This article was originally published at Another-Castle.com
One of the best games I’ve ever played.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt RED
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the culmination of a gaming journey began back in 2007 with the release of The Witcher for PC. The Witcher was built on a modified version of BioWare’s Aurora engine and based on the Witcher series of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, which were virtually unknown outside of Poland at the time. This game went on to become very successful, selling in the millions due to its impressive visuals, unique world-building and involved gameplay. While engrossing and addictive, the initial release had optimisation issues such as long load-times and issues with scripting among other bugs which were largely addressed in an enhanced edition in 2008; released freely as a patch for owners of the original and as a new retail release.
The journey obviously began well before the original release for developers CD Projekt RED, a studio which was even more unheard of than the Polish novels they ultimately popularised around the world. The success of the Witcher on PC led to a cancelled console port for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and the much better known sequel The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. The 2011 sequel was built on a new internally-developed engine, even more ambitious and released with a lot more publicity and to even more acclaim. The Witcher 2’s notoriously hardware-demanding visuals still look impressive today and even the scaled-down Xbox 360 port is one of the most visually striking games on the system.
My own journey with the series began when I picked up the enhanced edition of the original in late 2009 and the many, many hours of enjoyment with that game made me a dedicated fan of both the game series and the novels that inspired them. I discovered the series through the recommendations of other gamers, an enthusiasm I have also spread. This is really what has made The Witcher 3 such a hotly anticipated game. The dedicated following CD Projekt RED earned through the dedication to their audience and passionate stewardship of each release brought them widespread trust that will now be cemented with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt builds on the proceeding games but unlike the originals, has a full open world, with a fast travel mechanic. The previous games changed locations as the story progressed and returning to previously visited areas was not an option. The open-world design is welcome as each area from the tutorial stages onwards is full of areas to explore, treasure to discover and quests to complete. These are standard in most open-world titles but what distinguishes Witcher 3 is the quality and variety of… well everything. Even secondary quests such as monster hunting contracts and errands for villages introduce characters and feel unique. Not one quest in my experience felt like a repeat of another or there simply to extend the overall length. What’s more, many quests seemingly unrelated to the overarching plot often are and characters met earlier are again introduced in new situations. The one problem I had with the design is the open-world design can break immersion and undermine the urgency of the plot. It felt out of place at times helping a crazy old crank find a pot when Geralt was on such a momentous mission. This is perhaps unavoidable in the open-world design and certainly true of most games in the genre but I found myself noticing it more than usual this time.
Similar to the Mass Effect series, The Witcher 3 allows users to import their save games from Witcher 2. This is only an option for PC as it is the only platform on which all three games were released. The Witcher 2 also had the feature but it was limited to a few minor changes and some bonus items at the beginning of the game. The changes brought in from the sequel are significant such as whether certain characters appear based on your choices, friendships and character reactions to the protagonist based on relationships formed in the previous title. This meant I already had a significant investment going in but even gamers new to the series will start with multiple choices that direct the narrative through dialogue options early on. There is also an extensive glossary with character biographies and plot details. Even series veterans likely won’t know the two major characters Yennefer and Ciri who were only mentioned in the previous games. I only knew them because I had read the books.
One of the unique aspects of the Witcher series is the way the various dialogue choices after the game. For the most part there are no good/bad choices – just choices. There will often be good reasons for choosing any option and where choices will lead is not always clear. The results of some choices may come back to Geralt much later in the game or they may be more immediate. So as an example, the man you refuse to help against a group of bandits will probably die, as you expect; but in saving him it might turn out that the bandits were motivated for a good, if not excusable reason. Other characters may lead you along for seemingly righteous reasons only for their more nefarious motivations to become clear when it is too late. This has been a feature from the original game but in Witcher 3 it is almost perfected. This is not just because of major decisions but because they are included among many largely frivolous ones; as is so in life.
The combat is largely similar to the Witcher 2 only more streamlined and with some new features. In fights, Geralt can dodge, block, parry and roll. There is a counter system similar to Assassin’s Creed and the Batman Arkham games but it is only lethal as the attacks you follow up with. Enemies will also not hang back when another is attacking and you can quite easily get mobbed by monsters and men alike. Geralt’s signs (magical abilities) return and will be familiar to series veterans. For people new to the series, signs usually cannot win the fight alone but their use is a necessary tactic and some abilities are also needed outside combat. Potions to enhance weapons and Geralt’s abilities also return and can now be consumed during combat. This doesn’t lessen the importance of planning before bigger fights, as in previous games, but it makes it easier when Geralt is ambushed.
Also new to the series are boats and horseback riding. Those familiar with the novels will know Geralt’s trusty horse Roach, who is with Geralt from the beginning and can be called anywhere on the map. Roach is mostly useful for travelling but Geralt can also strike with his sword from horseback. Roach can get frightened by enemies and combat abilities are limited on horseback so dismounting for combat is still preferable. The large map size and huge bodies of water (especially late in the game) also necessitate boat travel. There are small boats scattered all over the map and while generally not a problem, Geralt will be attacked while sailing and boats can be damaged and destroyed. Luckily Geralt is also able to swim and thankfully this is rarely necessary as the swimming mechanics are far less responsive and far more awkward than they should be. Once a new town or area is reached, fast travel becomes an option using sign posts but it is still usually more fun to mount up or set sail.
