Everyone probably expects me to pick Fallout 4, because I love it, and I did a video in which I describe Bethesda’s latest as, essentially, a monument to the noblest imperatives of the human soul. I was in a good mood that day.
But I don’t think it was the best game, or even best RPG, of the year. To my mind there is a clear choice in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and it’s partly to do with how deftly it overturned my expectations.
I didn’t get on with the first two games. They have their ardent fans, and I so dearly wanted to love them, but there comes a point in both games where being forced to trudge through a literal swamp for hours upon hours starts to feel like a metaphor for the entire experience. CD Projekt’s storytelling always felt impenetrable and convoluted, as did its systems and mechanics. Their world building, though, is incredible – I loved Geralt and his story right from the start, and the fact that I found the games themselves a barrier to that story was, before Witcher 3, a sore point. A personal failure in many ways.
So, my excitement for Witcher 3 was tempered by the certainty that my patience with it would last barely ten hours.
In reality, it turned out to be one of my favourite games of all time. Everything about the first two Witcher games that I so desperately wanted more of was there, present and improved upon, without the mid-game slog and a new clarity of vision having cleaned up the underlying mechanics. Geralt was no longer a pain in the arse to be. In Witcher 3, he was a revelation.
As well as being the Witcher game I always wanted, it became the Bioware game I always wanted, and the Bethesda game I always wanted. Every quest in The Witcher 3 feels epic, in the Homer of Ancient Greece sense rather than the Homer Simpson sense. Seemingly trivial side-quests will, more often than not, tell complete stories, adding texture to the world and the characters that inhabit it. Nothing feels as vapid as Kill Ten Rats – rather, every journey embarked upon feels like a “main” quest in its own right, and there are a great many of them.
But, as sprawling and pebbledashed with mysteries as it is, it never loses focus. Somehow, the gene that makes most other games of its type feel bogged-down by the second act never crept into the intricate DNA of Witcher 3, no matter how many unfinished quests are in the log.
I was never ‘bored-man-in-living-room-trying-to-decide-where-to-go’; I was Geralt, I had to find Ciri, and so it was for hundreds of hours. It didn’t just magically solve the problems of its predecessors, it solved the problems of an entire genre, and I have this awful suspicion that it did so almost by accident. I fear we won’t ever see its like again.
Returning to Fallout 4, I’ve seen a lot of chat in the gaming community since its release where people have talked about Witcher 3 “ruining” it for them, having set a bar of quality so high that they can’t bring themselves to enjoy Bethesda’s latest. I’m happy to report that I didn’t have this problem (perhaps because it is a stupid problem – you can enjoy Friends and Seinfeld, it’s fine, it’s ok). Fallout 4 is a great game, even if it does fall far short of the craftsmanship evident in The Witcher, and I’ve never felt more attached to the wasteland as I have this year. Fallout 4 is a Bethesda game with – whisper it – characters. Actual characters. Memorable characters, that aren’t just quest dispensers with Wonder Woman’s voice. They have facial expressions and everything. It’s leagues ahead of Fallout 3, you fools.
Finally, Mad Max was never going to be anyone’s Game of the Year, but I feel it deserves an honourable mention for being the most solid 7/10 I’ve played in quite some time, as strange a notion as that is. It didn’t really capture the spirit of the films, but it did bottle much of their essence, and I found it a lot more compelling and decent than the vacuous Just Cause series ever was.