Most publishers like to keep their press conferences somewhere in the vicinity of the LA Convention Center. Not Bethesda, though. They were looking toward the movies as they prepared to roll out Fallout 4, Dishonored 2, and DOOM.
Bethesda's press conference was set in the Dolby Theatre, the home of the Oscars, in the heart of Hollywood. Across the street was the elegant El Capitan Theatre, with the Chinese Theatre just around the corner. In the lobby, there was free popcorn for attendees. Rather than focusing on the media, they packed their event with fans and catered to their need to be excited, and they obliged by loudly cheering pretty much every announcement. It was clear that Bethesda wanted to bring a certain amount of Hollywood excitement to their event, and they succeeded wildly.
Appropriately, the games on display during the press conference had names that echo through the history of the medium. Where EA continues to flail around in an attempt to find the next big thing, Bethesda relies on the tried and true formula of massive resources, familiar names, and pure marketing muscle. Moreso than any other publisher, they've made their games into events on par with summer blockbusters like Jurassic World, with the sales to match.
In some ways, the Hollywood spectacle flies in the face of the assertions that the traditional Triple-A model is on its way out. If the business model is indeed unsustainable, nobody bothered to tell Bethesda, who have been a reliable hitmaker since the '90s. They are perfectly content to pour everything they have into a handful of massive games, then sit back and watch them become almost platforms unto themselves. It's been four years and people are still happily plugging away at Skyrim, with Fallout 3 and even Oblivion enjoying similar traction.
For their show, Bethesda primarily focused on DOOM and Fallout 4. There were other projects, Battlecry and a new Elder Scrolls CCG among them; but for the most part, it was clear what they considered to be their pillars. Both demos left me with a clear sense of Bethesda going all in, tantalizing with a huge amount of gameplay footage and feature announcement after feature announcement. By the end of the Fallout 4 demo, I felt like I had just watched the final battle in The Avengers. All I could do was numbly tweet that Bethesda had put on a hell of a show, and I meant it.
DOOM goes back to its roots
My overarching memory of DOOM is installing a custom map that consisted of an entrance hall and a courtyard so full of demons that they could barely move. I would then wade into that courtyard and see how long I could survive.
Bethesda's DOOM demo brought back some of those old memories, even squeezing in an exploding barrel for old-time's sake. There was little to none of the darkness that pervaded DOOM 3, no flashlights or audio recordings. Just demons, a shotgun, and blood. So much blood.
It's funny, but I had forgotten how bloody the original DOOM really was. When I think of the original game, I think of pixelated, 2.5D perspective demons, not the buckets of blood and dead corpses. But Bethesda's DOOM reboot is a stark reminder that, oh yeah, that game was pretty violent. As with most things these days, they've just ratcheted it up about 3000 percent.
The three or four minutes of gameplay shown at Bethesda's press conference included dismembered limbs, point-blank shotgun blasts in the gut, a truly gory chainsaw, and a stomach-churning sequence in which a demon was force fed its own heart.
I don't particularly like all the violence, but I can't deny being drawn in by the old-school gunplay, the raw speed, and the pace of the action. It seems that amid the military shooter fatigue that has followed years of Call of Duty, DOOM is happy to be a perverse leader of sorts, bringing the genre back to its earliest days. It's an odd turn for the franchise once known as the undisputed king of gameplay innovation and technology.
But that's not to say that DOOM won't be a leader in its own way. In highlighting the built-in level design tools that will be included with the game, Bethesda is codifying a structure that has existed for more than 20 years now, giving fans carte blanche to create whatever they want. With community being more important than ever, it only makes sense for DOOM, which practically invented the concept of modding, to take the lead.
There's been a great deal of hand-wringing over the years about where DOOM fits into the overall shooter landscape, particularly following the departure of its chief architects. With the reboot, its direction is now clear. As with Wolfenstein before it, the '90s are back in style.
But back to Fallout 4
I'm going to make an admission now: I don't find the world of Fallout particularly compelling. It's a fantastically well-realized post-apocalyptic setting with a great sense of humor, but Fallout wears on me for the same reason as The Walking Dead - it's just too grim and ugly. I'd much rather spend time in the high fantasy world of The Elder Scrolls, where the massive open world I'm exploring is, well, prettier. Or at least not so full of mutants and naked molerats.
Having said all that, though, I think Fallout 4 has already won me over. As always, I'm amazed by the sheer scale and ambition of Bethesda's open worlds. I've written that this is the E3 of Refinement, and Fallout 4 is probably the best example of that, but there was some serious refinement on display Sunday night.
Everything about Bethesda's presentation was geared toward driving home the fact that the world of Fallout 4 is gigantic, from the huge amount of concept art shown at the beginning of the demo to the moment that the Wasteland is revealed again for the very first time. If Bethesda has one strength, it's their ability to make their worlds feel almost overwhelmingly huge, with every corner of them having some sort of story to tell. Just the fact that Fallout 4 has apparently been in the works for something on the order of seven years offers a hint of how big this game will be (though they were apparently making a mobile game in there as well).
The two major features discussed during the demo likewise offered a sense of the game's scale. Like Skyrim's first expansion, Hearthfire, Fallout 4 will include the ability to build housing from scratch using materials scavenged from the wastes. But Bethesda is taking things a step further with the ability to build whole towns, which will apparently entice vendors with rare goods to set up shop. They'll even be attacked by raiders, forcing you to setup adequate traps and other defenses. It's the sort of feature that sounds like it would be an amazing game on its own, but is just one tiny aspect of Fallout 4.
Bethesda also highlighted the weapons crafting, which appears to be much more in-depth than before. In addition to having layered armor, it will be possible to forge attachments and other improvements for weapons; bringing to mind the crafting in Skyrim as well as the weapon attachment system in Resonance of Fate. It may not ultimately be possible to attach a silencer onto a silencer in Fallout 4, but it's refreshing to see a Triple-A RPG get deeper rather than the other way around.
I would be remiss if I didn't note that Bethesda's ambition usually comes with a price. Their games have in some ways become synonymous with bugginess, and there will no doubt be some amazing Youtube videos in the days after Fallout 4 is released. But it's impossible to question this team's extremely dedication to detail. They're even going so far as to package an honest-to-god Pip-Boy with the collector's edition that is capable of connecting to the game via wi-fi to serve as a second screen.
"As far as stupid gimmicks go, this is the best f*cking one I've ever seen," said Todd Howard, the game's director. He's not wrong.
The Fallout 4 demo, and the DOOM demo before it, leaves the impression of a publisher brimming with confidence. Far from fearing for their future, Bethesda is seemingly content to pour millions into a seven-year project in the hopes that it will dominate RPGs for the next 5 to 10 years. And what's crazy is that their faith isn't misplaced. Fallout 4 will probably more than 10 million copies, and it will make plenty of Game of the Year lists. It's about the surest thing in gaming right now.
And so, while it's tough to give a publisher too much credit for putting an amazing-looking product front and center and simply not screwing up, Bethesda's press conference has been an unqualified success. They went big, and as usual, it paid off. Oh, and to cap it all off, they handed out these to their fans at the end of the event.
God, they really did think of everything.