Thursday, January 26, 2017

Phantasie II: The Same Thing All Over Again. Good.

Solving the first quest.
     
We often moan about how capitalism overtakes quality in art, but sometimes I wish the best developers would show a bit more avarice. Take Bethesda. Now, I realize that The Chosen Elite of RPG players have passed down from on high the declaration that Skyrim "sucks," but as I shall never be cool enough to breathe their rarefied air anyway, I don't mind admitting that I rather enjoyed it. I certainly put more hours into it between 2011 and 2016 than any game I played for this blog.

It's been over 6 years since Skyrim and it will probably be another 3, at least, before we hear word of The Elder Scrolls VI: Akavir. I've read article after article saying that Bethesda doesn't want to rush development; that they want to make sure they can use the latest technology to get it right. I'm sure that between the engine and the content, it will take thousands of hours and cost a billion dollars, and I admire them for it, but here's the thing: if they'd spent the last five years releasing half-assed titles re-using the Skyrim engine, I would have bought and played them happily. A new story set in Cyrodiil with no spoken dialogue and re-used assets from Oblivion? Shut up and take my money. An interim Fallout title set in Death Valley where the only environmental graphics are sand? I'll pre-order it today. Last year, when the Skyrim "special edition" came out, upgrading the least important parts of an RPG, I looked for any excuse to buy and play it. All they would have had to say is, "We changed a few lines of dialogue here and there and added a couple extra steps to a few side quests" and I would have bought it on the first day. "We changed it so you can kill Jaree-Ra" might have been enough.

In short, if I really enjoy the interface and mechanics of a game, I have no problem with the developer re-using it for some new content--as long as the content is good. As in, re-using the Gold Box engine to tell an original but compelling story in the Dragonlance universe, not re-using the Ultima VI engine to tell goofy stories that don't make any sense in conjunction with the rest of Ultima canon, or even reality. More developers need to be like Ubisoft: churn out Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin's Creed: Revelations while we're waiting for Assassin's Creed III. Be as shameless as Sir-Tech, with five Wizardry games using the same engine, or SSI, with like 15 games using the Gold Box engine, not like Rockstar, with 7 years between Red Dead titles.

Yes, I know many of you disagree. You're the types of people who say they have no problem waiting until 2028 for Winds of Winter because "it will be better if it isn't rushed." You like Star Wars but you think Disney's production schedule is "putting money ahead of Lucas's vision" and you "don't see why we have to have a new movie every year." You're everything wrong with everything.
     
Why is "leave" not an option?
     
Here's Phantasie II--a game so like Phantasie that the developers just packaged it with the first game's manual. They didn't even bother to give it a subtitle. The only thing different about its title from Phantasie is the "II." It's like they're saying, "Literally what you're going to get is Phantasie, but a second time." And that's fine. I'm having a great time with it. I'll bet that back in the day, reviewers complained that it was "just like the first game." I want to know what they say at Thanksgiving dinner when they ask for seconds on turkey and mashed potatoes. "It's a little disappointing, ma. It tastes just like the first helping."

As I noted in my first post on Phantasie II, the original Phantasie was Game 15 on this blog. I knew I liked it, but I didn't realize how good it was until I'd played like five dozen other games from the same period and found none of them approach it on the GIMLET. 
    
     
What I particularly like is the default difficulty. Forcing myself to avoid using save states is the best part of this experience. It creates a tension that I haven't felt since Wizardry and the first Might & Magic titles, and I wish more modern games gave you the option to only "save in town" or something similar. I understand that "survival" mode in Fallout 4 does something like that, and I'm looking forward to a replay once the memory of my last trip fades.

But it did make the beginning of the game slow-going. I guess characters imported from Phantasie have enough experience to start at around Level 3. Newer characters, having to work their way up there, need to retreat from the starting dungeon after every few successful combats to make sure they don't lose their progress. Getting my own new characters to Level 3, I must have made about 12 forays from town to dungeon, 4 of them resulting in death and reloading.

Another thing I appreciate--although I suspect I won't by the end--is the slight delay in combat as you watch each character's turn come up and then his action execute. There are actually two delays. First the character icon jumps, and you have a second before the game tells you whether you hit or missed. If you hit, there's another delay before it tells you how much damage you did, and if the enemy died. These slight delays (and their associated sound effects) impart some of the tension-and-release of a tabletop RPG with its rolls of the dice*. If I ever want things to move faster, there's always "warp" mode in the emulator.
    
But for how much?!
   
(*I know this because I recently got some more experience with tabletop RPGs. I'm waiting for a good occasion to work it into an entry.) 

I even like the weird way that the game approaches inventory. Every character has a weapon, a suit of armor, and a shield. Sometimes you find better items in the dungeons, but you don't get to equip or evaluate them right away. Instead, once you get to an inn, you go through a process of "distributing" items to the party members. Every item gets thrown into a pool. The distribution screen shows you who can wield each item, and you choose who gets it or whether to sell it. By default, the distribution screen sorts in order of the quality of the item (damage or protective value), so you distribute the stuff on top and sell the stuff on bottom. While it's mildly annoying to have to redistribute everything just to equip a few new items, the interface works excellently for this approach. I just wish there were more item types, like rings and cloaks and belts. I think Phantasie III expanded the number of wearable slots this way. 
    
Distributing items after a long exploration session.
     
I had forgotten a couple of things about exploring dungeons. First, I thought that all dungeons were contained on a single screen. Either they never were, or it differs by platform. Here, the kobold village extended south across two screens.

Second, I had forgotten about the little dots. They're how you know that the room has a special encounter. Could be a combat, could be an NPC, could be treasure; you don't know until you step on it.
    
