A Preamble of Sorts
I'm sure I am not the only person on this site who enjoys RPG's. Hell, what am I saying? Of course I'm not the only person here who enjoys RPG's, in fact I wish I was as knowledgeable about the genre as others on Destructoid are.
I have yet to play Final Fantasy VIII-XI, Suikoden 2, Canis Canem Edit, Red Dead Redemption, Persona 4, Xenoblade Chronicles, Bravely Default... I suck, I know, but I have, however, played plenty of other role-playing-games, some of which I've put more hours into than I think is healthy.
Over 300 hours in Skyrim, over 100 hours in Far Cry 3, Platinum Trophy in Bloodborne, decimated every contract and side-quest in The Witcher 3, played Persona 3 to death, enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas and that is only naming those off the top of my head.
I am a connoisseur of sorts, dabbling in a bit of everything.
So of course, I was shocked when I played the latest game in the Fallout series and found myself severely underwhelmed.
Nothing seemed to click with me, everything felt "off" without a clear explanation as to why.
What had changed since Skyrim exactly?
The answer is not a lot.
In actual fact, these problems present in Fallout 4 had been present in quite a few of Bethesda's games.
It was after replaying their previous titles it began to dawn on me that there wasn't just one reason for Fallout 4 being so underwhelming, there were several, long lasting issues that have plagued Bethesda's games for so long now I can't actually tell when they began appearing.
Now before you read further I will state that this may come off as if I am ragging on Bethesda but I am simply stating things that are both objective and subjective.
I am by no means saying that, just because these issue sbother me then Bethesda are a bad company because that is simply untrue.
I'm simply writing this blog to get it off my chest and try and see if others feel this way or if the problems that Bethesda have just don't really bother people. Healthy discussion is the best discussion.
This is going to go well...
Glitches and Apathy
It has been a long-running gag between fans that Bethesda games will release to a myriad of glitches and bugs, most of them probably game-breaking.
When the game actually arrives it isn't as bad as all that of course, but despite the exaggeration, there are still an enormous amount of bugs strewn throughout the game, but at this point we fans of the games have come to expect them and simply deal with it.
Skyrim on Playstation 3 is still, to this day, filled with game-breaking bugs, filled with glitched quests, terrible below-10fps frame-rate drops.
I had my character fall through the floor the other day, that was before my PS3 required a hard-reboot because the loading screen failed to load the game.
Apparenty, it was worse when the game first launch but, since then, Bethesda has managed to patch out the worst of the bugs on the three platforms, but still couldn't manage to fix everything, with most of the bugs persisting solely on the PS3.
Despite the fact that Bethesda were working 'tirelessly' to sort out the games' issues, they still managed to bring out three segments of DLC for the 360 in the space of 13 months, but had to delay the PS3 version of the Dawnguard DLC due to the numerous issues still plaguing the device that they hadn't patched out yet as well as the issues that the DLC would cause on the system when implemented.
Quite a few websites covered this debacle and with the recent news of Sony and Bethesdas falling out (heh) it could just be a Playstation thing but still, fan criticism was minimal.
If any other company had released an RPG, and it was in a broken state on one console, while DLC was being pushed out, without the main glaring errors being fixed by the company on any of the platforms, there would be uproar.
But this isn't any other company; it's Bethesda.
We expect this.
Oblivion launched with massive bugs and broken quests, Fallout 3 still has bugs riddled throughout it, Fallout 4 had far less bugs than the previous two games mentioned but was by no means completely clear of them. Hell, even games not directly developed by Bethesda such as Dishonored and Fallout: New Vegas launched with bugs and glitches up the wazzoo.
Bugs are a constant running gag in Bethesda's games.
Surely though, I should just overlook the sorry state that Bethesda games launch (and sometimes stay) in, and instead just love the fact that the actual game is almost valways 'Game of the Year' worthy.
Well that leads me to the games themselves.
Meat on the Bones
Nobody can really argue that the graphics in Bethesda's games look aged within the space of a few months.
Far Cry 3 has a world just as large as Fallout 4's and yet, despite being almost three years older, still looks superior to Bethesda's most recent game.
