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With the new release of the Game of the Year edition of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which includes all of the downloadable content, ComiConverse brings you this review of the original game from our very own Alan Stock. Witcher 3 is out now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Game Review: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
I’ve got some issues. With open world role playing games. See, these games are huge – and as I’ve only got limited free time, titles like Fallout 4 or Skyrim are a big time investment to make. And, I’m sick of them. Fallout 3 was the last open world RPG that I really admired and that was 8 years ago. The genre is full of sequels which although decent are somewhat stale, worlds which initially seem rich but ultimately feel empty and are packed with meaningless drudgery to extend the game’s length. So, when Witcher 3 by Polish developer CD Projekt Red started picking up accolades, I wasn’t convinced. On its surface, it didn’t appear different to any other fantasy RPGs of recent years. But now the Witcher hype-train has finally ground to a halt, I decided to play it and judge for myself. Is this the re-invigoration of the open world RPG I’ve been waiting for? Be warned, this is an epic review, as it’s an epic game boasting over 200 hours of gameplay.
Witcher 3 is set in a medieval fantasy world inspired by the books of Andres Sapkowski – a mature and brutal place, a bit like a mashup between Tolkien and Game of Thrones, seasoned with Eastern European folklore. You play as Geralt, a “Witcher”. He’s a monster hunter for hire, a solitary wanderer picking up contracts for coin. Geralt is macho and gruff, a hero or anti-hero depending on the situation, and there’s more than a passing nod here to the lone wolf strangers of Westerns and samurai lore. The main storyline has Geralt hunting for his protégé, Ciri. She’s being pursued by a demonic skeletal crew called The Wild Hunt, who might as well be icy versions of Nazgul from Lord of the Rings. You spend much of the game roaming the country of Temeria on Ciri’s trail, often doing practical favours for political figureheads to earn information on her whereabouts. The main story quests are only the tip of the iceberg though, with hundreds of side quests and contracts to complete. In fact, I have to put a disclaimer here – at over 120 hours of play I still haven’t reached the end of the main story (although I’m close), and there’s tons of content left to see. That’s my choice; I’ve been happily completing most of the side quests instead of pushing the main story to the end. Witcher 3‘s claim to 100-200 hours of length is definitely not exaggerated.
Gameplay is a mixture of exploration, combat, detective work and dialogue. You won’t be spending a great deal of time fighting, but combat mechanics are good. Geralt prefers to get up close and personal with his swords, but you also have minor ranged spells and a weak crossbow at your disposal. Bombs and potions can be crafted to use in battle and munching food restores health on the go. You can parry, block or dodge enemy attacks, and these skills are vital as monsters pack a hefty punch. Running in and mashing the light attack button will get you killed fast – combat requires thought, timing and decent reflexes. Enemies and encounters are surprisingly varied for a game of this genre, tactics have to be modified and exploiting vulnerabilities gives you a fighting chance. On the whole, combat is satisfying and contains sufficient threat to make all battles meaningful, especially if you increase the difficulty (which I highly recommend if you are a seasoned gamer).
There’s plenty of RPG mechanics under the hood too. A decent crafting system for allows you to create potions and equipment, using ingredients which can be found or in a nice touch bought from merchants to avoid drudgery. A skill tree allows you to upgrade spells and abilities as you level up and runestones can be added to equipment to boost stats. There’s the usual inventory/equipment management and an over-reliance on looting everything in sight (especially in the city) – but fortunately over-encumbrance is rare. At least looting is made easier through the detective “Witcher vision” which highlights lootable objects, as well as being used to find tracks and clues in the sleuthing sections. Despite the amount of loot, the game’s economy is unusually well balanced – one of the only open world RPGs of recent memory where you don’t become stupidly rich within hours. Purchasing new equipment, food and repairs is costly and so scavenging becomes meaningful. In fact at the beginning I was really struggling for cash for a long time even to buy food – befitting my wandering mercenary status. You’d probably get rich quickly by selling all your crafting ingredients, but you’re encouraged to hang onto them as the items you can craft are worthwhile.
