The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

With every Steam sale, our piles of shame grow to new, unsurmountable heights. If you've got a job or a family or some other responsibility, chances are your allocated gaming time is limited. Games can demand a lot of us, these days—whether it's an overload of sidequests, backtracking, repeat playthroughs to see every ending of a story, or because you're playing a multiplayer game with progression in mind.

Here, the UK team discusses whether games are too bloated, and where we draw the line with what we consider good value content versus filler. We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, too. 

Long journeys ahead

Samuel Roberts: Over the holiday, I finished Nier: Automata, capping off the fifth optional ending after 41 hours of total play. That game was mostly fantastic, but it also felt too long to me. It made me repeat the same story beats in a slightly exhausting second playthrough, which shed some new light on the characters but not enough to justify the hours invested. It finally ended properly with a mostly-great third playthrough, after which I had no desire to go back and mop the sidequests I'd missed. 

At this point, I'd seen the same grey boxes and washed out greenery that make up its world so many times. I then looked at the other games I'm yet to finish from 2017: Divinity, Shadow of War, Assassin's Creed Origins, which are all pretty lengthy as well. Many of our favourite games are long as heck, now. Some of them earn it, but others don't. 

Taking something like Arkane's Prey, which I mostly enjoyed, I felt like the last third of the game sent me back-and-forth to the same locations for the sake of it—which wore down the magic of its excellent setting for me. Shadow of War, meanwhile, is a game we called out specifically for being bloated. I wonder if our readers feel this way, that games longer than 20 hours can be more intimidating than exciting. Thoughts?

Andy Kelly: I don't mind if a game is bloated, as long as it's fat with interesting things to do and not just obvious filler. Shadow of War's problem is that the distractions that litter its map, whether it's revealing Shelob's memories or purifying Haedir towers, all boil down to following an icon on a map and pressing a button to interact with it. It's design like this that makes a game feel like a checklist, rather than a collection of fun things you feel compelled to do. Watch Dogs 2, on the other hand, features some really fun, unpredictable side quests that I enjoyed as much as the main game, which I wrote about here.

Phil Savage: Yeah, the best open world games don't feel bloated, just full of options. But the line between meaningful diversion and tiresome padding can be fuzzy. Shadow of War was the latter for me. I played through the opening area—a small, mini sandbox that offers a small sampling of its sidequests and structure—and couldn't bring myself to continue when I was faced with that but on a much larger scale. Seeing the size of the full map just made me feel tired. I quit out and uninstalled it soon after. 

Mandatory sidequests—we can live without them

Andy: Although I loved Assassin’s Creed Origins, it's guilty of a particularly egregious example of padding. Whenever I finished a story mission, eager to tackle the next one, I'd hit a brick wall. The mission would be two or three levels higher than me, forcing me to complete side quests to get to the appropriate level. Which would be fine if 80% of these quests weren't dull and repetitive. I lost count of how many people I didn't care about that I had to rescue from caves and bandit camps. It's a stain on an otherwise superb game, and really tested my patience towards the end. It took me 28 hours to finish Origins, and I'm sure at least eight of those were spent completing side quests against my will.

Samuel: Assassin's Creed is an interesting one, in that I feel almost trained to ignore the majority of the series' side content—ever since those collectable feathers in the original game. Would it have been a great loss to make the level gating leaner in Origins and lose that extra eight hours, leaving it to the player to decide if they're worth it? I don't necessarily think so. 

Game engines can do huge, beautiful worlds, but we don't exactly know how to fill them with interesting activities

Phil: My only hesitance in criticising this stuff is it must appeal to someone, and that someone is essentially me 15 years ago. I used to scour RPGs like Baldur's Gate for every scrap of story, and 100%'d Grand Theft Autos III, Vice City and San Andreas. I even collected those damn feathers in Assassin's Creed II. It wasn't because I enjoyed collectibles—I didn't—but that I wasn't ready to leave these cool worlds. I felt compelled to stay until everything was done. Since then I got a job, and realised there were more games than I could theoretically play in a lifetime—both things that have made me more discerning with how I spend my time. But I recognise that even collectibles, as pointless as they usually are, can add value for some.

Samuel: Thing is, I played both San Andreas and GTA III before I had a full-time job and I still didn't 100% complete them. I played them until I'd seen the credits, then just messed around in the open world until I felt done. I accept collecting the hidden packages has value for some people, but as a player, I feel like I've become pretty savvy about breaking down the higher value and lower value content in a game. I know the difference between a sidequest that starts with a cutscene and a three-minute race that's slightly too tricky to be enjoyable. And for me, it doesn't matter how much I love the world of a game—it still has to give me slightly more back in reward (the entertainment value of what I'm playing) than it's asking in time investment.

