Bethesda’s E3 conference had many factors in its favor this year, at least on the surface. While the main studio had nothing to say on Starfield or Elder Scrolls VI—as expected from last year’s tease, those are still incredibly far off—the publisher’s repertoire of other developers more than picked up the slack, with a sensational Doom Eternal showing from Id and exciting announcements from almost every major developer under Bethesda. Ghostwire Tokyo, a brand new paranormal action adventure from Shinji Mikami’s Tango Gameworks. Deathloop, a game from Arkane Studios that happens to not be a new Dishonored or Prey. And of course, Wolfenstein Youngblood, a known quantity that looked like a quality shooter nonetheless. But there was a problem, an elephant in the room.
That problem was Fallout 76. Or rather, Bethesda’s cadence in the wake of Fallout 76.
When I say this, I don’t mean to slight Bethesda’s evidently considerable efforts to get that title back on track, which took the center spotlight during the first section of the presentation after a sheepish admission from Todd Howard, “[There was] deserved criticism.” True to their word, they have continually supported the game, and many of the announced content packs for 76 here were substantial. Wastelanders, a new questline with NPCs (new to the game at all); Nuclear Winter, a new Battle Royale mode for PvP players to cut their teeth on. Aside from my own reservations on this content—many players, myself included, believed 76 should have had NPCs and a more satisfying questline to begin with and marketing it as a new feature is more than a little disingenuous (and a combat-focused DLC with Fallout’s shooting mechanics sounds ill-considered)—it’s heartening to see that Bethesda is continuing to support the players that have stuck with Fallout 76 and learned to love it.
No, the real problem with Bethesda’s E3 conference was not that Bethesda offered a mea culpa for Fallout 76. That was a necessity. What left an uneasy feeling in my gut throughout the conference however was their insistence, near obsession with thanking fans for sticking with us and believing in us in the wake of Fallout 76.
There were concentrated moments of this pleading to and stroking fan’s egos in the show—Todd Howard’s strained “Thank you for continuing to believe in us” jumps out at me as a prime example—but it was mostly a feeling lingering throughout the conference, cemented by the three lengthy fan interview sizzle reels. The first time, I thought it was a nice gesture. The second time, it was odd. The third was near exploitative. I felt nothing but for compassion for these people, who so clearly and sincerely loved their experiences with Bethesda’s games, but putting deeply personal issues such as LGBTQ identity and implied suicidal thoughts into, essentially, an ad for the company, struck me as poor taste. I’m sure the individual fans were more than happy to do so and consented, but in this context, their voices were not telling their own story—they were telling Bethesda’s story. About how great it is that fans still like them this much, even after one of the studio’s most difficult years in which fans have every reason to be skeptical. Making those interviews a recurring motif in Bethesda’s E3 conference may have been meant to celebrate the passion of their community, but in the moment, it was almost taking advantage of it.
That gross feeling lingered, even through the publisher’s considerable announcements. On the mobile front, a new Commander Keen is a cute deep cut into Id’s history, and the game itself—a mobile puzzle platformer—appears totally fine, with the player controlling one of two Keen siblings. Elder Scrolls Blades was revealed to be coming to Switch for free, continuing the trend that Elder Scrolls must appear on every platform at all times. And Elder Scrolls Legends and Fallout Shelter… well, they still exist. Fan favorite studios then started taking to the stage and announcing exciting new IPs, with Tango Gameworks revealing Ghostwire Tokyo, a welcome surprise after two Evil Within titles, and Arkane’s Lyon studio showing off a sort of time-loop assassin rivalry action game called Deathloop. Deathloop in particular looks great, as it is promised to have the same immersive sim gameplay the studio is known for.
The last section of Bethesda’s E3 conference left a much better impression overall, with a heavy-hitting double feature of Wolfenstein Youngblood and Doom Eternal closing the show. While the trailer and presentation for Youngblood had a disappointing dearth of new material, aside from the official announcement of two-player cooperative play, we can at least expect to hear more about it from show floor demos, and what was shown was solid. The trailer focused mostly on the loud dual-wielding Nazi-exploding moments of the Wolfenstein experience, without much attention paid to the reboot’s stealth leanings, but whether this is indicative of the final game is unknown.
Doom Eternal, however, presented an absolute deluge of information, from singleplayer to multiplayer content. The story and universe was promised to be greatly expanded this time around, one of the largest pleasant surprises of Doom 2016’s campaign. Not much of the story’s personality appeared in the demo, but the gameplay more than compensated. Power-ups akin to the original’s were littered throughout the level, now including Rad Suits and literal 1-Up extra lives to be picked up— also, how great is it that we can talk about 1-Ups existing in one of the most anticipated shooters of 2019? Previously revealed movement options, such as wall climbing, swinging on poles, and grappling around the stage made their appearance as well. The grapple is enjoyably versatile, either zipping you directly to a hooked enemy’s maw, or letting you swing yourself around the enemy like the hook from Titanfall 2 or Apex Legends. Mick Gordon’s soundtrack is in full effect once more, with aggressive, distorted synths and a relentless guitar riff and drum line. If nothing else, Doom Eternal will certainly provide me another album to buy this year.
Unlike the last Doom, however, the multiplayer mode for Eternal seemed unique and entertaining from the short presentation given by Id. Riffing off of Left 4 Dead’s versus mode, two players inhabit various Hell demons to fight a lone player-controlled Doomslayer in a PvP mode titled BATTLEMODE. While the overall objective of the mode was unclear, one thing was self-evident—the players were very much trying to kill each other (surprise surprise). As neat as this looked, I can’t help but think the quality of this mode will depend entirely on balance and the feel of controlling these demons, something that can’t be accurately gauged until days after launch, which was announced for a release date of November 22nd, 2019.
Eternal had a splashy series of demos, one that certainly fared better than Rage 2’s DLC trailer at the show. While it only took a few minutes of the middle of the presentation, it transported me a year back to when the first trailer of Rage 2 made the game look a whole lot more fun than it turned out. In hindsight, having seen the whole game in action, the attitude and slapped-on pink and blue color scheme seems kind of sad, with the trailer’s sense of humor and tone making Borderlands 3 look like a witty Grant-Hepburn comedy in comparison. (As someone who loves Avalanche, I dearly hope they come out with something better than Rage 2 or Just Cause 4 soon.)
And, even with the strong announcements, that’s how Bethesda’s E3 conference felt in general—uneasy, with the constant question of hindsight lingering. Last year, Fallout 76 was promised to have all the story and questline content a longtime Fallout fan would want, despite the multiplayer focus. This year, we’re being promised that same crucial content as a generous free update to a game that severely disappointed the entire industry. In 2018, Rage 2 looked like a fun evolution, a crucial change in tone both from Rage 1 and Avalanche’s own apocalyptic Mad Max. In 2019, the pink-and-blue paint job has chipped off to reveal yet another checklist open world game. The uneasy question of hindsight makes one question everything being shown.
Bethesda showed some incredible games at their conference tonight. I hope they’re still as good a year from now.
If you’re curious, check out Gamer Professional’s Bethesda E3 prediction podcast and see how many of our educated guesses came true!