An NPC gives me a tip. Note that there are several special encounters in this area.
    
Finally, when you leave a dungeon, the game asks if you want to save your progress. Basically, you get to choose if the dungeon respawns. This allows you to hit beneficial encounters multiple times--but of course also the many combats in between.
   
The first dungeon here, just steps from the opening city of Pippacott, was the "kobold village." Swarming with orcs and kobolds, the various structures in the village included an armory, barracks, kitchens, and houses for captains and the chief. A "detention area" held several special encounters, including a dwarf who rewarded me with 1,000 gold pieces, a gnome who screamed "47!" before running off, and an imp who wanted 1,000 gold pieces to tell me a secret. That last encounter was a bit obnoxious because the only options were to pay the imp or fight him, the latter option putting me in battle with multiple imps, each of which was capable of killing some of my characters in one round. I had to reload and just not visit him.
     
Slowly revealing the kobold village.
    
A couple of treasure rooms, including one protected by numerous traps I had to disarm, held several equipment upgrades. Some stairs led to a "second level" (really just a room on the main level) in which various slimes and giant ants prowled a garbage pit.

The dungeon held two more scrolls. One of them filled in the recent history of Ferronrah, describing how Nikademus destroyed the capital, executed the royal family, and put a curse on the island that causes anyone entering or leaving to be "greatly reduced in mental and physical capabilities." In the game's lore, he did this to prevent the continent from raising an army and going after him; functionally, it explains why characters imported from Phantasie lose almost all their experience. The scroll continued with an account of Lord Wood of Gelnor's expedition to Ferronrah to seize the "orb" in which the curse is somehow contained. Although he was initially victorious, Nikademus counter-attacked, drove Lord Wood back to Gelnor, and hid the orb in an unknown location. Lord Wood is a key NPC in all three games, basically creator Winston Wood's avatar in the game.
     
More about the backstory and main quest.
    
The second scroll described Senog's laboratory, the former lair of an ancient and powerful wizard, on a small island near Saxligham. An imp had taught Senog the secret of traveling to the Netherworld, and Senog died there.

Finally, there was the Oracle, whose presence was attested by one of the first scrolls in the game. I had to give her some gold and walk through a wall of smoke, which did a heavy amount of damage to my characters. The Oracle advises me to visit the Netherworld, find the "Book of Beasts," bring it to Filmon the Sage, do whatever he wants, and then return to the Oracle. Filmon is also a key NPC in all games, basically a Gandalf/Elminster-like character.
   
Exploring new overland squares.
     
After exploring the dungeon, I wandered to some other overland screens. A little mini-map on the right side of the outdoor screen keeps track of which outdoor "rectangles" you've already visited. It looks like there's 32 such outdoor squares, each with some combination of towns, dungeons, and inns. I've explored only one so far, but I expect the pace will pick up now that my characters are around Level 5. I remember from previous games that you have to be careful which directions you march, however. Some of the random outdoor combats are devastating to lower-level parties.
     
Those are some awfully large zombies.
     
Miscellaneous notes:


  • I'm already encountering a problem I remember in Phantasie and Phantasie III: having too little gold to pay for leveling. Having two monster classes with low charisma doesn't help.
  • The game really wants you to put your money in the bank. Every time you return to town or save the game, you have to divide gold into shares, all of which goes into each character's account. But since you need gold in hand to pay for training and spell acquisition, you're constantly withdrawing it immediately.
  • The hit point disparity among characters is quite strong, from 65 for one of my fighters to 13 for my thief.
     
The "health" screen keeps track of everyone' s current status.
     
  • Despite having some low attribute rolls at the beginning of the game, all of my characters seem to be pulling their weight, and I don't have plans to replace any of them.
     
It's been nice to play a game in which new pieces of equipment and new levels have a tangible effect on characters. I like watching my fighters slowly go from an average of 2 HP damage to 4 then 6. (My Fate characters, meanwhile, never seem to get palpably better no matter what I do.) More on magic and combat next time.

76 comments:

  1. No, I don't like the font either. I started it as a joke. But once Blogger gets it in its head that you want a particular font, it's nigh-impossible to get rid of it without retyping everything from blank text, and I didn't want to have to change the formatting and import all the images again. Seriously, view the source of this page. It's crazy. Blogger's code has it redefining all of the text variables every few words, sometimes in the middle of words. What causes this?

    Default font from now on.

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    1. Sometimes for my sites when this happens, I copy the text into notepad and copy it back. This changes it back to normal unformatted.

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    2. Thank heavens for that, I thought you were hell bent on making all our eyes bleed Chet!

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    3. I would have done that, but I already had all the images inserted, text formatted, and captions written. Copying the text into Notepad and back in would have screwed up the image placement and I probably would have had to start with a blank post.

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    4. Actually, I like the new font.

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    5. I appreciate your commitment to the bit.

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    6. OH GOOD. This was painful to read and I thought you were going it on purpose. I guessed it was to screw with people complaining about the font, at least.

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  2. "razing and army" -> "raising an army"?

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    1. My proofreader had to go and have a couple of kids and "doesn't have time" anymore. The position's open if anyone wants it.

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    2. (In case GD happens to read the above: I'm totally kidding. You were awesome and I owe you a lot. Enjoy your family.)

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    3. When I read Addict's first reply I wasn't sure what to think. What he wrote is true but it still hurt a bit.

      And then I read his second reply and I couldn't believe my eyes! I started to shout excitedly!
      "Oh Wife! Come and See! Those are my initials! CRPG Addict mentioned me on His Blog!!! Quickly, here is a pen drive with the screenshot, have it printed!!!"
      "First Son! Come and bring the Gilded Frame!!! Which has the image of pow(grand,10)grandfather in it! It is Time to make some changes!”

