Until very recently I considered Fallout 3 and Skyrim to be my favourite open-world games of all time. That's a pretty fucking big deal, and I've a sizeable personal affection for the makers of both games, Bethesda. They're revered for making the kind of massive games that I can pour upward of 400 hours into. I feel like I owe them something. I even went through a six-month "phase" where I regularly tweeted Bethesda head-honcho and nerd-genius Todd Howard to ask if he was willing to be my adoptive dad (he's not).
Quite a lot has happened since then, though. The beauty about Bethesda is that each of their games isn't a yearly churn. Quite the opposite: you wait years for an announcement, then more years for the release, and hype yourself up beyond belief. Then, what emerges usually exceeds all those expectations. Bethesda's games are worth waiting for. And the waiting is often the best thing about it – something that a lot of game publishers seem not to understand. And now here we are again, feverishly awaiting an announcement of some kind regarding the fourth main game in the Fallout series. There's a countdown and everything, and at 3pm UK time "all" will be revealed.
But, a lot has changed since the last Fallout title, New Vegas, came out in 2010. Open-world gaming has reached new heights – or, maybe, spread itself over a greater number of square miles. Let's recap the last two years of frivolity within this compelling genre.
Grand Theft Auto V
Blew my pants off with the quite frankly astonishing level of detail packed into Los Santos, but I never really delved into GTA Online, so it hasn't elongated itself into years of replay quite like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series have.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
A really nice surprise! It did some quite tidy things that its makers, BioWare, really nailed – character development, story beats, its overall scope – but failed to match that with real depth. It was beautiful, epic and really quite soulful, but for every great thing there was an empty objective or a fetch quest. I clocked 90 hours on the fucker, but looking back I'm not really sure whether it's as good as I thought it was.
Dark Souls II
Yeah decent, maybe even great, but whatevs.
While playing all of these games – even during a 2014 replay of Skyrim on PC where I made it look astonishingly shiny by modding the piss out of it – I've been looking forward to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Wild Hunt promised to truly represent the next generation of role-playing games. Previously, that kind of claim was Bethesda's territory. It happened with Oblivion at the beginning of the last console generation, and then again with Skyrim towards its end. I'm not a betting man, but if forced into it, I would've put my money on Bethesda being the ones to redefine roleplaying for a third time running.
But Wild Hunt got there first, releasing in mid-May 2015. And the game not only takes physical size to an entirely new level, but it redefines depth. Developer CD Projekt RED has not simply filled its world with stuff, which is effort enough, but it's created stories and characters that actually feel important.
Now, "important" is not a way I would usually describe games. Video games are very rarely important – they're fun, they're brilliant, beautiful, intense, gripping, funny and memorable, but they're very rarely important. "Important" is an adjective best saved for things like calling HMRC, or when you really need a morning dump but you're stuck on a delayed tube so have to really concentrate really hard, in the same way you do to hold back a sneeze, so as not to shit yourself before you get to the office.
But here we are: The Witcher 3 does feel important. And that's mainly because of how it deals with choice and consequence, something Bethesda has never done particularly well and will be looking to improve on with whatever Fallout 4 proves to be. Despite its magnificent world and overwhelming size, Skyrim never felt perilous. Everything you do it in should be wrought with risk – you'll be trekking up mountains and into long-lost caverns, exploring magical tombs in search of orbs or elves or whatever the fuck the Mage's Guild needs this week – but in practice it's simply not a game that walks with a weight on its shoulders. You have a responsibility to the world around you, but that world never goes out of its way to really put the player in danger.
No matter what you do in Skyrim, stuff stays the same. It's a static canvas. Sure, you can hit a villager and go around looting civilians' houses to be The Bad Guy, just as you can save a farmer and his goat to be The Good Guy. You might make a choice here and there and have a slightly diverting storyline, but for the most part it's the same. You can roleplay it however you like, rocking new weapons and armour and that kind of thing, but you'll never feel important. Kill a bunch of peasants one day and their fellow townsfolk likely won't bat an eyelid when you're next treading their sludgy streets.
The same can't be said of Wild Hunt, within which I've already seen actual horrifying consequences of my actions. One of the early quests (no spoilers!) gave me heavier heart palpitations than the oh-god-everyone-is-dead (potentially) ending of Mass Effect 2. Sure, I'll say it: the introductory beats in Wild Hunt's story smash tougher choices into your face than one of the most narratively accomplished game trilogies ever made.
If you want to know what Bethesda can do with Fallout 4, I'll give you a little story about what happened to me in Wild Hunt the other day.
So, I fucking hate Gwent, The Witcher 3's in-game card game. Honestly, what's the point? If you're playing one of the most richly detailed open-world games of the last decade, what's appealing about sitting down to an imaginary table to play a made-up card game? During my first 70-or-so-hours of playtime so far, I'd not completed a full game of Gwent. I didn't think I'd need to ever sit down to play the thing. Twat.
I was on a side quest for one of my dwarf pals. I had to illegally obtain some valuable items so he could pay back a debt that he simply couldn't afford otherwise. I had located what I needed to steal, but when I turned up to nab it I walked in on two bandits torturing one of my lesser companions. He wasn't important to the quest's outcome, and I'd only met him at the beginning of the side-story, but Wild Hunt has this incredible knack of humanising people well enough that you empathise with them, even if you haven't spent the previous 12 hours getting to know these characters.
When impasses like this crop up in Wild Hunt, you often get the option to just kill everyone, but this particular scenario played out slightly differently. The bandits weren't willing to play fair, and I never got the chance to start a free-for-all, that I'd naturally win being a fucking witcher and everything. None of that. Instead, one of the guys tells me I can play him at Gwent, to save my companion's life. I win, he lives; I lose, he dies.
Two dialogue options pop up on screen:
"Sure, let's play."
"He's none of my concern."
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Now, I was mildly curious about what the latter option would mean for my pal, but I didn't want to risk calling the bandit's bluff. Had I gone with it, he might've let him go, but I didn't trust his sadistic nature not to just kill for the sake of it. So I agreed to the bet and sat down for a game of Gwent, the entire time thinking: "You have never even played Gwent, what the fuck are you doing?"
Moments later I had lost. I don't know how I lost, but I had. My companion was stabbed in the back, right in front of me. It was then that the game threw me into combat so I could avenge my dead friend, but it was too late: my stupid arrogance had cost me. Not in gold, but emotionally, and I actually cared. My sitting down to play a game of Gwent, a game I'd never played before, felt important.
Whatever Bethesda does with Fallout 4, if they can make something as seemingly innocuous as a game of cards feel important, feel memorable, and in its own way completely crucial to the wider story, then they'll prove that they're still ahead of the curve. And if not, well, we've already got The Witcher 3, so perhaps another traipse around the post-apocalyptic wastes of North America won't seem so essential.
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