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The Witcher 3 is the best open-world game of the year

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Every year the Polygon staff chooses 10 excellent games to award our Game of the Year honors, but that means some games we love don't quite make the cut. As with last year, we're running a series of opinion pieces by members of the Polygon staff explaining why certain games earned top marks from them even if they didn't make our staff-wide Game of the Year list.

2015 was a big year, with a lot of really, really big games. I'm not just talking about budget — there were a larger-than-usual number of massive, open-world games, from mega-franchises, all of which were easy to sink hundreds of hours into. In 2015, we had Assassin's Creed Syndicate, Fallout 4, Batman: Arkham Knight, Metal Gear Solid 5 and more — all great games (some of which are in Polygon's Game of the Year coverage). But none of them hold a candle to The Witcher 3.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt blows every other open-world experience of 2015 out of the water in two important ways: its quest design and world-building.

Every quest in The Witcher 3 — from the main story missions to the monster-specific "Witcher Contracts" to the smallest side quests — feels like a part of a real, complex world. The player — and hero Geralt — just lives there, and has to make his way. Every NPC in the game goes about their own business, and if they need your help — say, they have need of a Witcher to get rid of a pesky dragon — it's just a job. That concept — that the player is just one person in a bigger world — allowed CD Projekt Red to design quests that are unique, interesting and colorful.

witcher 3 missing son

An easy example to cite is the "Bloody Baron" quest. You have to complete part of it as a portion of the main quest in the game — but if you follow the quest line to the end, you can easily spend 10 hours on that alone. The mission — which concerns a self-declared Baron of a territory, his missing wife, a village of young children and a cadre of supernatural witches is in itself richer and more interesting than many of the games I've played this year. And it was a side quest.

Let's look at another example. The White Lady monster contract is one of many such missions in the game. To start it up, you talk to an older woman in a village, learn a tale of woe and begin tracking the monster, using your Witcher skills. It sounds simple, but that tale of woe is actually very affecting, concerning young love, a betrayal and one very fierce ghost. This mission felt like playing a folktale or a classic ghost story: sad, poignant and rich with details about a particular way of life.

Compare these quests to the typical fare found in another open-world game: standard fetch-quests, assassinations, territory take-overs, races, etc. Oh, sure, many of the mechanics in The Witcher 3 can be found in other places. There's racing, there's combat, there's light puzzle-solving. But the quests almost always feel like an organic part of a busy, dark, sometimes weird world, not a checklist of content wherein the designers felt obligated to fill in the blanks.

Geralt riding Roach in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Image: CD Projekt Red/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Every location I went in the game felt real and rough-hewn, a place where many have treaded before and left their mark. The Witcher 3's lands feel like a world, not like a Witcher-flavored Theme Park. I certainly had fun swinging from the tallest posts in Arkham City, sneaking up on enemy soldiers in Metal Gear Solid 5's Afghanistan and scouring the wasteland in Fallout 4. But none of these games made me feel like I was in a place so much as an approximation of one — hanging out in Epcot's version of China, instead of the real thing.

Much of the credit must also go to The Witcher 3's world-building. I never did anything in the game without learning something new about the world. Every monster contract I took introduced me to a person or a group that seemed — without mounds of exposition — like a real person with a problem and a life outside of the game. The architecture, flavor text in books and even the game within the game, Gwent, all paint a vivid picture of life in this universe.

The colorful characterizations go a long way in selling this land as a real, lived-in place. We covered some of this ground in our women of the year post, examining the ways in which women characters shine in The Witcher 3, very much in spite of an oppressive world. Women like Ciri, Yennefer and Triss feel like real people, with flaws, conflicting interests and positive traits, and that attention to detail trickles through to even the most minor characters. There's Eliha, an eloquent (and well-represented) gender-fluid tailor who lives just outside of Novigrad. There's Dandelion, the dapper, dandy poet that provides narration as well as comic relief. I adored Geralt's relationship with Vesemir, an older, wiser Witcher who has seen it all. The people in this game feel like people, many of whom I enjoyed getting to know, even if they were only in the game briefly.

People play games for many different reasons:  to compete against others, to enjoy a story, to escape. I play mostly for the latter — to completely shed myself of my own concerns for a while and try another life or another place on for size. I played The Witcher 3 for hundreds of hours, sometimes tracking down quests, and sometimes, just to explore. I spent dozens of hours in a tiny boat, sailing to every island in Skellige, just to see what there was. I warded off ghosts, plundered buried treasure and even did battle with giants. There are so few games that make me feel completely enveloped in another space. The Witcher 3 always rewarded me for exploration, but it didn't even need to. Just being in this enormous place was enough.