      And then I called my brother and told him to come over and bring pálinka, lots of it. And then I called my boss and told him that I have to take a few days off and he said no and I Cursed him and Quit!
      And then we celebrated for 3 days and now with shaking hands I'm typing this reply...

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  3. I remember buying all three of these games for the C-64. From the store! And I played them all. Never solved any of them. I played Phan1 a fair amount, maybe... 10% of the way through. Phan2, maybe 2%, Phan3... don;t remember it even a LITTLE bit. I have, within the past decade I believe, played some Phan1 via emulator and I REALLY enjoy that game- one day I too will drive Nikademus' forces back before destroying him as well :)

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    1. I've played through Phantasie III is recent years (through an emulator on my cell phone no less), but I haven't touched Phantasie I or II in so long I don't remember any of either.
      These posts are just making me want to start one of them again, once I'm done with Might and Magic 3.

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  4. Preach on man. I'm perfectly happy for new games in a series to reuse the same engine. I prefer it over radical engine changes, that's for sure.

    I'm looking forward to hearing about your tabletop experience. I feel like a working knowledge of D&D (especially Original D&D and 1e) is vital in understanding what CRPGs were trying to achieve in the 70s and 80s.

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  5. F the Chosen Elite, F game critics and while we're at it, F user reviews as well. Many games I've played and thoroughly enjoyed in recent years had 20-60% scores. I would've never played them if I listened to the almighty critics.

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    1. Curious to hear some examples of poorly-rated games you've enjoyed in recent years. I'm guilty of passing up games I'd probably otherwise enjoy because I focus too much on negative reviews, to be subsequently disappointed by games that receive unanimous raves. (Most recently example of that is Hitman, a game whose tutorial levels I enjoyed but couldn't make it through the Paris level without getting thoroughly frustrated.)

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    2. For me it happens most often with open world games aka Grand Theft Auto clones, like Mafia 3, Far Cry 3-4-Primal, Assassin's Creed, etc. They usually receive lukewarm reviews, crying about "more of the same" or whatever, and I've put 50-100 hours into all of them. I do love the open world genre though.

      Another vastly underrated game from a bit earlier is Alpha Protocol. An excellent RPG with tons of replay value, choices and consequences.

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    3. I like Skyrim. I just think that despite technical advances, Bethesda's world-building has become bland compared to Morrowind.

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  6. Spiderweb Software is a IMO a great example of how many great games you can make for people if you're willing to reuse the same engine and technology many, many times over.

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    1. I remember Jeff Vogel advocating in his blog for the bigger reuse of engines and interfaces in the industries.

      I don't agree. When burn out on a game, I'm fed up not only because of the story, but also because of interface, engine, and overall vibe. I liked Fallout 4, but i was still a bit burn out even though I played NV probably 2 or 3 years ago.

      And it will be a long while before I play another Jeff Vogel game, because they all feel the same to me.

      And yes, I love Skyrim, so also goes out some cool points. But Oblivion might be among the biggest disappointments I've ever had, at least when it comes to expectations on games.

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    2. I whole-heartedly agree. That said, Spiderweb also have a history of remaking their games in an updated engine every couple of years. ;)

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    3. That was directed @Debo, btw. RuySan's post wasn't there when I replied.

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    4. I found the feel of combat in F4 completely different to the F3 engine. In that, I was prepared to shoot things, rather than rely entirely on VATS and companions.

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    5. Yes, F4 had a much better shooting feel, and that's probably why I still liked the same, because it was the only thing helping to avoid the over-familiarity.

      That said, the setting was dull as dishwater. I understand the fallout setting is all about Americana aesthetic, but I wish they made the next country in some other country.

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  7. Don't feel like you need to apologize to anyone for liking Skyrim. It's not perfect, but no game is. Honestly it's one of the best "base" games Bethesda ever put out, by which I mean, I never felt any desire to mod it as with their other games. Skyrim is popular for a good reason. People who say it sucks are mostly being elitists.

    It's true that there are fewer chances to make meaningful roleplaying decisions than in other games, but it's not as bad in this respect as something like Fallout 4, whose voiced main character meant that dialogue "choices" all funneled you to identical results.

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  8. Might and Magic 6-8 used the same engine.

    It was really cool in MM6. MM7 took MM6 and refined it - its my personal favorite in the MM series. MM8 though... the same engine was really kinda starting to get old. It was a similar style to MM6 and MM7, but what was different was just kinda offputting, and what was the same was... well, too much the same.

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    1. M&M8 was weak for me mainly because of really dated graphics. 2000 is when Quake 3 came out (in fact title screen says 1999), and flat characters in poorly textured environement basically killed the game for me.

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    2. M&M8 was weak for me mainly because of really dated graphics. 2000 is when Quake 3 came out (in fact title screen says 1999), and flat characters in poorly textured environement basically killed the game for me.

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    3. If you're reusing assets, at least make serious improvements to the formula. MM8 was worse than 6&7 in every possible.

      MM6 already looked real bad when it came out, so that's wasn't the biggest problem i had with MM8. Not to mention the game was much easier.

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    4. 3D games in general age very very poorly. Poor cameras on most action games, poor controls, and so forth. Might and Magic was saddled with increasingly rushed and poorly designed games, culminating in 9. Wizardry 8 is considered a classic of that era, but looks terrible as well.

      Meanwhile, I would love a game that looked and played basically like M&M3 and World of Xeen.

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    5. Agree. MM3 still plays wonderful today. And looks great too.

      But i don't think Wizardry 8 looks that bad. It had fairly clean textures that almost look like a stylistic choice.

