Why Fallout 4 might be Bethesda’s greatest game.
A warm breeze blew a ribbon of sand across the deserted highway in front of me. I could see for miles ahead onto the ruins of the Capitol. The faint glimmer of clean steel speckled the horizon where small parts remained unweathered. Telephone poles tipped at angles marched to my sides along the road, and derelict cars lay rusted and strewn all over as their owners fled in a panic long ago.
I could hear a radio in the distance somewhere to the east, and further still I could hear the screams of people dying or worse. They were probably nomads trying to scrounge what little food they could amidst the ever growing threat of Raiders and Mutants and Ghouls. The Wasteland is no place for these people, or anyone for that matter.
An evocative account that I’m sure sounds familiar to many of you.
Fallout 3 captured the imagination of millions of fans of the series and the open world genre. It was the first open world game Bethesda Game Studios had developed that wasn’t part of the Elder Scrolls series since 2002, leading many consumers to use the phrase “Oblivion with guns” upon the announcement. Ironically, Fallout 4 has been called “Skyrim with guns”. You can see the idiocy.
The Elder Scrolls series since Morrowind was a showcase of the talent of the studio to build amazing worlds. The tagline was “live another life”. Places you could literally get lost in, distractions were about the land like trees in a forest and you never knew where you’d end up with every step you took. Morrowind is widely praised amongst fans of the series as having the best writing, story-telling, and atmosphere. But time moves on, technology evolves so fast it’s become a running joke in our society, and the limitations faced by game developers today may well be lifted come break of dawn tomorrow. Morrowind laid the bedrock for which this passionate developer would be hurled into the next era of video games, and with modding tools open to the public, the game quickly caught a following of diverse, passionate, sometimes loud, but mostly hungry gamers.
Technical fuck ups notwithstanding, Bethesda always tried to push their games as far as they could on the hardware they were designed for. Oblivion was their next game and promised a world that Morrowind players had to use their imaginations to experience. Dynamic A.I. with NPC routines, a huge open world with the land in the distance viewable (something we take for granted these days) allowing you to walk up that mountain you see over yonder, as well as improved graphics and enhanced gameplay. Oblivion delivered on all of those things, despite the A.I. needing to be stripped down prior to release because it was one step away from becoming Skynet. It was the first open world RPG on Xbox 360, and set the benchmark that developers still strive for today.
Oblivion was an instant success and the second Game of the Year for Bethesda Game Studios. Its faults however were glaringly obvious to many as time went on, and due to the issues with the A.I. amongst other things, the game didn’t live up to the vision the developer had to begin with. Bethesda wanted to do more and the fantastic Shivering Isles DLC in 2007 was their first break from Elder Scrolls. The team had been working on something new for a long time and a year later in 2008 it would be released. I still remember the excitement I felt watching the Microsoft E3 conference. Todd Howard walked on stage to demo Fallout 3 and I’d never lost £40 so fast in my life.
I put 120 hours into that game on my first character without even thinking about it. Almost everything that was wrong with Oblivion on a technical level was either fixed or improved in Fallout 3. It was clear to me that this was a developer that doesn’t just release their next game willy-nilly. They release a game with as much improved from the faults of its predecessor as possible. They listen to their fans, on most things, and strive for greatness always outdoing their past work. Granted some of the shit they’ve done over the years has been questionable, such as removing some skills. I get that the industry is moving away from the jam packed UI of D&D style games, and so Bethesda aren’t the only developer to do this, but it’s still nice sometimes to play a game with more skills to even care about; for some people. Personally I don’t care about having several different armour skills.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, like Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3, remains in my top list of favourite games of all time. The world they built in that game smashed everything else before it to pieces. A.I. was better and more observable in the game, world design was varied and exciting and the entire land gave me a sense of wonder that only children can experience. It was Oblivion 2.0 in almost every sense, and is the pinnacle of the series in many ways. It was also Bethesda’s 4th Game of the Year in a row, making it a commercial success that went on to sell over 20 million copies. The writing and storytelling suffered still, and hasn’t really had the intrigue that Morrowind had what seems like forever ago, however Todd Howard came out recently and said that as a developer of open world games that’s something they have to sacrifice for player freedom. The trade-off to allow the player to continue to “go where they want, do what they want” is their number one gameplay mechanic. And that brings us onto Fallout 4.