To offer a slightly different example, this week I thought I'd start one of Obsidian's two recent RPGs, which I've been considering for a while. According to my favourite games utility site, How Long To Beat, Pillars of Eternity comes in at 36 hours to beat the main quest line, while Tyranny comes in at 23 hours. Knowing that, I started Tyranny—it's unlikely I'll ever get through both, and even if our reviewers preferred Pillars, I'd rather start something where I know I'll see the ending. That 13 hours is potentially a whole other game I could complete. 

Good sidequests vs bad sidequests

Tom Senior: I agree with Phil to the extent that I remember enjoying sidequests and working towards secrets in games like Final Fantasy VII. Finding Vincent, breeding gold chocobos, fighting the weapons—that stuff didn’t feel like second-tier content. Sidequests and secondary activities in a lot of current open world games feel like an afterthought by comparison, and I think that’s because, in open world games, technology has outpaced design for years. Game engines can do huge, beautiful worlds, but we don't exactly know how to fill them with interesting activities. 

There are exceptions, obviously, like Skyrim and The Witcher 3, and on consoles last year Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn. All of these games are full of fun, meaningful side activities that, crucially, don't delay your movement on the critical path. Assassin's Creed Origins' levelling system forces you to engage with the busywork to progress, which is the worst.

There are two big honking problem games I'd pick out: Mass Effect Andromeda and Dragon Age: Inquisition. The critical paths in both games are exciting, full of twists, drama, the stuff that BioWare is good at and known for. The open world side missions were drivel that got in the way and stopped you getting at the best parts of the game. Those games, and Shadow of War, define 'bloat' for me, though at least there is a point to Shadow of War having an open world. I reckon Inquisition and Andromeda could have been great relatively linear rollercoaster single player RPGs.

The Witcher 3 did it best, obviously

Samuel: I can see why open world seemed like the right route for both of those BioWare games. Dragon Age got to show you what felt like its whole world for the first time rather than just snapshots (and it's incredibly impressive to look at), and Mass Effect hadn't really done big explorable planets since the original game. But it's hard to dispute that one reason Mass Effects 2 and 3 were so great is that the busywork was kept to an absolute minimum. Pretty much all of the sidequest content was story-driven. Everyone remembers their favourite loyalty quest(s) from Mass Effect 2.  

That's one solution, then—linear games are totally okay by us, even if some publishers have seemingly convinced themselves otherwise. And open world games can be long, but that scale shouldn't ever get in the player's way. The more of these games that exist in the market, though, the less attention we can conceivably pay to each one—and the less likely we are to try and do everything. Sidequest design is more important now than ever. 

Tom: Statistically, looking at achievements, you can see that not many people ever finish games. Games seem more determined to tire us out than to leave us wanting more. Every hour you're spending in a game is an hour you're not spending with one of the game's competitors, and the games-as-service trend allows games to become platforms for microtransactions that can generate long-term revenue. 

Basically, there are incentives for big-budget games to be massive, but luckily smaller developers are able to create small games that don’t need to meet those big business aims. I wonder if there’s a space halfway for games with big beautiful worlds, minus the giant to-do lists. LA Noire and Shadow of the Colossus spring to mind, focused games that use its open world to create a mood rather than burden us with fetch quests and endless resource collection exercises. I think games are gradually getting better at this, though. The Witcher 3 showed that sidequests can be rich, self-contained short stories that don’t feel like filler. I hope to see more of that sort of thing as open worlds continue to get bigger with each passing year.

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alice O'Connor)

As RPS’s token cyberpunk, required by contract to wear at least two leather jackets and sing Billy Idol while jamming with the console cowboys in cyberspace, it falls to me to tell you today’s big Cyberpunk 2077 news: it beeped.

Today the game’s official Twitter account broke a four-year silence to blast *beep*>.

That’s all.

But oh, I’m excited to see signs that it might arrive before we find ourselves actually living in the RPG’s grim dystopian future. A new big game from CD Projekt Red, the folks who made the cracking Witcher games, is most welcome. (more…)

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

2017 was a hard year for some high-profile singleplayer games, and there was more than a little hand-wringing that the genre as we know it might be dying, replaced by 'games as a service.' We argued that in fact they're not dying, just changing, but it's easy to look at Steam's highest earning games of 2017 and spot the commonalities. Free to play mechanics, skins and loot boxes and crates and keys, all play a major part in 'living' games like Rainbow Six: Siege,Warframe,PUBG and Dota 2. And then there's The Witcher 3, which doesn't have any of that shit. And it's still raking in the dough.