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    6. Yup. MM3-5 and MM6-8 essentially had the same engines each, but the "content still good" requirement only works in the first trilogy. MMX was designed with those games as an example for a reason. If there was an editor with which you could produce Xeen clones, I bet there'd be a gazillion maps out there, and I'd probably play them all. Maybe it's a good thing there isn't...

      The circumstances of MM6 onwards were somewhat shameful. Caneghem sells to 3DO so they can make Might & Magic Online together, which I'd have loved to see, but then gets stuck producing new games with ever less time and money. Franchise dies unless Ubisoft picks up. I hope they continue.

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    7. I actually quite enjoyed MM8 a few years ago when I was stuck with no internet and nothing better to play.

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  9. I know I ought not reply, but I can't help it. I used to think Skyrim was the greatest game, then I thought it was the worst, and now it's a game that I acknowledge as being highly flawed, and in most respects inferior to Morrowind, but isn't as bad as I thought it was, because I changed perspective. If I compare it to games that have more qualities I like (i.e. better games), then I'm understandably disappointed. Combat and procedural-generated fetch quests are my least favorite qualities in RPGs, but if I focus on the better parts of Skyrim (it's pretty, combat and spellcasting are fun, it has some interesting content), I can still enjoy it as-is.

    I cannot do the same for Fallout 4, because Fallout 4 is marketed and portrayed as a great RPG, when it's just a technically-RPG about radiant quests and collecting garbage. The only part I like is the building aspect, and that isn't even that good without mods. Calling Fallout 4 a great RPG is like calling Minecraft a great RPG (which some people also believe, I'm sure).

    Now, my point is, I've enjoyed some of Bethesda's games, but I have to say that they've already fallen to Avarice: more people like smashy-shooty games, and the only reason they take so long to release now, is because audio and art take time to make, and their target audience won't play anything that doesn't look pretty by modern standards, and requires them to read. I like those aspects too, but it doesn't stop me from liking Pool of Radiance more than Fallout 4!

    So I've nothing against engine reuse. Two of my favorite games (Fallout: New Vegas and Knights of the Old Republic II) reused the engine and assets of the game that came before them (though with plenty of new assets, content and mechanics). KOTOR 2 and FNV are arguably great examples of how to make sequels: reuse tons of assets but use them to make tons of great content and improve upon the mechanics of the prior game. So maybe I misread what you wrote, but IMO, constant rereleasing of old content (as opposed to old assets) is "everything wrong with everything." I like getting a fresh new experience as much as anyone, but I'd rather have more KOTOR 2s and FNVs than Bethesda-like rereleases where I'm expected to pay new-game price for a five-year-old game with no real enhancements.

    P.S. I hope I don't come off as too abrasive. I'm just trying (badly) to show people another side of the argument. Also, the Thanksgiving analogy doesn't work. Getting seconds is like continuing to play the same game you already have, since you aren't finished and aren't paying for new mashed potatoes that are identical to the ones still on your table. Why anything would WANT to pay for same game twice is something that will always be beyond me, but then again, why anyone WOULDN'T seems beyond them too, so IDK.

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    1. F4 might not be a "great RPG" but F3 wasn't either. And to be honest, i think objectively f4 is a better game. For something that is all about shooting people in the face, Fallout 4 is a great improvement in that department. The plot in F4 is also way better.

      And imo "a good game is a good game is a good game", no matter if it's an rpg or not. At this moment I'd rather if bethesda dropped some of the most cumbersome rpg aspects of the game, like the terrible inventory and encumbrance system, and focused on making the best open world shooter they could, a bit like the STALKER games.

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    2. I think F4 is a great RPG. Yes, there isn't much choice in the dialogue (though it's still enjoyable to consume) but the other elements I care about are all done well - massive, open, somewhat reactive world with more sidequests and characters and subplots than you can shake a stick at.

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    3. I feel like people play one RPG that offers better quests or role-playing choices, and every other game immediately "sucks" in comparison. Sure, neither FO3 or FO4 is as good as FNV. But that doesn't meant they're not better than the average RPG on the market.

      The other problem is that if a game can't sustain depth over it's entire breadth, a lot of players complain that it's shallow. Like if Skyrim had come out and it was just the Dark Brotherhood questline, people would rave about how awesome it is, but because that questline is embedded within a much larger game with other questlines that aren't as good, everyone judges the game for its worst moments instead of its best ones.

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    4. Yes, it comes down largely to preference. If your dream RPG is one with little meaningfulness in character development, few thoughtfully designed quests (most "quests" in FO4 are procedually generated indefinitely) and an open world that beckons you to explore how many bandits and super mutants you can kill over the coarse of opening every building in Boston, all while playing an okay FPS, then FO4 is your dream game. I won't dispute that: if you like the most every element in games that I like least, then FO4 will be better for you than for me. But while I value your input on the matter, I hadn't intended for the topic to be "how to make Fallout 4 more like STALKER" but a criticize uniquely about it as an RPG and nothing else. If you take away the RPG elements, you can't criticize it as an RPG (unless you tout it as one regardless).

      Fallout 4 has more sidequests and characters and subplots than you can shake a stick at? Maybe 1/5 locations, at most, has a story buried under the corpses of generic enemies that I was sent to kill as part of one of the infinite radiant garbage missions I was sent on by a character with no unique dialogue. It does have a number of memorable characters, quests and locations, but to pretend that to majority of the "content" isn't built around radiant AI and samey setpieces means you maybe haven't spent 9+ days searching for a game that isn't there. If you haven't, then do yourself a favor and stop looking because there isn't as much going on as it lets on (and it takes far too long to figure that out - which isn't wrong, but it isn't the game I was told about).

