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Fallout 76 hands-on: three hours in Bethesda’s online wasteland

The next Fallout feels new and familiar at the same time

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Fallout 76

Fallout 76 starts out much like any other Fallout game. Your character, an unnamed vault dweller who has been living a peaceful life in a fallout shelter while the world outside is ravaged by nuclear war, wakes up groggy and confused. Your eyes open slowly, vision blurred by the remnants of sleep. Today is “reclamation day,” a voice over a speaker tells you, the day when the residents of Vault 76 leave their safe confines and venture out into the world to rebuild America. You then get up, choose what your character looks like, and grab a wrist-worn Pip-Boy computer off a shelf.

The voice guides you through the vault, the floor littered with confetti and other debris from a wild party the previous night. There’s a cafeteria and an indoor soccer field. Along the way you’ll see a few Mr. Handys, floating robotic butlers who explain the finer points of how Fallout games work. You’ll get some stimpaks to heal yourself, and learn about the effects of too much radiation. At the end of the tour is a familiar sight for fans of the series: the heavy blast door opens up, and you’re blinded by the bright light outside. Welcome to your brand-new life in the wasteland.

But then you step outside, where a dozen people dressed in identical blue-and-yellow vault suits are all hopping around, looting the same corpse for weapons. Each one of those vault dwellers is a real person, sharing the same irradiated world as you. They wave at each other and fire guns aimlessly as they learn the controls. That’s when it hits you: Fallout 76 may look and feel like a typical 3D Fallout game, but it’s something very different.

That familiar Fallout feeling

Fallout 76 is the first multiplayer entry in the long-running role-playing game series, though it’s very clearly built off of 2015’s Fallout 4, the last major release. I recently had the chance to play the first three hours of Fallout 76, and if you played Fallout 4, or its immediate predecessors set in Washington and Las Vegas, the new game will feel very familiar. It looks the same, set in a gritty world of brown and grey, and the basics of playing are also similar, right down to the controls.

As with Fallout 4, it’s a first-person shooter with a big focus on collecting junk and repurposing it into new weapons, armor, food, and other things that make life in a nuclear wasteland a bit easier. Your Pip-Boy serves as the game’s menu, where you do everything from swap out weapons to take radiation pills. And yes, it still has a radio, so you can listen to old songs about the end of the world as you try to survive it.

That sense of familiarity extends to the game’s structure, at least early on. Fallout 76 takes place in 2102, in a massive open world set in West Virginia. This is just 25 years after nuclear war decimated the planet, making it the earliest entry in the series chronologically. (Fallout 4 is set more than a century later, in the remains of Boston.) It’s open in the sense that you’re free to go wherever you want once you leave the vault, though you’re gated somewhat by high-level monsters, which can make it impossible for brand-new players to access certain spots. There’s also a quest structure in place that I followed during my initial time with the game.

Fallout 76
Fallout 76
Fallout 76

You begin with a tutorial where you follow the Vault 76 overseer, who left earlier and is venturing through the wasteland. After a few quests, you’ll have crafted a new weapon and some armor, and purified a few bottles of water. You’ll also have come up against at least a few of the horrors lurking in West Virginia, including a new type of enemy called the scorched. They’re essentially a different take on the series’ iconic, zombie-like feral ghouls. They’re smarter, and can use weapons and hide behind cover, and Bethesda says they operate as a hive mind. However they think, you’ll be killing a lot of them.

And then there’s the stuff. Fallout games are overloaded with things to collect: old toys and burnt books, rusty revolvers and bobby pins for picking locks. When you kill a mutated dog, you can take its hide and meat. It’s the kind of game that turns you into a hoarder, just in case all of that junk comes in handy somehow. This is not only still true in Fallout 76, but even more intense. I was constantly gathering things — pretty blue flowers I hoped would have medicinal quality, or old shotguns I wanted to fix — to the point that I regularly found myself over-encumbered, which is Fallout-speak for being so heavy with items that you can’t run or fast travel.

