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Gameplay of the Year

So, Polygon released the list of Game of Year 2015 contenders last month:

  • Bloodborne
  • Fallout 4
  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
  • Super Mario Maker
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

While I might be alone in railing against inexorable fate and media narratives, I will be very disappointed if Witcher 3 wins Game of the Year (again). But in examining the feelings that give rise to this disappointment, a question surfaces: what deserves to be a Game of the Year anyway?

When it comes to mechanics, systems, and everything that makes games games, it seems clear to me that Metal Gear Solid 5 deserves to be Game of the Year. Everything in MGS 5 simply works. The controls are tight, the stealth gameplay compelling, and the Fulton system synergizes brilliantly with every other game mechanic. You can kill people from afar, but you want to steal them for your base more, which leads to close-quarters sneaking and higher tension gameplay. The way all the pieces of MGS 5 harmonize with one another is simply a thing of beauty and elegance.

…which is a real shame, considering how much of a disaster the story ends up being. “Disaster” is a bit uncharitable, but the abbreviated ending leaves one with a sour taste in one’s mouth, making it easier to forget how ~60 hours of incandescent joy preceded it.

Then you have Witcher 3. Mechanically, the game is just bad; none of the various systems fit together, and often actively clash. You are encouraged to collect hundreds of different crafting components, including junk you can break down for parts, but the vast majority are completely pointless. Random loot will give you high-level blueprints for items you will never be able to use, while recipes for staple items are conspicuously absent. Everything about the first two games that established Witchers – and Geralt in particular – as a fantasy noir detective that needs to plan encounters ahead of time to survive, flies out of the window mechanically, as Geralt gets to pop infinite potions and bombs like they were MMO abilities with per-encounter cooldowns.

…but Witcher 3 will still likely win Game of the Year. Because of things like the Bloody Baron quest. Or when Geralt (spoiler alert) finds Ciri. Nobody will remember mindlessly pressing Alt and Left-Clicking a million times to snore through the combat even on the harder difficulties. Hell, nobody will even remember that, for however good the Bloody Baron quest was, how ridiculous it was in a narrative ostensibly about a race against time. Or how Novigrad was one giant slog through completely unrelated nonsense. Or how little sense it made, pacing-wise, for there to be an open world at all.

It seems to me that what is really being voted on here is “Game Experience of the Year.”

Which is… okay, I guess? Hell, I’m usually the guy defending story over mechanics from the people who believe plot has no place in gaming. In this specific scenario though, I hate the idea that MGS 5 is going to lose because it lacked 1-2 missions to seal the deal, whereas Witcher 3 is going to win because it had a few bright spots in an ocean of bad design.

Ironically, Fallout 4 has thus far hit the sweet spot inbetween the two extremes for me, but I don’t believe it will win because it didn’t hit the sweet spot hard enough. Plus, ugh, that useless ass UI. How could they have they spent so much time coding in Settlements and approximately zero minutes giving us an interface worthy of that descriptor to interact with it?

Bah.

I will say though, I’m happy to see Ori and the Blind Forest show up under four different categories. While there were some difficulty spikes in there, Ori is one of the best-looking, best-sounding, and more entertaining indie-esque titles I have played this year.

Facepalm: Witcher 3 Edition

I have been holding back on Witcher 3 discussions, in the vain hope that I will encounter the brilliance everyone else appears to see in it. But yesterday the game finally reached it’s unintentional shark-jumping moment to me:

So much for immersion.

So much for immersion.

The phenonom is not new. The Blade of the Bits was a quest reward, crafted by the legendary Hattori blah-blah, master craftsman, at the end of a high-level quest chain. The sword was said to have no equal; “a sword to outshine all others.” Peerless… aside from the goddamn common sword of the same level with better stats (!?) that Hattori himself is selling.

Many RPGs fall into this same trap. In fact, it’s rare that an RPG with a crafting system doesn’t. Remember Skyrim with that stupid amulet quest that rewards you with a 1,000+ year old neck piece that’s worse in every way than the stat bauble you crafted at level 10? If the best gear came from drops alone, crafting would largely have no point; the reverse is not true, however, as it rewards players for engaging in the crafting system while not necessarily penalizing players who skip it.

But goddamn if this particular issue is not just another glaring hole in the abyss of Witcher 3’s broken-ass game design. Immersion? Spot-on. Side quests having weighty story bits? Absolutely. But Witcher 3 fails at every other thing that makes a game a game. You know, the actual systems part? This Hattori thing is just a symptom of a much larger issue that apparently everyone is willing to ignore. Namely, the leveling, the crafting, the item collecting… basically all of it.