      That comment about Skyrim is, to use your food analogy, like saying that because you liked the mashed potatoes, you can't say the meal was bad even if there's 9 other dishes that literally taste like feces. The difference between games and food being that you don't have to buy the game again when you "consume" it like you do food. And it took more time than I like to deduce that Fallout 4 was as shallow as it was. I spent less time on FNV and got countless more out of the experience than FO4 and FO3 combined. And TBF, the "average [western] RPG on the market" probably isn't any worse than FO4, but I'm not entirely sure which games you're talking about. But you do have a point, even if it doesn't have to do with any points I personally made.

      To conclude, I'm sorry if either posts got ranty. I'm just...passionate about RPGs. I guess that unlike you, I don't see them largely as frivolous wastes of time for which I feel ashamed of playing (at least that's the impression I've gotten over my years reading - sorry if it's incorrect!). I guess that you kind of come off as too critical of the people who play them and not critical enough of the games themselves? IDK. Neither is intended as an insult, just a personal interpretation of you which I accept may be wrong.

      My original point was: a) Bethesda's games have objectively lost more and more of their complexity (not just "things I like") over time, and b) that your food analogy was wrong because unless you're renting your games, you don't have to pay again to replay the game. Again, I don't understand the mindset of throwing money away.

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    5. I've completed FO4 with over 100 hours clocked in, and I recon I spent maybe 5 hours of that doing the radiant quests. I'm not going to defend radiant quests, I personally hate them and wish Bethesda would ditch them, but to make statements such as "most "quests" in FO4 are procedually generated indefinitely" makes me wonder what on earth you were doing when you played it.

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    6. I had no idea that procedurally generated quests were called radiant quests, but when I figured out that there were some repeatable quests, I thought "that's a neat way of handling respawning" and stopped doing them.

      Similarly. If you don't like exploring Boston - don't explore Boston.

      If you don't like gathering stuff for settlements, ignore settlements.

      You don't have to eat the dishes you don't like.

      Even if all you do is stick to fully-fleshed out side quests and the main quest line, you still have a relatively long RPG with a ton of content.

      Compare this to more traditional RPGs that regularly pad out the game length with predominantly random encounters that you need to fight, rather than avoid, to keep your party appropriately leveled.

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    7. I guess it all comes down to basis of comparison. People who say that FO4 or Syrims's character development is stunted or quests are lacking complexity...I just don't know what else they're playing. FO4 made me choose from among four factions for the endgame; I don't see how that's a LOT different than FNV.

      I've got this character. During creation, I can actually make him look like me--or anyone else--down to the thickness of his eyebrows. When he levels up, I can use a huge variety of attribute and perk selections to make him a stealthy ninja, a heavy-weapons commando, a demolitions expert, or a dozen other builds. I don't know what else I should be looking for.

      To me, reading arguments like yours is like listening to someone say, "FO4? Are you kidding? All you do is SEE the blood and smoke. You don't get to smell or taste it!" And I'm sitting here thinking, "What games do you play where you DO get to smell and taste things?"

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    8. Fallout 4 does have fewer dialog options than 3 or NV, and far, far fewer than in the original duology.

      The removal of skills also rubbed quite a few people (myself included) the wrong way. Going pure perk for leveling decisions just doesn't feel as much like you're developing a unique character. The biggest problem is that you start out as a jack(or jill) of all trades, and proceed to become a master of some, while in the older games (less so in 3 and NV) you were always good at some things at the expense of being bad (often very bad) at others.

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    9. To clarify: I definitely prefer FNV to FO4, no question, in both character development and dialogue. But I don't think that a game has to be the best game that ever existed to be good. I suppose that might be the root of the problem? To some players, if a sequel reduces the experience of a predecessor, it completely sucks, whereas I'm happy to live with lesser mechanics as long as they're still pretty good and they give me a large, open world and an interesting story to explore.

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    10. Chet: If I had to take a few guesses as to games they think are deep compared to the Bethesda games:

      Planescape: Torment
      Torment: Tides of Numenara
      Wasteland 2
      Pillars of Eternity
      Tyranny

      I've not gotten that far into Fallout 4, but I put about 120 hours into Skyrim last I looked, and while it had a very impressive world, it felt very static. The civil war didn't have any huge armies, and seemed to consist of a few dozen people fighting on either side. Plus, when I finished that plotline nothing changed. No one recognized I'd done it, there were still bands of Stormcloaks roaming the woods, etc etc. It was an especially stark contrast due to having just played Mass Effect which notes and adjusts the world based on every thing you do. Even Fallout 3 was better at this, which Three Dog talking about what you've done on the radio, and people greeting you differently as I got more and more famous. I wouldn't say a lot better, but better.

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    11. I haven't played any of those, or ME, so I suppose it's possible that once I do, my perspective will change.

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    12. I've not either, what with less time due to grad school and relationships; it is hard to get up the energy for an RPG. However, based on descriptions of them I think you'll like most of them. Tyranny has a number of elements in common with your fantasy game you described a while back, and several are built by the Baldur's Gate team, which I recall you liking quite a lot.

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    13. Pillars of Eternity was well-written, in the sense that it was high-level English and clearly a lot of time and skill went into the story telling - but I could not really engage with the story. Some weirdness about a dead God and souls and blahedy blah I dunno. Never felt like "I want to see what happens next". The main story arc of Wasteland 2 was obscured by all the single-map stories. I cared about the maps themselves, how they'd resolve, but something something cat litter? I dunno, again I didn't feel that pull.

      Torment on the other hand - couldn't wait to meet Pharod and Ravel and further explore the interactions with Annah and Morte. Constant pull. Similar with Mass Effect and the KotORs. I think the apex of RPG excitement for me is when I'm desperate to see the next story beat.