The reason for this, it seems, is that Fallout 76 really wants you to do a lot of crafting. Workbenches are never far away; I was constantly finding them hidden in old buildings, and they’re a necessity. You can use them to turn all of that unusable junk into the raw materials necessary for building weapons, medicine, food, and other necessities. It’s an integral part of the game, but also one that can get a bit tiresome at times. A good chunk of my three hours with the game was spent fiddling about in menus, trying to get everything I needed for a new armored chestplate.


The main quest storyline, at least early on, is standard stuff. As with Fallout 4, the missions mostly involve traveling to a place, finding an item, and then killing some bad guys. What made those quests work in past games was how they were tied to the narrative; you were doing repetitive things, but at least you felt like you were doing them for a reason. But the story works very differently in Fallout 76.

The first thing series veterans will notice is that there are no characters in the world; Fallout 76 is completely devoid of NPCs, or non-player characters. Because the game takes place so early in the Fallout timeline, there are no settlements to explore. It’s a huge shift. Typically, Fallout games follow a familiar structure, where you explore the dangerous world, and then venture back to the safety of a town or settlement to rest up and talk to some folks. Dialogue choices and conversation are a massive part of past games, one that doesn’t exist at all in Fallout 76.

Instead, Fallout 76 tells its story in other ways. You’ll pick up scraps of paper and journals as you explore, as well as holotapes (essentially retrofuturistic audiologs) and read all kinds of files on the terminals scattered throughout the world. These were all present in past games, but they have to do a lot more heavy lifting this time around. (They can also be interrupted; I kept having to re-listen to a particular holotape because one of my in-game teammates was very chatty.) The few I was able to dig into felt charming and strange in a prototypically Fallout way. There was an in-depth cooking guide that was entirely about eating rib-eye steak, and woefully out of date tips for becoming a volunteer and helping out with the aftermath of nuclear war.

But they don’t replace the fun of actually conversing with other characters, and having real conversations. The only NPCs you can talk to in the game are the occasional robots you encounter, but they don’t have much to say. Instead, you’ll need to have actual conversations with your friends. And Bethesda is hoping that social aspect will allow players to create their own unique stories.

Fallout 76 lets you partner with up to three other players and form a squad to take on missions together. It feels surprisingly natural in practice. I played most of Fallout 4 with a computer-controlled ally at my side — either the roving reporter Piper or the android detective Nick — so venturing out into the wasteland with other players didn’t feel strange at all. In fact, given how much more dire and lonely this version of West Virginia is, company was very welcome.

During one mission, we had to claim a nearby campground as our own. In order to keep it protected, we all teamed up to build defenses like turrets and walls, and then organized to fight off hordes of incoming scorched ghouls. The mission itself was very basic — all we had to do was fight off multiple waves of enemies — but it was much more fun because of the social aspect. It’s one of the reasons people have stuck with Destiny 2, despite its many missteps: it’s better simply because you’re playing with other people.

That said, Fallout 76 will need to do something more than standard missions to keep players coming back, and I saw hints of that in my time. There are rare and mysterious creatures — like the fabled West Virginia mothman — that take teamwork to hunt down. I also got the chance to see one of Fallout 76’s most dramatic features: a nuclear missile launch. Players team up to hunt down nuclear codes, which can be used to fire missiles and wipe out their enemies. According to Bethesda, the aftermath also creates a temporary high-level zone that’s filled with unique monsters and items that you won’t be able to see otherwise.

Unfortunately, since I was only level five, I died immediately from radiation poisoning when I entered the irradiated zone. But it was still a cool moment. It reminded me of Fortnite’s rocket launch from back in July: the game warned everyone when and where the missile would land, and people gathered around at a nice viewing spot to watch the beautiful destruction. These kinds of limited, world-shaping events could go a long way to building out Fallout 76’s mythos, in the same way that Fortnite’s ever-changing environmental storytelling is compelling even without a traditional narrative.

But it can also create some weird moments, like when I exited the vault in the very beginning and saw a huge crowd of other players doing the same thing. As much as the game feels like classic Fallout, the online aspects can ruin the immersion. Along those lines, players who aren’t on your team can choose to be hostile and attack you. It creates an interesting tension when you meet someone new, and don’t know whether they’ll attack, offer to trade, or just ignore you altogether. (Bethesda describes it as “stranger danger.”) It also invites the potential for griefing, though the developer has an interesting solution in place. If someone kills another player who doesn’t fight back, they’ll be labeled a murderer. They’ll appear to everyone else as a big red dot on the map, and other players will get a big bounty for taking them out.