I'm not making the claim that graphics are everything (I don't want to go down that particular rabbit-hole) but the fact of the matter is, Bethesda are using an incredibly outdated engine, which is proven to be true just by looking at so many other RPG games that run better, without the numerous glitches in their games. The engine probably isn't just the cause of the glitches, but it's also holding back the gameplay of the titles form evolving and changing into something more fluid and natural, instead stagnating and becoming the clunky mess of rigid character models and awkard animations that we have today.
Yet because graphics don't mean everything, it is easy to assume that the focus would be put elsewhere... Except focus is something that is sorely lakcing from Bethesda's games.
I do enjoy some of their games, but Bethesda products seem to lack focus, with narrative direction, creative character development, skillful combat all being lumped in together, not seeming to know what the focus of the game is, instead throwing several things at the player at once to distract them from the mess that has been created.
Fittingly enough, if I've learned anything by playing through the previous games, it's that there doesn't actually appear to be much 'focus' by the developers at all, mainly because they sacrifice the focus of the project in order to include several half-baked ideas that don't really amount to much.
Instead of being a a refined experience, the games all have a 'Jack-of-all-Trades' feeling to them, never truly excelling in everything.
For instance the combat in Bethesda's games is always mediocre, particularly Skyrim's melee combat which looked clunky and let the player use little to no finesse or skill. Fallout at least uses the VATS system but sometimes that comes off as random and not down to skill. Simply put, the combat in their games isn't very good.
Of course this issue is only exaggerated when coupled with the fact that a lot of the quests in both Fallout and The Elder Scrolls rely heavily on the combat mechanics, meaning that in order to progress, players have to make use of the poor weapon-play to resolve a number of issues in the game world.
Which then actually begs the question as to why do so many situations result in violence, when it always seems as if an optional route should be provided in almost any situation. Thanks to the lack of optional quest routes, the combat becomes less exciting and more of an eye-roll moment, where players proceed to smack things repeatedly until they fall over.
Some of the best parts of the spin-off game Fallout: New Vegas were the dialogue-heavy sequences, yet in the core games, these opportunities rarely present themselves, seemingly absent entirely from Fallout 4.
So with the gameplay/graphics being simply passable, the DLC dipping in quality somewhat and the bugs being so numerous, why is it that so many people praise the games so highly.
Critics and audiences salivate whenever Bethesda gear up to announce a new game under their studio name, myself included.
Well it was probably a mixture of hope and nostalgia.
Bethesda gave us The Shivering Isles DLC, it gave us Morrowind, while plenty of folks associate the production studio with unrelated games that Bethesda simply distribute and publish (Dishonored, Doom and Wolfenstein: The New Order to name a few).
We effectively trick ourselves into thinking the next game will iron out the kinks of the previous game and be the perfect RPG experience.
Before 2015 Bethesda had no real strong competition in the open-world RPG scene and, as such, I think it was a perfectly natural reaction to be sucked into the hype machine of a new Bethesda release. That was, of course, before the release of The Witcher 3.
On its own, The Witcher 3 has its own problems, many of which I have been very vocal about. Its hitboxes are too sporadic, its cast act out of character and there are plot holes galore... But when presented next to Bethesda's role-playing-games, it manages to stand head and shoulders above anything that Bethesda have ever produced; in fact The Witcher 3 manages to do everything that Bethesda have been striving for and makes it look easy.
It combines a strong core narrative with colourful characters, a vast open world, interesting side-quests and fantastic graphical effects. It doesn't try to do anything other than tell its story with a great set of sub-plots and minigames to keep you busy when you aren't pursuing the main questlines, ending up being filled to the brim with things to do.
Yes, the combat in The Witcher series has never been the strongest element of the game but you can tell that in the third game they really tried to iron out the kinks and make it as good as it can be. Plus, it actually takes a certain leve of skill to master and isn't just holding down a button and hammering away at an enemy until either it, or you, die. The team behind The Witcher 3 manage to make the gameplay feel more skillful and more nuanced than Bethesda could ever hope to accomplish currently.
The plot to The Witcher 3 feels more involved and fleshed out than Skyrim or Fallout 4 could ever hope to be and, personally, I think that is in no small part to the engine, as it allows the team at Projekt RED to achieve their goals and tell their story fluidly and lets them utilise something Bethesda games sorely need: Cutscenes.
