With 2015 almost drawing to a close, we decided to look at the best releases this year. We noticed a curious thing in the RPG genre. Although both of the biggest RPG titles of 2015 – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Fallout 4 got great critic scores, The Witcher 3 received an overwhelming amount of better reception by the users and was considered a good RPG while Fallout 4 wasn’t. Why is that?
It has been a common complaint against Fallout 4 that it over-simplifies the RPG mechanics which were present in previous games, and which made Fallout a classic long before Bethesda bought the rights. Of course, Bethesda fans might argue that with time, the concept of RPG mechanics change with time. The very existence and popularity of Witcher 3 challenges that outlook. Let’s take a look, shall we?
At core, what separates RPGs from other games are the choices. While other games would have you play a pre-generated character with set abilities, make you walk fixed levels with set outcomes, RPGs simply offer you a lot more choices in various aspects. You do not just play a character, you also choose how to play it. Instead of being railroaded into one journey from start to finish, you have several ways you can branch out. This is heavily reflected on how Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 handle their RPG elements.
Let’s start with the most noticeable one- the character you play. While Bethesda lets you design and plan your character, you are forced to start the game as a happily married, heterosexual parent. You would think that afterwards you get more options on how to play your own character, but no. If you want to play anything other than the classic ‘good guy’, you are out of luck. Sure, you can steal and murder innocents, but when it comes to quests and dialog, your choices are between being helpful and kind, or not doing it at all. Most dialog options paint you as a selfless messiah of a human being, and that is why the occasional out of the blue sarcastic or extortionist options seem so ridiculously out of place.
Witcher 3 has similar limitations, but we have to keep in mind that the protagonist of Witcher 3- Geralt has several novels, short stories, and two previous games that feed into his backstory. Players do not suffer from the illusion that they will play a character which they can tailor completely. Instead, they are offered different ways to react to the world and its people, hence building up the character according to the player after the game begins. You want to play a honorable and noble Witcher? You can. You want to play as a materialistic douche who would sell his family to get rich? You can. The dialog is so skillfully written and woven into the Witcher way of life, it doesn’t feel out of place when Geralt asks for more money to kill a particularly terrible monster.
By now, it is common knowledge that the goal of Fallout 4 is to find out what happened to your son. But, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency in the plot or in the surrounding NPCs that reflect that. Where in Witcher 3, all side quests seemed to enrich the main quests and the world around, in Fallout 4, everything distracts you more and more. Want to find your son? But wait, let’s build a village for some poor people. Are you done? You are now the general of an entire group of soldiers, and there are more people telling you to rescue random villages from random enemies. Sure, you can postpone the side quests until you find your son, but shouldn’t side quests feel organic and rewarding, rather than mechanical and punishing?
Along with the aforementioned qualities, even the most staunch Fallout 4 fans will admit that the majority of quests in Fallout 4 are poorly written, and boil down to fetch and kill quests, and they have no noticeable choices or consequences whatsoever. Many times, a farm or settlement would tell you to get rid of a bunch of enemies that have a base ‘nearby’, and then you go and see that ‘nearby’ base is halfway across the map. This is because Fallout 4 uses the same ‘radiant’ quest system, which is another fancy word for ‘randomly generated quests’. It means there would be less work for writers to actually write quality lore or quests, and at the same time players would be happy with a heap of content.
In comparison, each one of The Witcher 3’s quests were crafted with great care and detail, and they seemed like an extension of the crisis of the main story, rather than random distractions. When you finish a quest in Witcher 3, you feel like you have done something worthwhile, because the threat is not randomly generated. It is real. Many of the side quests had lasting choices and deep consequences that would affect the world as well as the main story. The Carnal Sins quest in Witcher 3 might be one of the most emotionally heavy quests I have ever seen in a game.
While both the Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 is a bit too action-heavy in combat, in Witcher 3 you actually need to plan and manage your character builds, because you will be limited by experience points and skill points gained. In Fallout 4, there is no level cap. You will gain XP as long as you play, and there are enough enemies (thanks to respawning random encounters) to give you more than enough perk points. You can even improve your SPECIAL scores by spending perk points. By mid to end-game, you will be a demigod walking the streets of the Commonwealth Wasteland, which you are re-building single-handedly (if you’re into settlements). It kind of breaks the illusion of it being a harsh world, full of perils. Here, once again, Bethesda seems to be bent on removing the aspect of meaningful choices.
Anyone who has played The Witcher 3 or any of the previous Witcher games can attest to the skill of CD Prokject RED in building a game world with the right environment, be it the creepy village outside Vizima in Witcher 1, the majestic forest outside Flotsam in Witcher 2, or the marshes of Velen in Witcher 3. While the horizons of Skellige, with snow white mountains and endless oceans look like the real thing, I am not talking about scenic beauty. It is the NPCs, their surroundings, their uniqueness, their architecture, their society- everything taken together.
In Fallout 4, the world is no doubt beautiful, but it is filled with NPCs and quest givers who either feel generic, or actually are just that. There are well-designed, great, big maps, but they feel lifeless, even with the post-apocalypse taken into account. I could not stop feeling that my character was suffering from a severe existential crisis, always crying “What am I doing here?” in his head.
Fallout 4 is not a bad game. You can keep yourself busy in it for a long, long time. But it is not a good RPG; rather it’s a disappointing one at that, especially considering The Witcher 3 was released just a few months ago. Bethesda tried to include a lot of improvements in the shooter aspect, decided to include a simulation aspect of settlement building, and as a result ended up diluting most of the RPG elements that was the identity of the Fallout series, and which made even the last entry, i.e. Fallout: New Vegas, such an excellent RPG.