Can We Still Consider Bethesda A Top-Tier Developer?

Bethesda has been one of the gaming giants present in the gaming industry for the past 30 years. Although they arguably didn’t hit it big until The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in 2006, the company has steadily been producing expansive and inviting worlds to explore, dripping in rich lore.

There have been a ton of Bethesda games over the past 10 years, and many have been very successful; Doom, Dishonored 2, Prey, Wolfenstein, and Deathloop all bear the Bethesda name on them. The trick here is that Bethesda Game Studios is not the developer; Bethesda Softworks is involved, but only as a producer.

As a producer, Bethesda is connected to countless great games. That means that they, as a company, know how to select a talented team to put together special games. While they have occasional slip-ups like 2023’s Redfall, for the most part, games that are strictly produced by Bethesda Softworks generally have a great track record. That’s definitely praiseworthy, but when that development comes from within? That’s where things start to go awry.

It used to really mean something when a Bethesda title was going to launch. It would drive unparalleled excitement, wonder, and genuine awe that other gaming companies were not capable of hitting. To draw a comparison, it wasn’t too far removed from the buzz around the recent GTA 6 trailer.

Skyrim is probably the last Bethesda game that garnered this kind of reaction, and it was released in 2011. People pine for the next Elder Scrolls game like they are a drug. But my question is, is this a deserved reaction anymore? We’re going to explore this world-famous gaming company’s history and figure out if we can still consider Bethesda as a top-tier developer.

When Bethesda Was King

Is Bethesda still top-tier
Image Source: Bethesda Game Studios

Bethesda used to be a name of majesty in the gaming industry, right alongside Rockstar Games in terms of hit franchises. While I wasn’t a huge fan of Morrowind, when The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out, I was completely blown away. In 2006, never before was there a world as incredible as the one you could explore in Oblivion. It was a fantasy movie come to life, and in an era when Lord of the Rings had just released its final movie two years prior, it was like the video game continuation, allowing us to carve out our own monumental adventure and shape the world in our image.

Then came Fallout 3 in 2008, and I quickly realized that Bethesda wasn’t just a one-trick pony. As amazing as Oblivion was, the dour realism that Fallout 3 had was even more engaging in some ways, and I was equally compelled. Whether Bethesda had matched the level of brilliance in world design that the old CRPG Fallout games managed is another conversation, but having the vision to pivot this age-old IP into an FPS RPG was a masterstroke nonetheless.

Then came 2011 with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and it’s safe to say that with this release, it was ensured that the gaming landscape would never be the same again. We can pretty much thank Skyrim for the innumerable Open-World games that would come thereafter, for better or worse.

Skyrim is a transformative gaming experience, and to this day, developers struggle to approach the incalculable depth that it provides players. It was a living world, with NPCs having their own routines and moralities. Essentially, it’s a world that exists with or without you, and that duality of game-world and true-to-life simulation makes Skyrim so mesmerizing. I’ve never fully beaten Skyrim, and yet I’ve played it for over 700 hours, and it sits firmly in my top five games of all time. That’s because it provides you with endless hours of exploration and allows you to create your own story and define who your character is going to be on your terms.

Skyrim established Bethesda as a veritable god in the gaming industry, and although mods certainly improved the experience, at its core, it still remained a one-of-a-kind game. But all the goodwill that Bethesda had built up over the 2000s and early 2010s would be tested when Fallout 4 came along.

It was quite a harrowing wait for Bethesda’s next mega title in the form of Fallout 4, and while die-hard Fallout fans were a little disappointed, it was easily the best in the franchise for my money. It had improved combat, and the brilliantly crafted apocalyptic world did the impossible for me as a New Yorker; it made me like exploring Boston.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Bethesda then took Skyrim and Fallout 4 and threw them into VR, with each game being among the most consistently played VR titles since their release. These franchises were never-ending cash cows, and it seemed like Bethesda could do no wrong regarding The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. Then came the whispers of a brand new IP in development called Starfield, and it seemed like Bethesda would launch into a new level of gaming dominance. Oh, how very wrong we were.

