"War. War never changes." To video game fans, those words are synonymous with the immensely popular "Fallout" franchise.
But the "Fallout" game itself is undergoing a change of nuclear proportion with the November release of "Fallout 76," the first game in the series to feature multiplayer support -- and the first video game ever set in the state of West Virginia.
During a special hands-on event hosted by the game's publisher, Bethesda, last week at The Greenbrier resort, I and a small group of media from around the world had an opportunity to play through the first three hours of a not-quite-complete build of "Fallout 76." And while the changes are unmistakable, one truth remains -- this is still "Fallout." And it is still a whole lot of fun.
My trek across the hills and hollows of the Mountain State began inside Vault 76 on Reclamation Day. In the alternate-history world of "Fallout," Vault 76 was built in West Virginia to house America's best and brightest. In the event of nuclear war, it would be these brave souls who would venture out into the great unknown and begin the process of rebuilding the nation. The opening of the vault on Reclamation Day, set 25 years after the bombs fell, is the first step toward achieving that goal.
After spending only a brief moment creating my custom character, I followed the signs directing me toward the exit of the vault. In typical "Fallout" fashion, I was briefly blinded by my first taste of sunlight as I emerged from the vault. But as the world around me came into clearer view, I was immediately taken aback by the overwhelming abundance of trees dressed in colorful foliage and the rolling mountains that beckoned in the distance.
Mountains and trees aren't generally things I get overly excited about in video games, but having spent countless hours exploring the brown, barren, wind-swept landscapes found in previous "Fallout" games, their appearance was a breath of fresh air.
At a roundtable discussion held after the play session, a developer at Bethesda Game Studios said West Virginia's natural beauty and terrain were factors in the company's decision to use the state as the backdrop for "Fallout 76." During my time with the game, it was obvious that the team at BGS went to great lengths to not only recreate the state's wild and wonderful qualities, but to incorporate them in ways that can directly affect gameplay -- crouching amid the thick undergrowth of a forest can conceal you from enemies, while traversing the uneven, rocky terrain drains stamina.
Upon exiting the vault, I joined up with my group -- two other journalists and a Bethesda team member serving as our guide -- and set off in search of the Overseer, leader of Vault 76 and the first to emerge on Reclamation Day. Tracking down the Overseer is the overarching quest at the heart of "Fallout 76" and the first mission you receive after leaving the vault. How and when you choose to pursue that quest is entirely up to you; as with other "Fallout" games, player freedom is paramount.
Our first clue to the Overseer's whereabouts pointed us to a small farmhouse located in a valley a short distance from the vault entrance. As we made our way down the steep hillside, a dilapidated shack tucked away in the woods caught our eye. As I attempted to investigate, the growing cover of darkness impaired my vision and I soon lost sight of the building and my teammates.
Then, like a beacon in the night, the sound of a banjo directed me to their location further up the mountain. One of my teammates had discovered the banjo -- one of several different types of musical instruments scattered around the game world (I later found a mouth harp near a still). He began to pick a tune, which echoed down the mountain and provided us all with a good laugh. These instruments are permanent fixtures to the environment and can't be added to your inventory, thus ensuring other players have an opportunity to enjoy them during their travels.
As we continued our journey, we made quick work of some freakishly large ticks and a few feral ghouls. We also had our first run-in with the Scorched, a new type of ghoul that has maintained at least some of its human characteristics and intelligence. These enemies are quick and dangerous and have the ability to use weapons. They are also still dressed in their human clothes; many of those I encountered wore mining helmets or military fatigues, further driving home the fact that these were once the people who inhabited our state before the nuclear apocalypse.
Reaching the farmhouse brought us face-to-face with a second group of players. As no one on either team had reached Level 5 -- the prerequisite for initiating player-versus-player combat -- the encounter remained peaceful. Upon reaching Level 5, players are free to attack and kill other players in the game. If you choose not to participate in combat and are killed, your assailant will be marked as a murderer and have a bounty placed on them that can be claimed by any other player in the game -- even members of their own team. Bethesda said it hopes this move will encourage fair play and foster a positive gaming experience, but only time will tell if that holds true.
After picking up the trail of breadcrumbs left by the Overseer, our Bethesda guide suggested we take a break from the main quest to check out a nearby landmark -- the Tyler County Fairgrounds and adjacent Tyler County Speedway (known as the Tyler County Dirt Track in "Fallout 76"). I've never visited either location in real life, but after a quick Google image search I could clearly see the resemblance. The press box at the race track was instantly recognizable.
The speedway was one of several public workshops able to be claimed by any player or group. After clearing out a pocket of ghouls, we secured the speedway for our own and quickly set up defensive turrets. I took the opportunity to upgrade my weapons at the workbench. While we were planning our next move, we were alerted to a random event -- waves of robots were coming to attack our camp. Fortunately, our turrets did their job and mowed down the mechanical menace at our doorstep.
Building camps and bases are part of the larger meta game in "Fallout 76." Players can claim and fortify pre-existing locations or set down their portable C.A.M.P. device to quickly establish a base practically anywhere. Creating these settlements allows the player to farm valuable resources, manage their inventory, and craft and upgrade weapons and armor. Setting up a camp is also an easy way to create a fast-travel point, which comes in handy when you need to cover a lot of ground in a hurry.
