dead 2 Online. The difference is that you can easily do a story mission and loot a few dozen corpses and get enough to get going again. In Fallout 76 you are encouraged to loot, but the loot often doesn’t give you enough back to replenish any of the key areas such as health and ammo. Stranger still, you can have enemies that are using weapons but are instantly broken on inspection. Going into that a bit more, we have the double down issue of low ammo and weapons that break. This has existed in other Fallout games, but weapons in Fallout 76 cannot seem to last more than a few minutes, and with no quick way to repair them. This is a case where they wanted some idea of realism, but it just doesn’t work. If a gun was this flimsy in real-life then I am sure they would be recalled or the manufacturer would have some sort of class-action lawsuit. I wouldn’t mind so much if weapons were quick to fix e.g. the Fallout 3 system of merging guns. I have been in many situations where I had no working weapon and/or no ammo for my weapons that are in a good state of repair. You then end up fumbling through inventory items and wasting time and as with terminals being damaged. Sure, I heard people say this adds immersion as you now have to back off to a safe area, but this is just dumb, as often there is no suitable safe spot as enemies will chase you for miles due to the reasons described above.
Let’s now look at the issue of the NPC quest givers, as it’s been stated by Bethesda themselves there are no human NPCs in the game. This isn’t a huge issue, but the reasoning seems poor and definitely makes for a less satisfying game overall. To replace the standard human NPCs we have robots. However, most of these are nothing more than a box with a few lights on, not the more recognised General Atomics designs from earlier Fallouts.
There are some quests given out by Protectrons, but this leads me back to a perfect example of how the game has a lack of safe areas, and ones you think should be are not. I went into one area and found some of the said Protectrons in a building, they gave me a new quest and I set out scouting around the building. I then found myself being overrun by Scorched and thought that I would back off to where the Protectrons were. From experience with other Fallouts, this would often end up in the hostile NPCs being shot by the friendly ones. This clearly didn’t happen, even though the Scorched swarmed into the space that the Protectrons were in. I assume as the Protectrons couldn’t be damaged that they did nothing to help.
This shows again the lack of thought on what expectations players would have from other Fallout games, and similar COOP or online games such as Borderlands. There is often the idea of safe areas where you can have a breather before heading out on these missions. If we now look how other games have handled the issue of human NPCs, we often see that you either cannot hit them, to begin with, or they are behind some protective barrier e.g. bullet-proof glass.
Another way is also to put them into an area that either limit which players can interact with the NPC or limits weapons from being active, I think of this as being like an airlock. This tends to happen in games like Red Dead 2 Online and Destiny. Often you cannot use weapons or you are suddenly locked into an area that only your party can interact with, in some cases, you have a separate mission lobby.
Basically, the excuse for no NPCs seems to be that in Fallout games you can kill anyone, but that simply isn’t true. Most of the mission-critical NPCs will just get knocked out. If it's true you don’t want griefing, then set up one of the above systems, heck put in auto turrets that downs anyone that shoots an NPC, and make being downed actually a negative.
This brings us to our next subject of why health-giving items are almost pointless in the game. Like I said the amount of health you can uncover is negligible. But, this isn’t really an issue, I actually have given up searching out health. For the simple reason that if you die that you will be able to spawn reasonably close to the last area you were in, often for no cost. It almost benefits you to run into a group of enemies, get downed then respawn and repeat. Fallout as a solo experience was always about the survival aspect, finding health and knowing that you would need to manage this to make it through areas. This has pretty much been thrown out the window, I can see they want you to have a way of being able to instantly get back into the action, but then why limit health? If there is almost no penalty for dying, then you should just max out the health items you can find in containers.
Our final subject is that of the game as an online title, with human interaction. In general, the setup for playing together seems not to bad, making a party works and you get dropped in together. The problems start when you want to work together on a mission. This seems to not really make any sense, if we look at Borderlands then the leader would pick the mission and other players would help to complete those. I won’t say it’s perfect, and often some missions would not properly be checked off. But, this was not a huge issue as you could always replay it later.
In Fallout 76, this just seems random to whose mission is active and if it completes at all. We then come to the subject of PVP or the “griefing protection” system that Bethesda cooked up, well it’s certainly half-baked. One major issue here is that it’s easy to accidentally hit another player's CAMP in a firefight due to having to deal with the endless enemies. As a player you will instantly get warned you are about to be flagged with a bounty. This isn’t so much a warning as a guarantee.
You will become flagged as hostile to all players almost straight away for an accident. Bethesda games have always had really ropey crime systems, this is a new level of shit. Why wouldn’t the system just look at if there was sustained damage in a certain timeframe and then make this call? While I haven’t tried this myself, the PVP also seems broken, with whoever initiates the fight almost always losing. I know they wanted to have minimal damage against the victim in the case of griefers, but they could have gone with how the system worked in Borderlands. Both players must shoot each other and then this initiates that players can accept to duel and apply damage to each other.
To me, the design choices in Fallout 76 feel that they haven’t been fully explored before the game shipped. This may have been a lack of time to make these changes, and they would rather ship the game with these poor decisions than delay to work out the kinks or completely rewrite a system. The trouble I have is that they had the opportunity to make something that most of us have been wanting for years, a meaningful COOP game set in the Bethesda universe and that wasn’t an MMO like Elder Scrolls Online. I was semi-onboard with having a small group of random players on one server, some friendly and some hostile. The visuals and some of the core elements are what I wanted from an online Fallout game. But some odd design decisions to critical pillars of the game makes it a tedious and unenjoyable addition to the franchise. I haven’t really touched on the CAMP creation tools, but they do suffer the same ill fate of the rest of the title. It’s a shame, as there are some interesting glimmers of the themes and good design elements that I wanted to see in Fallout 76 but hidden away under these layers of poor system design.