Can Bethesda reclaim the crown they lost to CD Projekt RED?
Bethesda have been outdone at their own game- for the longest time, they were the standard in open world RPGs, with The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, Fallout 3, and The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim repeatedly raising the bar, and setting the standard by which all other games of their ilk would be judged. And there were a lot of similar games- in the wake of Skyrim‘s success, developers rushed to cash in on this new trend in the market.
But Bethesda remained top dog for the longest time until, finally, the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt by CD Projekt RED changed that last year.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a special game– it definitely lacks the almost sandbox nature of Bethesda’s games, but it never restricts the player’s freedom, giving them a vast open, gorgeously realized world, framed with incredible context to make the player actually care, and, using a clever combination of choice and consequence, as well emergent storytelling, immerses them in its world. A clever combination of great writing and deep and nuanced mechanics make it a very incredible game- it completely overshadowed every other game last year, including Bethesda’s own Fallout 4.
That’s right, Fallout 4 was the first Bethesda game that didn’t get universal accolades and acclaim in its year of release, owing largely to The Witcher 3 having raised the bar earlier in the year, and Fallout 4 comparing unfavorably to it. So Bethesda need to reclaim the crown, now- and while a lot of fans will probably argue that they can do just that with the upcoming Elder Scrolls 6, I do question the wisdom of those predictions.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Bethesda, and Skyrim is probably one of my favorite games of the previous generation. It’s just that they have shown their hand with Fallout 4, and their development path precludes them making a game that can be better than The Witcher 3.
Bethesda are, at this point, more interested in making a sandbox than they are in making any kind of a defined experience for the player. They emphasize player freedom and agency over structure, and this is also evident in how they design their game mechanics at this point. Fallout 4 dumbed down its conversation choices to basically make them quick, instead of the lengthy dialog selection that used to stall the pace of the game below, but in doing so, it significantly reduced the meaning or context attached to those dialog options. It also completely dumbs down its leveling system, making it entirely perks based, essentially allowing players to bypass the need for classing or specialization entirely, and letting them be a jack and master of all trades- removing any meaning from ‘building’ your character, that is so integral to the RPG experience, in the process.
Given the immense success of Fallout 4, and Bethesda’s relentless drive to dumb down their games further with each release, it seems unlikely that they will suddenly change their design philosophy with their next game- which makes it very unlikely, then, that The Elder Scrolls 6 will actually surpass The Witcher 3. It could be a great game in its own right, providing players with a neat unstructured experience, but as far as open world RPGs go, it seems like The Witcher 3 may remain king of the hill for the time being.
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