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The Super Mutant in the Room: Bethesda's Engine Problem

Jason Hendricks

There's been a bit of controversy and a lot of talk about Bethesda Studios following the release of Fallout 76. The reviews have not been great, certainly not what's usually expected from a Bethesda title. Furthermore, in an interview Todd Howard made some comments about the game engine they use, which seemed to imply that they've been continually updating an old one as opposed to making a new one for their upcoming games Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI. Now I'm admittedly not a programmer, so I don't know the specifics of how an engine gets built. All I can speak to is the quality of the game, and based on the fallout from… well… Fallout, I do think Bethesda needs to make some changes. These are my thoughts on the issue, and my thoughts alone. I am not claiming to have any news about how Bethesda works, and this is neither going to be a "hate piece" or a defense of Bethesda. Just some thoughts from a fan.

Bethesda is one of, if not my absolute, favorite game studios. Between the Elder Scrolls and Fallout, I don't know how many hours I've trekked over vast lands filled with irradiated deserts and magic filled tundra, but it's definitely more than any other studio. When Oblivion came out (originally as an Xbox 360 exclusive) it was THE RPG to play, and easily the best one on the system. I was in high school, and I still remember a couple of the seniors in the gaming club who skipped the day it came out. Needless to say, it was a big deal. Skyrim was even bigger, coming out the year I graduated from college. It set a new standard for open world games and RPGs. Instead of a class, you had access to all different kinds of perks, allowing you to develop the play style you wanted. You could play a pure fighter, mage, thief, or any combination of those. This has been an influence on countless RPGs since.

The world was fantastic, with danger around every corner. At anytime you could be in the wilderness and suddenly attacked by a dragon. The NPC AI continued to do things even when your character wasn't around. More than once I came across a giant and a dragon fighting each other. There were countless dungeons and caves to explore, always integrated into the landscape, a real weather system, and choices with real consequences, killing certain NPCs would void certain quests, it was a world you could get truly lost in. It's a game that I still play. Sure, it suffered from bugs, some of which went memetic. The first time I was killed by a giant in one hit, I was sent flying two miles into the air. I was laughing too hard to be angry that I'd just lost an hour's worth of progress. Then there were the dragons flying backwards, and a host of other issues. But these were forgivable, as most were patched, they didn't ruin the fun, and the rest of the game was just so damn good that it didn't really matter.

However, that was seven years ago, and technology marches on. Video games have made enormous strides since then, and Bethesda isn't really the king of the hill anymore. Don't get me wrong, Fallout 4 was a fantastic game with major improvements in storytelling, and the best crafting system in any game I've ever played. But even then, the engine was starting to show its age. Fallout 4 looked better than Skyrim, and while it looked good enough, it really wasn't up to the standard a next gen game (at the time) should have been. Even Dragon Age Inquisition, which came out the previous year, looked better in terms of graphics and facial features. Furthermore, the same year Fallout 4 came out (2015), CD Projekt Red released The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I realize I probably sound like a broken record here, but the Witcher 3 set the new standard for open world RPGs, and at least for now its stayed there, with almost every RPG coming out getting compared to it. CD Projekt Red managed to surpass Bethesda in terms of graphics, quests and storytelling, and this was only the third game they'd ever made. Even RPGs that followed have been able to surpass Bethesda. Horizon Zero Dawn, Nioh, etc. And if Cyberpunk 2077 only pulls off half of what its devs claim it can do, it will still make CD Projekt Red the best RPG studio on the planet.

I haven't played Fallout 76, but I've read the reviews and watched the videos; it appears to me that it has all of the typical problems of a Bethesda game, but none of the positives, which make the negative aspects that much more apparent. Now it maybe fixed and become better down the line, but the damage is already done at this point. So where do we go from here? Well for starters, I'd suggest Bethesda take a look at Fallout 76 and see what went wrong. Also, maybe listen to fan complaints, particularly in regards to the aging engine. My honest opinion is that it's probably time for Bethesda to build an entirely new engine from the ground up. Bare minimum they need a serious graphical upgrade, as their NPCs are notorious for being ugly. I don't know enough about Starfield to give any in-game suggestions. But for Elder Scrolls VI; get better graphics, have more interlocking quests ala Witcher 3, and tighten up the combat. I think it would probably be a good idea for Elder Scrolls VI to add a mechanism that allows players to lock onto their target, as that's worked well for combat heavy RPGs.

The Elder Scrolls VI and Starfield are my most anticipated games after Cyberpunk 2077, so everything here comes from a place of wanting to see Bethesda succeed. And if by some chance anyone from Bethesda actually reads this, please know I simply want to see the incredible games that I know Bethesda Studios is capable of making.

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