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Forget Fallout 4 and Skyrim: the Bethesda game you need to play to understand Starfield is Fallout 76

Forget about Bethesda Game Studios’ last two classics. You should be giving Fallout 76 a second chance ahead of the launch of BGS' newest open-world behemoth.

Split image featuring a Vault-Tec suit of a Fallout 76 character in the middle, flanked by a Fallout 4 power armour suit and a Dragonborn from Skyrim
Image credit: VG247

We finally are just a couple of weeks away (roughly) from Starfield’s release date. It’s been a long wait, and many longtime fans of Bethesda Game Studios’ unique brand of open-world have been replaying – or simply throwing more mods intoSkyrim and the fourth Fallout installment. That sounds like the perfect pre-Starfield plan… if you can somehow manage to squeeze both titles into your 2023 gaming schedule (help us). I’d like to underline “sounds”, as maybe we got it all wrong. Bear with me.

Following the purchase of a new gaming PC, I set off to reinstall Fallout 76 (among other games) just so I could finally see it working smoothly at high FPS. It does run wonderfully well on a 4070 Ti plus 7800X3D combo, unsurprisingly. But something else caught my attention shortly after I booted it up: maybe we’ve been wrong about Starfield’s creative nucleus all along.

There's a big world out there. | Image credit: Bethesda

Almost five years after its problematic release, Fallout 76 still is a hard sell. The game has been in a perfectly fine state since mid-2020, yet its launch went so terribly wrong that it’s hard to persuade even the biggest Bethesda fanatics into trying out the studio’s sole “live service” online game. Yes, quotation marks are needed, mostly because it’s a way more chill and player-friendly type of always-evolving multiplayer title.

It's hard to blame gamers for this one, to be honest. Beyond its more glaring issues that took a while to fix, Fallout 76 remains, on a basic level, a misguided attempt to quickly jump on the live service bandwagon with a property that was renowned for literally the opposite of what the game was gunning for. This became even more evident as major updates came in and slowly transformed “Rust but Fallout” into something that actually resembles a more traditional Fallout experience captained by Bethesda. In fact, it even offers more RPG options than Fallout 4 at times. All the major (free) expansions have been a pleasant surprise, and I can see casual players who don’t pay much attention to extreme online conversations jumping in through Game Pass and having a blast.

There's been a lot of additional content in Fallout 76 over the years.

Much like Fallout 76, ZeniMax Online Studios’ The Elder Scrolls Online also had to walk back many of its original creative choices as diehard fans had this very clear (and frankly right) idea of what an Elder Scrolls game should feel like, online or not.

Fast-forward to 2023 and TESO is a successful MMORPG mainly because it learned that leaning on the IP’s more unique elements and relaxed spirit was the way forward. The shadow of past Elder Scrolls and Fallout entries is simply too large to ignore. All their success stems from Bethesda Game Studios’ special open-world sauce, one that puts player agency and true sandbox freedom over content for the sake of content.

After the first teaser trailer debuted in 2018, we spent three years trying to figure out exactly what Starfield was going to be, and maybe Bethesda was doing the same. Even after 2021’s second teaser, we knew very little about the project’s ambitions and how it’d differ from the studio’s previous behemoths. Following all the proper gameplay previews, it’s become apparent that Starfield might be their most experimental game yet. Yes, even more so than Fallout 76.

A screen grab of the photo mode in Starfield revealed during the Xbox Games Showcase 2023. A man stands proud in front of a felled beast with a huge, circular maw.
What's going to be the 'Deathclaw' of the Starfield universe? | Image credit: Bethesda

It’s been explained time and again that, at its centre, Starfield remains a handmade Bethesda game like the ones we feverishly replay and tinker with even decades later. All those No Man’s Sky comparisons are only partially true; there’s a procedural layer which nurtures all the deep-space exploration and many modular systems, but the renowned brand of Bethesda world-building and flexible storytelling hasn’t been sacrificed. Will all those distinct parts mix well together? We’ll know soon enough.

Circling back to Fallout 76, establishing direct parallels may be too much of a reach, but it’s easy to see how the studio’s (good and bad) experiences and learning process with their first-ever online game partially shaped where Starfield was going as development moved forward. If Fallout 76 was a direct descendant of Fallout 4’s surprisingly dense creative systems and colonial spirit (online elements aside), then Starfield totally is a direct continuation of that line of design. We’ve seen how much it’s being marketed as this new sci-fi universe that is yours to conquer, and 90% of the promotional material has chosen to highlight how players can shape the universe and tell their own stories.

Image of original Starfield release day from trailer
Just a set of numbers with no importance whatsoever.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Starfield’s main storyline and massive offering of handcrafted secondary quests and major locations won’t be as impressive, but it makes total sense for the studio whose games live on thanks to their immersive sim DNA and prolific modding communities to double down on the elements that set them apart from the competition. Essentially, Starfield is going to be (for better and worse) the most Bethesda Game Studios game that Bethesda Game Studios has ever made. That I’m willing to bet money on.

Like it or hate it, Fallout 76 eventually figured out its identity, and that identity mostly came from its rich heritage. The folks at Bethesda have always excelled at cracking new ways to understand and then design huge open worlds to get lost in, so looking too hard for outside influences was the biggest mistake they ever made. Of course, it’s damn near impossible to create and build a gigantic game in a creative void, but BGS or Rockstar’s best work always stands on its own and is unlike anything we’ve ever played. After the Fallout 76 mishap and posterior resurgence, it’s hard to see them fumbling Starfield, as this whole time we’ve been scratching our heads saying “How did they make this?” no matter how many bits and pieces of other recent sci-fi works we can spot in there.

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