Bethesda E3 Conference Impressions

We’ve had some little news drops over the last week or so, like the Fallout 4 trailer and the Smash Bros. Nintendo Direct, but with Bethesda’s press conference last night, E3 2015 has finally started.  And what a start!  Bethesda threw a lot of footage at us, a lot of which looked pretty great, and a few little surprises, too.  So let’s take a quick look at what we saw.

First of all, Bethesda employees get a lot of cool t-shirts.  I want all of them.  But anyway, the games.

I want that shirt.
I want that shirt.

The show kicked off with a pretty in-depth look at Doom, and it looks like a lot of fun.  Doom is not looking to reinvent the wheel; this game is aimed straight at people who loved the original Doom and Doom II in the early 90s.  Doom is a game about flying chunks of flesh, geysers of blood, double-barreled shotguns that reload in a fraction of a second, slicing through demons with a chainsaw, and exploding barrels.  The trailers Bethesda showed us – there were four of them – had buckets and buckets of that goodness.

It’s easy to criticize a game like Doom for not bringing anything new to the table, for not really innovating.  But there are tons of shooters every year.  Let someone else come up with bold, innovative gameplay mechanics that give you a first-person shooter experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.  Doom is a game for when you want to rip the arms off a demon and then beat that demon to death with them.  What Bethesda showed off last night looks like it’s going to nail the gory, comically over-the-top, fast-paced gameplay that Doom fans are thirsting for.

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The Doom presentation also came with a few surprises.  For one, there will be multiplayer.  Compared to the two campaign trailers we saw, the multiplayer trailer was brief and light on information.  Multiplayer looks like it has sort of a Quake feel to it, and Bethesda said as much in the post-conference interview.  It also looked to have quite a bit of what we’re calling “verticality” these days, reminding me almost of Titanfall a bit.  The player costumes look kind of blandly Halo-ish in the way most futuristic spacesuits do.  For all its iconography and visual style, Doom has never given you that strong a sense of what you look like, other than the B.J. Blazkowicz-looking face on your health bar (which does not appear to be returning this time around, sadly).  You do, however, get to play as a demon, at least in small bursts, and shoot fireballs with Satan magic, which is cool.  And they mentioned something called “freeze tag mode,” which has me curious.  Beyond that, we don’t have many details about this part of the game.

It does feel a bit weird having multiplayer in a Doom game, but why not throw it in there, if you’ve got great shooter mechanics and bonkers weapons?  I just hope the presence of multiplayer doesn’t cut into the amount of single-player action we’re going to get.  I’ll try it out, but I don’t know how much time I’m going to spend in this multiplayer universe.  The online FPS landscape is ever more crowded, and by the time Doom comes out in Spring 2016 I’ll personally be playing Black Ops III and Star Wars Battlefront, and maybe even the next Titanfall.  And there’s always a 50-50 chance that I’ll be into Destiny at any given moment, so good luck finding time on my online FPS schedule, Doom.

But even if the campaign is too short and the multiplayer is sixth-tier, there’s another new feature that’s sure to bring people back to Doom day after day: Snapmap.  This time around, Doom is coming bundled with a level editor that looks like so much more than a level editor.  I don’t know how much I’ll actually use it, but the announcement made the 15-year-old boy inside me jump for joy.  I spent a lot of time in the early 90s playing with whatever Doom level editor I downloaded onto my parents’ Compaq PC over our 14.4 modem, but I didn’t actually get much done, because creating levels was overwhelmingly complex, especially for a kid with no experience.  Snapmap looks to address that problem by giving you a user-friendly, simplified level-editing experience – even on consoles!  From the looks of it, you’ll be snapping all sorts of modules together to build your levels, and sharing them online with other players.

Building maps with Doom's Snapmap feature.
Building maps with Doom’s Snapmap feature.

Bethesda actually didn’t use the term “level editor,” though.  In their words, Snapmap will allow you to create “custom experiences,” with “predefined or custom gameplay.”  You’ll be able to “create new modes” by editing “game logic.”  Snapmap will allow you to create single-player, co-op, or multiplayer, um, experiences.  So it looks like you’ll not only be designing maps and dropping in enemies, but you’ll also be able to create objectives, script events, or tweak AI.  The trailer for this part of the game was light on detail and full of PR-speak, but it does look like it will probably be a lot of fun.  This is the kind of feature that really needs its own dedicated twenty- or thirty-minute presentation, the sort of thing you often see later on in E3.  No word on when we might see such a presentation, but I hope we get something this week.  Frankly, I’m more excited to learn more about Snapmap than I am about multiplayer, even though I know there’s a good chance I won’t spend more than a couple of hours with either mode.  As long as the most dedicated 1% or 0.1% of Doom players use Snapmap, there should be a steady stream of fun content to sate our appetites for digital blood and flesh throughout 2016.