Fallout 76

Building a new life

One of the most addictive elements of Fallout 4 was the ability to not only craft weapons and gear, but entire settlements. It was mostly optional, but it meant you could create sprawling small towns, largely safe from the many dangers of the outside world, and put your own stamp on the wasteland in a small way. In retrospect, Fallout 4’s settlement building seems like a trial-run for what Bethesda is trying to do in Fallout 76.

Since there are no major settlements yet at this point in history, the idea is for players to create their own. One of the first items you’ll get in the game is called a Construction and Assembly Mobile Platform, or CAMP for short. It’s essentially a portable base builder, where you can turn raw materials into things like a weapon workbench, defensive turrets, and actual structures. You can build these bases anywhere, and the CAMP also lets you move them around if you want to relocate. Construction is still slightly clunky, as it was in Fallout 4, and it can be difficult to place things exactly where you want them.

That said, the system appears much more flexible than in Fallout 4, which had a lot of restrictions around where and what you could build. Your creations are also more precarious this time around. Camps can be social spaces you build with your teammates, but they can also be attacked and destroyed by other players or roaming wildlife. My biggest question, which unfortunately wasn’t answered in my demo of the game, is just how elaborate these camps can get. The entire conceit of Fallout 76 is that you and everyone else are out to rebuild America, and it would be fascinating if players were able to build the kinds of huge, city-like settlements we’re used to seeing in a Fallout game.

Fallout 76
Fallout 76
Fallout 76

War, war sometimes changes

While this is still a role-playing game with a focus on character development, there are a few other notable changes. Instead of the typical skill tree for unlocking new abilities, as you gain levels in the game you’ll earn something called “perk cards,” which are abilities and bonuses that you can assign to yourself. You can still choose whether to get stronger or smarter as you level up, but the new card system seems to make your character much more malleable, as you can easily move around cards based on the situation at hand.

And because this is a social experience, there’s a much bigger focus on your appearance. In past Fallout games, you often had to make the terrible decision of whether to wear an outfit that looked cool or had great stats. Now that’s gone. In Fallout 76 you wear armor underneath your outfits, so you don’t have to make any tradeoffs, whether that means sticking with your vault jumpsuit the entire game, or buying a nice leather jacket from a trader.

One of the big questions I had going into this hands-on is whether or not Fallout 76 works as a single-player experience. If you don’t have a group of friends to play with, will you still get a lot out of the game? From what I played, it seems that the game does technically function as a solo experience, but to get the most out of it you’re definitely going to need some friends to play with, even if it’s just occasionally.

For one thing, the game is a lot harder when you go solo. When I broke off from my group to explore on my own for about an hour, I died multiple times. First I was attacked by two different packs of mutated dogs, a seemingly never-ending wave of barking rage. Later, a group of robotic farmhands got really angry for unexplained reasons and proceeded to attack me with pitchforks. I ran out of stimpaks quickly, and with no teammates to revive me, I died. When I went through similar battles with teammates at my side, I fared a lot better.

There are other bonuses to working with others. After a certain level, teams can share perk cards with each other, and you can also freely fast travel to any of your companions, making it easy to get around the game’s huge map. From what I played, it seems like a game that’s worth experiencing both ways. You can explore on your own to get that solitary Fallout vibe, but you’re really going to be missing out on some of the best parts of the game if that’s the only way you play.

It’s impossible to judge an online game like Fallout 76, one that will be constantly evolving weeks and months after it launches, in just three hours. But my time with the game did aussage some of my fears. Yes, there are some quirks and tradeoffs that come from shifting the series to a massively multiplayer format, but there are also some really fascinating new aspects. And more importantly, Fallout 76 still fundamentally feels like Fallout. Only this time, you’ll have to share the wasteland.

Fallout 76 is launching November 14th on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.