The very high-profile failure of Cyberpunk 2077 brought to light how difficult it really is to nail open world RPGs consistently. CD Projekt RED managed to do just that with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but it’s not an act they have been able to follow up on. And indeed, through this generation, we have seen examples of multiple franchises trying to go open world, often to their detriment.
Which is one of the things that makes Bethesda’s track record before this generation impressive. They had two decades of consistent genre defining open world titles before they finally began to falter at the dawn of the PS4/Xbox One era. Fallout 4, while good, wasn’t quite at the level of their previous works, and Fallout 76, of course, was a flaming trainwreck at launch. (To Bethesda’s credit, they seem to have managed to turn Fallout 76 around since its original release thanks to a tireless slew of post launch fixes and content, and a lot of people quite like it now).
While currently, most of the ire is directed at CD Projekt RED because of their stumbles with Cyberpunk, it’s not inaccurate to say that for a lot of players, Bethesda is in the doghouse still – and if not quite in the doghouse, then still in that zone where a new announcement from them warrants a degree of cynicism and skepticism, rather than hype on pure faith, which they could command before.
Of course, all it takes is one great title from them to change the narrative to “Fallout 76 was an aberration” from the current “Fallout 76 was just another step in their continued decline”. Which means that Starfield, the next Bethesda title due for release, has a lot of pressure to restore Bethesda’s prestige on it. If it’s as great as Bethesda’s titles through to Skyrim, then their reputation is restored, and they are redeemed. The question, of course, is whether Bethesda is even capable of delivering titles on that level anymore.
An important thing to remember about Bethesda’s games is that they were pioneering – there was literally no other game on the market that delivered what they delivered. This was true until the breakthrough success of Skyrim, which, after selling 30 million units, prompted just about everyone else in the industry to sit up and take notice – and deliver their own takes on the open world adventure formula.
Like I said earlier, delivering great open world games consistently is difficult, but we got a lot of amazing titles from a lot of developers in the years following Skyrim regardless – titles that, if not necessarily delivering exactly what Skyrim (and other Bethesda titles) do, still managed to improve upon the open world conceit in a lot of ways. The Witcher 3, for example, managed to finally marry the traditionally diametrically opposite poles of strong storytelling and open world gameplay. Breath of the Wild took emergent gameplay, and discovery and exploration to an unprecedented (and unmatched) level. Spider-Man made traversal through an open world incredibly fun and engaging in and of itself. And so on.
The result of so many excellent open world games – and I haven’t even mentioned standouts such as Ghost of Tsushima, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the new Assassin’s Creed games, Rockstar’s continued excellence with Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 – is that the bar for the genre was raised. Meaning any new open world title had a lot more stuff to be compared to. Earlier, Bethesda’s games, by virtue of being pioneers, didn’t have much to be held up against. There is Rockstar, of course, but their brand of open world titles fall under an entirely different design philosophy and style. Bethesda stood alone, so everything they delivered was a marvel on the basis of the sheer novelty of it existing.
But over the last decade, the rest of the industry finally caught up to, and in some cases overtook, Bethesda. Which is one reason that something like Fallout 4, which isn’t half as bad as its player reception would suggest, got viewed so unfavorably – because even something of near Bethesda quality didn’t stand out anymore as much as you would expect the developer’s titles to.
This means, then, that for Starfield to be able to have the kind of reception that Bethesda’s games used to, it will either have to be pioneering again, or be thoroughly excellent in most regards. Things that were overlooked in prior Bethesda games will no longer get a free pass. We know now that you can have polished open worlds without bugs and glitches, thanks to Breath of the Wild. We know now that you can have excellent combat in an open world game, thanks to Ghost of Tsushima. We know that open worlds can be seamless, without breaking into loading screens every time you enter a city or a building, thanks to, well, almost every open world game of the last decade. These things, which were a part of Bethesda’s design as late as Fallout 76, cannot exist in Starfield.
Would you be willing to forgive an open world game that has to load every time you enter a building (even if SSDs on modern consoles will probably make that loading less aggravating than it used to be)? Is there any reason to accept a buggy game that is plagued with crashes? Is poor combat acceptable anymore? There are other games better in all these areas that Bethesda can be compared to. They no longer stand alone. These weaknesses must be addressed, if Starfield is to have the kind of praise and acclaim that Fallout 3 or Skyrim got.
