This was a pretty good year for RPGs. A little bit of something for everyone, though perhaps not for the most jaded doomsayers of the “decline of RPGs” (give us mature [not “mature”] character depth that actually matters; deep, turn and party based mechanics; etc.).
One of the most pleasant surprises of 2011 for me, though, was Dungeon Siege 3—well, surprise since I hadn’t heard anything about the game being in development until this year. The other “surprise” being that I probably enjoyed Dungeon Siege 3 more than I did Witcher 2 (at the least, I apparently have 131 hours logged in DS3 compared to W2’s 65).
Yes, it’s another of those “contrarian” (onanistic?) blog posts. But what can I say, those hours are real, despite DS3’s time for a single playthrough being shorter than W2’s (mostly because there’s no farming).
Witcher 2 strikes me as one of those “too important to fail” (or be anything less than superlative) games. And indeed, it’s a good game. I enjoyed it. But it’s also a deceptively simple game whose complexity and depth are heavily reliant on obscurity. Gamasutra’s own Top 5 PC Games of 2011 praised it for “forc[ing] the player to make sweeping decisions that will affect hours and hours of game content, leaving some areas completely unexplored”.
This is kind of odd to me. You are forced to make uninformed decisions that completely bypass player agency. And this passes for depth. Huh? (Once again, uninformed is not the same thing as morally ambiguous, which is also not the same thing as morally difficult.)
Another, much more cynical way to look at it is that Witcher 2 is basically a four chapter game where money was saved in making the third chapter by reusing 65% of chapter 2 and “cleverly” (or ham-handedly, depending on your viewpoint) gating the player away from the other 35%. Except that you don’t get to play that redundant chapter 3 in a single playthrough to make the game feel bigger than it is. (Yeah. That’s pretty cynical.)
Let’s ask a hypothetical question, then. If Dungeon Siege 3 had gone the same route and forced players to exclusively choose between Stonebridge and Queen Roslyn, and padded out play time with respawning mobs and craftables, would DS3 have gotten the same praise?
That decision would surely have placed DS3 on equal choice-and-consequence footing, and yet I somehow suspect W2 would still have gotten better press coverage. It is, after all, the game with higher production values and more “mature” content (though there is something to be said for its better fleshing out of backroom politics).
It’s a bit harder to criticize Witcher 2’s combat, though, where the worst accusation I can lay against it is that it doesn’t take advantage of all its possibilities enough. Part of the problem is that crossbowmen are the only ranged opponents the player will face, and the player rarely encounters mixed groups of different opponent types unless they are bleeding over from nearby spawn locations.
But the other, more significant problem is that there’s actually not all that much variety to what the players can do in combat, either. It doesn’t really matter which skill tree you choose to specialize in since, at the end of the day, 80% of the gameplay is more or less the same across all trees. And it’s a problem exacerbated by lengthy/inconsistent transition times between animation groups (melee, casting, or bomb throwing), which means there’s usually not enough breathing space to switch up your moves all that much.
Illustratively, probably the most engaging combat to be found in the game is farming the Battlefield in Chapter 2. That was frantic, and challenging, and rewarding. But it’s also something most players will likely never come across or even realize can be done. It’s a strange game, then, when combat can be genuinely challenging and skill demanding, but usually just resorts to cheap shots/forced trial and error guesswork based difficulty instead (at least, in terms of boss fights), which is too bad.
To be clear and fair, it’s not like Witcher 2’s narrative structure and combat are shoddy or anything—they’re actually pretty good. But I have to question whether there isn’t more than a little of celebrating user un-friendliness and obscurity for the sake of user un-friendliness and obscurity in our estimations of the game. Because these operate superbly as facades for difficulty, and we always feel good when we take down straw men, right?
Compared to this, the combat in Dungeon Siege 3 feels much more fluid and deliberate. Perhaps the biggest misconception about DS3 is that it’s a hack and slash. I mean, it is (or at least it’s hack and slash-y)—but it ditches all that loot bothering and makes it about player skill and creative usage of character builds instead. And, as a game that places such a premium on tight player controls and player dexterity, it’s probably a forerunner to the kind of gameplay that Diablo 3 will unleash in a mass of clones.
DS3’s combat cues are unambiguous, fair, and easily interpreted, while transitions between animations are quick and smooth (outside of the one, occasional glitch with movement locking/slow shooting that happens with Katarina). The character builds, despite their appearance, are quite robust as well, and its system of proficiencies and empowered abilities provides a lot of room for experimentation, unconventionality, and some real min/maxing fun. And that’s not even mentioning how differently each class plays and feels.
Players are also placed in the midst of mixed groups all the time, with lots going on onscreen at once, so the demands on situational awareness are engaging and satisfying. And of course, the boss fights. Hands down the best boss fights I’ve played this year, and DS3 is a game that’s really packed with them—all of them quite different from each other. That’s a lot of ludic content, to be sure.
I’ve previously proposed that the feeling that our peers hold a game in high esteem tends to amplify our enjoyment of it, and similarly that games regarded as dismissed are more readily dismissed by ourselves as well. So I think it’s worth questioning what exactly those magical attributes are that we seem to deem “important”.
DS3, then, has the misfortune of being actually rather complex, but appearing simplistic by virtue of the fact that it’s very straightforward and transparent (something of the opposite of W2). It’s a troublesome situation, and one that finally brings up the whole point of this comparison: is it fair to value obscurity over transparency in judging the “worth” of games? Isn’t that just patting ourselves on the back for figuring out something poorly documented? You know, feeling good about being “smart”.
I am reminded of the Academy’s bias against science fiction/fantasy and comedy films at the Oscars, and that there’s basically a type of film that’s predictably Oscar bait (self-seriousness and all that). It’s good because it’s supposed to be. Do we do the same thing in trying to “elevate” games as an art form? Perhaps. And I wonder if I’d be discussing this at all if Dungeon Siege 3 had been called “Last of the Tenth Legion” or some such instead (fun thought experiment: what if it had been called Diablo 3?).
So it’s too bad that DS3 was knocked for “not being ambitious”. But really, how much more ambitious can you get than taking a more or less abandoned franchise and making it something entirely new and as much of one’s own as the publisher is probably willing to allow, or turning the dated convention of the primacy of loot over player skill in hack and slash games on its head? And all this from a studio that perhaps isn’t in the most financially free place to be taking such expectation breaking risks—that seems pretty ambitious to me. Again, it does raise some questions about what we consider to be “worthy”.
All in all, Witcher 2 is indeed the game with superior characterization (though this mostly rests on the badassness of Roche and Iorveth and the slightly stiltedness of DS3’s characters’ presentations). But in terms of gameplay and mechanics themselves, I’m gonna have to give that one to Dungeon Siege 3. And the more I play games, the more I find that that is what keeps me coming back.