Best of 2015 #1: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild HuntWhen I finished The Witcher 3, for the first time in a while, I was left with the feeling that my most anticipated game of the year had knocked it out of the park. I’d expected great things, having loved the previous game and enjoyed the books too, but The Witcher 3 turned out to be a genuine, unequivocal masterpiece that puts similar games from bigger developers to shame.

I love how The Witcher 3 not only seems to invite the comparisons with Skyrim but revels in them once you get to Skellige, a cold, mountainous and Nordic land ruled by jarls and peppered with ruins to explore and dragons forktails to kill. And The Witcher does it with an astonishing breadth of content that belies how little it cost, every quest offering its own plot arc and well-acted, well-voiced characters – a far cry from Skyrim’s endless treks to identikit dungeons on the orders of barely animated automatons.

A truly good game shouldn’t be defined by its competition, though. This game is put together with confidence, from the writing – it’s come a long way from the stunted script of the first game – to its treatment of difficult subject matter. I didn’t feel like any of the list of touchy subjects, from abortion to spousal abuse via racism and persecution, were given superficial coverage here.

What could be described as the typical fantasy fare, too, is interesting. CD Projekt Red delved deeper into real-world mythology than is typical – elves and dwarves are relegated to side characters while you’ll face obscure creatures from Eastern European and Asian folklore like djinn and the fabulously creepy – particularly when you stumble upon them when you’re woefully under-levelled, as I did – leshies. I mentioned before, apropos Metro 2033, that I often find Eastern European takes on sci-fi and fantasy refreshing next to the predictable English-language offerings around at the moment, and the Witcher series is a big part of that.

It took me months to get through The Witcher 3’s main campaign, and it’s still in my PS4’s drive as I find new secrets and work my way through the first and smallest expansion – and CDPR’s positive approach to DLC in these cynical times deserves commendation on its own. Sadly I don’t think I’ll be able to justify the gorgeous Blood and Wine expansion as a contender for the Best of 2016, but I suspect it wouldn’t be undeserved. A superb game.

Best of 2015 #2: Bloodborne

BloodborneI’m still yet to get further than about ten hours into a Souls game, and that trend continues with this spiritual sequel. I’m afraid I just don’t have the nerves, nor the patience, for it these days. But even if I couldn’t get to the end, this is probably my favourite of the lot.

It’s slicker and significantly less janky, more focused on timing, aggression and combat skill than skulking along behind a shield. Also gone is the medieval European fantasy setting, which had its own take on the style but inevitably felt limited because, honestly, what is there left to do with knights and dragons?

I’d been saying for a long time that Assassin’s Creed should do Victorian London, and in the year that it happened, this did it better. This isn’t precisely Victorian London, of course – more like the comic book take on that era of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies crossed with a dash of Lovecraft – but it’s really wonderful. Oppressive, frightening, unique and filled with much more personality for that unique brand of minimalist storytelling than swords and sorcery.

The one prediction I can make about Dark Souls III with reasonable certainty is that I won’t finish it. But although that’s not a criticism in my case, what may be is that I’m far less interested in another romp through ruined castles after playing this.

Best of 2015 #3: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom PainDespite The Phantom Pain facing ardent attempts to undermine it from both Konami’s avarice and Kojima’s lack of restraint, its qualities manage to shine through. And believe me, if the game is still shining after living through this many attempts to torpedo it since release, the core game must be shining pretty damn brightly.

It would have been higher on the list this year were it not for some poor design decisions and an annoying structure. It’s a superb 15-20 hours stretched quite thinly over 50-60 hours, with the second act being mindbogglingly bad in its design. I was wishing for it to hurry up and finish by the end, which even with the best underlying gameplay in the world, is not a good sign.

But when The Phantom Pain is at its best, it’s so, so good. The open world complements an infiltration game incredibly well, dramatically increasing the strategic options in a series that has always been famous for giving you more than one way to complete an objective. Going back to classics like the first game, suddenly the option to go through the front door or the vent doesn’t seem too freeing. Do you go in from the north, south, east or west? Day or night? With a sniper or the dog? By vehicle or on foot? With explosives or silenced weapons? Non-lethal or live rounds? Extract or eliminate?

It’s just a shame when all this variety is used to infiltrate the same encampment for the 12th time. Hopefully whomever is in charge of Kojima now won’t give him such free rein.

Best of 2015 #4: Rocket League

Rocket LeagueConventional sports games haven’t done much for me in a while, the limitations of real sport striking me as unnecessarily restrictive on gameplay design in an effectively limitless medium. Real sport is for playing or watching in real life. If you’re going to turn it into a video game, let me fire a missile at the other participants or take them on with full, 360-degree movement.

