I can roughly imagine how the first design meeting for The Witcher 3 went: a man with an important looking suit strides into the room, and with a permanent marker on the biggest whiteboard he writes the words “fetch quests”, quickly followed by a very violent red cross. Between following the trail of the grandiose narrative the game leads you through, and receiving your daily doses of racism from the locals, this third instalment of The Witcher franchise never fails to keep you occupied through different and interesting means.
So, awhile back, CD Projekt RED (as well as being one of the more painstaking developer names to write) announced that they were working on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It was to take the series into unexplored territories, that is to say, an ’open world’ of unexplored territories! Thankfully, this was around the time open world games were starting to become to gamers what crack cocaine is to… well, anyone really. As such, it began its streak of racking up the metric-arse-ton of awards it has back in 2013 – winning numerous ‘Best Game in Show’ awards – until it was released in May 2015.
The story of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is relatively simple from the outset; an old friend of the protagonist – Geralt of Rivia , professional monster slayer and family man – contacts him asking for one simple favour: to help her track down another old friend of the protagonist. Already, I was wishing I had played the previous games. If you’re unfamiliar to the game’s lore, however, you needn’t worry. The expository dialogue that coats the introduction to the game cushions the blow as you fall into the world of The Witcher. From the first hour or so, the player is released into the continent of ‘Velen’ – the first instance where the game really begins to open up – and is left to shape their own future as the legendary Witcher. Honestly, the main driving plot of the game isn’t it’s strongest point, almost the entirety of the main narrative is following in the footsteps of a missing person, going from place to place, asking people if you’ve “SEEN AN ASHEN HAIRED WOMAN?” and often with those exact words. It’s not the overarching story that makes the experience of playing The Witcher 3 so special, but the individual tales you find within it.
It’s incredible what a devoted team of writers can do when they’re not making the player’s main task be to collect increasing numbers of boar arses. As I rode from town to town, carefully avoiding main story quest markers until I had fulfilled my personal quota of side-questing, I was surprised to find a disturbing lack of repetitive fetch quests. Every distressed blacksmith I talked to ended not in a convoluted request to find 10 owl scrotums, but often unfolded into an intriguing little storyline all of its own. It was only when I noticed I was chasing down a serial killer after originally being tasked to renovate a bar, did I realise just how much effort had gone into making this little side quest – one that I had gotten from a notice board out in the boonies – so different and unique to all the other quests in the game. This goes a long way in adding to immersion, more than dynamically rendered sweat drops or realistic lighting ever could.
The gameplay itself, while derivative of the previous games, manages to feel fresh and keep a fast pace; the rolling feels fluid, the dodging feels like you’ve narrowly avoided a train when pulled off right, and a good blow landed between the eyes of a charging basilisk feels fucking god-like. This system lures you into thinking the way it wants you to think. Rather than hacking and slashing as if you’re a white haired Dynasty Warrior, the movement of enemies often force you to think differently; I found myself learning enemy attack patterns – methodically dodging and swinging when the time was right, like a deadly dance – and that managed to keep combat from getting stale when the foe’s style or pattern changed. You will be kept on your toes in battle, and that’s something all third person fighting games could stand to learn how to accomplish. Incidentally, the two swords you can use in these situations are steel and silver, steel being for humans and silver for monsters. It’s a somewhat meaningless gameplay mechanic, as there’s hardly ever any switching between the two, and geralt pulls the right one out automatically, it actually only ever seems to cause a problem more than anything – but they had to tie it to the original lore of The Witcher novels somehow.
