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‘Fallout 76’: Multiplayer game actually feels lonely. And that’s great.

The Post's Gene Park spent three hours playing 'Fallout 76,' which will be released Nov. 14, and reviews Bethesda's latest installment. (Video: Thomas Johnson, Gene Park/The Washington Post)
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Moments of solitude or loneliness define the Fallout experience. So imagine my surprise when I experienced them during my three hours playing Bethesda Game Studios’ first multiplayer online experience, “Fallout 76.”

My teammates were engaged in a high-pitched battle between super mutants, ghouls and other new irradiated creatures in the West Virginia wasteland, the setting of “Fallout 76,” set to be released Nov. 14. I decided to run away, not out of cowardice, mind you, but out of curiosity.

Gaming journalists and influencers were invited to be the first to play the game at the storied Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, represented in the game as the White Springs Hotel. For decades, the real-life hotel held a secret from the American public: a nuclear bunker for members of Congress meant to ensure the continuity of government in the event of the nuclear apocalypse.

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The Washington Post actually uncovered this secret government project in 1992. As The Post journalist at this event, it seemed fitting that I make a personal trek away from my team’s goals to find the video-game version of this bunker myself. I arrived at the hotel, and not a living soul was there. The housekeepers and concierge staff were all robots, still fulfilling their duties despite decades of death and decay. I hiked down the dark, barely lit pathway behind the hotel. I knew where to go because I had just walked the real path the night before.

And sure enough: There was the 25-ton blast door leading to this secret bunker. I had just walked through the doors in real life (thanks to the tour provided by the Greenbrier staff), but this time, in the game, I was alone. This was my adventure and no one else’s.

Or so I thought. As I walked through, there was, in fact, another living soul on the property — Larry Hryb, famously known as Major Nelson, the face of Microsoft’s Xbox Live service and its director of programming. Turns out, Hyrb and I were the only players in the group who decided to seek out the bunker. It was a solitary experience, shared between the two of us.

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My three hours with “Fallout 76” were punctuated by many moments like this. One minute we’re running across the vast West Virginia hillsides fending off robots and bugs, and the next, I could be completely alone, foraging for my supplies and food stash. Sometimes I’d be inclined to share. Most of the time I wasn’t. I ended the game with a surplus of about 20 stimpaks, or healing kits.

Authors of the wildly successful and culturally significant Elder Scrolls series, Bethesda is a titan in the solitary, single-player, role-playing game experience. “Fallout 3,” released 10 years ago, was its first entry into the storied PC franchise.

Since the first Elder Scrolls game, players have always been curious: How would Bethesda’s RPG experience, which relies on branching narratives affected by consequential player decisions, work as a multiplayer experience? Turns out, it’s a lot closer to what you might’ve imagined. It really is “Fallout, but with your friends.”

The game operates on an upgraded and modified version of the Creation Engine that was used to build “Fallout 4,” and the similarities are immediately apparent. The control scheme and the user interface for the menus are carried over from the 2015 game.

The only other humans you’ll meet in the game are other real-life humans like Hryb, which is a drastic departure from the previous games but also a departure from most multiplayer role-playing games, which typically feature non-playable characters, or NPCs, to add color and content.

The game’s stated goal? To rebuild America. Every player is a member of Vault 76, a nuclear fallout shelter designed to hold the “best and brightest” America had to offer. The year is 2102, 25 years after the bombs dropped and decimated the nation. On “Reclamation Day,” the Vault Dwellers of 76 are set loose upon West Virginia to rebuild America’s government, infrastructure and social structures.

Did I mention that this game is a prequel to the entire Fallout franchise, which would later feature a decimated Washington, D.C., and a seceded “New California Republic” that’s so irradiated, the state’s iconic flag is replaced with a two-headed bear?

To Bethesda’s huge credit, the mechanics that thread together the multiplayer aspects seem solid. There is an easy-to-use menu interface to team up with your friends. You can immediately fast-travel to wherever your teammates might be. And approaching other players brings up the option to trade with them.

