Fallout 76 is the pinnacle of atmospheric design

Half baked and thoroughly puzzling – I like many others was confused by the initial release of Fallout 76. From the outside looking in it seemed to run the gamut of all issues associated with a GaaS title released a tad too soon. Unsurprisingly, it received a mountain of backlash.

Over time, my curiosity in what Bethesda Games Studios had developed started to overtake Fallout 76’s initial blunder. Recently, nearly 3 years after its release, I decided to take the plunge. Part of me wanted to see if things had remained truly horrendous and the other part of me wondered if a steady stream of updates had brought Fallout 76 to the surface.

What I’ve found after 20 some odd hours of playtime is that while it certainly lacks qualities found in traditional Fallout games, its level of atmosphere is far and away above anything I would have expected. Fallout 76’s rendition of West Virginia might even be one of my favorite examples of open world atmosphere.

And then there was color

I’ve played Fallout 3 and Fallout 4, but never to completion. What time I have delved into them has generally been excellent in terms of atmosphere and exploration. But Fallout 76’s Appalachia is my favorite setting for the franchise by far. It’s the first setting that’s truly clicked with me.

It’s both dead and alive. More importantly, nature runs through the bleak locales of Fallout 76 and, with this, autumn color sets the stage. Fallout 76 feels haunting, it never ceases to make you feel alone, but Appalachia is, at the same time, oddly comforting.

I’ll admit, some of this is due to my proximity to the Appalachian Mountains and a somewhat recent trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. But I can’t help but shake the feeling that there are others like me who have wanted a more inviting setting for Fallout.

You’ll find the usual affair of post-apocalyptic reality with enemies like the Scorched, Super Mutants, and Feral Ghouls. But you’ll also find respite in wispy forests, thick pockets of fog, and mountain ranges that all help to make Appalachia relatable.

I always found the settings of Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 to be off putting in this way. Logically, the bleak tones of the Capital Wasteland and Boston made sense, but their diversity and ability to reel me in fell a little flat. Skyrim was the last game where setting spoke to me in a classic Bethesda manner.

Fallout 76’s eclectic mix of nature, foreboding tone, and contrasted scenes of desolation make it so easy for me to be swept away by. Similar to my experiences with Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption 2, I’m simply there when playing and it’s a place I want to be in.

Traditional and tuned to Appalachia

In the run up to Skyrim’s 10th anniversary Bethesda released a sneak peak into the heart of the studio’s sound design. This little slice of Bethesda’s process is very telling in the way the studio centralizes audio to the heart of creating atmosphere. Fallout 76’s audio is both conventional and finely tuned to the setting of the game.

Much like Skyrim, I’ve been taken to the clouds as ambient sounds round a particular scene and a backing track comes in to make things whole. In terms of Fallout 76’s sound design complementing the atmosphere of the game, I’ve found that Bethesda has gone above and beyond.

It has all of the typical charm that you’d find within the sounds of a game like Skyrim, but ultimately, it’s molded perfectly to the setting of West Virginia. In tandem with the visuals, the ambient sounds and soundtrack make me feel like I’m instantly back in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s exactly what Appalachia should sound like.

A little bit more of Appalachia

I can only hope that we see more additions to the incredible setting in 2022 and beyond. Pete Hines has gone on record stating that support for the game could go on “forever“. It’s also been confirmed that Fallout 76 will see an addition to the map in 2022 with Expeditions: The Pitt.

The Pitt is slated to be the first addition to the map of Fallout 76 (2022).

I’m far from reaching every nook and cranny of Appalachia, but I already know I’ll want more of it. The team at Bethesda nailed setting, atmosphere, and tone in a way that few developers can. And with the nature of live service titles, we can only hope the long term pipeline takes this diversity even further.

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