Bah. I’ll likely finish the game within the day, so I’ll save the full deconstruction for the review.

Impression: the Witcher 3

The Witcher 3 is weird.

…what? You need more? Haven’t you played this game for 100+ hours already?

The weirdness comes from the juxtaposition of Witcher 3 (W3) getting some things outrageously, fantastically good, all while mired in mediocrity and out-right immersion-breaking shenanigans otherwise.

For example, the environment, the gritty, dirty, pustule side of medieval fantasy life is back with a vengeance and already a highlight of my Witcher experience yet again. When you walk around hearing peasants cough with genuine phlegm, it reminds you this isn’t Disneyland, this is real (fantasy) life. People lived in the muck, practically nobody has windows, of course they’d be walking around like diseased shit-bags. The entire Witcher series has always gotten this feeling down so well that every other medieval setting I have encountered since has felt like college freshmen at the Renaissance Festival in comparison.

Then you walk into an Inn and the barkeep is selling bottled water for 42g apiece:

Brought to you by Nestle.

Brought to you by Nestle.

In the panoply of absurd gameisms out there – having access to world-ending magical powers but being unable to open locked doors, etc – it might seem disingenuous to pick on W3’s Nestle-style gouging as immersion-breaking. But it is precisely the confluence of W3’s fantasy realism and its absurd gamey bits that make little details like this so prominent.

Playing on the next step above Normal-mode difficulty means that Geralt no longer gets healed by Meditating. Whereas you might have just chain-chugged Swallow potions in prior titles to beef up your passive regeneration, W3 has opted for the Skyrim-esque “scarf fifteen pieces of raw meat in the middle of combat” HP management system. Different consumables heal X amounts in Y amounts of time, so you typically need the best to survive.

And one of the best? You guessed it: plain ole H2O.

I haven’t cared more about water in any game since Fallout: New Vegas hardcore mode. Every time I rummage through a peasant hovel, stealing everything not bolted down, I do a fist pump every time I see a bottle of water. “Silver candle stick. Old bear hide. Ruby dust. Water… score! Time to fuck up some demons!”

I’m only halfway kidding.

Please live up to this.

Please live up to this.

Truly though, W3’s combat system reminds me of Blizzard’s game design philosophy between expansions: instead of simply fixing what was broken, CD Projekt RED decided to veer completely in a different direction… again.

The combat itself is fine, for the most part. What is different (again) this time around is consumable use. Potions are no longer limited by toxicity (Witcher 1) or preparation (Witcher 2), but rather by what amounts to “per encounter charges.” Craft the Swallow potion one time and you get 3 charges of it, which are automatically replenished by strong alcohol whenever you meditate for at least 1 hour. Craft every potion once, use them all in five minutes, and they all come back after meditation. I’m not really even convinced that any alcohol is actually being consumed to replenish the stock of potions.

While toxicity still exists, it is largely window-dressing considering how a single Swallow potion’s toxicity drops to zero before the potion’s effects even have time to wear off. And while the toxicity meter limits your ability to stack potion effects I guess, the Quick Use menu is limited to two items anyway (presumably to not blow the minds of unwashed console peasants). Decoctions represent longer-term buffs that fully use up your toxicity meter, but I’m not entirely convinced this move towards the trivialization of preparation was worth it. Witcher 2 went way, way too far the other direction – forcing you to use potions before you even knew combat was coming – but why the crazy swing the other direction? Pretty sad how much better the original Witcher feels in comparison.

In fact, that’s precisely where I am mentally every time I boot up the game. It looks amazing, sounds amazing, and generally feels amazing when playing in the moment. If you slow down a bit at all however, and the high-speed blur turns into a mishmash slurry of disparate game mechanics. I’m hoarding herbs and potions out of Witcher 1 habit while throwing back Honeycombs and Wolf Livers by the pound. I’m looting every building and outhouse in sight for crafting materials so I can craft low-level items outclassed by bandit drops so I can kill skull-level monsters guarding swords five levels below me. Random loot is random, but there comes a time when the designers need to put in some goddamn sanity checks, yeah? Sitting on the recipe for Enhanced Beast Oil for 10 hours while Googling where the hell regular Beast Oil is supposed to spawn is not my idea of good game design. Especially when the answer is a shrug.

So. Like I said: weird. Good, but weird.

But hey, Gwent is pretty cool. It’d be cooler if they actually let me have enough cards to make more than one faction deck after 25 hours, but it’s still fun.