There is something to be said about the transition between combat and exploring, though. This being an RPG, sometimes, no matter how skilled you might be, an enemy may just be too far above your own level, and sometimes, you might want to run away from said enemy. This is where I’d appreciate a way to manually switch from the exploring stance to the combat stance, because the game automatically switches the ‘jump’ button to the ‘roll’ button in combat, and when your back is to a small ledge leading to the exit to the cave of the very high level monster in front of you, I’m sorry to say, Geralt of Rivia , but rolling into it isn’t going to bloody work! The game also adds complexity to the combat (as if it could get any more complex with its counterattacks, light attacks, heavy attacks, and the fact that you have two swords for two separate enemy types) by adding a light magic system. It’s nothing as deep as Magicka’s elemental combination system, but you can’t deny the satisfaction of burning the smug grin off a bandit’s face with one hand and slicing him a new arsehole with the other. Like any game, at first this was a little difficult to adjust to – having to move my fingers around the controller like a spider playing twister was a little jarring after coming off the first person shooter high of Fallout 4 – but after a while the worries were behind me, and every action came as natural to me as reaching over and taking a sip of my Mt Dew. It’s a tight array of controls, keeping in theme with the streak of stunning console port Projekt RED has managed over the past console generations.
Graphically, the game is gorgeous. Could I say anything else? I played this on the PS4, and while a noticeable step down from its PC counterpart, the team have done all they can – and succeeded – to craft one of the most technically and graphically impressive games in the PS4 library. While some people with an eye for detail will notice the difference in ambient occlusion, and the unfortunate veil of fog that drapes over the majority of the epic landscape obscuring what could be a very beautiful sight, it’s clear to see the feat CD Projekt have accomplished here. Not just with how realistically poor a leprosy ridden peasant looks, but also with its art direction and colour pallet. The Witcher series of games, despite admittedly being set in a rather gritty period of time, they never cared for the high contrast, low saturation style most of the same nature adopted – The Witcher 2 burst with colour like ISIS in a crayon factory, and Wild Hunt is no exception. I’d honestly rather have an omission of graphics than gameplay, and I’m glad The Witcher 3 held the latter at the highest priority; while Bethesda clearly skimped on the frame count for that scenic overlook of the Boston Commonwealth in Fallout 4, there’s some respect due for the developers who sacrificed the view of a few more trees for the fluidity of their combat. It most certainly payed off.
For those with a lust for numbers followed by percentage signs, The Witcher 3 is a strong competitor, a true to heart RPG that blows the oversimplifications of Fallout 4’s levelling system out of the water. It’s no surprise that The Witcher 3 stood steadfast in the heat of the majority of consumers, refusing to compromise its deep crafting elements for the vain hope that it might appeal to a few more people. Once again, respect is due, although I can’t deny how it diminished the mood of certain story moments; I had just completed an impossible task, against all odds, I had potentially saved a nation, and as a reward, the recipient of my help bestowed upon me the ancient sword of their family… passed down and rumored as legend, this sword was now given to me as a token of gratitude. I was awestruck, excited to hold it in my hand with pride, and wield it with all the power of the north behind me– oh… it’s… it’s ten points of damage below my current one. Well, off to the town pawn shop!
As a whole, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt creates a beautiful crescendo of immersive high fantasy action through its tight control scheme, awe striking graphical fidelity, and the painstaking amounts of effort and love injected into each of the many quests you’ll find along the roads of the ambitious world team CD Projekt RED have created. Despite its role playing roots, the RPG elements it presents manage to ease the player into the action without ever being overwhelming, and the story weaves every one of these encounters together naturally without breaking the immersion for a second. All of these elements amalgamate harmoniously to create one brutal, dark, and open world adventure that should not be missed.
Though, there have been a surplus of ‘massive open worlds’ lately, enough to make anyone’s testicles jump back into their bodies from the daunting sight, and I’m forced see this open world next to the other behemoth open world masterpiece that is Fallout 4. It’s really just down to preference, but a lot of the time I still find myself torn between the two, like the son of a divorced father, the rope in the game of tug of war between your bubbly birth dad who loves you with all his heart but sometimes just couldn’t always be there for mother, or mother’s stable boyfriend who’s there to drive you to football practise and support you at the big game, but when you want a hug all you get is a firm handshake and a “good luck skipper!” Derek cares for you, you know that, but when you ask him about his life, sometimes it just takes to long to get there and you just end up quitting when you realise you’ve been riding your horse for 5 minutes and you’re still 10 miles from the next fucking town. Your real dad is deep, though, always sharing his life with you. He’s colourful and has so much personality bubbling away inside him, but sometimes he breaks down into tears and whilst you’re trying to talk with him he teleports 15 feet away and begins clipping through your dog.