The Witcher 3 was released on May 19, 2015, almost four years to the day after The Witcher 2 first hit PC. By the end of summer, it had sold more than six million copies across PC and consoles. That was only a little surprising, because The Witcher 3 is an incredible game—it was good enough, and big enough, to lure in players who'd never touched the series before. A year later, CD Projekt put the final touches on the Blood & Wine expansion and a Game of the Year re-release. And that, a bit more surprisingly, was enough to make The Witcher 3 the second-best selling PC game on Steam in all of 2016.

In the year after its release, it made more money in gross revenue than the new Doom, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Stardew Valley, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and other huge games released in late 2015 and throughout 2016. That made The Witcher 3 a 'Platinum" seller. Valve jumbled the games in each tier, so it's hard to know exactly where The Witcher 3 ranked, but it was up there with Dark Souls 3 and Fallout 4 and The Division. Impressive legs, Geralt, but not truly shocking.

But here's what I just can't get over. Valve recently  put together another list of Steam's top 100 games, by gross revenue which covered 2017. And The Witcher 3 is still on it. And not just in the top 100. It's still in the platinum tier! Up there with Dota 2 and Rocket League and Warframe, which sell in-game items by the virtual truckload, and PUBG, which sold more than 20 million copies in 2017. 

No new expansion, no re-release. The Witcher 3 apparently doesn't need those things to keep selling. It's in that ludicrously elite tier of games now, along with the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Mario Kart, that simply keeps selling year after year. And who knows how well The Witcher 3 has sold on GOG, the platform that CD Projekt owns? 

For two and a half years, The Witcher 3 has held onto a spot as one of the PC's best selling games. And that's sure as hell not easy, but I do think the reasons for its success are simple: CD Projekt made one of the best RPGs of all time, and then immediately improved upon it with weeks of patches and free DLC, followed by two meaty, fairly priced expansions. Not every great singleplayer game will find that kind of success, of course. There's no guarantee that a new triple-A game, with no loot boxes or in-game stores or season passes will capture such a large audience.

But at a time when so many of us are sick of all those things, it's encouraging to know that 'games as a service' elements aren't the only way to keep players engaged, and to keep a game relevant, for years. For The Witcher 3, it was sheer quality.

Or maybe it was just the tub.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (John Walker)

As the feedback loop of Steam successes reaches an ear-shattering scream, this week we see last year’s best sellers dominating the New Year’s first week. So I refuse to live in the past. Let’s look forward. Let’s imagine what we might want from these behemothic developers. (more…)

Dota 2 - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

We’ve already seen which games sold best on Steam last year, but a perhaps more meaningful insight into movin’ and a-shakin’ in PC-land is the games that people feel warmest and snuggliest about. To that end, Valve have announced the winners of the 2017 Steam Awards, a fully community-voted affair which names the most-loved games across categories including best post-launch support, most player agency, exceeding pre-release expectations and most head-messing-with. Vintage cartoon-themed reflex-tester Cuphead leads the charge with two gongs, but ol’ Plunkbat and The Witcher series also do rather well – as do a host of other games from 2017’s great and good.

Full winners and runners-up below, with links to our previous coverage of each game if you’re so-minded. Plus: I reveal which game I’d have gone for in each category. (more…)

Left 4 Dead 2 - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

Another year over, a new one just begun, which means, impossibly, even more games.> But what about last year? Which were the games that most people were buying and, more importantly, playing? As is now something of a tradition, Valve have let slip a big ol’ breakdown of the most successful titles released on Steam over the past twelve months.

Below is the full, hundred-strong roster, complete with links to our coverage if you want to find out more about any of the games, or simply to marvel at how much seemed to happen in the space of 52 short weeks.

(more…)

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

"Some people mod because they like to give others joy with their creation. Others [mod] because they just fuckin' feel like it. I'm the latter." I'm chatting over Discord with Reaperrz, a Romanian college student and creator of the Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition, an overhaul mod that completely guts the vanilla game and replaces its systems with new approaches to combat, leveling, magic, and alchemy.

Reaperrz (whose full pseudonym is actually "Sir Reaperrz ‘Custard' McButtfuck, Esq") is one of very few people in the world who are ambitious enough to make an "overhaul mod." Rather than adding the mask from Predator into Witcher's Polish folklore-inspired world, overhaul mods are dramatic, sweeping, and huge amounts of work. There are about 2,100 mods for Witcher 3 listed on Mod Nexus; only about 20 of them are considered overhauls.

