In 2022 there was so little interesting happening in gaming that I didn't even make a year's end post. Only a single game worthy of mentioning was released: Marvel's Midnight Suns
2023 however looked very different and promising from the start with a few highly anticipated releases lined up.
The elephant in the gaming room.
Of course I can't go without mentioning Baldur's Gate 3 due to its popularity. The disclaimer is that I have not played it, therefore it can't compete for my GOTY title either. My reason for not playing it is simple: I don't expect to like it. Therefore it needs to be much cheaper before I'm willing to waste money on it. I expect it will be another Witcher 3 for me. If you haven't heard the story yet, I didn't like that game at all. I consider the gameplay mid at best and I can't stand the titular character.
With BG3 I'm especially skittish about the progressive agenda, I fear this time that would be the thing that ruins the story for me instead of the playable character being a giant prick. And the D&D style dice rolling game mechanics also give me pause, I prefer games of skill and strategy. I feel RNG is too much of the deciding factor in whether you succeed or fail in BG3. Thereefore I don't expect to play BG3 until its price drops at least bellow $30, preferably $20.
The not so unexpected disappointment of the year.
To investigate the reason for the sheer popularity of from software games I decided if I'm ever going to try one it has to be Armored Core 6. As Sci-fi is much closer to my heart than fantasy. What is disappointing to me, is not even the game itself, but that there are millions of gamers out there to whom this represents the pinnacle of game design.
I'm not going to beat around the bush, this game design screams early 90s to me. It's simple as a stick. That doesn't mean it's bad, but to me such a game can not compete against more complex RPGs and immersive sims. Even if I dislike Witcher 3, I'd rather they make more games like that, than more of this. I can understand the appeal of brainless fun, but the same way a comedy won't win best picture a simplistic game like this can't be considered GOTY material for me.
And I'm being very generous when I call it brainless fun, because the more fair description would be frustration, instead of fun. And all of a sudden a millions of from software fans cried out in anger... And jump at my throat screaming you just hate it because you suck at it!
And thus we have arrived at the real reason why these games are popular in my opinion: Bragging rights. The feeding of the ego. I play videogames to have fun, not for the bragging rights. And let me tell you repeating the same boss countless times until you figure out a strategy to beat it, is not my idea of fun. My idea of a fun game has immersion and mechanics that give me a feeling of satisfaction. AC6 gives neither. The mechanics and gameplay are frustrating, and there is zero immersion due to its trial and error nature. When I finally beat a level the feeling is not satisfaction, it is relief.
Before revealing my choice for game of the year 2023 let me give a shout-out to Hogwart's Legacy. I really liked the game from the start, but I hit a wall in it mid game. So I never really finished it.
This game really looks great, but it also runs as a snail, so with my 2080Ti it was an especially frustrating experience due to seemingly unexplainable FPS drops, constantly forcing me to turn off RT in it. Loosing out on some of the amazing detail included in the game. Animations are also super, especially the facial expressions.
The reason I quit halfway through the campaign is that I simply ran out of quests to do. That might sound strange with an incomplete campaign, but the main story missions have certain skill and level requirements for them to unlock, and I lacked some skill to progress further, meaning I'd have had to do some pointless grind to be able to continue.
I'm sorry but that's just not how I operate in these open world games. So I hit the road. It could've been a GOTY contender, but it juts fell short due this frustrating roadblock.
I might eventually revisit the game now that I've upgraded to a 4080, but it's not on the immediate agenda.
And the winner is...
Hold your horses, it is not that simple. I've been going back and forth in my head on this for months, and the conclusion is that I can't come to a conclusion. I feel if I choose either of these two games over the other as GOTY then I'm doing a disservice to the other. Therefore I've decided that I name both GOTY as a shared award.
In strictly chronological order the first half GOTY of 2023 is: Jagged Alliance 3. It is a flawless victory for heimemont games, as they managed to createa beautiful looking turn based strategy game that fully embraces the spirit of the originals. It also avoids the "updated for modern audiences" trope as it is completely unfiltered and politically incorrect when it needs to be. But not in a mean way. The beloved stereotypical characters are here and they've never been better, with the addition of new characters who are just as adorably clichéd.
The game was already really good OOB, but the devs are fully committed to supporting it, and they already implemented some of the most requested features like the ability to purchase arms and ammo. They also released a free content expansion recently. I really can't recommend JA3 enough. Unfortunately it was quite neglected and overlooked by the streamer sphere. So it needs all the promotion it can get.
And the other half of the award goes to: Starfield
Yes, quite controversial choice, but this game offered countless hours of fun, in spite of its many flaws.
If you want to enjoy Starfield then disregard that it is a videogame, if you try to play it with that expectation that the world is designed for your benefit you'll be disappointed. Am I telling you that you're playing the game wrong if you do it differently? Yes I am.
If you play Starfield don't expect a carrot on a stick behind every rock. Exploring and finding stuff is its own reward. You need to let go of the old ways of thinking about videogames. Not everything in the game world contains a reward with your name on it. Treat it as reality. If you were a real space explorer, you wouldn't try and land your ship on every barren rock, you'd scan planets and only land where something stands out. And even after landing you'd only explore on foot if you see something worth exploring. The game is only as boring as you make it yourself. If you choose to do repetitive boring things in it, that is on you.
I see many complain that the game is empty. Duh, space is called space for a reason, and uninhabited planets are well, uninhabited planets. I'd not have it any other way, if you'd bump into something big behind every rock on every planet it would be terrible for immersion. It would feel fake. Exploring means not finding anything until you find something. If you find something everywhere every time you are not an explorer, you are a tourist on a guided tour. I could rant for hours on why Starfield is good as it is, but I need to move on to other things.
The graphics of the ship interiors are outstanding, and the FPS aspect is further improved from Fallout 4, now as good as any other FPS. So getting into scraps on foot or with ships is always a fun experience and not a frustrating one. The ship to ship combat mechanics are the age old proven ones all the way back from X-Wing, distributing power between weapons, shields and engines. It is still great.
And then there is the ship builder. If you like building stuff, I'd buy the game just to play around with the ship builder.
I want to give one tip that makes the game far more balanced and rewarding to play in my opinion. Just change the amount vendors pay for stuff to 50% of value, because by default it is extremely low, and it makes looting way too much work for little reward. But with 50% it is just right to make it worth your while to haul more valuable items to sell, this in turn can give you much more freedom to play with the ship builder too. Of course if you want to disregard immersion completely, you can just give yourself cash directly, but I don't recommend that.
I also don't recommend Starfield if you are unwilling to use console commands or mods.
Before I go one more thing I want to mention. Starfield is not the first game you need to play with a specific mindset to enjoy, and it won't be the last. So don't think I'm making excuses for it. Alien Isolation presented a similar issue for those who wanted to play it as an action game. And while the hatred wasn't as widespread there were quite a few individuals who considered it bad.
May we all have an even better year of games in 2024.