The apocalypse agrees with West Virginia.
Upon emerging from Fallout 76's eponymous vault, players are treated to one of the prettiest apocalyptic landscapes to ever appear in the series.
Exploring the West Virginia wilderness, vibrantly brought to life by autumnal hues, immediately feels welcoming and fresh in a franchise that's typically been defined by browns, grays, and other colors that wouldn't look out of place on a car's undercarriage.
The latest entry in Bethesda's open-world RPG still sports a bit of a dated, detail-starved visual presentation – especially compared to recent polygon-pushers like God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 – but the pretty seasonal paint-job does a decent job overshadowing its graphical shortcomings.
This sort of double-edged critique can be applied to just about every aspect of the game, an experience that can swing from fun to frustrating faster than a Fat Man can evaporate an enemy target.
Fallout 76's colourful artistic design contrasts nicely with its dreary subject matter.
While the scenery might put you in the mood to pick apples, that perky sentiment will be quickly and severely crushed the first time you come across a group of folks that apparently woke up on the wrong side of the apocalypse.
Because Fallout 76 is a prequel, unfolding before anyone has discovered how to survive the irradiated wasteland, players will stumble upon plenty of these sad, affecting backstories.
Whether coming across the remains of someone who died shortly after the bombs dropped or discovering the skeletons of a small community that unsuccessfully gave post-apocalyptic life their best shot, the sprawling land is packed with eerie tales of the long-dead.
This backstory-centric narrative approach, combined with the fact your character's part of a group of recently emerged vault-dwellers tasked with reclaiming the post-war world, really sells the story and setting.
Sadly though, this approach also inherently means the game's massive map is void of any human life – aside from other online players – to interact with.
The quirky survivors and character-driven stories of previous games have been entirely replaced by these ghosts and their telegraphed tales of doom.
More than just missing a colourful cast of characters to interact with, however, this lack of NPC life equates to missions being driven by the non-living.
There's certainly no shortage of quests to tackle, but they're typically tied to deceased humans or robots, and are generally found in terminals, notes, holotapes, letters and other objects you can't carry on a conversation with.
Many of these quests are also of the fetch variety. While Fallout fans aren't strangers to performing filler-feeling missions, such busy work felt a bit more substantial and story-driven when it was completed to help or hurt a fictional character populating the world.
Being sent on a multi-tiered errand – by someone who scribbled a note on their deathbed – while somewhat haunting, lacks the emotional payoff of performing the task for a potential friend or foe.
There's certainly some absorbing missions to take on and, more so, engaging stories to uncover about the world that once was, but much of it feels like the sort of lore-expanding side content that would support a meatier main narrative.
FIGHTING FOES WITH FRIENDS
Of course, Fallout 76 is an always-online, multi-player affair that encourages players to author their own adventures with other real-life survivors.
And to its credit, the game's at its best when you've met up with a mate to scavenge, trade, or gift goods – it feels genuinely rewarding to help a fellow survivor in need – or teamed-up to take down one of the game's more menacing monsters.
The nuclear fallout has apparently had some different effects on West Virginia's wildlife population, so a number of new, bigger beasties, are just begging for you and your buddies to form a hunting party.
Joining forces to bring down the bat-dragon hybrid Scorchbeasts is a highlight, as is finding strength in numbers to face down the lumbering Grafton monster.
While these battles are a blast though, they're few and far between. Whether playing with friends or braving the wasteland solo, you'll find more of your time is spent scavenging for resources, crafting gear, upgrading your camp, and taking on tedious quests.
There's some RPG-loop fun to be found in all these activities, especially for hardcore survival game fans, but they feel more grind-y in Fallout 76 than they have in previous entries.
A big part of the problem is the aforementioned lack of fun, interesting characters populating the world, but the more punishing survival elements don't help either.
Ensuring your character is properly fed and hydrated can be a chore, while constantly keeping them from being over-encumbered is a frequent frustration.
CAN'T PAUSE THE APOCALYPSE
Monitoring and managing these survival elements can also be a blessing and a curse, as you can't pause the action in Fallout 76's online world.
On the one hand, taking care of your character while on the run makes for some intense, looking-over-your-shoulder moments; on the flip side, getting pounded into the pavement by a mutated monster while you're switching gear can get old fast.
This, however, also supports the argument that you're better off playing with at least one other survivor who can watch your back while you're fiddling with your inventory.
The bigger issue, especially for fans of the previous games' V.A.T.S. system, is that the strategic combat's been neutered a bit.
Rather than pausing the action to pick specific, high-value targets on an enemy's body, the mechanic plays out – albeit less precisely – in real-time.
Those who played preceding instalments as straight-up shooters will hardly notice the difference, and may even prefer the change, but the vast majority who relied on the system to drop Super Mutants will likely be disappointed in the watered down take.
FALLOUT 76 VERDICT
Whether you're looking to reclaim Appalachia solo or play the game, as intended, with some apocalypse-taming friends, Fallout 76 is a bit of a mixed bag.
On the plus side, it can absolutely be tackled as a single-player experience – just one that's not quite as engaging or narratively rich as Fallout 3 or 4.
Those willing to dive into the series' first full-on multiplayer entry with the enthusiasm of a Vault-Tec volunteer will find it similarly hit-or-miss.
The content, especially combat, is more fun to tackle with a buddy or two by your side, but it's not innovative or compelling enough to pull players away from online communities they're already invested in.
We have no doubt Bethesda will attempt to improve the experience through upcoming patches and updates – some audio-dropping bugs we encountered early on appear to have already been addressed. But whether they can convert the franchise's most passionate, single-player fans to an always-online wasteland remains to be seen.
For now though, we suggest keeping your expectations in check upon emerging from Vault 76.