Engine Trouble

Part three of my review-in-progress of Fallout 76, looking at its technical aspects.

This is Part III of an ongoing review of Fallout 76. Since this is a potentially very huge multiplayer world, I thought it best to review it while I was playing it.

Contents: Parts I, II, III and IV

From a technical perspective, Fallout 76 is rather disappointing. It’s clearly still the same engine used in Fallout 4 with a couple of minor adjustments. On the surface, it looks sufficiently different to hide this fact quite well. This is mostly down to the more diverse look of the game’s environments. The world in Fallout 76 is much more colourful and varied than in Fallout 3 and 4. Where Fallout 4 made some attempts to deviate from the grey-brown-black colour palette of Bethesda’s first Fallout title, the current game dials this up to eleven. This is mostly enabled by making Appalachia an area that was spared most of the nuclear destruction from the Great War.

This decision is commendable and it makes the game much more interesting as well as more pleasing to look at. The game world here really is marvellous. But it can’t hide the fact that the capabilities of the game’s engine are clearly maxed out. The finished product is merely an incremental improvement from Fallout 4 – a game that came out almost exactly three years ago – and that just isn’t enough in today’s AAA climate. Fallout 76 was released head-to-head with games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 and compared to those titles it can not keep up.

Bethesda is embarrassing itself here. And I do think they know it, because they have tried very hard to make this game look better on the outside than it actually looks. There are a lot of depth-of-field and blur effects in play here. They make the game look much better in screenshots – especially when using the built-in photo mode, which is excellent by the way. But when you play the game and see things in motion, you quickly notice the rough edges and technical deficiencies these effects are meant to cover up.

Some limitiations of this engine are understandable and there is, arguably, nothing Bethesda can do to fix them aside from developing their technology significantly in this regard …which would probably have meant not being able to release a Fallout game in 2018. One could argue that this might have been the better decision, but that’s a discussion I want to save for the final part of this review. One thing I want to mention here however, is a limitation of Fallout 76 that I can’t understand: the game does not currently support ultra-widescreen monitors. Which is really dumb because Fallout 4, obviously based on the exact same engine, does so happily. What the fuck, Bethesda? Sure, this isn’t relevant for most people, who are playing on 16:9 or 16:10 ratios, but it is increadibly annoying to those like me who have ultra-widescreen monitors. And from a technical standpoint it’s absolutely incomprehensible.

It does seem a bit like Bethesda was desperate to release a game in 2018 and looked to the Fallout franchise to fill the hole in their schedule. They apparently decided that it would be possible to polish Fallout 4 a bit, save content creation by leaving out the NPCs, having multiplayer pick up the slack and then push the thing out the door fast. If that is what happened, the game as released clearly shows it.

As far as graphics are concerned, the thing actually runs pretty well on my machine with everything maxed out (albeit at a 16:9 aspect ratio) on an Nvidia GTX 980. The technical issues I’ve encountered are almost exclusively down to server issues. Sometimes mission progress doesn’t save correctly or your painstakingly constructed base gets packed up when you rejoin the server, which means you have to build it again from scratch. Some of these problems seem to have gotten addressed with the recent patch of the game, though.

A very infuriating problem still exists, however: When your system loses contact to the server for any reason, the game completely freezes your in-game character controls. The first time this happened to me, I was frozen like this for over two minutes. But even a ten second lock up can prove fatal if you are in combat or trying to traverse a dangerous area in the game. I’ve pretty much eliminated the possibility that these problems are due to my internet connection as well, as I’ve started monitoring my traffic to the game servers very thoroughly when this started. I think these problems are happening on the Bethesda servers. Not to mention that I’ve never had any problems with any other game (or any other application for that matter) for the last year-and-a-bit that I’ve been on this FTTH connection with a high end router.

The last technical issue that needs to be mentioned is that Fallout 76 is only available through Bethesda’s proprietary launcher. There is no Steam version. That’s even more annoying to me than the no-widescreen-issue. I need to really, really want to play a game to make me go and install another fucking launcher on my PC. Roughly 95% of my gaming happens in Steam. I only have Origin, Uplay and now Bethesda’s stupid launcher installed because I really like a certain game franchise – ie. Dragon Age, FIFA, Silent Hunter and now Fallout. But that comes with a price. If you make me do that, the games I’m doing it for need to be really, really good. If they are not, I’ll quickly get pissed off and will be massively predisposed against ever installing any of your crap in the future if I don’t absolutely have to.

The more I play Fallout 76, the more I lose faith that it is a game that warrants such an inconvenience. This might be the first Fallout game on PC ever that I’d be OK with skipping entirely. Roughly twenty hours in, I’m quickly running out of patience for its foibles and faults. And there doesn’t seem to be enough story there to make me press on; or it’s told in a way that is just too awkward.

I will give the game another chance, though. I will play a bit more while I’m making up my mind to pass a final verdict. But Part IV of this review will probably be the final one. Unless something unforseen happens, I can’t see myself spending another ten hours in this game. That would mean a lot of the things I was planning to talk about and teased in previous parts of my review-in-progress – like plot points and the question if the micro transactions are worth it – will probably not get covered. They might just not be relevant in the face of the game not being as good as I hoped it would be.

But we will see, I’m willing to have my mind changed. I love Fallout dearly, after all.

Fabian A. Scherschel Written by: Fabian A. Scherschel

Fab is a freelance tech journalist and podcaster from Hamburg, Germany. You can hire him.