Disclaimer: *Very minor side quest spoilers for Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, and Yakuza 5*
Plenty of great video games hit the shelves in 2015. And among them all, the open-world genre seemed to be the common. Batman: Arkham Knight, Yakuza 5, Fallout 4, Just Cause 3, and the excellent Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are all major open-world titles. Hell, even Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, a stealth game of all things, is an open-world title. Cutting through the main story and exploring these huge worlds make up a great portion of a player’s total game time. However, another important aspect of a big video game that keeps a player churning through hours and hours of gameplay is the strength of its side quests.
I, of course, use the word “strength” vaguely, as a game’s side quests can offer a number of different nuances, such as the amount of side quests available, the scale of a side quest, or even the uniqueness of a side quest. All these variables play into a side quest’s appeal and go on to either persuade or dissuade a player from returning to a game. Rather than tracking down the perfect side quest among the open-world games of 2015, I am going to explore how several of these open-world titles utilize their side quests, what some side quests are comprised of, and how effective they are toward prolonging a game’s length and replay value.
Some of the more common side quests in open-world games are generic fetch tasks, where players simply retrieve something and bring the item back to its owner. Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was well known for implementing a system of quests that simply never ended. Bethesda’s latest open-world entry, Fallout 4, follows suit. Factions in Fallout 4, such as the Brotherhood of Steel, give repeatable side quests that task players with fetching “important” items or destroying all the enemies in a certain location. While these side quests guarantee experience and caps, they are generally tame and monotonous, especially over an extended amount of time.
Thankfully, the mundane fetch quests are offset by some better and well-thought-out adventures. In one particular string of side quests, the first few typical missions evolve into more unique tasks, such as helping a family who is seemingly immortal. The family asks the player to intervene, and there comes a point in the quest when the player’s choice ultimately affects the immortals.
Fallout 4 is a home to plenty of side quests; some are great, while others are unremarkable. Despite this contrast in quality, the quests work very well in the overall game. Whether clearing super mutants from a school or joining a cult, Fallout‘s side quests provides more than just another objective—they provide a fuller experience. After completing a quest, players are rewarded with XP and caps, along with a plethora of loot from all the dead enemies left in their wake; there’s a great sense of accomplishment in Fallout 4‘s side quests. Rewarding a player for completing side quests is absolutely essential and a no-brainer. However, that reward and experience for completing a side quest doesn’t necessarily feel the same in games such as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
MGSV has multiple problems regarding its side quests, but I’ll discuss the problem with how the game rewards its players for completing them. Like Fallout, The Phantom Pain awards points that are used as the equivalent of leveling up. With GMP, or Gross Military Product, players may upgrade their weapons, vehicles, and buddies to their heart’s content. MGSV handles this aspect in an average manner. The problem lies within the adventure, or lack thereof, when completing a side quest; instead of leaving you with a feeling of accomplishment, The Phantom Pain throws players an insipid robotic voice that says, “Side ops list updated.” It’s a constant reminder that all the effort spent completing side missions is wasted because players just have to do the exact same side quest again later. While more missions and side quests are welcome to the hungry open-world player, they are a nuisance when a person is bombarded with the exact same side ops over and over, without change. I will concede the game has a knack for a foundation of player-lead creative problem solving, but that can only go so far when MGSV asks you to complete over 100 similar side ops missions. There’s never a sense of progress with The Phantom Pain‘s side ops list, except for the visual cue of check marks ticking down the dozens of repetitive side quests. The term “reward” takes on an ironic quality when completing side missions in MGSV because the only “reward” is unlocking more side ops—and it’s more torturous than it is satisfying.
Thankfully, there are games out there that add a special layer to their side quests. Instead of taking the easy way out and copy/pasting repetitive quests over the course of a video game, developers such as SEGA and CD Projekt Red crafted unique and wonderful experiences with not only the main stories of their video games, but with the side quests as well. SEGA’s Yakuza 5 and CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt represent the pinnacle of personality in regard to side quests this year. I have not had more fun playing optional side missions in a video game this year than with these two titles. The Witcher‘s lore has always been intensive, deep, and esoteric, so perhaps that’s one reason why its side quests really stand out.
In the side quest “Possession,” Geralt of Rivia is tasked with helping lift a curse plaguing a Skellige jarl. The adventure finds him sleuthing through a haunted house, returning a lost sword to a murdered brother, and making a tough decision regarding a baby and a flaming oven. The breadth of this one side quest was unlike anything else I’ve played recently. It was extremely unique, and amazingly, all of the side quests in The Witcher 3 provide an equally satisfying experience throughout the entire game. Returning to the game gets easier and easier, especially given how strong the side quests are.
Yakuza 5‘s side missions, while nowhere near the measure of The Witcher 3, are equally memorable. What Yakuza lacks in scale, it makes up for in style and personality. I was hesitant to start chugging through the side missions, thinking it would be another Phantom Pain fiasco. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the side missions are short bites of funny and original moments. Seeing Kazuma Kiryu, the Dragon of Dojima and former fourth chairman of the Tojo clan, on a group date was hilarious and refreshing. The group date side quest didn’t involve too much, save from choosing a few dialogue options, but everything about that side mission was fascinatingly different. Much of Yakuza‘s optional quests unravel the same way, but they manage to be memorable. Whether a side quest involves Kiryu filling in for a missing actor or simply driving another customer in his taxi, it’s sure to be a great little moment that will have players looking forward to the next mission.
Side quests are extremely important to video games in creating a world and building characters; they further establish the rules of a given video game world by showing what its denizens are capable of and what that world allows. Side quests also keep players playing a game. While the sheer number of side missions may initially grab the interest of players, those optional quests could easily drive players away if they’re too repetitive or lacking in depth. Metal Gear Solid V and its side ops absolutely suffers from its factory-style, cut-and-dry method of rehashing the same missions over a hundred times. Fallout 4 does something similar with its array of endless fetch quests, but at least there are other side quests that break the monotony. The Witcher 3 and Yakuza 5 both offer first-rate and memorable side missions that fit their respective universes, yet do not falter in bringing style and personality. Looking at how some video games handled their side quests this year, I’ll definitely be using The Witcher 3, Yakuza 5, and Fallout 4 as benchmarks for what great side quests comprise of in the newer games to come.