Bethesda let their characters spout exposition at you in-engine which, normally, I think is fantastic and can really allow a game to immerse you in its conversations, but as Bethesda's engine grows older and the graphics become noticeably outdated, the in-engine cutscenes become slightly less immersive and more of a distraction.
Everyone complains about cutscenes in games, but when used well and interspliced with gameplay properly, cutscenes can add depth to both the story and the characters involved by showing instead of telling, with objectives being outlined by a shift in the characters eyes, a change in mood shown through characters body language or a plot-twist shown happening in-action.
Instead of giving us an involving cutscene that features nuance, Bethesda gives us dialogue that explains everything in a long dialogue-dump with the character models barely showing any emotion beyond "mildly interested."
Of course, story depth is one thing on its own, but that is a simple microcosm of the issue with Bethesda's games. The Witcher 3 proved that other companies can do what Bethesda do, only better, crafting a more rounded experience with twice the amount of depth.
Bloodborne proved that mature themes can go hand-in-hand with engaging combat, Undertale proved that characters can be well-rounded and intresting without voice acting but by smart writing, hell even Far Cry 3 proved years ago that great voice-work and characters can carry an otherwise unremarkable plot.
With competition becoming more fierce it was obvious last year, more than any time prior, that Bethesda aren't living up to their potential.
Bethesda Never Changes
The fact of the matter, is that millions of people continue to buy Bethesda's games and as long as the money keeps rolling in, no improvements will be made to the formula, regardless of how many Witcher games are made. The amount of units sold is consistently excellent and, like it is in every industry, money talks.
Bethesda do not need to change their ways because at the end of the day, they appear to be giving people what they want: Shallow, easy to play games that require very basic skills in videogaming.
I don't mean that as a slight upon Bethesda either, as I love Morrowind and I'm currently on my fourth playthrough of Skyrim and this time I'm going for the Platinum Trophy.
Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 are games I will always consider to be inferior to the New Vegas spin-off, but there are concepts in both games that I like the idea of on paper. Popping a Bethesda RPG in for a few hours is the equivalent of RPG junk-food, as it's simple and easy, with little to no effort having to be put in on my end.
I'm a fan of Bethesda yet, when I get right down to it, I give other companies shit for doing what they do, but never stop to consider how shallow Bethesda games truly are. They have so many features in their games but they are all barebones, barely being expanded upon, yet because the features are there and make the game seem beefier than normal, audiences give it a pass.
Maybe its because we, as gamers, are coming to appreciate content more than refined gameplay. We look at games like No Mans Sky and some (some not all) of us sniff and say "It's only 30 hours long, why are they charging premium price?"
In an age where EA, Square Enix and Ubisoft try their best to carve up their products and sell them on as if they are complete experiences, we seem to have come to think that 'Game Length = Quality' and haven't really considered what that attitude is doing to the industry as a whole.
As such I do feel like Bethesda are gettng away with certain things that other companies would be pulled apart for.
Personally, the amount of preperation I did for this blog really made me feel incredibly cynical, because Bethesda do seem to care about consumers opinions and appear to have some level of quality control on their titles. They try their best and have been doing so for over a decade now.
This blog was simply a way for me to vent but also to ask whether or not we, as consumers, are being totally honest with Bethesda. To be fair, it isn't just the audience but the critics too, with each Bethesda game that releases, critical praise is heaped upon it for being a "deep experience" or being "narratively rich" except, when you play the game, it turns out to be the same game as last time, having all the depth of a caterpillar's chest cavity.
I hope that Bethesda can learn from their opposition and create an excellent game, because all evidence points to them being capable of doing it. Because now, with the quality RPGs that are lined up for next year, and the time it takes for a Bethesda game to be developed, it is a very real possibility that their next game turns out to be more outdated than its competition all over again.
If they aren't willing to learn and apply new, competetive ideas to their games, then they will consistently appear to be outmatched by opposing RPG games, whether they be open-world (Horizon: Zero Dawn) or linear (Dark Souls 3, Nier: Automata).
They cannot let the success of their games allow themselves to become complacent.
At the end of the day it is the apathy of consumers, critics and the company themselves that will prevent them from improving their products.
Apathy, it appears, might just be the Bethesda problem.