Hands-on: Fallout 76 lets you bring some company to the Apocalypse

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Enlarge / I'm glad I got to see this with you.

After Bethesda revealed the "entirely online" Fallout 76 at E3 earlier this year, some franchise fans worried the new game would feel uncomfortably different from the story-driven, single-player post-apocalyptic action they know and love. After playing the game for about three hours at a preview event last week, I came away feeling like I was playing an elaborate Fallout 4 mod with some basic online features grafted on top.

Our preview experience started inside Vault 76 itself, an extremely messy space still reeling from a party celebrating the residents' impending departure into the post-nuclear wasteland of West Virginia. In the vault itself I could only see and talk to my three fellow team members as we all got our gear and viewed some basic tutorial content.

Once we stepped out of the vault, though, there were dozens of other survivors, all on their own teams, milling about and throwing built-in gestures to each other before setting off. Those gestures turn out to be the only way to directly communicate with players that aren't on my team, making the presence of so many other survivors feel like more of a nuisance than a meaningful addition off the bat (Bethesda developers on hand said voice chat with nearby non-team members was being worked on for post-launch).

Teamwork makes the dream work

To start, our team mostly ignored our fellow survivors and hiked into the West Virginia wilderness on our own. While the entire world was wide open to us, we generally hewed to the breadcrumb trail of a main quest line, which focused on finding a mysterious "overseer" leaving cryptic clues to her location. On the way, there was a lot of the usual foraging for survival materials, battling with mutated animal and zombie-like human antagonists, and discovering distracting side-quests.

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