Where Did It Start to Go Wrong

Bethesda fallout 76
Image Source: Bethesda Game Studios

I’d say that Bethesda was firmly atop the gaming world until 2016. They had just released the wildly successful Fallout 4, Elder Scrolls Online was in full swing, and they were easily one of the most consistent hit makers out there.

But this hubris would lead to a massive fall, which started in 2018 with Fallout 76. This was the first time that false promises were made, such as the immortal line, “it just works.”

It wasn’t just that the game was a shell of what made Fallout special, but it was buggy, clearly rushed, and overall an embarrassing effort following the success of Fallout 4. It should’ve been such an easy transition for Fallout to go into the MMO world, especially with Elder Scrolls Online already in the rear-view mirror. Just make a Fallout game with the same depth of 3 and 4 and let a friend tag along, and you’d have gold.  Instead, It felt like they just threw anything they wanted onto the Fallout name and expected it to work. Bugs were rampant, performance was garbage, and the lively and weird world that Fallout usually provides us with was nowhere to be found.

In fact, human NPCs didn’t even exist when the game was first released. Due to multiple videos from various reviewers, Fallout 76 was completely dead before it even hit its release date. It was a cataclysmic failure for Bethesda Game Studios and the first of its kind in a long time for the studio.

Fallout 76 was not only a failure in the eyes of fans, but the developers themselves actually admitted that the game just wasn’t in any state to be released. Todd Howard was outspoken about how bad it really was, but he wasn’t the only one to speak out on the disaster, as former quest designer of Fallout 3, 4, and 76, Bruce Nesmith claimed that the company thought they were infallible due to the praise they’d always received.

This is a fairly blatant admission that not only was the game not ready to release, but that the effort put in to make it was minimal at best. BGS had no idea what making a multiplayer game was all about. This is all the more baffling when you consider that Elder Scrolls Online existed under the umbrella of Bethesda Softworks produced games and was successful. You would think that having a blueprint right in front of you would be enough to give them a push in the right direction. But no, too much pride, too much cockiness, and too much stubbornness led us to the worst type of gaming wasteland imaginable in Fallout 76.

There was at least an effort made to right the wrongs that Fallout 76 produced, though. Updates and expansions came rapid fire, and sure enough, the barren and boring post-apocalyptic West Virginia became a much more recognizable Fallout game. Today, Fallout 76 is actually pretty good, with loads of updates since its release, effectively creating an entirely new experience within the game. It’s 2023, though, so it took 5 years to make this game worth playing. That’s good on Bethesda for trying to fix its mistakes, but this, sadly, would become a trend for them with all of their new releases from that point on.

When the Students Become the Masters: Fallout: New Vegas

Bethesda Developer fallout new vegas
Image Source: Obsidian Entertainment

Back in 2009, a busy BGS decided that they couldn’t possibly handle the development of Skyrim and a new Fallout game at the same time, so they offloaded the job to Obsidian Entertainment and gave them a year and a half to create Fallout: New Vegas, with a stipulation that the entire studio would get a bonus if it scored an 85 on Metacritic. It scored an 84, which, I suppose, if this was written in stone, technically doesn’t satisfy that requirement, but come on.

To make things worse, Obsidian Entertainment was only given a straight payment to make the game, receiving no royalties from the game sales themselves. Bethesda would decline to comment on this, making the whole situation feel very wrong in many ways. Maybe this was just a business transaction, and we are reading to much into it, but I don’t know about you, but all of this reads to me as sour grapes.

Let’s talk about Fallout: New Vegas. This title was so groundbreaking for RPGs that it is still referenced to this day when it comes to RPG mechanics. Even though Obsidian Entertainment had barely any time to alter the engine or even create original assets, they still managed to create an absolute classic RPG that only got more popular as titles like Fallout 4 faltered in the RPG gameplay department.

It had dated graphics due to the fact that it had to use the same engine as Fallout 3, which, let’s face it, wasn’t fit for purpose in 2007, never mind when Obsidian got hold of it. This was no fault of their own, and the combat felt nearly identical to Fallout 3. Yet, Obsidian still managed to create a game most studios couldn’t dream of creating.

They had a year and a half, and they defied the odds to give us a Fallout game that felt like a game cut from the same cloth as the old CRPG titles, and they were barely rewarded for their efforts. So, how did Bethesda channel this bitterness and hubris? What was their reply to this back-to-back abject failure? Why, Starfield of course.