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    14. I don't think Pillars of Eternity was well written. Quite the opposite. Lots of words don't equal "well written automatically". NPC's in the game were lore dumps, and the story made the capital sin of way too many fantasy story: Too much made up words about made up places. I really couldn't hear anything more about souls by the end of the game, and just skipped dialogue. I just didn't care anymore.

      I like when stories, are more grounded, like in The Witcher 3, which is basically Geralt searching for his step-daughter, or Vampire:Bloodlines.

      Yes, PoE might be my biggest disappointment ever.

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    15. @RyuSan - Yeah, I can't keep playing PoE exactly because of too much data to process, and as of now it seems that a lot of this text has nothing to do with the story - first town, can't remember it's name, the one with huge tree with people hanged on it's branches, is really bad - you can look into people's soul and what you get is a short history that doesn't seem to have anything in common with game's story.

      And while we're at it, Planescape: Torment was really lost on me, since I hate taking NPCs into my party and I finished it, if I remember correctly, with single character - maybe I took someone in if it was required, but generally I paid no attention to what these characters said, they were only getting on my nerves. As you can see, I don't really enjoy new games that take this "my oh my, I'm an NPC with a mystery or a problem" approach, my main character is usually "yeah, (wo)man up and solve them for yourself". Maybe I should be in therapy or something for lack of empathy.

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    16. Those people short stories when you peek into their souls are just kickstarter backer's rewards. I've learned to skip them pretty early on.

      But still, even without those, the game plot, lore and overall writing weren't any good.

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    17. Yeah, If you have no interest in 100-word vignettes unrelated to the story, you skip all the gold text, or blue text or whatever the colour was. The kickstarter souls were not interesting to me.

      I think it was well-written, and I think it would have enjoyed it in book form, as I would have been able to apply my concentration to all the propoer nouns and world history and quirks of soul physics. But when I have to do that in between doing RPG stuff, it kind of gets lost in a blur of kiting enemies and crafting and re-equipping your team.

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    18. That's also another problem. Even if i thought the writing was good, having to read that squinting my eyes on a monitor is not the right way to go.

      Both Witcher 3 and Life Is Strange raised the bar when it comes to stories being told in videogame form. It's just impossible nowadays not to compare and see how everything else is crap. Even Bioware stuff, which is probably among the best of everything else.

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    19. For me, role-playing games have always been about exploration. Sometimes that's exploration of the plot, sometimes it's exploration of the land, but preferably it's about both. If done well, exploration of the land is also tied to character progression in some manner, and in a way where you can rub up against what is currently denied to you (through danger or through actual inaccessibility), so you know what you're working towards in that respect.

      To that end, reusing a setting can be okay, when done well, but if it's not just art assets and it's actually reusing the same area, it needs ot have an exceptionally good plot. Additionally, if the area is interesting and new, the plot can be somewhat unoriginal. Both where out their welcome eventually, but I would take more of an older-but-good thing while waiting for the new great thing if offered (even if it delayed the new thing 10% or so). That's a good trade-off in my mind.

      Also, since Witcher has been mentioned in this thread a couple times, can someone tell me whether I've gotten entirely the wrong impression of Witcher 1? I have all of them queued up in Steam, and *finally* got around to trying #1 the other month, and after an hour or two in it, it felt like the game is basically a string of quicktime event battles with the occasional branching path and some character leveling and development? I don't begrudge anyone that if they like it, but I don't want to waste my time playing it, or wondering if I was too quick to judge, if someone can clue me in.

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    20. Kevan: The first chapter is basically what you describe. I think it is a too-long tutorial? Once you get inside the city it changes a lot and becomes mostly a dialog based investigation game (Which is as far as I've gotten due to angering too many NPCs with poor dialog choices, then leaving it for years and now restarting).

      I recommend playing on easy so that you can breeze through the combat and get to the interesting parts.

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    21. Thanks, I'll give it another try when I have some time. Unfortunately I don't know when that will be.. I installed Stellaris a few weeks back, and after a few aborted campaigns to figure out the rules, decided to go with the largest map. I'm winning, and it's fun, but damn that's a lot of systems to conquer.

      Interestingly, I kind of find Stellaris to be the RPG of strategy games (not having played many strategy games in recent years). There's a crazy amount of exploration and role playing a the empire level.

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  10. I agree completely with the intro part to this post. I actually felt like Bethesda got it really correct by releasing Fallout 3 and then letting another studio do a non-numbered Fallout New Vegas while we waited for the next numbered Fallout. I could have even done with another entry in between. Although one every year might get repetitive, not to mention time consuming, an entry in each series alternating years would be ideal. I'm almost 40. At the rate they are going now, I might only get to play one or two more Elder Scrolls and Fallout games before I kick the bucket. If we got a new Fallout entry every two years and they alternated those between themselves and Obsidian, they would still have 4 years of dev time on each entry ensuring some ability to innovate for each numbered title. The problem with Bethesda is that they want to stay a small studio so they simply don't have the personnel to do it and now they want to add two more full franchises to their studio so we will see even fewer Fallout and Elder Scrolls games. Anyway, I agree with your post and it's refreshing to see someone that doesn't give in to the hipster internet hate crowd.

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    1. I wonder why Bethesda haven't gone down the New Vegas path again, letting another studio produce a great game with the engine? As far as I can tell it was a reasonably good commercial success, so why was it a once off?

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    2. Probably because Fallout isn't their IP. Sure, they own all the rights, but they didn't create the universe and nobody in the company is personally invested in it. Meanwhile a lot of the NV devs were involved with the older Fallout games, and had an attachment. It was a match made in heaven when Bethedsa decided that a Fallout 3 sequel would be a good idea.