When you’re not fighting, playing in the menus or chatting, you’ll be exploring Witcher 3’s massive world. When you’re dropped into the first large area which acts as an extended tutorial, you’d be forgiven thinking this was one of the main parts of the game because it’s so big. But then your mind boggles when you begin the second area and realize how tiny the first was, and there’s still more maps after this. Travel is fairly streamlined, putting the focus on new discovery rather than backtracking. Discovering signposts also allows instant travel between points on the map and your trusty steed, Roach, can be called upon at any time. There’s also boats to sail the seas but these are a lot more boring than galloping through the countryside.
Witcher 3 is the first open world for ages that I actually enjoy exploring, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it looks great and is laden with atmosphere. The day/night cycle and weather systems create some beautiful moments; whether its a storm filling the sky with fork lightning, trees whipping back and forth in a gale, moonlight reflecting off a bubbling stream, or a red sunset on a beach. It’s so good looking I often run on foot instead of riding. There’s also a lot of gameplay out here. Your map is peppered with question mark icons which can reveal a multitude of encounters. This includes monster nests to purge, ruins to explore, villages and merchants, horse races and bandit camps. Sunken ships lie on the ocean bed, abandoned towers perch on clifftops, powerful lodestones lurk in forests, and other surprises.
There’s also treasure hunts to discover, containing clues leading you to monster-infested ruins and dungeons to find rare Witcher gear. Exploring is encouraged and rewarded – it’s easy to get distracted and go off the beaten track, but it always feels worthwhile when you do. As you ride through the wilds, you’ll encounter bandits, local wildlife, monsters and occasionally other travellers. Like an online multiplayer RPG you’ll sometimes come upon powerful enemies beyond your level, forcing you to flee and return later once you’re stronger. This, combined with monsters being quite deadly anyway, adds an exciting element of danger and risk to exploration. If you like doing a lot of exploring, I recommend turning on the optional enemy level scaling, which makes weaker enemies level up with you. This helps to prevent you from becoming overpowered when re-exploring earlier parts of the game.
The feeling of a real, living world is magnified by the local populace. Settlements are full of people going about their daily lives. Whether they’re toiling in the fields nearby, chatting as they do the washing, telling off playing children, or fishing on the riverside, you always have the sense that life continues when you’re not there. Overheard conversations give glimpses into their lives. There’s also some larger settlements like the huge city of Novigrad, which feels like a fully functioning capital with incredible design and detail. This is full of characters from all walks of life and distinct districts with their own feel. Although the city is a great achievement unfortunately the main quest line drags here – the strength of Witcher 3 lies in the open country, not in the confines of the streets. There’s stronger stories out in wilds.
Temeria is war-torn, caught between two empires that Geralt frequently interacts with. But it’s the poor living in the conflict zones who have suffered the most. You’ll come across burnt out villages with peasants weeping at their ruined homes, or kneeling by slaughtered family members. Large battlefields are strewn with corpses and wreckage, preyed on by scavengers and hungry ghouls alike. Refugees camps sit at border posts with queues of people trying to escape the region. Many of the quests contain personal stories about the consequences of war on the locals. Although you don’t see major battles yourself, the effects of war on the everyday people has rarely been so well realised in a game. Other humanitarian issues like racial prejudice and religion are also successfully explored.
The depth in Witcher 3‘s world extends to the quests as well. Side quests are usually found on village notice boards or in chance encounters during exploration. They paint a picture of the communities and lives of the locals as you get involved helping in their daily troubles, each telling a different personal story. They often follow a similar formula, a typical one being to use Geralt’s sleuthing skills and Witcher Vision to investigate missing or murdered people, usually cumulating in slaying monsters. But they’re well-crafted and always wrapped differently. They feel part of the world’s story and not tacked on. They also make sense in the setting, as Geralt is a monster hunter always looking for coin, rather than the do-gooder diversions of most RPGs. Some quests lead to stronger monsters which can be a real challenge – and in-keeping in with the monster hunter theme, you can prepare for these fights by reading up on the beasts in your glossary, brewing appropriate potions and applying special oils to your blade to give you an edge in the fight. These monster hunting quests really make you feel like you’re playing the role of a Witcher. Another compelling diversion is the deep strategy collectible card game called Gwent that you play against NPCs – which is addictive and you can spend hours lost in it if you’re into that kind of thing (I am). It was so popular with players it’s being made into a standalone game.