How to Ruin a Reputation

is bethesda the best gaming company
Image Source: Bethesda Games Studios

Setting aside the games that Bethesda have produced and focusing on the games they have actually developed, these are the ones from recent memory. Starfield, Fallout 76, and The Elder Scrolls: Blades. We have always trusted Todd Howard when he stepped out on stage in his trademark Leather Jacket to deliver to us his next passion project, but it seems that we are consistently being sold duds of late.

Let’s start with Starfield. On the surface, it’s a mind-bogglingly large experience. There are over 1000 explorable planets, a lengthy story, an in-depth shipbuilder, an extensive base-building system, and tons of procedural content to explore. On paper, Starfield is Skyrim meets Fallout in space, and that should work no matter what. I won’t say Starfield is a terrible game because it’s not, but it’s so far behind its contemporaries that it’s almost hard to believe.

First of all, Starfield is still using the Creation Engine, which is far past its time, to say the least, and the result is a game that is uneven graphically and performance-wise. Some of the planets look incredible, but the characters look atrocious most of the time, barely looking better than Fallout 4 despite being a game that was released seven years after it.

There’s also the bafflingly shallow combat, with melee combat that somehow has devolved from Skyrim, which was released all the way back in 2011. There are also the atrocious Starborn powers that are laughable when compared to the awesome Dragon Shouts in Skyrim, which it clearly drew inspiration from, the horrendous minigame required to get them, and the amazing lack of inventiveness when it comes to what could actually be done in a space RPG.

It’s embarrassingly clear at this point that Bethesda is happy letting modders do their work for them. I guarantee within a couple of years, we will have seamless space travel and tons of content to fill the barren planets of Starfield, but I promise you it won’t be because BGS did the work.

Modding the Universe

As with Skyrim, Mods have ultimately become the selling point for Starfield. In fact, there is an entire community coming together to right the wrongs in Starfield. BGS knows how much mods help their games and even hired one of the more famous modders to be part of the team with Starfield. While you can give them a pat on the back for acknowledging and even supporting the modding community, it’s not an excuse to leave things so unpolished at launch.

Within weeks, I had mods to improve my UI, fix the frame rate on the aiming reticule on ships, have human-looking eyes, give me better-sliding mechanics, and produce better overall performance. Why does this always seem to happen with BGS games? Is the Creation Engine 2 easy to mod? Yes, but that seems like a very clear choice from the developer, because imagine if it wasn’t intuitive. They would just have to accept their game wasn’t up to snuff.

It shouldn’t be a requirement to mod a game that’s been in development for over 7 years. It shouldn’t be a requirement for a game that has industry veterans with decades of experience behind it, and most importantly, it shouldn’t be a requirement for a triple-A game released in 2023. It goes without saying that we allow for a lot more jank from Bethesda games, rightly or wrongly, but this is a bridge too far.

BGS has reported that their Creation Kit for Starfield will come in 2024, and when that hits, the expansion of content-based mods will likely be rampant. We will see quests taking place on the barren planets, maybe new cities, new NPCs, new combat mechanics, and countless other possibilities. If you take a look at a fully modded Skyrim in 2023, you will see an almost completely different game from the one that was released in 2011. Will Starfield get the same treatment? All signs point to yes. This is a game that people want to love; whether they have to create that game themselves matters little.

I don’t hate Starfield. Actually, I really enjoyed myself. I have poured over 100 hours into the BGS’s space sim and had some very legitimate highs throughout. But the more you play, the more prevalent the issues become.

In the end, it’s a wonderful shell of a game held back by the rigidness of the creators, who refuse to leave their old techniques that worked decades ago behind to create something new. Not just something old with a new coat of paint.

Should We Trust Bethesda Going Forward?

bethesda next games
Image Source: Bethesda Games Studios

Now that we’ve had two uninspiring releases after another, with both The Elder Scrolls VI and Fallout 5 looming in the distance, what do we do with Bethesda as far as trust goes? Is this still a gaming titan that deserves to have each and every game they release hyped to the moon and back?