With our base secure, our guide pointed out a nearby island across a shallow stream that seemed an ideal spot for us to practice setting up our individual camps. As I emerged from the irradiated water on the opposite side of the shore, I was greeted with an unnerving message alerting me to the name of our would-be sanctuary -- "Deathclaw Island."
In the world of "Fallout," deathclaws are one of the most terrifying creatures you can encounter in the wasteland. They strike fast and are relentless in their pursuit; they aren't unbeatable, but I generally go out of my way to avoid them until my character is high-level and well-equipped. My companions were Level 4 and armed with little more than homemade pistols and hopeful attitudes. I was only Level 3 and carried a small hunting rifle, two grenades and the knowledge that I was about to die.
Despite our best efforts, the deathclaw quickly annihilated our entire team. Undeterred, we reloaded back into the game and, after collecting our gear from brown paper bags that marked our death, felled the beast and reaped our rewards. I was pleasantly surprised to see the loot was randomized for each member of the team -- we all received high-level weapons, but no two were alike. Before we could finish basking in the glow of our victory, the earth began to tremble again and a second deathclaw was spawned. Riding a wave of newfound confidence, we eliminated our foe with relative ease.
Fearing the arrival of yet another monster, we decided to leave the island and head south toward the state Capitol icon on the map. (I had wanted to explore as much of BGS's version of West Virginia as possible, but as with previous "Fallout" games, there is such an overwhelming amount of interesting stuff crammed into the game world that simply going from Point A to Point B without getting sidetracked is downright impossible. At least, it was for me.)
Realizing my time with the game was drawing short, I raced ahead of my teammates in hopes of seeing as much as I could before having to turn in my controller. I ran through Flatwoods, which in the game quite literally sits in the shadow of the New River Gorge Bridge, and continued toward Charleston. I ran past a power facility with two giant cooling towers, clearly meant to signify the John Amos plant. And as I approached Charleston, the Capitol building was visible from quite a distance away. It wasn't until I got closer that I noticed it had been overrun with super mutants and feral ghouls (insert your joke about government officials here).
While I wanted to get a closer look at the Capitol and possibly see about going inside, I recognized I stood no chance against its current occupants. I ventured instead into downtown Charleston, where I located a building that looked suspiciously like Kanawha United Presbyterian Church, as well as the remnants of the Charleston Herald (sorry Gazette-Mail fans). I made my way up to the airport perched on a mountaintop overlooking the city, then quickly retreated once I saw that it, too, was controlled by super mutants. By this time the rest of my team had arrived at the Capitol and picked a fight with some of the locals and a snallygaster, one of the many creatures of West Virginia folklore that inhabit "Fallout 76."
Moving further into downtown, I encountered another such beast -- the Grafton monster. Big, ugly and packing a punch, this guy got the better of me but not my teammates. According to our guide, creatures like the Grafton monster, Mothman and the snallygaster exist across West Virginia and killing one doesn't preclude you from encountering another at a different time or place.
After yet another respawn and trip back to my death marker to retrieve my paper bag full of gear, I discovered a row of architecturally distinct mansions, each with its own name. I didn't recognize them and couldn't locate any reference to them online, but the developers pointed out that while some names had to be changed, the designs themselves were meant to reflect real places in W.Va.
It was at this point I decided to join my teammates, who had ventured east to the game's version of The Greenbrier resort, which has been meticulously recreated in "Fallout 76." Upon visiting the actual resort for the first time, one of the developers remarked he already knew his way around the grounds because he had spent so much time exploring them in the digital world.
With only minutes remaining in our time with the game, the BGS team opted to end the demo with a bang -- literally -- by launching a nuclear missile at a location just north of Vault 76. Our team, along with many others, fast-traveled back to vault entrance to get a front-row seat for the show. We were not disappointed; the sky turned a beautiful burnt orange as the mushroom cloud rose triumphantly from the impact site, masking the carnage left in its wake. For our final act, we all attempted to get as close to Ground Zero as possible, but with no protection from the radiation we all died before we could get anywhere close.
As a longtime fan of the "Fallout" franchise, I had serious reservations about "Fallout 76" and its stark departure from the series' established norms. I'm not sure that three hours of playtime is enough of a sample to unequivocally put to rest all of those concerns, but I do feel much more optimistic about the game than I did going in.
The brief snapshot of West Virginia l experienced left me longing to see more, and considering the map is four-times larger than any previously featured in a "Fallout" game, there should be plenty to discover. More than anything, though, my lasting impression is a positive one. Simply put, "Fallout 76" feels like a "Fallout" game and that's exactly what I was hoping for.
Fans who have pre-ordered the game can experience "Fallout 76" for themselves in just a few weeks as the Break-it Early Test Application (B.E.T.A.) begins Oct. 23 for Xbox One users. PlayStation 4 and PC gamers will gain access on Oct. 30. "Fallout 76" is slated to launch worldwide on Nov. 14. For more about the game, including how to access the B.E.T.A., visit fallout.bethesda.net.
This article is written by Jeff Rider from The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.