What the Hell Happened to Fallout?

My fellow fanatics, we need to talk about Fallout. It’s a series that has a place close to many players’ hearts, and for good reasons. Specifically it’s atmospheric depiction of a world after the devastation of nuclear war, sharp writing, and deeply rewarding single-player experience. But the post-apocalyptic RPG has started hanging out with the wrong crowds and started developing habits that are just not right for it.

A series of bad habits that have culminated in Fallout 76, an online-only multiplayer experience that apes the look and sound of the franchise, but completely forgets the very heart beating underneath it.

But first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. The first Fallout game was developed for PC back in 1997. It takes place in an alternate future where the United States as a country doubled down on utilizing atomic energy, as well as its 1950s jingoism in the face of the Communist threat. This lead to Canada getting annexed by the US, the Russians and Chinese uniting into a more daunting Communist superpower in response, and eventually the entire destruction of the world as we know it in the mutually assured destruction of nuclear fire. You play as someone who is finally stepping out into the aftermath of this war centuries later, with humanity slowly rebuilding itself from its newfound stone age.

Fallout 4

And in the broadest strokes, the gameplay is about what you’d expect. Picking up weapons and armor, scavenging for resources to stay alive, making allies, and fighting against whatever threatens your life in this new brutal wasteland. But what really helped the first Fallout standout was its presentation and its underlying satirical tone. In many ways, the game’s visual identity was a throwback to pulpy science-fiction funny books from the 50s’ era. Things like fifteen-foot tall green ogre people, giant glowing cockroach monsters or stupidly advanced robots with blinking lights and laser guns are not only present, but are treated as natural phenomenon in this world; thanks in part either to the magic of advanced science through the power of atomic energy or centuries of nuclear radiation.

It gave players a retro-futurist experience. Zapping radiation zombies in laser gun battles while attempting to rebuild society after things have gone to hell has a certain inherent appeal of reading a Flash Gordon serial after all. It is this very mix of tones and styles that gave the game its own distinct identity and style, enough to spawn multiple sequels and spin-offs focusing on different factions and eras of this new post-nuclear world.

But this kind of square-jawed adventuring and schlocky sci-fi action is made bittersweet and contemplative by one simple phrase declared at the start of every single game: War never changes.

It’s a phrase that is tied to the series for good reason. No matter what it is for: resources, ideology, pure psychotic rage, etc., humanity will inevitably endure conflict. Even when the planet has been blasted to hell and back, society will find a way to fight over what’s left, learning nothing from the past: even if those particular lessons are as large and obvious as lifeless barren wastelands, blast craters full of radioactivity, and mutated monstrosities.

Or worse yet, the very ideas and concepts from that old world, ones that helped guide things to such calamity, will endure and carry on. The Vaults that wound up saving certain people were the products of the company Vault-Tec, who looked at impending nuclear holocaust and saw dollar signs instead of existential terror. Promoting their shelters as a second home to have when the fighting’s over, complete with a highly marketable mascot. Because of course we can’t just put down the guns and talk it out, those commies gotta die. It’s practically a walking condemnation of the very ideals that this caricatured version of the United States stands for personified as a chipper blond-haired boy in a jumpsuit.

And when Fallout dives into these themes it leads to some of the sharpest writing in gaming. For example, there is The Enclave, a group of extremists who saw the marketing and idealized exaggeration of what the US was at its peak, and wants to fight tooth and nail to bring that romanticized world back. Make America Great Again, by power-armor enforced martial law if necessary. Fallout New Vegas mines this well further with ideas and societal structures being remixed and reinterpreted such as street gangs made up of Elvis impersonators, a fully functioning underworld mafia run by the unseen director of the flashy and opulent New Vegas strip. Even after the bombs dropped, Sin City is still up and running, and business is still booming. Even Fallout 4 has dark echoes of the Red Scare and Macarthyism rattling around in its paranoid narrative about synthetic humans hiding among the populace forwarding the agenda of some unseen organization.

This is all thanks to the series focusing on being an immersive single-player experience. Adventures full of interesting characters, groups, and ideas all introduced to either vocalize or amplify what the series has always been about: History repeats itself if humanity doesn’t learn. All of it wrapped up in a four-color wrapper of sci-fi silliness, but potent all the same.

Then… the marketing for Fallout 76 started coming in, and each new piece of information made me and other ardent Fallout fans groan in disgust. Instead of a carefully crafted immersive single-player experience with memorable characters, stories, and adventures, Fallout 76 would be an online multiplayer-only survival game experience. A pretty obvious attempt by publisher Bethesda to pivot the series into Games as Live Service Platforms, where the focus is more on adding new monsters to kill, monotonous tasks to repeat for rewards, and the appeal of interacting online with friends. And the very kind of tedious gameplay usually kept to the margins of the series: inventory management, getting food water and bedrest, etc., has now been made center stage. No real story to speak of, no real goal or real theme to explore, not even an enemy to work against. Just players messing around with other players and occasionally shooting radiated monsters.

The most tone-deaf of this implementation is the game’s touted endgame content where you and your friends launch nukes on various locations in order to scour them for supplies.

Somehow between the release of Fallout 1 and Fallout 76, the series went from being a dark satire of war, patriotism, and rampant consumerism to actively advocating those very values. The first game said these ideas are what lead to disaster, the new game practically reads like Vault-Tec propaganda. “Join us in the apocalypse, grab your friends, stake your claim and reclaim America, and nuke the crap out of anyone that gets in your way,” it seems to say with absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever. A comparison made all the more apt by the inclusion of microtransactions for cosmetic outfits.

Yet, most of that might have been salvageable if it wasn’t obvious how rushed the entire production was. The whole game looks and runs worse than the last installment back in 2015. Sales are down considerably than what the company wanted, to the point that barely even a week after launch Fallout 76 has dropped in price across the board, and it is currently the worst critically received game in the entire series.

It is an utter insult to fans of the franchise. Where once there were memorable characters and locales, there is just aimless non-committal nothing. A game that looks, sounds, and acts like Fallout, but has absolutely none of the enduring charm, wit, or content that has made players come back time and time again. While the idea of an online Fallout game could have some merit, it is not worth forgetting the very foundation the series was based on.