It hopefully hasn't escaped your attention that one of the best games of 2013, Grand Theft Auto V, is about to complete its transfer from previous-gen systems to the visual razzle-dazzle of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC platforms. To those who never played it the first time, who have hung on for these beautiful-looking ports, I promise you: so much fun. GTAV is a deep game of epic exploration, funny dialogue, intense action, and frenetic car chases. And so much more.
And yet, not everyone who enjoyed the early hours of GTAV stayed for the duration—just as only some 70 percent of those with internet-connected systems actually involved themselves in the game's separate GTA Online component. On its release, in September 2013, Forbes asked: What percentage of players will actually finish GTAV? Google isn't forthcoming with a verifiable stat on that, even after more than a year, but the campaign completion percentage for its predecessor Grand Theft Auto IV was under 30 percent.
What makes us put the pad down and turn our attention to what's next on our to-play list? Here are five obstacles that every gamer will face—but how we tackle them depends on time, patience, and perhaps a certain type of masochism.
The game is too difficult
Step forward Dark Souls II, one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2014 but one that I simply haven't made an inch of headway with. I know that if I really tried I'd be able to get somewhere, but with a stack of other things to take care of, I haven't powered up From Software's action RPG since its springtime release.
Difficulty, in and of itself, shouldn't be an obstacle, though—when it's properly handled. Mike Laidlaw, creative director on BioWare's recently released Dragon Age: Inquisition, is a fan of Dark Souls IIfor the way in which its punishment serves as a lesson to the player.
"I find the hard games that are the most successful are not hard for the sake of it," he tells me. "They're hard but brutally fair. Dark Souls and its sequel are great examples, where the initial contact can be severe, but you learn lessons. Dark Souls teaches you valuable lessons, constantly, and does so in a way that's built into the gameplay—dying and resurrecting is all part of the game's mechanics, and its makers celebrate it. They're transparent as to what their challenge is, why it's hard—your equipment isn't good enough, perhaps. But it tells you that you can improve, and before long, the game is pushing you to be a master of it, and that's really satisfying."
As a BioWare game, there are people coming to Dragon Age: Inquisition for its storyline over any testing gameplay, and Laidlaw recognizes that it's a title with dual appeal.
"A chunk of our players are in it for the narrative, rather than the challenge. And we respect that—but we also have these hardcore players who want a dragon fight to be a 30-minute endurance test. So in the story sections, we have to be careful—we don't want to trap people, so there's always a save before you're locked into a story event. But in the wider exploration space, I have no problem with presenting overwhelming encounters, because at any point you can just turn around and run, right? I know players don't like that, but you can, and then come back when you're at a higher level."
There's no shame whatsoever, so far as I'm concerned, with playing a game on its easiest setting. I did that for my first play-through of The Last of Us, because it was sold to me as a narrative experience over anything else. It's a move that the Guardian's games editor Keith Stuart understands.
"Playing on easy is fine in a narrative experience," he says. "You are not going to fundamentally misjudge the brilliance of The Last of Us because it took a couple fewer shots to take down enemies. But nowadays games like The Evil Within feature dynamic difficulty settings. I pretty much always play on intermediate and just struggle on [with games] until I beat them. If I'm replaying a game to enjoy the story, I'll put it on easy, and then if it's something I'm really invested in, I'll crank up the difficulty for the extra achievement points. I finished every Call of Duty game up to Modern Warfare 3 on veteran difficulty. I have no idea why I did that."
The game is too long
The last game I completed—in terms of its solo campaign, anyway—was Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. I enjoyed its wholly obvious but nonetheless compelling story of power and politics, of a private-company arms race where greed soon clouds over any ethical agendas. It was silly and loud and, here's the thing for me, brief. The whole thing can't have taken me much more than six hours to shoot my way through, even allowing for the various cock-ups along the way—and unlike Keith, I never play CoD on veteran.
Actually, that's not true: Just this morning (at the time of writing, obviously), I played through Journey, from start to finish, simply because I fancied revisiting Thatgamecompany's wonderful little title. Time spent: 70 minutes, maybe. I dallied a little to point a newbie in the direction of some scarf-extending upgrade symbols.
Point being: I like succinct but complete games, those confident enough to pack everything into a campaign length that won't require matchsticks propping eyelids to see out in a weekend. I have never agreed with the perspective that length equals value for money, and while I did invest more than 50 hours of my time in GTAV last year, one of my very favorite releases of 2013 was Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Platinum Games' over-the-top entry to Hideo Kojima's long-running Metal Gear series. It took under six hours to finish, but not a second of its time was wasted: Platinum constantly gave the player something to do, somewhere to go, someone to slice.
I've never finished the story of Skyrim, though, or seen Metal Gear Solid 4 through to its closing credits. It's not because these are poor games, but they go on for bloody ages. And at some point during the 30th hour of the former, I simply got distracted, and haven't returned. With reviewers for Dragon Age: Inquisition putting between 80 to 100 hours into the game prior to publishing their thoughts, Laidlaw knows that keeping the player occupied within a massive virtual world is key to avoiding detachment:
"In terms of size, we knew that we wanted an epic, and we wanted to build these big stages. We wanted variety, and to be able to fill each area to the extent where you always had something to do, every couple of minutes or so. And then these spaces developed over time, informed by play testing. We tracked heat signatures internally, to see where people visited, and where they went first. We tried to put a little something special in every corner."
The game is too boring
The man behind the Mario and Zelda franchises, Shigeru Miyamoto, has bemoaned a boring " sameness" in modern video games. "What the other companies are doing makes business sense," he told The Telegraph, "but it's boring. The same games appear on every system. At Nintendo, we want an environment where games creators can collaborate and think of ideas for games that could have never happened before."
