AJ’s ‘Best of 2015’ – Best Game I didn’t finish this year

Best of 2015

I have been going a little crazy with video games (ed: “going”?); buying a lot of stuff and then not finishing them (Toro was an essential purchase, I swear) was the modus operandi of this past year.

That said there have been some brilliant games among those I haven’t finished. The Escapists was a thing of beauty; the intricacy of the later levels was inspiring but, unfortunately, also really daunting as it could take a couple of hours of trial and error to find the ideal path through the prison. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is two hours of terrible exposition which turns into a fantastic open world game with emergent gameplay that rivals (and in some ways exceeds) Far Cry 2. The reason MGSV doesn’t get the award is simply because I still haven’t played enough, and I heard it gets repetitive in the second half – which would dampen my initial enthusiasm.

So, the best game I haven’t finished this year is…

Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

Witcher 3 01

I had been really worried that the prescribed story of the second Witcher game was going to be diluted by the need to create enough extra content to populate an open world game. It didn’t seem feasible to me that Witcher 3 could make good on the diverse stories and the deep world building, and the combat could only remain as clumsy as it was previously.

Well, I was really wrong.

The open world has allowed for environmental story telling that only got better the more you explore. The shittiness of the world in Witcher 2 was drilled home by instances. In Witcher 3 the whole world helps convey that the sheer misery of its inhabitants.

Whether it is guiding your horse through a tiny village broken by famine, or traipsing through a town in the throes of their own Spanish Inquisition (it is always the Witches), it is clear how much of a mess the place is. Visual squalor is matched by emotional response.

It plays a slow burn game over the course of the 40 hours I played, and there is seldom a happy story to be told with the broken, confused Geralt remaining stuck in the middle for most of the game. In the previous instalment it was easy to imagine that Geralt might be a tragic but cool protagonist; in Witcher 3 it is easy to see that he is a product of his environment. Everywhere he goes there is someone with an unkind word to say and only after helping them out do they, grudgingly, offer some sort of platitude. That said, it is just as easy to do something for one of the denizens of ‘The Continent’ only for them to resent you, trick you, or just outright ignore you. Resolving a quest doesn’t always mean you end up doing the right thing.

At the same time, as the player, you are compelled to explore more of the game. Unlike in other open world titles, which tend to have a lot of fetch-quest filler intended to pad out the game with mindless distractions, the side quests here are often richly written and intricate to the point that it becomes believable that Geralt would have become side-tracked to intervene. Most of them are so well-written that they put to shame some plots for linear path games. The fact these can be stumbled across randomly and may have large or small pay-offs makes it all the more exciting.

However, it doesn't make for good 600x300 screenshots
However, it doesn’t make for good 600 x 300 screenshots

The stand out mission of the early game is the Bloody Baron. Avoiding spoilers, you get a portrait of a terrible, horrible, yet strangely sympathetic man. The great part of this is that you can completely choose to avoid being sympathetic with him – and that makes a difference to the outcome of his story and the choices he makes. The fluidity of the writing makes either conclusion believable.

The combat has largely improved after some of the clunkiness of the last few games. I didn’t really notice how bad some of the previous games’ interactions were but Wild Hunt has streamlined the mechanics and lessened the need for preparation between fights (previously you had to sit and build potions in between each fight and now it allows you to do that on the fly). The world offers plenty of other down time as you explore.

I struggle to delve into what else makes the Witcher 3 good, partly because I don’t want to spoil what I have seen and partly because I haven’t played beyond 40 hours and haven’t seen the full conclusion.

What I will write is that even with the ‘limited’ experience I’ve had, this game should be played by everyone – especially anyone who spent time on Fallout 4 instead (that’ll be the rest of AR then).



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21 responses to “AJ’s ‘Best of 2015’ – Best Game I didn’t finish this year”

  1. Shaun Avatar

    I don’t doubt that Witcher 3 is, in many ways, likely to be a better game than Fallout 4 (which I am, at last, done with). However I abandoned Witcher halfway through and bounced off Witcher 2 after the first half hour, so there’s no real investment there, versus my great attachment to the Black Isle Fallout games and Bethesda/Obsidian’s subsequent efforts.

    Why, I even played the PS2 Fallout game a few weeks ago. It was a big load of shit, but I played it for a few hours all the same.

    Anyway, Witcher 3 is near the top of my mental list of big games to play – I’m just wondering when that might actually happen. Fallout 4 has left me wanting more bite-sized palette cleansers, but I have been playing Demons Souls over the last few days, so who knows what may come?

    1. Walker Avatar

      I, likewise, am in no hurry to get the game as I bounced off Witcher early, and got bored with Witcher 2 maybe a third of the way in. The decisions become meaningless when you have to make them essentially blind for unknown stakes. The confused storytelling didn’t help with the general sense of vague indifference the game creates.

      This is, however, possibly the first time I’ve seen someone actually describe what’s good about Witcher 3 beyond “It’s so good, you’ve got to play it, mate.” The detractors have been more specific.