Quests are extra engaging thanks to the attention to detail in conversations. Even interactions with merchants are well written, with convincing personalities throughout the game – Geralt isn’t quite the dumb mute you initially take him for either. There’s also plenty of humour, despite the fairly grim content matter of the world the game manages to strike a balance between dark and light heartedness. Geralt has plenty of dry wit to spare and there’s some very amusing characters throughout the game. The voice acting’s good too, in fantasy tradition most of the cast are English, Scottish or Irish – although some of the accents are a bit over the top. I come from Scotland and I couldn’t even understand what one of the dwarves was blabbing on about. Interactions are also humanised through an amazing attention to character and camera animation – making even simple conversations much more engaging through changing camera angles, characters gesticulating and moving around the scene, and good facial animation conveying emotions very well and quite subtly. For once, it’s a game where I don’t mind going through all the dialogue options, instead of the usual robotic interactions you find in these games, simply watching the conversations is as engaging as gameplay in Witcher 3.
Dialogue choices can also have an effect on the game world. You’ll often make decisions which have noticeable consequences either immediately or later in the story. This could just be for a few characters, but in main questlines your actions have wide-reaching consequences on whole communities – for good or bad. Because they feel like real places with real inhabitants, you do feel a sense of responsibility when this happens. There’s never usually a right or wrong answer to your choices – the world of Witcher is a harsh one where happy endings are hard to come by. Although there’s some good moral grey areas to navigate, there’s still a disappointing misogynistic tone to the game. Indeed half of Geralts’ buddies are buxom ladies who you can bed and there’s brothels to visit too. Although sex scenes are surprisingly un-cringeworthy and the flirtations are generally in good fun, there’s a undeniable male fantasy under-running the game which slightly spoils its otherwise mature outlook. Some of the instances of female abuse in the game are not very elegantly handled either and are sure to cause some controversy. But at least it treads more successfully in these areas than most RPGs clunkily stomp.
I never bothered with the earlier Witcher games so I entered Witcher 3 as a newcomer, but this wasn’t a problem. Although characters and plotlines from the previous games appear, Witcher fans are well catered for, it’s not critical to know who they are. In fact, world politics and lore are very much in the background in this game, which makes a welcome change. There’s conversations and books which flesh things out a little, but refreshingly it’s never spoon-fed to you in lots of boring exposition or endless documents. Instead, you’re just dropped into the middle of it all – the story here is a more personal one, about Geralt and his companions, and the inhabitants of Temeria. What happens outside the Witcher 3‘s setting is only touched upon, just enough to give a sense of a wider world which carries on outside the game. This enforces the sense that you’re just part of a bigger picture in a real functioning place where life continues on elsewhere as you play through the game.
In short, it’s compelling stuff. The individual elements of Witcher 3 stand well alone, but when combined they create something truly great. Its a game with soul, where much of the joy comes from simply exploring, enjoying the open world and the stories of the characters within it. Its a game brimming with life and with personality, without the dryness and emptiness that has put me off the genre recently. Of course in a game of this scope there are niggles, such as finicky positioning for looting items, long death load times on consoles, and some map issues. Some players may get tired of the side-quests and find them too repetitive, that will depend on your gameplay tastes. But overall the game is extremely polished, you can see the effort that has gone into it from the smallest merchant interaction, to the grandest epic quests. The fact that the quality and variety continues for over a hundred hours is very impressive. For me, it’s re-invigorated the genre. Witcher 3 is a triumph, setting new standards for believable and compelling open worlds, but also for the RPG genre as a whole.
It really does deserve the praise.
Alan Stock spoke to Damien Monnier, a designer on Witcher 3 for ComiConverse recently, you can see that interview here.
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The finest RPG in many years, with a vast open world that truly feels alive. Highly polished in every area and stuffed full of quality content, this game sets a new benchmark for the genre.