Bethesda used the Snapmap reveal as a way to tease their new service, Bethesda.net – pronounced “Bethesda Net” – that is apparently integrated into all of Bethesda’s games now.  It is through this service, for example, that you’ll be up- and downloading new user-created Doom content.  They didn’t give much information, but I guess we should start thinking of our new Fallout-themed usernames.

Into the gaping maw of manic Doom excitement Bethesda next dropped a trailer for Battlecry.  I knew nothing about this game before today, and I can’t say that much has changed.  The game’s site describes it as having “brutal action combat,” “team-based PvP warfare,” and “intense tactical combat.”  (The words “brutal,” “team-based,” and “intense” are bolded, which seems like a missed opportunity to spice up that middle bullet point.)  The game’s look reminded me a little bit of No More Heroes.  Bethesda announced that you can sign up now for beta access, and if you sign up in the next few days you’ll get an in-game reward.  When I heard that, I thought, “Cool.  I’ll have to go do that.”  Then I thought, “Wait, what is Battlecry?”  Then I thought, “Nah.”  Not only have I enjoyed just about every Bethesda game I’ve ever played, but many of them are games I absolutely love.  That said, they’ve got to do more to make me at all interested in whatever Battlecry is.  For example, I keep having to Google it to make sure that’s actually its name, and not Battlepunch or Bloodcry or Kill Fortress or whatever else the Random Game Name Generator might spit out.

From there, Bethesda unveiled the suddenly-worst-kept secret of E3: Dishonored 2.  This game doesn’t seem as far along as everything else Bethesda showed off, as this was definitely more of a trailer trailer and not a gameplay trailer, but they did drop a rough spring 2016 release date in the post-show interview.  The big news here is that you have your choice of two playable characters: Corvo Attano, returning from the first game, and (the now grown-up) Emily Kaldwin, the Empress’s kidnapped daughter whom Corvo rescues in Dishonored.  The developers confirmed after the conference that there’s no co-op or character-switching; you’ll pick either Corvo or Emily at the beginning and play his or her story.  (And, because the game will probably be great, you’ll then start over and play the other one.)  The story will be the same regardless of whom you pick, but will also bring that character’s perspective to the game.

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The trailer, though, focused entirely on Emily, and it appears the game was designed primarily with her in mind.  This doesn’t look like a case of a tacked-on female option, but a game genuinely built around a female protagonist.  If anything, Corvo might be the tacked-on character.  I’ll be curious to see how the character you don’t choose is incorporated into the narrative.  Twitter seemed generally excited about Emily, with a lot of people already deciding that they’ll be playing the game as her, not Corvo.  She appears to have a totally different set of magical powers from Corvo’s, and I imagine I’ll be opting for her version of the story, too, along with everyone else.  (But Corvo is still there, so the “games aren’t for girls” crowd can still enjoy the game, right?)

And while you wait for Dishonored 2, the original game is getting a “Definitive Edition” for current-gen consoles, with souped-up graphics and all available DLC.  They announced it as coming out “this fall” during the presentation, but then said in the post-show interview that it was coming in a few weeks; Gamespot is now saying that it’s confirmed for August 25 at $40.  I’ve still got a huge stack of games I haven’t yet played for the first time, let alone a second time, but I might actually try to make time for this one.

[Begin digression…]

It’s easy to roll your eyes every time an old game gets rereleased on a new console, dismissing it as a lazy cash-grab and a poor substitute for new games and actual creativity.  But, on the other hand, there are a lot of reasons to get behind a good remaster.  For one thing, I have a ton of sympathy for the countless artists who work on a game for years only to see it rapidly slide into obsolescence.  For a lot of big AAA games, the game takes longer to develop than it does to become obsolete.  Over at Nintendo, for example, people are hard at work on the next Zelda game that – if it actually is still released for Wii U – will be played by no one (there are fewer than 10 million Wii Us out there) and then quickly shunted to the discount bin to make room for whatever the NX turns out to be.  Remasters help these games find new audiences, and help some of the greatest games live on beyond the limits technology imposes on them.  For most other art forms, great works can live on in perpetuity.  We’ve all seen plenty of movies, read books, and listened to music that was created long before we were born.  But how many people ever play games that are even ten years old?  My future children will probably never play Fallout 4, let alone Hunt the Wumpus.  Authors don’t have to worry that no one will read their books once the new 2016 fonts come out; the short lifespan is a feature almost unique to videogames.  It’s nice to see remasters extend the lives of some of these games.