I'll grant the Nintendo legend that, a few years ago, gaming was certainly suffering from first-person-shooter fatigue. But that's a genre that, in 2014, has undergone some serious improvements: Wolfenstein: The New Order is just one of this year's standout stare-at-a-gun-all-game affairs that's brought a little heart to the usual array of explosions and headshots, and Far Cry 4 is an intoxicating blend of colorful surrealism and straightforward pyrotechnics, where it's perfectly okay to ride an elephant into battle while brandishing a bazooka.
Honestly, one of the most boring games for me in 2014 was a Nintendo exclusive: the Zelda and Dynasty Warriors mash-up, Hyrule Warriors. It was fun for a while, sure, but after the seventh stage of identical gameplay, with the identikit masses of single-strike-kill minions and charmless bosses of rather more hit points, I was done with it. Whereas the comparably hack-and-slash Bayonetta 2, also for the Wii U, avoided stirring boredom by being, well, completely fucking nuts. Again, it's a Platinum production that layers entertainingly monstrous enemies on top of sumptuous environments until the whole thing explodes like a firework full of halos and gore.
What you find boring and what I do is, inevitably, different. I expected to find the new CoD campaign dull—but it wasn't. Innovation isn't always the answer to keeping a player's attentions locked to a screen—but fun certainly is. Which is why a game like Mario Kart 8 sings to me, but the more serious-faced GRID Autosportreally doesn't—again, it's a game of 2014 that I haven't not been able to spend too much time with on account of being assaulted by a dizzying sequence of menus each time I start it up.
The game doesn't reward the player
The power of today's consoles allows for the creation of massive game worlds – but if they're merely gorgeous shells bearing only the merest of pearls, who cares? For Dragon Age: Inquisition, Laidlaw made sure that players would always receive perks for the hours they put into the experience. "We wanted more content that you didn't have to be careful of spoiling," he says. "Like, you could come across a really cool sword. That's part of the gameplay experience, but it's not spoiling the story."
Destiny, for a time, was giving out its purple treasures for barely any effort at all. Its lucrative "loot cave" was quickly enough patched out of proceedings, but sure enough another opportunity for perk-farming arose—just 24 hours after the first "loot cave" was sealed, so another was discovered.
Destiny, Bungie's $500 million gamble, is a game of no set finished state—what you bought back in September will be built upon in the coming years, up to ten of them if its makers carry out their promises. Just a few days ago it implemented voice chat, while its Iron Banner 2.0 update introduced refinements to a competitive multiplayer mode that initially attracted criticism for poorly implemented level advantages. This is a perfect illustration of a developer rewarding its audience, repaying patience and responding to criticism in the right way.
For games that aren't Destiny, with a massive team brandishing the power to make changes effectively on the fly, the key is to make the experience one that can, theoretically, last forever without compromising on stuff-to-do front. Far Cry 3 was magnificent, but after clearing out its numerous enemy outposts, and once the main campaign was finished, offered little but some attractive sightseeing. Its follow-up allows these base camps to be restocked with plenty of NPCs—meaning you can enjoy the view while painting it a fresh shade of blood red.
The generally excellent Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor rather falls flat when its content has collapsed down to mere trinket finding, as writer Yannick Le Jacq noted for Kotaku: "Why on earth am I playing a video game set in one of the most visually rich fantasy worlds, and collecting pieces of a basket? It was around this time I decided I didn't want to make it to 100 percent."
The 100 percent completion target that some players strive for has led to some boring-as-hell side quests and collectible-acquiring in even the very best games. I mean, do you really care to find all 50 spaceship parts in GTAV? It doesn't really matter, does it?
"There's so much bloody machismo wrapped up in this sort of [100 percent-ing] argument," says Stuart. "There's a whole, 'I'm a real gamer, and you're not' mentality." And if that's the case, I'm quite OK with not being a 'real' gamer.
The game is broken
I only just received a finished copy of Assassin's Creed Unity—you can read a preview of it here—but some reports of the final code's bugs have been hilarious. Screenshots have depicted characters whose features have not fully loaded, while disappearing architecture and instances of the game's hero falling through the floor have been documented. That might not be enough to completely put people off the game, and it hasn't dramatically damaged ACU's critical reception (although frame-rate issues certainly have), but it's definitely not the kind of coverage that makers Ubisoft will have wanted.
But at least they're not alone in putting out a broken "end" product. Sonic the Hedgehog games have been shit for years, and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric for the Wii U is the latest entry in the series to make no attempt to switch things up. A buggy mess, IGN concluded that it "fell well below already low expectations." Some of those bugs are funny in isolation, but one that allows for infinite jumping makes it beatable in under an hour.
Bugs can be patched, but something that pisses me off—and that I consider just as much a qualifier of brokenness as any glitch—is unexpected and flat-out unfair difficulty spikes. To go back to the first point, hard games done right can be magnificent, and the accolades for Dark Souls II serve as proof of that. But when something like a boss battle proves completely unbeatable after several attempts, you have to question the play testing.
So, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, consider yourself called out. A character called Deadlift is the 2014 shooter's first real boss, and a browse of YouTube shows that I'm not alone in struggling with his hefty shield, electrified floors, and legion of supporting enemies. "I've died like 20 times," says one commenter ; "I got my ass handed to me so fast," wrote another. Turns out there's a "cheat" way to do it, but will I be going back to Pandora's moon for a war of attrition complemented by the same few, annoying sound bites? Will I hell.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is out now for multiple platforms. The PS4 and Xbox One versions of GTAV are released on November 18, with the PC port due in early 2015.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.