Tobold's Blog
Sunday, February 12, 2017
The Witcher, fast forward

During the course of last week I played the Witcher 1, 2, and 3. I had bought the Witcher 3 at a Steam sale the week before, and then realized that I had never played the first two parts, although I had those in my Steam library from previous sales. So I thought I'd get a better appreciation of number 3 if I had at least a basic familiarity with 1 and 2. That wasn't a bad idea, because while the stories of the three games barely connect, playing the earlier versions gave me a better feeling for the game world as well as some of the game's conventions, e.g. on the concept of toxicity of potions.

The downside of the three-in-one option was that I realized that I am not a big fan of the Witcher series, because I don't like the combat. The Witcher 1 was still closest to what I am willing to play, with a Diablo-style "click on monster" combat. The Witcher 2 changed that to a console style of button-mashing combat, and did that rather badly. The Witcher 3 much improved on the console combat, so it flows much smoother now. I can recommend number 3 to anyone who actually likes fantasy combat with an XBox controller, but personally I don't.

Of course in one week I didn't play any of these games through. I played 8 hours of the Witcher 1, which got me to the end of chapter 1, which gave me a good idea of how that would continue. Number 2 I only played for a bit over 2 hours, because I hated the controls so much. The Witcher 3 I am still playing, or maybe I should say "still watching". For people who are either extremely casual or just don't like button-mashing sword fights like me, The Witcher 3 has the option of setting the difficulty to so ridiculously easy that fights become trivial, and you can enjoy just the story and setting. On that side The Witcher 3 is a really excellent game, with great characters and really good photo-realistic facial animations in the cut-scenes. But having switched combat to trivial it then resembles a movie more than a game, in spite of the excellent open world system. I like The Witcher 3 more than I like Skyrim.

My basic model of what a game is, is one or more repeating parts (e.g. combat) embedded in a non-repeating setting (e.g. story, quests). The non-repeating part usually gets more attention, because it has all the eye-candy. But for my personal enjoyment of a game the repeating part is far more important. I like turn-based combat, or any real-time system in which *what* you decide to do is more important than how fast you react. Especially for role-playing games, although in this time and age pretty much any game has role-playing game elements like character progression. Among real-time systems I like shooting combat better than close combat. In turn-based system I'm open to pretty much anything, including combat by cards or like Puzzle Quest with a match-3 game.

I am sure that in The Witcher 3 there is some effect of my character development and equipment choices on the efficiency of my combat. But in fast, button-mashing combat the connection isn't all that evident. Did I just win over this opponent because of my leet skillz, or did I simply outlevel and outgear him? Slower systems make the connection more evident. Furthermore in fast, close-combat systems the computer frequently chooses targets for you; so you can end up pressing the same button repeatedly, while your character on screen is responding to that by elegant moves from one enemy to the next. Who exactly is playing the game there, the computer or me?

"having switched combat to trivial it then resembles a movie more than a game"

Welcome to the future of home entertainment in the 21st century. Can't come fast enough.
I also ended up lowering the difficulty of Witcher 3. Hard combat per se doesn't trouble me, but with Witcher 3 the story is the interesting part. There is no additional benefit to my enjoyment of the game if I have to work hard on beating the enemies, that's for other games like first person shooters without much of a story beyond "if it moves shoot it".

Games evolved into art. Witcher were books first and could very well work as TV series. The game just gives us a bit of freedom in how fast and comprehensive we see the story.

Re: repetitive gameplay. Very important to be done right for me too. Couple years ago I tried Rift but stopped pretty fast. Some of the sounds for hitting with my weapon were too hideous to accustom too and played literally every second.
I agree with Tobold about combat (except in action RPGs I prefer melee to ranged). It's nice that these days we have lots of niche games with exotic or even weird combat mechanisms. (Case in point: Book of Demons that I tried this week - free demo on Steam.)
This was very similar to my experience with Witcher 3. I almost immediately saw the combat and said, "yeah, I'm not learning this annoying garbage." And even with a combat system I hate, I STILL would call it the best game of 2015 because the rest of it is so well done. This is the kind of game you want all future developers to play so they can learn from it.

One thing I would point out is the problems with this combat style cannot be fixed. In order to have smooth animations without the gamey looking jerking around, the game has to "lock you in" to all your actions. So if you start a sword swing, you have to finish the animation. If halfway through your sword swing you see an enemy attack coming at you, too bad. The game can't just let you teleport your sword into the block position, that would look terrible and gamey. As graphics have advanced, this becomes more and more jarring to see on screen. So the result is always going to be something that looks smooth, but feels bad.
Why is that bad? In real combat you could not teleport your sword into the block position either!

Of course the answer is to make it so that you could have seen the possbility/likelihood of an enemy attack before you chose to start your sword swing. And there would need to be options other than the irreversible sword swing. (I haven't played Witcher 3 so I don't know whether it tries to do anything in these regards.)
I've tried to play TW3 multiple times but I can't get past the combat system. I don't have a controller and the KB+MOUSE combo doesn't cut it.
I really have to give the Witcher 3 another shot. I've had it for a while now and played about an hour but just couldn't get into it. Same thing happened with MGS:Phantom Pain. Everyone loves both those games, but after an hour or so in each I just didn't feel like playing them again.

Yes I've had the same-exact problem. TW3 looks amazing on paper but there are two major problems (for me): combat system and camera movement. I find them... weird, I can't say why. Camera in particular doesn't feel good like any other 3rd-person game. I've tried 3 times already with zero luck, I am unable to play more than 30-40 minutes then I just abandon it.
@Gerry Quinn

Well I didn't say it wasn't realistic, just that it feels bad. An attack comes at you, you hit the block or dodge button, but it just doesn't happen and the attack hits you. In that instant, it feels like the game made it impossible for you not to be hit and your own actions were meaningless.

Most of the time you are fighting multiple opponents, and waiting to block or dodge isn't really a viable strategy. The reality is you will almost always be attacking, and therefore will almost never be able to block or dodge. The subtlety in strategy is in positioning yourself so that as few enemies as possible are in attack range while you kill one off. But that doesn't feel like you are playing skillfully, it feels like you are "gaming" a video game.

This is different in 1v1 boss fights, but like I said the vast majority of fights are against multiple enemies. The 1v1 fights are so infrequent that it feels awkward to be trying to use these skills you haven't been using before.

"The subtlety in strategy is in positioning yourself so that as few enemies as possible are in attack range while you kill one off. But that doesn't feel like you are playing skillfully, it feels like you are "gaming" a video game."

This is literally what real people did in realistic melee combat scenarios in the past as being surrounded gets you killed quickly. I guess that means you don't feel like some sort of hero of myth that can take on 30 opponents at once but it does make it more realistic.

Again, not saying it isn't realistic, just that it feels bad. And you don't have to take on 30 opponents at once. You have to take on 4-10 opponents at once, which is literally what the game throws at you. If you aren't a hero of myth who can do that, you die and fail the game.
I have a theory that The Witcher series attracts many more purchases than invested players. The game's high marks are so impressive everyone wants to get in on it, but the gameplay proves such a stumbling block for people that they never quite make it past that point.

I just recently decided to tackle Witcher 2 after finally upgrading my rig and the experience on high graphics is just right. It makes me wonder if part of my annoyance with the game in prior years was due to lower framerate issues and console versions that didn't let you turn off motion blur and other graphical gimmicks.

As for Witcher 3, it feels a lot better to me.....but yeah I am not invested in difficult combat. A friend of mine turns up the difficult to max, though....he puts game challenge above story, even. So...I guess it's good the game can cater to both styles.
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