      Doing it for the Elder Scrolls series, which is Bethedsa's baby and something that probably has an in-house attachment, is less feasible. If they were to port their old games into a newer engine, outsourcing would be plausible, but new canon material is less so.

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  11. I'd agree with the engine re-use sentiment, if only because RPGs excel when the quest design and writing are given the focus during development. If the engine and many of the art assets are already taken care of, the developers can give more attention to the guts of the game itself. Equally, cutting down development costs through re-using assets affords them the rare privilege of taking bigger risks. When I think of some of the more famous engine re-uses - Planescape: Torment, KOTOR 2, Mask of Majora, Far Cry: Blood Dragon - they could all be off-beat and adopt these odd personalities because there was less pressure to make all the money back from all the expensive new engines/art assets. It's freeing for the devs, in a way.

    I do like having a new interface and new mechanical additions to play around with though, and there are certain series that tend to rest on their laurels too much with engine reuse. I had to stop playing Assassin's Creed games because I was so irritated by how the same design flaws and bugs kept appearing in every new entry: it's atrocious when a corporation as large as Ubisoft can't spend a fraction of the revenue from that series to patch up long-running problems with it, often creating many more besides (remember the horror show that was AC: Unity?).

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  12. When it comes to RPGs I also favour engine reuse, my favourite examples:
    KOTOR 1 and 2, Shadowrun Returns/Dragonfall/Hong Kong, Gothic 1 and 2, Drakensang and its sequel River of Time, Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny, the old Realms Of Arcania trilogy, Ultima Underworld I and II, ...
    In some of these examples they kept the basic game engine but added some improvements in the sequel ( larger 3D view in UW2, mouse control in combat in RoA 2, ...) , yet keeping all the good aspects it already had and focussed on great story/map/level design.
    Another example is the game Expeditions: Conquistador, whose sequel Expeditions: Viking must come out soon ( or is it already done? ) . I really liked the unusual setting of this RPG and the different decisions you could make, and of course the great tactical turnbased combat. I think they will reuse the engine of that game for the sequel, but because of the completely different setting it will be a fresh and interesting new game keeping all the good basic aspects of the first one.

    Anyhow, although my first computer was a C64 I somehow never really played RPGs on it (with the exception of Mafia) , the first 3 CRPGs I played were Realms Of Arkania 1, Betrayal at Krondor and Ultima Underworld 2. So I guess I'm gonna check these Phantasie games out, they sound like fun!

    As always, keep up your amazing work , it's always a pleasure to read your blog and dive into CRPG history!

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    1. I really liked Expeditions: Conquistador in the beginning, but by 2/3rds of the way through the first map, I found it all a bit samey. My team was well-leveled and well-stocked and every fight was against 6-8 enemies of the same sort of composition.

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  13. I wanted to give Phantasie II a try, but the speed of C64 emulators is frustrating to me, at least when compared to DOSBox. Ugh. It sounds like Phantasie II is all the good stuff from Phantasie I. Ergh. I'm gonna have to give it another chance....

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  14. I wanted to give Phantasie II a try, but the speed of C64 emulators is frustrating to me, at least when compared to DOSBox. Ugh. It sounds like Phantasie II is all the good stuff from Phantasie I. Ergh. I'm gonna have to give it another chance....

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    1. If you're using VICE, you can use alt+W to toggle "Warp mode" as a fast forward. There's no limitation in the emulator, the C64 just had very slow disk access, which is emulated faithfully because not doing so borks some software.

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    2. As I'm going to cover in the next post, even "warp mode" is pretty slow when transitioning between areas.

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    3. I saw that, and loaded the game myself to see just how bad it was. Warp mode runs at ~2500% on my system, and it still takes several minutes.

      That said, my point was more that it isn't the emulator's fault - that was just a flaw in the C64.

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  15. Phantasie III is my favourite CRPG of all times. I played it on the Amiga several times and I've been using Nikademus as my online handle since almost three decades.
    In Phantasie III you could create characters in any town you liked so I created a whole party of characters of which half had as their birthplace the Light Plane and the other half the Dark Plane, as both planes had towns with all the infrastructure to create characters. It was fun to free the land with natives of the Light resp. the Dark Plane. Has anyone done that before?

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    1. That's what a good RPG does: it inspires you to create your own role-playing within its structure.

      I remember P3 being a more advanced game than P1, but curiously I ranked them both the same on the GIMLET. I'll have to try to explain that in the final posting here.

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    2. I have not played I and Ii, but it looks like I should. At least from the screenshots it seems that way.
      "Another thing I appreciate--although I suspect I won't by the end--is the slight delay in combat as you watch each character's turn come up and then his action execute."
      There is actually a "warp mode" implemented in Phantasie III, so you could set the speed to "very fast" but still having that nice feel of anticipation of "how much did I hit the monster?". It felt like anticipation dopamine on speed. Very great mechanics indeed. They use / abuse this dopamin effect mechanics in all those freemium games nowadays, giving you shots of anticipation happiness to keep you addicted to their small apps. In the case of Phantasie it worked very well to keep me loking forward to combat.

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  16. I am one of those RPG elitists that disliked Skyrim:-) I sunk maybe 40 hours into the game and could not bring myself to finish it out of boredom. The world feels shallow, empty. The writing is bad. The quests are bad. RPG mechanics are bad with terrible level scaling. The game offers no challenge. Bethesda can craft beautiful worlds, but cannot write a compelling story or make RPG mechanics. I even disliked Witcher 3. While the shortcomings were not as severe as with Skyrim, it still had plenty - bad story, useless junk loot, question mark hunting, huge but boring world. Dragon Age Inquisition was ever worse due to huge amount of filler content

    Best open-world RPG designs are imho Gothic, Risen, Ultima VII, Wizardry VII, Fallout NV, Ultima Underworld (is it open-world?). And the RPG I enjoyed most in the last 10 years was probably Dark Souls, although its questionable if it is an RPG. Its more like an action arcade game with some RPG elements and it is not open-world. But in comparison to Skyrim, it offers some challenge.

