I have played lots of great single player games in recent years, but I always seem to lose interest before even the half-way mark: Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, Assassin's Creeds, Horizon Zero Dawn.. I can see why people like them and they all have different strengths, but all of them seem to have a common weakness as well, and it is linearity / hand holding, despite being marketed as open world.
I always start these games with great anticipation about how amazing the "open" world will be, but in reality the world isn't really open: you can't tackle the objectives how you see fit, but instead you have to follow the path set by the developers VERY closely, or you fail the mission. So you are just tumbling like a baby holding hand with an adult in the open world that is basically a glorified loading screen, or maybe like a tourist following a guide:
- Move to this exact spot (which is marked on your map)
- Do this thing by pressing a single button (which is shown on the screen)
- Kill these guys (this is the only challenge you face during the whole game, repeated over and over again, and you are meant to win every encounter: the plot only goes forward if you win)
- Watch a cut scene
Where are the decisions you have to make? Where is the risk and reward? Where do you have to use your brain?
Sure, you have to put skill points somewhere, aim your weapon and sometimes even pick 1 out of 2 paths, but you ALWAYS know that you are MEANT TO beat every single thing you encounter, and nothing you choose will cause you to lose the game 20 hours later, as you are the protagonist in a movie and you are meant to win. Or in some cases your meant to lose, and you can't change that either.
Latest offender of this is the Cyberpunk 2077, that was marketed as something ground breaking, but in reality it's just another loading screen -open world with completely linear guests and incredibly narrow hand holding (not to mention the bugs etc). I enjoy the characters and the plot, but I'm already losing interest in essentially playing a movie. First couple of missions have some interesting decisions, but after that it's the same 5 steps repeated infinitely. I feel like I'd gladly watch this movie, but making me "play" if by repeating a couple of easy steps over and over again just feels insulting.
This brings me to Total War: Warhammer 2 (sorry, took me a while to get here). If you haven't played it, there's a sandbox mode called "Mortal Empires" where you are put into the world as one of the nations and your objective is to complete your goal by any means necessary. The path is literally completely open to you, and you can fail your game at the third turn, but you see the reason why you fail at the 100th turn, by, in example, starting a war with a faction, that inevitable leads to a war with a much larger faction that destroys you in the end. You aren't meant to win (or lose) any battle / war, you have to earn your win. And if you put yourself into a bad situation there's no magical cut scene to save you from that situation: you just lose. This makes the stories you experience truly evolve from the actual gameplay in a non-linear manner, and thus they feel so much more real and personal. The world feels like a real world where your actions matter, but you are not always the top dog making all the importat decisions, you have to earn that too. Sometimes you are just a small player watching the big ones go at each other, and you just try to survive and maybe ally with the largest player, if you can, while the most important decisions are maybe by other, bigger factions. Amazing.
In a way Total War: Warhammer 2 is one of the truest RPG's I've played, although it's not even marketed as one. Say, you start as Alarielle, a High Elf Queen who is meant to unite the High Elf island of Ulthuan and defend it (sorry, I probably botched the lore here). Well, you can do that and unite the different High Elf nations by force or diplomacy.. Or not. You could just go to war on some distant lands if you wish. Hell, you can even abandon your island, sail to some distant land and start a new nation there. RIGHT ON THE FIRST TURN. And this one decision on the first turn will change your entire campaign to something totally different. There are true decisions, true risk / reward (for example: blitzkrieging Lothern, the capital of the High Elves, will ensure you amazing economical strength, but also bring you to war with the strongest High Elf faction, that you could maybe confederate by diplomacy later), and true victory, if you earn it.
The game has many other strengths, but I think this non-linearity is why I keep coming back to the game after hundreds of hours. It's a true open world instead of just some nice scenery to look at, and that's what I would want in an RPG too: freedom to choose your own adventure and freedom to complete your objectives in a way you want to, instead of following the path set by the developers. To me it seems that games like RDR2 or Witcher 3 are just interactive movies and your freedom is very very limited. RDR2 is a weird one though as the world can be truly very open in some way, and then it is not in others, but the main missions are the epitome of hand holding where even a small misstep will give you a stern talk with the parents. Many games seem to think that the player is very dumb and thus needs to be guided on every single step. I want challenge, but not the kind of challenge where the enemy has 10x more hit points than you, but the kind of challenge where you make long-lasting strategic / tactical decisions and your path hasn't been set out for you to win: you have to earn your win by playing well.
Sorry for the probably incoherent writing. English isn't my first language so it's sometimes hard to get some structure to the text. That said, if there's a game I should look into, please recommend it to me. 🙂
P.S. Multiplayer games are totally different story as they won't held your hand and you have to earn your victory, so I really enjoy games like Rocket League, Mordhau..
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