The problem is, Bethesda is still using the same engine that they have for all their games since Morrowind. Of course, they say they are modifying it, and maybe their modifications will be so extensive that they can overcome the necessity of something like separate instanced cells for every city from the world map – but Bethesda always promise they are updating and changing their engine before every single release of theirs, and, well, these problems, as I said, have existed in all of their games through to Fallout 76. Can we trust that their changes this time will be enough to fix these issues?
I do get the reason why they like to stick to their engine – Bethesda games still have a kind of permanent persistence that no other game in the industry has, and their engine also lets their games be almost infinitely moddable (which is a huge reason for their sustained success). Having to switch engines either means throwing all that out, and compromising on at least some of those strengths – or having to spend a lot of time and money on recreating this technology in a more modern codebase.
But with Microsoft’s backing, can’t they do just that? They have the financial resources and technical knowhow of the largest technology company in the world now. Why not spend the time and money to update your tech? And just to be clear, maybe that’s exactly what their updates to their engine for Starfield will entail – but as I said, based on precedence, at least, we don’t have any reason to necessarily believe that. We can hope for that, sure. But evidence based on prior promises would indicate that those would be unfulfilled expectations.
The other alternative, of course, is for Starfield to deliver something that is so unique and unlike anything else on the market, that the sheer achievement of that is enough to compensate for a lot of its weaknesses. A lot of the best games of all time are like this – they have very obvious flaws, but they are so good at the new stuff they do, it’s easier to ignore said flaws. I’m not quite sure what this might be (it would be, by definition, hard to guess, given that it has to be new). I can maybe imagine them delivering a crafted open world title set in space on a massive scale – something that hasn’t been delivered so far (we’ve either received truncated disappointments such as Mass Effect Andromeda, or gigantic, but procedural games such as No Man’s Sky, or handcrafted, and mostly great, but ultimately very small scale, titles such as The Outer Worlds). If they manage to deliver that, and deliver on it well, I can see the sheer scale and quality of it being great enough to overwhelm the issues that may exist.
And here I actually have some faith in Bethesda. It might seem from this editorial that I don’t like them, but Bethesda are among my favorite developers, and they’ve given me some of my favorite games ever. I have a lot of faith in their talent, and their ability to craft something new and unique, even if I don’t necessarily respect their technical chops (or choices). And while I do have some fear that they may continue to trend further away from the roleplaying elements that make their games so unique (every single one of their titles has shed more and more of its RPG elements than the last, until finally, by Fallout 4, they took it way too far), I also have some reason for optimism there.
One reason for that, amusingly enough, is Fallout 76. As I mentioned, Bethesda have actually managed to turn this game around a fair bit, and a huge part of that is because of the Wastelanders update. Wastelanders was a massive chunk of content resembling classic Fallout injected into 76 – and Wastelanders delivered some of the most concentrated helping of roleplaying in a Bethesda game in a decade. Things that had been progressively streamlined or altogether dropped in Bethesda games, such as actual dialog trees, skill checks, choice and consequence based quests – were there in Fallout 76. And even with Fallout 4, Far Harbor was a great proper roleplaying experience too.
So we know that Bethesda can still deliver the kind of quality RPG gameplay that was not too long ago a hallmark of their games. And I have faith that they can deliver something new and unique. I have zero faith in their engine, but assuming my faith in the first two areas is met, that last one doesn’t matter – I mean I love Skyrim, and that game is held together with duct tape coming off at the seams.
There is, therefore, every chance that Starfield is the triumphant return of Bethesda, the completion of their redemption arc that started with, yes, Fallout 76 (which will never be not funny). It’s not a given, and like many, I will keep a measure of skepticism. But I really hope I am proven wrong, because I would like nothing more than to be. It’s been far too long since a great Bethesda game – and while there are so many other open world games that are better than a lot of things Bethesda games do, there still is very little out there delivering the kind of open ended RPG that Bethesda can deliver at its best (so not Fallout 4). The absence of Bethesda hasn’t led to any obvious replacement who can fill the void – which means it’s down to Bethesda themselves to step in and be their own successor.
Time to put all my faith in Todd Howard.
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