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    1. It's hard to argue when you're not offering specifics, and of course it's all subjective anyway, but when someone says that the world of Skyrim seems "shallow" or "empty," I just don't know how do respond to that. Did you read the in-game books? Did you notice how the architecture changes from city to city? Did you explore all the lore having to do with the Dwemer ruins and the Falmer that reside there? Did you even explore Blackreach? Did you note the Khajit sitting outside the cities, and have you wondered why they're never inside? Do you have an opinion on what Daedra truly are? What other games are you playing where half a dozen factions are wandering the land at the same time and interacting with each other (usually fighting)?

      I haven't played most of the games on your "best" list, so perhaps once I do, I'll see Skyrim as a shallow game with bad RPG mechanics. I sure hope not, though.

      Thank you for at least trying to make an argument rather than just a sweeping declaration. Previous times that I've praised Skyrim, I've gotten lots of "what a retard" reactions with no qualitative explanation.

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    2. I "kinda" understand the dislike for Skyrim, but saying The Witcher 3 has bad story and boring world?
      I feel like i'm living in bizarro world.

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    3. Besides all above (I'm really not sure how you could craft a deeper world), the "offers no challenge" part intrigues me. You cite Dark Souls and Wizardry VII as most enjoyable, apparently due to challenge, but Wiz7 really is only challenging because of its merciless RNG. The challenge in the character creation process is rerolling until the game offers enough points for killer PCs, the challenge in surviving outdoors is save/load until the random encounters are beatable and so on. So would cranking up the RNG to such levels make Skyrim a better game in your eyes? Like, if the leveled monsters were always generated with 10 levels above yours? Not judging, just curious...

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    4. @crpgaddict,
      You certainly played more RPGs than I have, so you are the hard-core RPG player :-)
      The enjoyment of games is purely subjective, so there is no need to call each other "retards" for enjoying/not enjoying a particular game.
      I have played TES games since Morrowind. I know the lore of the games. I read the in-game books. I even downloaded the Skyrim books to my kindle. Bethesda can craft a beautiful world, it can make interesting background lore. But, imho, it cannot fill the world with interesting content (most of the quests are boring fetch this, kill that quests) and it absolutely sucks at creating enjoyable RPG mechanics. The combat is horrible (swinging sword or shooting arrows), the leveling system is pointless, since the monsters scale to your level. That means you can complete the game at level 1, there is no need trying to level up. The loot you find scales to your level as well. You can become a superman in the game - become a grandmaster of the thief, warrior and mage guild - and nobody cares in the world. Choice and its consequences in this game is nonexistent, the world does not react to your actions. After 20 hours in the game, there is no challenge in the world.

      If you ever play Gothic 2, you will see the difference in world design. The world is more compact, there is no level-scaling, there is no random loot, but each chest is filled manually. The game offers reasonable challenge, the combat is fun. Gothic 2 is for me the king of open-world RPGS, it has the best open-world design. The combat seems cumbersome at first, but once you get used to it, you will find out it makes perfect sense.

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    5. @The Architect,
      I am not sure about Wiz7. It might be nostalgia. I played the game long time ago and I have a very fond memory of it. For a long time I considered it the best RPG ever, together with Ultima Underworld 2. And our memory can play tricks on us, so I might remember it better than it actually was. You are probably right about RNG, too many random encounters of ratkins etc. Also, the RPG mechanics was easily exploitable by switching of occupation

      You ask what would make Skyrim a better game? Compare Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas, same engine, same world, two different approaches by two different companies. For one, I would get rid of the compass, the little diamons, the arrows pointing to your quest goal. Second, I would get rid of level-scaling and do it as in Gothic/Risen. Third, hire better writers who can do better with dialogs etc. Skyrim is a wasted potential.

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  17. On one hand, I've advocated for the same engine to be used in multiple games for years. Why did we not get something using the excellent BG engine set in space? Victoriana gaslight setting? Cyberpunk setting? The writing would have carried it, and I'm sure you could have tweaked the RPG system away from TSRs engine, like Fallout did with GURPS.

    However, I also see the risks. I finished Sleeping Dogs (My first Open World game), a game I liked a lot, and went right out and bought the Saints Row humble bundle. I wanted more Open World gameplay, and didn't like the sound of GTA. I blazed through SR2, liking the silly characters and gameplay: the cause chaos and insurance fraud missions, in particular required some outside the box thinking and bending of rules to make up for my subpar gameplay skills (fences make for the best combos, rather then expensive cars.) Then I came close to 100%ing SR3. The characters weren't as fun, with some major personality changes, but the gameplay was mostly improved and tightened. I found it a bit too over the top, but hey. I already owned SR4 from the humble bundle so started it. I didn't finish it at the time, as doing the same mini games again, but now with super powers was too much. I did eventually finish it over a year later, and it was fun again, but it was just too much of the same thing at the time. So I can see why Bethesda doesn't want to put out too many in a row. I tried playing some FO3 to get in the mood for FO4 and wound up just being sick of the gameplay. I'm sure if I'd not done that I'd have gotten a lot further into FO4 then I have so far.

    I'd say if they want to reuse the same engine, they need to change things up a fair bit. New setting, engaging story, give me SOMETHING to keep it fresh.

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