Rocket League is grounded in reality – people play competitive games with real RC cars, after all – but, as I like it, with some of the limitations removed. You can boost yourself up walls with rockets, flip through the air, even fly to an extent if you have the patience to master it. This is a sport that I wish really did exist.

Either way, Rocket League was tremendous fun, certainly the best indie game of the year, and thanks to it being given away to PS Plus subscribers, one of the few multiplayer games that isn’t Call of Duty to have maintained a healthy population of players. It’s a fun, accessible party game with split-screen – remember those? As a free game for PSN subscribers it was, of course, a no-brainer, but even at the current price of £9.49 it would be one of my first recommendations for the post-Christmas glut of new PS4 owners.

Best of 2015 #5: Until Dawn

Until DawnUntil Dawn seems to attract faint praise, with reviews I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listened to featuring turns of phrase like “best 8/10 game ever” or “Night Trap but not crap”. The thing is, these statements are frequently tempered with a clarification that the game actually is very, very good. It’s what the first wave of ‘interactive movies’ promised to do, minus the bad acting and VCD-quality FMV. And it shows up the games of David Cage as the pretentious nonsense they are, even matching them on the technical level where they admittedly shine.

It’s apparent that I love the same teen slasher movies as the developers, with the films that I came of age watching, like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, clearly represented, along with classics old and new. The slow mechanics even make the dash of The Descent that’s in there less annoying than it has invariably been when action games introduce the late-game mutant enemies.

I’ll be interested to see whether Until Dawn keeps its appeal after a few years, when so much of the fun this time around came from chats with friends about your route through the game, who made it to the end in your playthrough and the horrible deaths of the characters that didn’t. Even completionists didn’t always need to chase that perfect run where everyone survives, the game making your one of several hundred permutations feel like yours alone. It’s a linear, narrative-led adventure without feeling as restricted and like a choose-your-own-adventure game as, say, something from Telltale.

I saw Until Dawn available for as little as £15 in the run-up to Christmas, not far off what you’d pay for a new horror movie on Blu-ray. And I guarantee you this will give you more entertainment.

Shenmue on a Kickstarter budget

ShenhuaEven if the numbers Shenmue III is pulling in are strong for a Kickstarter project, they’re not anywhere close to a modern, big budget, open-world game. They’re not even close to the $70 million that gets thrown around in discussions about the original’s extravagant cost. But the arguments are frequently misleading, so I want to take the opportunity to discuss some misconceptions and how an authentic Shenmue III experience could be delivered with a much-reduced budget.

For one thing, the $70m figure is an exaggeration. Yu Suzuki himself has put it closer to $47m, which doesn’t even hit $70m when adjusted for 15 years of inflation. Not small change, to be sure, but not even close to what a major open-world game can cost today.

It’s thanks to the current prevalence of open-world games that a Shenmue game could be made on a more modest budget, hence this one running on Unreal Engine 4. Shenmue was pushing boundaries with a bespoke engine, doing things that hadn’t been seen before; much of it is commonplace now, easily achieved using off-the-shelf middleware.

The explosion in gaming budgets since Shenmue came out doesn’t make $47m less gigantic in the context of 1999, of course. But something that’s frequently forgotten is that much of that was an investment in this revolutionary tech, which was supposed to power a multi-episode Shenmue saga. The engine was ultimately only used for Shenmue and a single sequel (four chapters in total), making profitability impossible and giving the game the appearance of an outrageous budget. Numbers aren’t available for Shenmue II on its own, but you can see how much further the money went, once it didn’t have to pay for the tech, in its sheer scale.

With that obstacle removed through the use of a third-party engine, able to render environments on the scale of Shenmue in its sleep, all the money goes on content. A budget that’s likely under $20m all-in is still tight, but it appears doable.

My final point is that this simply won’t be as big as Shenmue II. That game was ridiculous in its scale, dwarfing the already-impressive original game. The series has gone from a small hometown to playing the stranger in a foreign metropolis, and this one looks like changing it up again, continuing the rural Chinese setting of Guilin. Even with three locations, Suzuki has compared the planned scale to Dobuita in the first Shenmue, and that’s okay. We’re getting Shenmue III, and it’s a series about density and realism in its detail, rather than sprawling scale. After all these years, I’ll take it.

Ultimately, the precise breakdown of Shenmue III’s funding is unclear. We know that Sony is providing some money for publishing and marketing support, but the team has clarified that the bulk of it will come from Kickstarter. Evidently, Suzuki was prepared to make the game on a budget of $2 million, plus a modest amount of outside funding, and since the game has already breezed past the target, anything we can add, even if this doesn’t approach the scale and grandeur of the Dreamcast games, is gravy.