“War. War never changes,” goes Fallout’s oft-repeated catchphrase. But in the case of Fallout 76, it’s about time this long-running post-apocalyptic franchise switched things up and let you make your own way through the wilderness unaided. Because the simple truth is Fallout 76 is more fun when you’ve not got your wrist-mounted companion relentlessly pointing the way.
I haven’t always felt this way. I dipped into Fallout, but Fallout 3 was when the series really took hold of me. I’ve always had an interest in the dystopian and post-apocalyptic, but roaming a nuclear wasteland in first-person really was something else, from strolling around ruined buildings to becoming the savior of the wastes.
When Fallout: New Vegas came along, I was on board immediately, and while I still resent Fallout 4 for telling me my digital baby matters, it fed my hunger for more Fallout. But something was missing, and it wasn’t until I stumbled across hbomberguy’s video, “Fallout 3 Is Garbage, And Here’s Why,” that the penny dropped.
Out of all the points he made, the one that stuck was about how Fallout 3’s compass, a feature absent from the original Fallout, draws your attention away from what’s in front of you. It’s all too easy to miss the little things when you’re gawping at that green arrow. Even if you’re not actively pursuing a quest, the smaller location arrows can be just as distracting.
That’s why, when I dived back into Fallout 76, I chose to make my own way. Playing Fallout 4, I’d used a mod to disable the Pip-Boy’s compass, but the fact that I’d plunged 100+ hours into it and knew where most of the locations were meant the benefit was minimal. Fallout 76, on the other hand, a game I’d barely scraped the surface of, has proven to be a revelation.
True, you can’t add mods to Fallout 76, and I was disappointed to discover there’s no way to just switch the compass off. Try leaving Vault 76 without your Pip-Boy and the game smacks you on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, insulted that you dare proceed without its guidance. However, if you go into the settings menu and drag the heads-up display or HUD’s opacity slider all the way to the left, your HUD disappears, leaving you unguided the moment you leave the vault.
It’s this lack of direction that really gives you room to appreciate the world, though it helps that Fallout 76’s Appalachia is so much prettier than Fallout’s previous locales. Sure, you’ve got a physical map, but you have to put the legwork in to work out which landmark is which. And the more time you spend surveying your surroundings, the more inclined you are to take a closer look, to investigate each location.
Without the HUD, my latest excursion was a much richer outing than when I’d first briefly dabbled with the game. Wandering between locations, sometimes missing my intended target and doubling back, I had the time, the need, and the inclination to pick up on every little detail. I stumbled across a broken-down bus and discovered the skeletal remains of what I thought was a passenger, a single, empty bottle of beer at his feet.
A few minutes later, it hit me. What if this solitary skeleton wasn’t a passenger? What if it was the driver who, finishing or abandoning his route, decided to crack open a cold one and await his fate? I wouldn’t have been mulling the driver’s grim situation if I’d been eyeing the compass every two seconds, checking I was heading towards the quest marker. Nor would I have been nosing around that old farm and stumbled across the heartbreaking sight of a much-loved pet’s grave.
But it’s not just that removing the HUD, or at very least the compass, makes it more likely and more important to take your time exploring. There’s another reason your eyes need to be locked on the screen, instead of eyeing the bottom of it — without the compass, you can only detect enemies by sight. Spot one enemy and you start inching forward, looking for others; it makes for a more suspenseful outing than vanilla Fallout 76.
Playing this way is not perfect. Without the HUD, finding the sweet spot to activate objects can be a little tougher, but it’s something that begs to be shared with other players. If you’ve ever played Sea of Thieves you’ll know the joy of working together to uncover hidden treasure, keeping one eye out for anyone who might snatch your bounty from you. If you’re lucky, there’s an “X marks the spot,” but more complicated hunts require more thought. At no point is there a massive glowing arrow telling you where to go and where to dig.
With “Nuclear Winter,” (Fallout 76’s ill-judged battle royale bandwagon mode) on the way out there’s no better time for Bethesda to introduce a HUD-free “Pro” mode that should lead to better cooperative play thanks to the lack of indicators. Alternatively, there could be a massive argument over who’s reading the map properly, ending with a pile of plasma-scorched player corpses, but that’s a risk I’d be willing to take.
It’d be foolish to remove the HUD and/or compass from Fallout 76 entirely. It’d alienate a huge chunk of the game’s players, and that’s even before taking accessibility issues into account. But Bethesda has nothing to lose by giving players access to a true “classic Fallout” experience, and I’ve got a bucket full of bottle caps ready if they do.