The game introduces a barter-and-trade system with other players that mirrors how you used to trade with NPCs. Other players can offer you items free or for a set price. These items include weapons, clothing and armor sets. They could also be crafting items you pick up around the wasteland, which are used to craft better armor and weapons, as well as workstations for campsites. Although you can obtain powerful weapons, stronger weapons are locked by levels. So sure, you can have a Level 65 player decked in X-01 power armor hand you a high-powered Gauss rifle. But you won’t be able to use it for dozens of levels.

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The reasoning behind the decision to make every game human an actual human becomes apparent the minute you run into another player in the wasteland. It changes the rules of engagement: There will always be a consequence with another human. That could be a friendly emote or dance-off, an invitation to trade, or engaging in player-vs.-player combat.

If a player kills another player who is not defending themself, the murdering player is then branded as, well, a murderer. Like “Grand Theft Auto Online,” the criminal player is branded with a bounty and will appear to other players as a big red star on the map. The murderer would also lose the ability to see other players on the map. Once the murderer is taken down, they’ll have to pay a sizable bounty to the player who defeated them.

And there’s no way to seize possessions from other players besides a willing trade. Killing another player means they only drop their scraps. Griefers will not benefit in any way besides having the thrill of griefing other players. If a certain player is griefing you too much? That multiplayer menu system also includes a “block player from session” option. Think of it like Twitter shadowbanning. That player will still be in the world, but they will be invisible to you and no longer able to affect you or your game.

Each session will have a maximum of 24 players running around a West Virginia map that is about four times as large as Boston in “Fallout 4.”

“When we got down to 24 [players] and we were playtesting internally, we were like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of dead space,’ so we ended up adding four times the amount of content,” said Chris Meyer, “Fallout 76” development director.

The game boasts about 70,000 weapon and armor mods and workshop items. On top of an “aggressive” patch schedule, Bethesda is developing and planning to release free post-launch content, said Jeff Gardiner, project lead.

The game has an end, too. The story begins with you finding the “Overseer,” or leader, of Vault 76, who left the vault first. She’s a West Virginia native, so you’re meant to follow her journey (via environmental cues and audiotapes) as she ventures through her home state 25 years after the end of the world. That bunker Hryb and I found? It was mostly inaccessible and probably tied to late-game content.

The iconic “Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System” also makes a return, but in a different way from every Fallout game before. Instead of slowing or stopping time (which was meant to keep the game closely to its turn-based RPG roots), it merely acts as a “lock-on” mechanic. The game still calculates the likelihood of hitting an enemy, but time flows like normal. Since Bethesda took over, the franchise has been creeping away from its slower, meticulous role-playing roots. With this revamped “VATS” system, the game is the closest it’s ever been to a straight-up action shooter.

The game in its current form does not allow for private sessions. Bethesda promises private sessions in the future but could not provide a timetable, probably because it also wants private sessions to feature mod support. So don’t count on this happening anytime soon.

The graphics are a noticeable improvement over “Fallout 4.” Lighting and shading are vastly improved, particularly because the game features far more greenery and wildlife details for the sunlight to play with. Despite being close to release, Bethesda says it’s still working out stabilizing the frame rate. The game did crash on one of my teammates. Fortunately, the ability to drop right back in was painless. A game this large is bound to have bugs. And Bethesda games are known for being so ambitious that you’re guaranteed to find some open seams.

Questions about the game’s longevity persist, particularly because some of the missions we gathered were garden-variety MMO and shooter missions, like hunting a certain amount of creatures or defending a point from waves of enemies. Bethesda may be betting these missions would be more interesting in a Fallout dressing. And there are probably other missions (like one involving that bunker) that are far more interesting and complicated than we were allowed to see.

There’s also the issue of how the community will act. Yes, “Grand Theft Auto Online” does have a bounty system, but given that game’s popularity (as the most profitable entertainment product of all time), that community is well known for its toxicity.

Considering the ongoing calamities in the previous games, are Vault 76 dwellers doomed to fail in their effort to rebuild and live in a society? Probably. And it’ll remain a question for “Fallout 76” as well, and we probably won’t know without at least a few months in hindsight. But Bethesda is doing all it can, with a strong focus on creating interesting and tight player engagement while punishing bad players, all the while maintaining that “Fallout” feel of solitude. We’ll know better, once Reclamation Day finally arrives.

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