Bethesda has always been at the forefront of open world game design. As far back as the early 1990s, they were pioneering fantasy worlds with unparalleled scope and size, which quickly became synonymous with their brand. The Elder Scrolls was distinguished by its uniqueness; no other developer was offering an immersive 3D open world that touted player freedom to the same extent. Essentially, they had a monopoly on a game design as a result of their impressive innovation.
But times have changed. Open world game design has since been iterated on, streamlined, and polished into a blueprint that’s been rehashed dozens of times over. The bar has been set and then redefined again and again to the point where player freedom and extreme scale are no longer exclusive by any means. In fact, we’re in desperate need of developers to push the genre forward in a meaningful way.
This console generation has seen some shining examples of that. Unfortunately, Bethesda’s games aren’t among them. Fallout 4 was great, but it felt as though it had one foot stuck in the past. There was a clunkiness to its physics and a dated appearance to its aesthetic that simply didn’t match rival games. In comparison to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Fallout 4 felt desperately old-fashioned.
That certainly didn’t go unnoticed by players, with Fallout 4’s graphics, shooting mechanics, and quest design causing a stir for all the wrong reasons. Ironically, “jank,” a gaming term for wonky graphics and persistent minor bugs, had almost lovingly been a part of Bethesda games for years. It became quickly obvious, though, that player expectation had changed.
Worryingly, Bethesda’s latest game, Fallout 76, doesn’t seem to have taken any of those cues. The first preview footage from media outlets that surfaced this week shows a woefully rough version of the game. Granted, it’s an unfinished version of the game, but with only four weeks until its official launch, I’m concerned that what we’re seeing can’t be rescued to a standard that’s going to be anything more than average.
Compounding the issue is the fact that there’s a sentiment Fallout 76 is a game nobody really asked for. No doubt Fallout 4 sold spectacularly well, and in combination with The Elder Scrolls Online’s continued success, prompted Bethesda to consider a multiplayer Fallout experience. On paper, it all sounds logical. I have my reservations, however, as to whether it’s the follow-up to Fallout 4 fans wanted.
Regardless, being shown a new Fallout experience that had been built from the ground up as a new generation experience might have taken the edge off that. Instead, fans are faced with something that looks even more dated. Even the most diehard advocates of gameplay over graphics would surely have winced at 76’s nuclear explosion animations. They’re comically bad.
In fact, a direct comparison with Fallout 3 reveals decidedly less fidelity. I reached out for a statement from Bethesda on whether they’re aiming to improve such animations for the final version but didn’t hear back.
Look, there’s every chance that Fallout 76 is going to straighten out the kinks in its framerate and textures for launch. I’m just shocked that in 2018, Bethesda is still peddling a graphics engine that’s totally outclassed by its competitors. Particularly so, when such a fuss was made over the appearance of Fallout 4 three years ago.
Ultimately, I find myself looking at Fallout 76 through the same lens as I did Fallout 4. If Bethesda is producing games that are just “good” or even “great,” they’re no longer the genre leaders they once were. If I’m getting a multiplayer Fallout game I didn’t expect, I at least wanted something that wasn’t just another MMO by appearance and design –I wanted something more special, more along the lines of the Bethesda games that wowed us in previous generations.
I’m sure Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI will tout next generation aesthetics more likely to impress, but I’d somewhat imagined Fallout 4 was the final hoorah for the notorious “jank.” Apparently, Bethesda thinks we’re good for one more round. I’m not sure players will accept it.