The excitement for Fallout 4 was palpable before its release in November 2015. Even though pre-release demos merely showed the game to be more of 2009’s Fallout 3 in terms of both gameplay and presentation, there was almost an expectation amongst fans that Fallout 4 would be the biggest game of 2015. In many ways, they were absolutely right, with the game selling through more than 1.2 million Steam copies and shipping 12 million copies worldwide.
The review scores weren’t too shabby either, garnering an 8.8 with our very own Austin Flynn, but the Metacritic averages are lower than you would expect. At the time of writing, the PC version is managing an average of 84/100, although, more shockingly, the user score on Metacritic is only 5.4. So it seems that the public are buying it, but the critics (professional or otherwise) are starting to feel fatigued. Many of the negative user reviews seem to cite the bland open world, out of date graphics and the game engine, which many blame for the large amount of bugs that people are experiencing. The latter of these seems to be the target for most of the ire; a creaking game engine that the developers have been using in some form since 2006’s Oblivion.
The game engine powering Fallout 4 is known as the Creation Engine, an in-house engine built by Bethesda Game Studios. So far, only two games have been built on the Creation Engine, those being 2011’s Skyrim and Fallout 4. While technology is a constantly moving target, is this a sound argument to level at a game engine that was widely applauded after its debut four years ago?
Skyrim represented an obvious jump in graphical fidelity over Fallout 3 and Oblivion. Both of those games were built on the Gamebryo engine, a widely used engine at the time. Considering that Skyrim came out in the same console generation, the visual leap between this game and their last was quite remarkable. The Creation engine behind Skyrim is very much based on Gamebryo, but Bethesda took the decision to create their own proprietary engine due to the limitations in Gamebryo’s dynamic lighting capabilities, amongst other things. This makes sense in that Bethesda were obviously trying to future-proof their games. In the technology sector where standards are subject to change on an almost yearly basis, the Creation Engine seemed to be the answer to ensuring that Bethesda stayed up to date.
Creating a game engine is an expensive investment; one that most developers don’t have the time, resources and/or money to do. If a new custom made engine was built for every single that game that was released, we’d probably only get a handful of games each year. That’s why companies such as Epic create their own engine and then license it out to others. The prevalence of the Unreal 3 engine last generation was the reality of this situation. So, rather than licensing someone else’s tools, creating your own would be a considerable undertaking. It’s reasonable to expect that a game engine will be used for more than one game.
When Skyrim launched, it was largely praised for its up to date visuals. Of course, standards change over time, but have we really seen such a dramatic leap between 2011 and 2015?
One contributing factor may be the recent change to newer consoles. With the advent of the PS4 and Xbox One, the expectations surrounding new games is now higher than ever, so something that appears similar to what was achieved on the PS3 and Xbox 360 seems underwhelming. The gap between Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 is certainly noticeable and, if not for Skyrim, would probably be easier to accept. Fallout 4 is still an undeniable improvement, but it could be the case that critics and players expected more.
Considering the new consoles, performance is also a consideration. With the leap, the expectation that we would be getting PC quality graphics running at 1080p and a silky smooth 60FPS seems to be the prevailing narrative. You don’t have to go far on the Internet to find communities rallying against games that run at 30FPS, and God forbid if they happen to dip under this threshold. It’s a difficult argument to make, especially since a console, at their price point, will never be in the same league as a souped up PC. On the other hand, it is reasonable for people who have bought a new console to see some sort of improvement. It could be argued that the graphical improvements are enough, but extra performance isn’t an unreasonable demand for your money.
In Fallout 4’s case, there is a distinct difference between its performance on consoles and PC. Digital Foundry have provided benchmark tests on PS4 and Xbox One where the game occasionally stutters to 20FPS during certain moments. From watching the videos, the PS4 tends to dip more during combat, and the Xbox One seemingly dislikes rendering larger draw distances and landscape shots. These technical blemishes were enough of an issue to cause Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb fame to give the console versions of Fallout 4 a lower score than the PC version. The question is whether this performance drop can be blamed on the hardware or the game engine. Given the performance of other games on the consoles, there is a case to be made that the game is simply poorly optimized for consoles.
Then there are the bugs. Bethesda games are notorious for their bugs, from the more comical to the game breaking. In the past, Bethesda’s bugs have been overlooked due to the sheer complexity of the games they make. They create massive open worlds where it is possible to do almost anything. You could steal every single item from someone’s house and put them into another house, and the game will keep track of every single one of these items. You could slaughter an entire town and the game will allow you to do that, even if you kill some quest givers in the process and lock yourself out of half the game’s content. Every single person in the game has a weekly schedule that they adhere to, all of which plays out in real time. These are just a few elements that we, as players, are privy to, so who knows what else is going on under the hood. The amount of moving parts in a game like this is staggering.
However, with each iteration on their franchises, Bethesda’s template is starting to lose its glamour. With no discernable progress made in terms of the quantity of their bugs and the damage they can do, Bethesda are starting to grind on the public’s patience. The scope of their games is in no way diminished, but the goodwill they’ve garnered over the years certainly has.
Fallout 4 seems to be the pivot point for Bethesda’s RPGs. Although the game is a critical and commercial success, the online consensus seems to suggest a certain exhaustion towards this type of game. With open world epics such as The Witcher 3 taking some of the sheen out of The Elder Scrolls’ armor, now seems like the time for Bethesda to start looking towards new tech. If a new engine will result in a more stable game, then it’s a decision that they should definitely take. By investing some of the money they made from Fallout 4’s 12 million shipped copies, they can hopefully stay relevant in a marketplace that is starting to become overcrowded with open world games. However, without fully understanding the complexity of a game like this (while still appreciating it), we can’t know for sure if it’s even possible to iron out most of the Bethesda jank we’ve come to associate with them. But if there’s a chance, they should certainly try.