Also, there are just a lot of great games out there, and some of us don’t play them when they first come out.  If you’re not going to play a game until after it’s already been out for five years, why not play it on the newest hardware?  If you want to listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, you don’t have to dig the Victrola out of the attic and suffer through a level of fidelity that your ears have been conditioned to find intolerable.  Why shouldn’t the same be true of great games?  I haven’t played any Mass Effect games, for example, but I’d like to check them out one of these days.  By now, a copy of Mass Effect Trilogy for Xbox 360 is only $30, but if I could, I’d much rather play the game on Xbox One.  As long as remastered games’ prices are commensurate with the amount of work that goes into the upgrades, I think they can be a great addition to the world of gaming.

So when Bethesda announced Dishonored: Definitive Edition, I was genuinely excited.  This is a great game with a lot of replay value and a bunch of DLC that I’ve never played.  I may not have time for it, but I’d hypothetically love to play it again.  This is the right way to do remasters.  A remaster is not a substitute for a new game or a new idea.  But in this case, we know Dishonored 2 is coming, we know it’s coming pretty soon, and we’ve seen enough to be excited about it.  When developers tease and tease and tease an announcement, only to reveal the upcoming That Game You Played in 2009: Again Edition, it’s easy to be disappointed, to feel like publishers are taking advantage of your love for a particular brand to make a quick buck.  But an announcement like last night’s is all upside.  If you loved Dishonored and want to replay it before the sequel comes out, you can play a prettier version.  If you always wanted to try it but never got around to it, your experience doesn’t have to be marred by outdated visuals.  If you want to convince your friend to try it, she won’t have to dig her 360 out of her attic to do so.  This is the right way to handle remaster announcements, and I hope future remaster announcements follow suit.

[…End digression]

Back to E3.  After the Dishonored 2 reveal, Bethesda showed off a bunch of upcoming content for Tamriel Unlimited.  I don’t know a ton about this game, and I’m actually trying to avoid it for the sake of my sanity and free time, but it does look like there’s some cool stuff coming.  The console version of this game just came out a week ago, so E3 falls in a weird place timing-wise as far as messaging goes, but Bethesda took the opportunity to highlight the fact that there is a big stream of content on the way.  The whole subscription-free MMO model is really cool, and it’s good to see it get a lot of support, even if I have no interested in playing the game.  (Or, more accurately, if I am actively trying to not become interested in playing the game.)

And that segued right into another of the night’s biggest surprises: Elder Scrolls Legends, a digital free-to-play card game in the Elder Scrolls universe.  The trailer didn’t have many – or any – details, but I’d imagine it’ll be essentially an Elder Scrolls version of Hearthstone.  I don’t know much about Hearthstone, so I can’t say anything about how this is going to work, but the big takeaway is that if Tamriel Unlimited (née Elder Scrolls Online) and (re)playing Skyrim aren’t taking up enough of your time, you’ll now be able to stay engaged with the Elder Scrolls universe even when you can pry yourself away from your PlayStation.

And then, after a short “show’s over, folks” tease, came the moment everyone was waiting for: Fallout 4.  Bethesda did a great job of making the rest of the show engrossing and giving people a lot to be excited about, but Fallout 4 was obviously the main draw.  I could probably go on for ten or twenty pages on what we saw of Fallout last night, but the main takeaway is this: Fallout 4 is going to be huge.  Huge.  There is so much to do in this game, and there are so many different ways to play it.  Spend a lot of time with your families over the next few months, folks – yes, it’s coming out this November – because Fallout will be the only thing you’re doing for months and months and months.  Bethesda might want to delay Doom and Dishonored 2 just to give people time to finish Fallout 4. When I finally put Fallout 3 to bed, my game clock was standing at 1000 hours, and I could easily see myself hitting that mark again – or blowing past it – this time around.

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“Tonight we are going to show you a lot,” Todd Howard said, and they sure did.  They began with a montage of concept art, and I’m counting on the Internet to pore over that thing frame-by-frame and speculate the ever-loving hell out of it.  Wait a week or two, and then start looking for those articles to show up.

The first big reveal about Fallout was that there will in fact be pre-apocalypse gameplay – sort of.  It looks like the game’s going to begin on the morning of the last day before the bombs drop, and the “gameplay” will be basically an elaborate character-creation scheme.  It looks, on the one hand, like a cool way to marry backstory cutscenes and character creation, but on the other hand, I was hoping for a slightly more interesting pre-apocalypse experience.  But still, it will be cool to explore this world, however briefly.  And you do, as before, have the option to play as a male or female, but with a slight twist.  The character creator will have you customize a husband and wife, and then pick which one you’ll actually play as.  Once you’ve finished those characters, the game will generate a baby that combines their features.  What happens to that baby after the opening scenes is anyone’s guess – the day ends with you, your spouse, and your baby failing to get into a vault before the bombs start dropping, and then you go into some kind of stasis for 200 years – but I’m going to assume we’ll see that baby again, and all grown up.