Fallout 4 was announced and the internet collapsed. A pre-E3 trailer was released that showed actual in-engine stuff, not some CGI-ridden bullshit thrown together. It showed what was great about Fallout 3 and then increased the scale massively. Graphics were improved with better lighting, animations were better, and the design of the land caught my eye. As a modder for Skyrim I can appreciate things on a technical level, and was impressed by what I saw.
When E3 knocked on our doors we saw real gameplay. Fallout 4 promises a huge and highly detailed world with great gun-play (hopefully making the shooting more solid than Fallout 3), an ungodly level of crafting your weapons and settlements that builds upon the popularity of New Vegas weapon mods, Hearthfire DLC for Skyrim and the Build Your Own Home mod, and just the focus in the industry lately on crafting and building that a little indie game called Minecraft had a hand in creating. Today Bethesda released two gameplay videos that were essentially their E3 presentation videos without narration, you can see them below.
Fallout 4 is looking like a technical marvel that is the culmination of almost two decades of open world level design, programming and art creation, and is built atop the blood sweat and tears of the developers themselves. It’s their first game on the current generation cycle of consoles giving them better hardware at their finger tips (the Xbox 360 had 512mb of RAM and that ran Skyrim, just about), so I am really excited to see what the Commonwealth (the name of the wasteland) has in store for us. What we’ve seen so far clearly shows that what they’ve learned along the journey of their Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises shines through to the surface brightly.
My only worry is the story. The Fallout universe has such a rich and deep story woven into every corner that even if the dialogue was bad the lore itself might carry enough weight. What I love about Fallout is that every (let’s imagine together that stones are story elements) stone turned over reveals another stone, and that in-turn hides another stone, and so on and so on until we have this narrative infinity mirror effect almost unlike any other franchise. It’s a world players can get lost in, without ever travelling a great distance.
I alluded to story before and Todd Howard has said that the narrative in Fallout 4 has been improved from past games and is a key focus for them, and the voiced protagonist is part of that new objective. Personally I don’t mind the voice, which by the way is the first game they’ve made that has that feature. Some people are up-in-arms over having the player character speak. These days having the player character speak is a requirement of modern development, especially in games with fantastic writing like Red Dead Redemption and The Witcher 3. To attempt to emulate those games is something I’m both appreciative and weary of. However I understand the issue of having less roleplay-ability, but I’ve enjoyed many games that have a player voice, so I’ll wait and see how the game plays before I pass judgement on that.
I embrace the change. I don’t mind the voice and subsequent skill removal. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and want to be more involved in my stories, and don’t have the time to read hundred page manuals and study wiki pages before I even press Enter. Or maybe it’s because I’ve done the D&D thing so many times over the years it’s hard to grasp where the fucking time has gone. Either way skills/perks are something of a staple in an RPG and I’m glad that system is still present in Fallout 4 in some way. The removal of skills in Fallout 4 gives higher emphasis to perk choices and real character specialisation, so I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out and how they’ve joined those two systems into one. In terms of narrative the actors Bethesda has chosen are very talented, so baring anything else we can safely assume that at least the performances will be great.
So will Fallout 4 be Bethesda’s greatest game? If history is anything to go on (which it almost never is) the answer could be yes. Bethesda have this gift of taking people to places and if all else fails, it looks like Boston and the Commonwealth will be great places to drain many hours away. I believe this game will be the best they’ve ever made, and honestly can’t wait to play it. Negative thoughts aside, I’ve enjoyed each of their games and continue to do so.