      I am incongruously exited about 2077, however, even though it’ll likely be more of the same misogynistic crap.

    2. badger commander Avatar

      It always surprises me how much people don’t like Witcher 2.

      For me that game was kind of brilliant. Walker’s complaint of the ‘blind’ choices is exactly what I like about the game. In real life you have no idea what your responses will mean to people you have never met before, so it feels so much more natural than any of the nonsense Bioware have been peddling for years. Not sure I agree with the ‘confused’ story telling either – the game can make you into a bit of monster – it does that by making you understand that you cannot trust anyone in the game and they definitely don’t trust you either.

      This makes you roleplay Geralt so hard because that is the position he is in – and it means that you will often make a bad decision based on your gut reaction to a scenario.

      Witcher 3 pulls back on that quite a bit – so far there have been some decisions that are much clearer – but there are still moments where you enter a situation with good intentions and it ends up with everyone dead.

      1. Shaun Avatar

        I think Witcher 2 and I got off to a bad start when it had me run through some unconvincingly framed combat tutorials in a small arena, and when some of the actions it wanted me to perform either didn’t work or were poorly explained. Frustrated tutorial flailing is a *terrible* way to start.

        This was then compounded by Witcher 2 having the misfortune to be the first hardware-hungry game I tried Steam streaming with, resulting in a highly choppy framerate and my hearing the phrase “Those trebuchets are pounding the hell out of them!” approximately one hundred times.

        Unfortunately for Witcher 2, at any given moment there are scores and scores of games I could play, so a double whammy of poor experience knocks it right down the list, even though it’s not entirely the game’s fault.

        Oh, and I re-read your review after all this, and thought “what a shame I probably won’t get to see the game AJ is describing!”

        1. Walker Avatar

          I’ll be honest: I didn’t see the game AJ descibed in my 22 hours of playing it.

      2. Walker Avatar

        Are you honestly genuinely surprised other people have a different opinion on a fairly underwhelming game?

        If I have no idea what impact my choices will have, I can just as well throw a dice on them. It leads to me not being invested in the results. This makes me not bother roleplaying. If the game had first made me care about any of the characters, the experience might have been different.

        The mechanics are not compelling, and I wasn’t invested in any of the characters or the larger plot. When I hit the second hub and realized I faced the chore of getting quests, doing them and gearing up again, I just stopped playing, and never returned to it.

        Chances are I’ll get Witcher 3 some day. Hey, I even played Mass Effect 3 eventually.

        1. badger commander Avatar

          For sure, I think the reason I say I am surprised is because I loved that game so much and that pretty much everyone I have spoken to has agreed that when you write about the mystery box choices I am not even sure of what you are talking about.

          This isn’t that I don’t accept your dislike of the game it is just that I don’t understand it because my experience was pretty much that there was finally an RPG I liked that the main hook – the story – wasn’t dull as ditchwater.

          1. Walker Avatar

            I’ve started to suspect that maybe some relatively minor stuff might have bothered me more than it should have, in the absence of much to like. Unfortunately, to test that theory I’d have to play the game again, which I have zero motivation to do. It did not impress me. People have assured me 3 is worth playing even for people who didn’t like the first two. If the 3 improves on 2 as much as 2 on 1, this is credible on the face of it.

            I’ve never really found the story to be the main hook in an RPG (though a really dumb/dull plot may be a turn off), and the story in Witcher 2 didn’t really grab me.

  2. Electron Dance Avatar

    Well this is timely. I just bought The Witcher 1 and 2 last month. Another RPG I’ve bought in recent years that I haven’t started yet. Yay for games.

    1. badger commander Avatar

      Hhahah, yeah, I meant to dig deep on Witcher 3 over the holiday – instead, I played lots of MGSV and also a little game called ‘Adventures of Pip’ a delightful little 2-D platformer.

  3. Dylan Avatar

    I will never play The Witcher 3, due to my strong dislike of The Witcher, and the intense boredom that I felt during my time with The Witcher 2. However, I am still intrigued by those pre-release adverts that promised realistic racism. In the time that you did play it, how realistic was the racism?

    1. badger commander Avatar

      There is a fair bit of racism, and by that I mean that the air is often oppressive. The female characters are far better written this time too.

  4. Beechbone Avatar

    Recently I started (and not really intend to finish) playing inFamous: Second Son. Early in the game, you are faced with a choice between good thing (saving the old lady and some village people) and a bad thing (saving yourself and sacrificing the rest). Both options are displayed on screen with the corresponding button prompts. When you choose and press a button it asks you again if this is the choice you want to go with and explains what exactly will happen. Once you are fully informed you can finally make your choice. This is very rough way to handle player choice, while the Witcher 3 does the exact opposite. You are faced with a situation but there are no obvious branching paths, or good vs bad choices. There are just choices that can lead to unexpected results, which is one of the most exciting things about that game and something that does justice to the “role-playing game” tag attached to the Witcher 3.