I talked to the creators of two of the most popular overhaul mods, Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition and Ghost Mode, to find out how and why they go about remaking one of the most ambitious and celebrated games in recent memory. The answer? Mostly boredom.

Ghost Mode

Anna, a scientist living in Samara, Russia, usually goes by the handle "Wasteland Ghost," shortened to wghost81 in most of her modding projects. She's careful, deliberate, and organized, so it makes sense that she uses her PhD in telecommunications to teach programming at the local university.

After almost three years, Anna has spent more than 1,200 hours inside CD Projekt's magnum opus.

That methodical approach has made her mod, Ghost Mode, one of the most endorsed and most downloaded overhaul mods. It started small and grew over the years into a vast and comprehensive clean-up of Witcher 3's many bugs and quirks. "I was trying to fix sign skills… because half of them were not working," Anna says. "Then I realized that there are many other skills that are not working. And when I started fixing them I realized that I [was] making Geralt even more OP than he already is. So I started thinking on damage formula and on leveling system, how to improve them. And then I understood why armor was not working. So yeah, modding is a fun thing: you never know where [you'll] end up."

Anna's approach to her overhaul mod was born out of love for the game. After beating it three times, going through New Game+ mode and playing through on Death March, the hardest difficulty, she still wanted to play it but had run out of things to do. When she tried to experiment with other builds, she realized that many of the less-popular skills and signs didn't work at all. Instead of moving on to a new game, she started making changes.

As her project grew, she started fixing bugs and cleaning up inconsistencies. Did you know that fire elementals can be killed by Igni, the fire sign? I didn't, because I'd be a damn fool if I tried to cast Igni with a fire demon trying to eat my face. But it can be done., which doesn't make much sense. Though most of the monsters in the game look different, they have the same stats under the hood. When she realized that, she spent a year balancing and polishing all of the enemy and armor details. "I still have the spreadsheets," she says, calling it a "nightmare."

I spent some time with Ghost Mode and a few other favorite mods, and it reignited my love for the game in an instant. I remember being disappointed in my first play-through when I upgraded my Axii into the "puppet" mind-control spell, only to find it didn't work. Checking online, I learned it was a known bug. Bummer.

Thanks to Anna, Axii now works beautifully, and I've been tricking bandits into shanking each other for ages. Everything's the same as I remember it, but better: item descriptions don't have typos anymore and merchants don't charge an arm and a leg for a basic sword. I did cast Igni on a fire elemental, just to check, and it burned me alive as punishment. Exactly as advertised.

Ghost Mode's difficulty scaling options. Experience scaling is similarly flexible.

Falling in love with the game is the first step, at least for me.

Ghost Mode modder Anna

Enemies of all levels are also savvier. I was feeling confident in a one-on-one with a bandit holding a club, so I was shocked when he dodged my counterattack and planted a hit across my jaw. I don't think I've ever been hit by a lone bandit on a road before.

Ghost Mode is very modular, and one of my favorite options is to simply goose enemy damage by 200% or so. Everything more or less feels the same, but when you get hit you really feel it. Even much lower-level bandits and wolves felt dangerous. Should wolves feel dangerous to a master witcher? That depends on the player, but personally I love it.

After almost three years, Anna has spent more than 1,200 hours inside CD Projekt's magnum opus. She's still regularly updating Ghost Mode. She loves the Witcher 3, and just wants it to be even better. "[I]f the game is bad and boring at its core, no amount of modding support can make me play it and fall in love with it," she says. "And falling in love with the game is the first step, at least for me."

The Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition

"Yeah, I hated the game," Reaperrz says. "I still do, really." After Witcher 2, Reaperrz got as far as White Orchard before he felt like Witcher 3 was a disappointment. The way the combat camera auto-aims, the way nuisance creatures like nekkers level up with you to always pose a (slight) challenge; Witcher 3 felt like too much handholding and not enough freedom to learn new skills.

Some people mod because they like to give others joy with their creation. Others [mod] because they just fuckin' feel like it. I'm the latter.

Reaperrz

"I think a game is more fun if you need to get a feel for the mechanics, find out small ways things interact with each other," he says. "I wanted to drop the game after White Orchard because I grew to hate it so much. I noticed you [could] fumble around in there a bit and change some stuff, so with my then sub-par knowledge I started changing stuff around until it sort of worked differently."

The Witcher 3 Enhanced Edition, unlike most of the mods on the Nexus, hasn't been around since Witcher 3 launched in 2015. Reaperrz just posted the project in the summer of 2017, and it's already one of the most popular overhaul mods, just behind Ghost Mode by number of downloads. Reaperrz has posted videos showing how the new combat system works by eliminating the auto-targeting camera; now all of Geralt's acrobatic swordplay and backflips can be aimed manually, letting players flip around an enemy's shield or slip inside their guard.