For someone that can swiftly counter sword blows and brave savage encounters with supernatural monsters; Geralt can be surprisingly clumsy and weak outside of combat. While the combat is fluid and exciting; controlling Geralt when his swords are sheathed is quite different. Geralt can now jump but controlling the direction and precision can be awkward. Falling even short distances often results in critical damage if not death and there is no shortage of places he can fall – even in cities. Picking up items can also be a chore as getting Geralt to open a chest when there is a torch close by will often have him lighting and extinguishing it rather than opening the chest. This is true of flowers and herbs in the outdoor areas too. It is necessary to make sure the camera is focused on and the object is highlighted and even then a slight adjustment will often disrupt that.
The progression system has been changed from the Witcher 2 but not significantly. There are now even more upgrades covering combat, signs, alchemy along with some general upgrades and limited ranged combat. The ability to add mutagens also returns but in a slightly different way. Whatever skills you favour, all will be necessary in the game. There is no way to play as a mage, alchemist or swordsman as the nature of a witcher is a mixture of the three with emphasis on the latter. Combat is very important and many new players are best to focus on upgrading sword attacks and defence. Signs and alchemy remain important as both allow temporary stat increases and more powerful attacks. All abilities including passive must be slotted before they can be used and most can be upgraded more than once. There are also slots for mutagens, the colours of which indicate what type of upgrade they can be used with. I came away from my playthrough considering many abilities obviously less useful than others. However, given how large the game is and the difficulty options, I could find myself very wrong in future playthroughs.
In addition to the progression system is a rich crafting system. Most items in the game can be crafted from potions using herbs, flowers and plants to armour using steel, leather and cloth. Discovering various items and diagrams in the world is a big part of the game. Many items can be bought from vendors but are usually expensive. This importance of powerful weapons and armour make exploration and side quests important and rewarding as well as enjoyable. Some items can only be obtained by defeating certain creatures or following certain quest lines. This also means players must be careful about what they sell as they may only later discover its rarity and usefulness. One of the most satisfying aspects of the game was finding and crafting new items and it was always nice to see Geralt equipped in a brand new set of armour with two shiny new swords on his back. A final point that may irritate or please depending on the person is that weapons and armour slowly deteriorate with use and must be kept regularly repaired. Thankfully there are purchasable kits as well as blacksmiths in most towns to rectify this.
The Witcher series has been known for its demanding hardware requirements from the beginning. The Witcher 3 ran beautifully on my PC which had close to recommended specs. I was tempted to set some details to low but as the game never dropped below about 40FPS, I was content to leave settings as recommended. Even on my modest PC, I can say that this is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. The environments are huge, varied and bustling. The towns and cities have people following schedules and bantering amongst each other. The wilderness areas are full of dangers from wild wolves and bandits to the more gruesome drowners, wraiths and necrophages. Tree branches and grass sway in the wind, the sun casts shadows and there are plenty of dynamic weather effects. What particularly impressed me though was the character design. With dwarves, elves, peasants, soldiers and sorcerers, there are so many unique faces to see and most are exquisitely designed. The animation is also excellent and some characters honestly come close to life-like.
If you’ve played the series from the beginning you’ll already have experienced the excellent soundtracks of the previous two games. The Witcher 3 does not disappoint and has a wonderful score. I hazard to get that there is a lot of influence from European folk music in many of the compositions. The combat track is suitably rousing and epic though the vocal chorus does get a bit much after a while. The rest of the sound design is also excellent, from the clashing of swords to the ghastly roars of the various monsters. What is easily most impressive of all though is the voice acting. The interactions between Geralt and his friends and enemies are all entertaining, memorable and sometimes genuinely emotional. Characters in side quests and people met randomly in towns or the wilderness also have a significant amount of dialogue. Even the quarrelling peasants heard in the background are well-acted.
I will certainly admit to being high on praise and often to the point of hyperbole. There are certainly issues with Witcher 3, many of which have been addressed in multiple patches since its launch in late May. I personally experienced crashes, clipping issues and framerate drops at various times during the almost sixty hours I have put into the game. The gameplay is mostly smooth but as mentioned the swimming mechanics could be a lot better and highlighting objects to interact with can sometimes cause frustration. I’m sure there are plenty who would have more still to say with regard to flaws. The simple truth is that I can overlook all of these minor issues due to the ambition and passion that has gone into this and produced one of the best games I’ve ever played. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is influenced by many different games both classic and contemporary. While there are plenty of games where ambition outstretched ability, I think CD Projekt RED kept a fine balance. I’ll be happy to be wrong but I’ll be genuinely surprised if a developer manages a balance on this scale again.