Well, no, I don’t think we can, at least while Todd Howard is in charge. It’s clear at this point that his vision is incredibly flawed, and even worse, he doesn’t seem to draw from contemporaries at all and is still constantly hailed as some kind of god. He had No Man’s Sky and Elite Dangerous dangling in front of him with their seamless galactic exploration, yet there were loading screens for landing on a planet, taking off, and everything imaginable in Starfield.

You look at how cities have been built in other RPGs in the years since Bethesda’s last primary title in Fallout 4. Look at Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City compared to, well, anywhere in Starfield. Look at Elden Ring’s novel approach to exploration. Look at the graphics of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Horizon: Forbidden West, and Final Fantasy 16. Look at the facial animations of The Witcher 3, which still impresses despite being eight years old, or Baldur’s Gate 3, which is a game that had 1/4th of the budget that Bethesda had for Starfield.

It seems there is a clear air of arrogance that pervades from Bethesda games these days. While originality is always appreciated, it also takes a smart developer to know when another game has a blueprint that you should follow. Bethesda’s combat is stuck in the past; facial animations are stuck in the past; character development is stuck in the past, and, worst of all, quest design is also stuck in the past.

I’ll give you an example that best shows why we can’t trust Bethesda anymore. There is a mission in Starfield called Run the Red Mile. It’s built up as this epic, Running Man-style gauntlet full of dangerous creatures that have claimed many lives. The rich gamble on the lives of those who run it. It sounded incredible. I had heard a lot about the quest but limited the amount that I read online so as not to spoil myself. I finally get to the quest and begin to run the Red Mile, and it’s a plain, snowy area where I’m attacked here and there by one type of underwhelming alien. That’s it. That’s the entire mile. One enemy type that isn’t even vaguely threatening. Not to mention, you can jetpack past the whole thing if you want. It was such a letdown and really spoke to how far in the past this company truly is when it comes to compelling gameplay.

Bethesda is clearly still able to create great games. They are just stubborn. They are essentially trying to create modern RPGs with one hand tied behind its back using the embarrassingly dated Creation Engine 2, which they confidently tout as a next gen capable engine. They used to be on top of the mountain, but other studios have caught up to them and have effectively shoved them off of it, yet because they’re hanging on with one hand, they think that’s the same as standing next to them.

Starfield should humble this studio in a big way. In an interview with Washington Post, Todd Howard was said to be nervous at the reception of the game. He also talks about how delays affected additional plans for the game, as well as how working from home during the pandemic threw things out of order as well. This doesn’t sound like the Todd Howard we’re used to. I think he knows that it doesn’t “just work” anymore. This is a far cry from the ultra-cocky team behind Fallout: New Vegas. They know there are cracks in the armor, and they are in dire need of repair. Starfield’s issues should show them that their way is no longer the right way. BGS still has the talent, but they need a braver direction going forward. The Creation Engine 2 should be thrown in the trash from here on out. It’s an engine prone to bugs, graphic glitches and overall uneven performance. It also just looks old, so how about they join the future?

Our trust in Bethesda has been heavily shaken, but it is not broken. If someone can get a grip on Todd Howard’s ego, show these clearly talented developers the right path, and finally end their reliance on things that worked over a decade ago, maybe we can one day again be excited when a game bearing the Bethesda Game Studios name releases.

FAQ

Question: Does The Elder Scrolls VI have a release date?

Answer: No, and seeing how long it took Starfield to come out, we likely won’t see it for a long time.

Question: Will Starfield get any DLC?

Answer: There is planned DLC for Starfield, but a release date has not been announced.

Question: Is Fallout 5 going to be multiplayer?

Answer: There is very little information on Fallout 5 as of now, but it’s possible they go the multiplayer route after righting the ship with Fallout 76.

Remember the Good Times

I can’t fully say I’ll never believe in this company again. Many companies that I’ve once loved have burned me in the past, like Bioware or CD Projekt Red, but I’ve learned to forgive because they always tend to bounce back. A few years ago, CD Projekt Red was being stoned through the streets; now, it’s looked at as a great redemption story following Cyberpunk 2077 2.0. Bethesda has a chance to do the same. It wants to do the same, and in order to redeem itself, it needs to let go of the past and finally look around at what has led other companies to succeed in this gaming age.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top