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Fallout 76 is live: The wasteland is more fun with friends

In the wastelands of this new online-only post-apocalyptic RPG, you'll never walk alone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Fallout 76, the online-only multiplayer roleplaying game from Bethesda, officially launches on Wednesday Nov. 14 (with an unexpected slightly early launch on the PC). Like any online-only game where many of your interactions will be with other live players from around the world, it's nearly impossible to judge what the experience will be like until tens of thousands of players hit the servers simultaneously. 

But, resident CNET RPG expert David Katzmaier and I have both spent considerable time in the game's extensive live beta test over the past several weeks. The beta, which Bethesda called a BETA, or Break-it Early Test Application, included all sorts of caveats and asterisks about game systems breaking and content that may change for the final game, and a limited population of fellow players. We were able to get a taste of player-to-player interaction, crafting and building, in-game quests, and survival in a beast-filled wasteland. Our gameplay impressions follow. 

Dan Ackerman

I liked Fallout 76 a lot better the second time I played it. My first session in the beta I was presented with something that looked and felt a bit like Fallout, but had unfamiliar menus and a blandly spare opening level in a now-abandoned vault.

It's true that, like most players I suspect, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the character creation screen, experimenting with different chin lengths, hairstyles and nostril sizes. That part never gets old.

On my second play session, I finally left the bland confines of Vault 76, apparently several hours after everyone else (because I overslept, according to the game lore) and things took a sharp visual upturn. The inside of the vault looked blocky and dated, no different from Fallout 4. But outside, the thick foliage and rocky outcroppings finally showed off the power of my Xbox One X combined with an LG OLED TV.

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Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

It's a good thing I was doing more than just looking around. Some angry robots started taking potshots at me almost immediately, and without me being offered any kind of combat training or even a weapon. I did find a rusty old pistol on a nearby corpse, but only a few rounds of ammunition -- not enough to fight my way through the parking lot outside the vault.

Instead I made my way down a stone staircase through the woods, attempting to follow a marker to my first MacGuffin -- a camp purportedly set up by my missing vault overseer. Along the way, I passed by a seemingly deserted farmhouse. Probably a good place to pick up some extra gear or crafting materials, I thought.

Approaching the farmhouse, I saw a figure step out with a shotgun in his hand. Since all the humans in the game are being played by actual people, I thought this was my first chance to interact with another player.

Turns out it wasn't a fellow beta tester at all, but a zombified ghoul with a gun (or a variant called The Scorched), which I suppose I should have expected. Taking out one enemy didn't seem that hard. But when I pivoted to stand my ground, I saw at least three or four more Scorched running towards me across the farmhouse's front yard.

It was then I learned an important Fallout 76 lesson: It's often better to retreat than fight, especially if you're outnumbered. Not only do you start the game with minimal offensive capabilities, there's no ability (as in other Fallout games) to slow time to a crawl and strategically line up your attacks, RPG-style.

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Over the course of several beta sessions, I experienced several ups and downs. A handful of in-game moments captured my interest, but I suspect I'd be happier to play another single-player Fallout game with the series' typically detailed characters and communities.

Some other highlights for me included:

  • An in-game "event" where every nearby player was instructed to take on a robot rebellion together. It was great teaming up with other players, but the event repeated itself almost every time I was in the area.
  • A series of vicious fights with shambling ghouls in a bombed-out city. There was a distinct Walking Dead vibe as I had to slowly back up while slicing them down one at a time with a machete.
  • A crafting system that's simpler than most Fallout games. I was able to turn every piece of junk in my inventory into raw materials at the click of a button.
  • Being swarmed by a fleet of giant military helicopters. I have no idea who was in them or where they were going, but I managed to snag a few cool screenshots.
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Some Fallout fans take it too far...

Sarah Tew/CNET

David Katzmaier

I loved Fallout 4 -- 476 hours worth of love, evidently -- but until now I had zero interest in multiplayer gaming. So yeah, I was psyched when Dan invited me to play the 76 beta, but not so psyched that I cleared my calendar to log in to the first session (the beta is only online during scheduled hours). My first playthrough was a two-hour stint in session two, followed by a nice four-hour chunk in the third one.

My first impressions of the world mirror Dan's: The game starts out slow in the lame vault, then all of a sudden you're deep into combat and world-building with minimal tutorials or hand-holding. It's classic Bethesda, rewarding you for trying to figure stuff out on your own, and I approve.

I soon realized that my machete was fine for most of the early Scorched, Ghoul and Feral Dog fights, especially once I figured out how to gather and boil water to heal myself. That's one of the first survival-style quests, but it also seemed a bit too grindy: I spent lots of time dealing with healing. I also grew annoyed at becoming thirsty and hungry all the time when I was wandering around -- it's an element most games do without, for good reason. But having to pay attention to my avatar's appetites did add an element of realism, I guess.

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Bethesda

Maybe it's just me, but my first encounters with other players were awkward and never really got better. At one point I was invited to join a team of a couple higher-level players and we teamed up killing some robots as part of the event Dan mentioned. It was fun! But it was tough to grok how the quests were divided, and eventually I lost track of my teammates in the wilderness.

I participated in a few other events with other players -- blasting Scorched in an airport, clearing feral dogs out of part of a forest -- and they were fun slay-and-loot fests, at least until server lag kicked in and stuff slowed to a crawl (fingers crossed that's a beta-only issue). I also met up with Dan for an event that was way too tough for us both, and I just ended up dying. It was less fun to have to respawn and go back to get my loot, with baddies all around. I prefer the more forgiving single-player way of dealing with death: reload your last save.

One of my favorite Fallout 4 mechanics was base building, so I claimed a workshop near a power plant and broke out the build menu. It was satisfying to have my turrets pick off invading mole rats, and getting my workbenches and a sleeping bag set up delivered a satisfying sense of place.

Unfortunately I couldn't figure out how to scrap unwanted world items. There were a tree and a car right where I wanted to build, and I couldn't get them out of the way. Most of the cool stuff to build -- from advanced turrets to beds beyond a sleeping bag -- seemed to require a recipe, which was kind of disappointing. Then again, it gave me another reason to quest.

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Screenshot/Dan Ackerman

I also found myself spending a lot of time in my PIP Boy menus. But unlike in Fallout 4, the action didn't pause when I pulled up a menu screen. I found myself getting attacked frequently when I was in-menu. I did appreciate the expanded shortcuts for favorite items, which makes it easier to access important stuff like healing stimpacks.

The highlight of my time in the beta came after I cleared that airport and climbed a traffic control tower to survey the area. A dragon-like Scorchbeast appeared in the sky above, something I'd never seen before, and it was at level 50 (I was at level 7 at the time). I put my rifle to my shoulder anyway and took a few potshots, hoping it would notice me and engage. But unlike the thrilling dragon fights at the beginning of Skyrim, it just flew away. Too bad -- that would have been a fun way to go out.

Overall, I love the huge map and potential to explore and tame a new wasteland, and I'll definitely give the full game a try. It already feels vast compared to Fallout 4, but I do miss the quest-giving NPC's that gave the solo games more of a sense of purpose. After playing the beta my biggest issue isn't the multiplayer aspect, which seems potentially fun without being intrusive, but that the game will end up feeling too combat-heavy and require too much grinding -- performing repetitive tasks to achieve a goal or item. I doubt I'll spend another few hundred hours in Fallout 76, but you never know.

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See Fallout 76 at Amazon

Originally published on Nov. 9.
Update, Nov. 14: Updated for the game's launch.

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