While adding a Battle Royale mode may come across as a desperate attempt to regain players and acquire new ones – it’s basically a cliche at this point – but Fallout 76 justifies it by maintaining a lot of the core DNA of the Fallout experience and by making a bit of a story out of it.
The Battle Royale mode in question is, Nuclear Winter, a 52-player fight to determine who will become the overseer of vault 51. And yet because there can only be one overseer, it’s strange that Nuclear Winter can only be played in squads at the moment. Every time a round ends you gain experience points toward leveling up, which rewards you with Perk Card packs, and those Perk Cards are used to give your character passive bonuses. Bethesda built a new Perk Card system, including 73 new Perk Cards, specifically for this new mode. The seven S.P.E.C.I.A.L stats of your Adventure Mode character determines which Perk Cards you can use in Nuclear Winter. So far none of the Perks feel overpowered, and they’re a nice way to let the player customize their character in ways that lean into their desired play style. However, the game only lets you swap out Perk Cards during the pre-match time that most people use to run around vault 51 punching everyone in the face.
Nuclear Winter plays out like a microcosm of the Fallout experience. You begin with nothing, then you collect loot and, in doing so, become more powerful as you fight opposing factions (in this case other players) on your journey to power and control over a portion of the wasteland (in this case vault 51).
Nuclear Winter also simplifies a lot of the Battle Royale formula. Weapons and armor are still found in chests of varying degrees of rarity, but weapon attachments come pre-equipped and rather than needing to find leg, arm, head and chest armor – the way you would in Fallout 76’s Adventure Mode – all armor comes as a complete set (with the highly sought after power armor coming pre-equipped with a fusion core). The mode also maintains Adventure Mode’s weapon wheel (items picked up are automatically added to your favorites list) and ability to carry more than two or three weapons, which separates Nuclear Winter from most Battle Royale modes that restrict players to a primary and secondary weapon only.
It also makes good use of Fallout 76’s emotes to add a necessary bit of nonverbal communication. It’s no Apex Legends, and you’re still going to be better off using a mic, but it’s also easy enough to motion for your teammates to come to your position if you found something useful, or you just want to lay low until you see where the circle is moving next. Obviously more could be done in the future to flesh out the nonverbal cues you have access to, but it’s a good start.
An interesting Fallout twist is that the mutated beasts that roam the wasteland in Adventure Mode are also present in Nuclear Winter as an additional threat. They’re certainly fewer in number and are much easier to take down – I doubt Bethesda wants many matches to be won by a scorched, ghoul, mutant hound or a Scorchbeast – but they add an interesting element of strategy. You’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it to shoot the Scorchbeast and collect loot from its dead body, or leave it alone so you don’t alert other players to your position – not to mention that it could attack and kill enemy players if you avoid it.
One thing that doesn’t work about Fallout 76 is the fact that there is no Vertibird flyover and skydive/parachute section at the beginning of each match. Instead the player looks over the map and selects a spawn point, preferably close to where their teammates have chosen to spawn, with enemy spawn points only being revealed just before the start of the match, after the spawn selection phase has ended. This means that unlike other Battle Royale modes, where you have the option to avoid enemy players while skydiving or parachuting to the ground, if you accidentally selected a spawn location where two enemy squads have also chosen to spawn, your match could be over as quickly as it started. This problem is compounded by the fact that if the match loads slower on your end than the enemy players, you could spawn in to see a fully kitted out enemy looting everything in your vicinity before you’ve even taken a step. That may not be too big a frustration if it only happened once in a while, but Nuclear Winter’s map size is small enough that I’ve had it happen to me at least a handful of times in a row before getting a match with a survivable spawn.
Fallout 76 also doesn’t telegraph low health the way other shooters do with encroaching red borders and audio cues, which means it can be hard to tell, in the heat of the moment, when your health is critical and you should take cover and use a stimpak. There’s also no prone, so you’ll have to crouch and take advantage of Appalachia’s fairly dense foliage.
However, the most frustrating thing about Nuclear Winter is bugs, stutters, freezes, environments not always loading in, and other performance related issues that have plagued Fallout 76 since the early days. Granted, Nuclear Winter had been in what Bethesda was calling a Pre-Beta Sneak Peek so it’s possible that things will improve over time. Bethesda even decided to extend this sneak peek beta indefinitely due to it’s sudden popularity. Nevertheless, the game certainly is not the smooth, fluid performer that other Battle Royale games are.
It may not be perfect, but Nuclear Winter is a fun mode that seems to have reinvigorated interest in Fallout 76 (as did the free-to-play week that coincided with Nuclear Winter’s release). For a game that had been getting a lot of well deserved criticism, a fresh mode and the prospect of a big content drop (now with NPC’s) seems to be getting it closer to a product longtime fans (and newcomers) can be happy with.