"I just started looking at stuff more, learning. People asked different questions in the comments, pitched ideas, [and I] slowly branched out to other stuff I disliked about [the game]." By this time, Reaperzz began his degree in programming and math ("though I don't have a predisposition for either," he says). "At one point I stopped working on it for maybe a year and then came back and rewrote most of it from scratch, it kinda went on from there. It was boredom plus community drive—mostly boredom, though."

The Enhanced Edition makes the Northern Realms feel more like a real place and less like a game world. There's a brutal logic working behind Reaperrz's mod. All levels have been removed, even from Geralt himself. "A nekker is always a nekker," Reaperrz says, and he means it. Getting better at skills and unlocking new talents only come from experience using those skills; players become better at alchemy by making potions, not by killing monsters and deciding to spend their experience points in alchemy.

The mod puts much more emphasis on a player's individual skill and dexterity aiming Geralt's attacks. Anything that feels "gamey"—like automatically refilling potions or limiting players to only three bombs—has been stripped away. Carry as many bombs as you want, as long as you can haul the weight.

I really enjoyed my time with the Enhanced Edition, but it doesn't feel as much like a Witcher game. If anything it feels a little like Dark Souls or perhaps the "hardcore" and "survival" genre of mods popular for Fallout 4 or Skyrim. In my experience, these mods are more logically satisfying than "fun," though that word almost sounds like a pejorative here. Killing monsters for coin is not "fun," and Geralt is not often jolly fellow. This mod fits that dour, grim outlook in a realistic and almost off-putting way.

Combat is the biggest difference. Without the auto-targeting camera I found myself flailing and missing enemies until I calmed down and started to aim. Fights in Enhanced Edition feel faster, and I love that head wounds or crippled limbs can happen at any time, and they dramatically change how enemies behave. I also had to unlearn my habit of spamming health potions or food during a fight, as Geralt now has to stop, put away his sword, and slowly chew an apple before it starts to heal him.

Reaperrz is still regularly updating the Enhanced Edition, and he and Anna have collaborated on a few things here and there. Reaperrz asked permission to use bug fixes and other changes Anna included in her mod. Reaperrz acknowledges that the two of them are "polar opposites." "She really loved it and modded it because of that," he says. "I hated it and had free time. The mods themselves reflect that pretty well."

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Rich McCormick)

gwentheader

Update Night is a fortnightly column in which Rich McCormick revisits games to find out whether they’ve been changed for better or worse.>

I should ve been out killing griffins, goblins, and other gribblies, but for much of my Witcher 3 save file, it was Gwent that had its claws in me. It says something about me, I guess, that I preferred to stay in the pub and play cards than go out into the dangerous world outside, but it s clear that CD Projekt RED hit on something fairly special with its throwaway minigame. (more…)

The Witcher® 3: Wild Hunt

In May, we learned that The Witcher Saga—Andrzej Sapkowski's novel series that inspired CD Projekt Red's fantasy role-player—is getting an English language drama adaptation on streaming service Netflix. Now, it appears Marvel's Daredevil and The Defenders writer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich is on board. 

As reported by Variety, Schmidt Hissrich joins as the forthcoming show's executive producer and showrunner. Her writing has also appeared in other popular television shows such as The West Wing and Power. 

Not too much is known about the story of Netflix's The Witcher at this point, however executive producers Sean Daniel and Jason Brown said this earlier this year: "The Witcher stories follow an unconventional family that comes together to fight for truth in a dangerous world. The characters are original, funny and constantly surprising and we can’t wait to bring them to life at Netflix, the perfect home for innovative storytelling."

As for this interpretation of the subject matter, author Andrzej Sapkowski is already signed up as the show's creative consultant. Which I assume means we can expect plenty of naked Geralt bath shots. I've never seen The Hexer—the 2002 Polish language Witcher series adaptation—however if any of our Polish readership has, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition Director's Cut

The Witcher Netflix series will reportedly be adapted by the driving force behind Marvel's Daredevil and Defenders shows.

Writer and producer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich will, according to Variety, be the showrunner and executive producer for The Witcher. She co-wrote and co-executive produced Daredevil and Defenders.

The Witcher Netflix series was announced in May. It's a joint venture between Polish company Platige, which has been making cinematics for The Witcher games for years, and Netflix. It has nothing to do with game maker CD Projekt Red but Witcher author and creator Andrzej Sapkowski is involved as a consultant.

Read more…

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