Fallout 76 finally stands triumphant — and there’s more to come

It’s been a long, hard road for Fallout 76 — but one that has finally led to a triumphant peak. The game’s disastrous launch has been covered a thousand times from every angle; it was an intricate mess of overlapping problems that made the game difficult to play and extremely clippable for memes. But in 2024, the beleaguered game is stepping into the spotlight and enjoying a wave of positive attention. Bethesda has spent years patching up the ship, adding NPCs, companions, quests, Expeditions, factions, a battle royale mode, and more cryptids than you can shake a stick at.

The Fallout show on Amazon Prime kickstarted a wave of interest in everything Fallout; Steam charts have shown that every game in the franchise has found a new player base. The games published under Bethesda’s umbrella are Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 4. Each of these RPGs is a meaty campaign with enough content — and player-made mods — to sustain its own fandom of players. But Fallout 5 is a ways out, and Fallout 4 is nearly a decade old. The game best suited to draw in new fans who were hoping for just general Fallout vibes is Fallout 76.

Starting the journey

A group of Vault 76 characters partying in Fallout 76 Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

“It’s no secret that Fallout 76 had some bumps at release,” said creative director Jonathan Rush in an email interview with Polygon. But even in its earliest days, Fallout 76 was defined by its enthusiastic community. These were players who loved the game, warts and all, and stuck around. It was largely because of these fans that I was able to eke out enjoyment of Fallout 76, and I’ve returned to the game on and off over the years, sampling from these delights. Early on, the high points came from other players, and uncovering the stories of the dead who came before.

“The characters that initially launched with 76 were nuclear shadows, whose purpose was to tell the story of what all had happened between [when] the bombs drop and the point where you emerge from Vault 76,” said Rush. “Since Appalachia was initially devoid of human life, we relied on these characters as tools to give our players an understanding of the new world they had emerged into.”

But without characters in the world, and dialogue trees, Fallout 76 was missing much of the je ne sais quoi that makes a Fallout game. While the community team gathered feedback and part of the team provided smaller-scale updates and bug fixes, a larger group got to work on Wastelanders, the first expansion that added NPCs and a main quest to the game. “The development for Wastelanders started very soon after launch and was a huge effort which involved all Bethesda Game Studios locations,” said Rush. “On these types of games, it’s difficult to only support one of those – a dedicated group to maintain the integrity of the live service is crucial.”

A new era

A group of players pose in a selection of wild and crazy outfits, including bright pink power armor, animal mascot garb, and a massive spiked suit with a minigun. Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Some of these updates have been much more experimental than others. Looking over the list of updates shows a healthy amount of variety. Nuclear Winter was a battle royale mode, engineered by a fictional in-game super-AI and rich with cosmetic rewards. Steel Dawn was a two-part narrative update that had players fight alongside the Brotherhood of Steel, learning more about the enigmatic order. The Pitt and Atlantic City were host to Expeditions, new maps outside of the main zone of Appalachia. Now, with the most recent Skyline Valley update, Bethesda is expanding the original map to include a weird, dangerous area to explore in the south. The bigger structural updates have been peppered with smaller experiments: killer aliens, grilling meat with a super mutant and his brahmin buddy, mothman cults, and new tools for building comfier CAMPs.

“We’re thankful to our community for giving us all the feedback and criticism they did so we could narrow our focus and fix the most critical issues,” said Rush. “We feel that because of everything we went through with the game and the community, we have a strong and open dialogue with our fans to keep the game updated in the most impactful way for our players.

“Having an awesome Community team that listens to the feedback and effectively communicates it back to the developers was a tremendous benefit; knocking down the walls between the developers and the players is the key so we can have constructive discourse where both sides feel engaged,” Rush added.

Not every experiment was successful; Nuclear Winter was removed, some events were quietly retired, and some quests are more fondly regarded than others. But combined with greater stability and sense of identity, the new updates have transformed Fallout 76 from a clown fiesta to a genuinely compelling game in a No Man’s Sky-esque redemption arc.

Future forward

A terrifying human-esque cryptid charges on the camera on elongated limbs. A giant cyst grows out of its neck, beneath a row of sharp and scary teeth and yellowed eyes beneath a heavy brow. Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

When looking back at past updates, Rush considers the most important lesson to be this: “Our players really love to play in our Appalachia. What I mean by this is, I look at Appalachia as the main character for this game, and the story is told by how it changes over time – both on the developer side, and through our players.”

Skyline Valley, the latest update, is an example of what expanding on Appalachia can be. While Expeditions require the player to jump on a vertibird and fly off to some distant locale, Skyline Valley changes the map we’ve been exploring since 2018. “Expanding the borders of our map gives us additional opportunities to flesh out the world further through stories, new locations, and the inhabitants within,” Rush explained.

There are more updates on the way for Fallout 76, and by this point, the designers have figured out what works for the game. Experiments like the Burrows, or the Pitt, weren’t always perfect — but they proved what worked and what didn’t. Throughout this entire process, Fallout 76 has been backed by a brilliantly creative community of players who build CAMPs, tell cinematic stories, work as doctors, recreate Shakespeare’s productions, or run charity drives.

I recently loaded into Fallout 76 to play with a friend who had just downloaded the game, and we rocked up to an event. Once it concluded, the veterans ran up to my friend and dropped a couple of bags chock-full of goods — a welcoming gesture toward a new player, and a common ritual among longtime veterans.

“As our game world changes, we would like to open opportunities for our more seasoned veterans,” said Rush. “We have big plans to make the game more challenging and rewarding for our adventurers and builders alike. Powerful gear and new playstyles to conquer enormously nasty encounters, and new systems to encourage our builders to push even further, are all on the table.” Fallout 76 has come tremendously far during its life so far, and now that it’s been through such a rocky road, the rest of the journey almost feels like a victory lap.