The new character creation mode.
The new character creation mode.

I won’t go into a ton of detail on what followed, because every Fallout fan should really watch Todd Howard’s presentation, but here are some of the things that are going to make you start playing the lottery so you can quit your job and play Fallout all day, every day:

You get to make your own settlement.  You can dismantle basically anything you find, levelling old buildings and scrapping them for parts, and then use the materials you’ve gathered to build your own fully customizable buildings, decorating them how you’d like, equipping them with defenses and generators and whatever else you can craft.  As your home improves, it will attract other people, and you will have to fortify your settlement to defend against inevitable raider attacks.  This is a completely optional feature, but for those who decide to put the time in, you can now have a sort of tower defense game built into your already jam-packed Fallout world.

Similarly, the game’s crafting system is much more robust.  Every in-game item can provide some basic type of resource – glass, adhesive, etc. – and can be used for crafting.  The game comes with more than 50 base weapons and more than 700 mods.  How the math washes out is still a bit unclear.  Is it 50 weapons with 14 unique mods each?  Fifty weapons that each have access to a pool of 700 generic mods?  Fifty guns with a mixture of unique, class-specific, and generic mods?  However it works, it’s going to add up to a lot of combinations.  Whomever has the job of figuring out the stats for each weapon and mod and making a spreadsheet to figure out the best weapon combinations has his work cut out for him.

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During today’s Microsoft conference, Todd Howard also announced that the mods created on PC will be playable on Xbox One, for free.  I think this is a really great move for Microsoft.  This isn’t going to drive people from PlayStation to Xbox One necessarily, but it’s a great draw for people on the fence for whom Fallout 4 is the killer app they’ve been waiting for.  Modders, of course, will be playing the game on PC and probably couldn’t care less about this, but for console gamers who longingly browse lists of the Top Ten Mods for Your Favorite Game, the Xbox One version of Fallout 4 is starting to look really attractive.  And of course, this will add another few hundred hours of playtime to the game.

Fallout 4 will also support a second-screen experience  — something that Todd Howard acknowledged is a gimmick, but is, in this case, “the best fucking [gimmick]” out there.  I’m inclined to agree.  The second screen will turn your phone into a Pip-Boy that you can access during the game.  And now that the Pip-Boy plays a bunch of Atari-style games, you’ll have that much more of a reason to spend hours and hours playing with your Pip-Boy while your onscreen avatar is just staring at her wrist, unaware of the deathclaw standing right behind her.  To top it all off, Bethesda announced a plastic Pip-Boy replica, bundled in the “Pip-Boy Edition” of the game, into which you can slide your phone so you can actually wear a working Pip-Boy while you play Fallout 4.  It’s available for pre-order now for $120, which seems pretty steep.  I don’t know if these things are limited quantity, but I hope not, because I’d happily wait until Christmas for Fallout if it means the difference between getting a Pip-Boy or not.

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And on the subject of apps, Bethesda also dropped another bombshell in the middle of their conference: they’re releasing – or, actually, already released – a mobile game called Fallout Shelter.  In it, you manage a vault and all the people in it, whose needs you have to meet.  It looks like a cross between The Sims and Tiny Tower, and is already out on iOS, with the Android version coming soon.  (Sorry, Windows Phone owners.)  It’s free-to-play, and reportedly doesn’t have any pay-to-continue timed paywalls, which is cool.  I’d imagine a lot of people downloaded it immediately after the show and stayed up all night building their vaults.  (Sadly, I’m in that Windows Phone… “crowd” isn’t the right word… but I won’t be playing it any time soon unless it becomes available for Kindle Fire.)

All in all, it was a pretty great press conference with a lot to be excited about.  The Doom and Fallout presentations in particular were quite impressive.  I’m certainly excited for several of the games they showed off.  And, as an added bonus, conference attendees – and a few lucky tweeters – were given a set of three collectible figures: a Doom demon, Emily from Dishonored 2, and a set of Fallout power armor.  Look for those puppies on eBay soon.

E3 is off to quite a start.  Bethesda threw the gauntlet down, and it will be a tough act to follow.  (That said, Microsoft had a damn good presentation today, and I’ll try to get impressions up soon.)  E3 is officially upon us, people, and the upcoming year keeps getting better and better for gamers.

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