    The other thing I wanted to mention about the Witcher is the Bloody Baron questline. Yes it is awesome, but everyone seems to regard it as the second coming of Christ, which I don’t fully get. There are plenty awesome quests in the Witcher 3, after all. Bloody Baron is probably the best one up to that point in the game but it’s the first 20-30% of the whole game, depending on how you play. I did enjoy it very much, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it more than the big quest on Skellige, much later in the game, or dozens of other quests that follow, or the brilliant Hearts of Stone expansion quests. Well, I guess Bloody Baron is mentioned so often because it’s the moment in the game that really hits the player, where you realise that this is not just another action RPG, but something that can truly outshine competition and by a large margin.

    1. Shaun Avatar

      I much prefer the principle of decision-making you’re describing here over something that explains in great detail the consequences of options before you make them… in a role-playing game built around said choices. In some games, I prefer a decision based on all the relevant information, however unsubtlely presented.

      The fact that AJ and Walker came out of Witcher 2 with completely different experiences of the decision-making and role-playing approach you and AJ have praised in Witcher 3 actually makes the games more intriguing to me. There’s a divide in how you’re reading situations, and how that is informing your reactions; the nature of that divide intrigues the part of me interested in game design – particularly as I’m among the many people bored of the ridiculous binary choices most games offer (save innocents/let them die being pretty representative).

      1. Walker Avatar

        Actually, being asked to make choices without sufficient information is very common in cRPGs. Usually the player is left to lean on meta-game tropes: quests from poor orphans are good, quest from greedy merchants are bad. In general, I’d like more information, or an opportunity to gather more information. No sensible person would commit to things as blindly as PCs do. (Unless there’s time pressure, of course.*)

        Perhaps I should say clarify a few things about Witcher 2.

        First, most decisions in Witcher 2 are cRPG bread and butter: save helpless civilians, get a reward; piss off a shady character, get jumped by his buddies; kill monsters, get money. The feature Witcher was noted for was the way it delays the consequences of choices, presumably in an effort to get the player to commit to them rather than save/load everything, rather than their nuance and originality.

        Then there are the moments when you learn the situation wasn’t what you thought it was, or that you were being played. I didn’t have a problem with these things either, especially if the game then let me react to changed circumstances. These, I think, are the decisions AJ is talking about, and they are not where my complaint lays.

        What I didn’t like were the moments when the game essentially asked me to choose between Mystery Box #1 and Mystery Box #2, without giving me any way to distinguish between them, or gauge the potential effects. Unintended consequences don’t have much of an impact if I’m not even clear on what was intended. These kinds of choices are not meaningful or interesting to me. At worst, I felt like the game was trying to sucker me into accepting responsibility for things I have no control over.

        It’s possible such moments loom larger in my memory than they should, and I’m just being unfair. Like I said, they were just one factor that turned me off the game. I just have very little reason to play Witcher 2 over some other game.

        * Alpha Protocol does crisis decisions brilliantly, as you a generally on the clock in dialogue. Much better than the Mass Effect way where your character can take all the time in the world, staring dramatically into the distance while the music swells to let you know this is a Big Damn Decision.

        1. Shaun Avatar

          Okay, fair, I was insufficiently specific.

          It’s been long enough that I don’t remember any specific details, but I do remember liking that characters and questgivers in Witcher were generally written to act self-interestedly, would lie or selectively exclude information to manipulate the player character, etc. And as you worked through quests you would learn more, and that might influence your dialogue or actions as you progressed.

          That approach to writing minor NPCs felt fresh to me and I am holding that aspect of the Witcher series in my mind for these discussions, so I have quite possibly seized hold of an entirely different thread to you two.

          Oh, for a fan patch project for Alpha Protocol that deals with its awful, awful bugs.

          1. Walker Avatar

            That sounds fair enough. Some developers take the idea that game shouldn’t lie to the player too far and extend it to NPCs like quest-givers. The possibility that they’re not on the level is a good thing, the more so the more tools you are given to try to figure out what they’re hiding. That wasn’t what most stuck in my mind in Witchers, though.

            AP wasn’t awfully buggy on consoles. I mean, there was a certain amount of bugs, more than is desirable, but it wasn’t like Fallout buggy.

            And speaking of AP, I don’t want to promise anything, but… maybe the time has come.

        2. badger commander Avatar

          Oh man, Alpha Protocol. I wanted to love that game so much.

          I have a biased history with the game so I can’t give it too much shit but I decided to play the X360 version. I got to a conversation with an old dude during the tutorial and I picked a conversation option. The game hard locked my console that made me have to pull the power on it. It also corrupted my save.

          I have never played it again.

          1. Walker Avatar

            Wow, maybe I just got really lucky to not encounter any game-ending bugs on my five? six? play-throughs on 360.

            I love that game so much.

    2. badger commander Avatar

      Yeah, I think that I chose the Bloody Baron for three reasons:

      1) It is really well written
      2) I haven’t even got to Skellige yet (hence why this won best game I haven’t finished yet)
      3) The other great quest I played involves a huge spoiler from Witcher 2, with a certain person still being alive

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