Walking through the streets of Warsaw, the PR head at CD Project Red explained to me how important The Witcher is to the people of his country. It’s a franchise held up as a national treasure – a gift that the president himself gives to visiting dignitaries. To the public, it’s a national symbol – a piece of literary and digital art that they can proudly point to and say “this came from home”. To say that creating a fitting conclusion to such a renowned franchise is stressful would be a gross understatement.
Except, that’s exactly what CD Project Red look dead set to achieve – and with a certain sense of ease too.
Sitting down to start a four-hour play session of The Witcher 3, there were a few things I expected. The numerous gameplay trailers and showcases had left little for me to discover on my own, a thought that immediately crossed my mind as the familiar opening sequence loaded up on the Xbox One, pre-gold build. Geralt, and the world of Novigrad, looked as spectacular in person as it has on the internet – but that was essentially where the similarities ended.
Spectacular is an appropriate word to describe just how breathtaking the world of The Witcher 3 is. Running what is essentially the worse of the three versions (since the Xbox One will only handle the game at 900p), Novigrad was dripping with details in every nook and cranny it could find. Lighting bounces off puddles created by your trotting horse (aptly named after Roche from the previous game) [Update: It’s actually named after the Roachnis, which is explored in the literature. Thanks anonymous hero commenter!], while the blowing wind adds the sense of a cool breeze to the abundance of foliage around you. The Witcher 3 often looks like a moving oil painting rather than a photorealistic recreation, and the atmosphere you get sucked into is all the better for it.
Things got even more impressive when getting up close and personal with the delightfully grim inhabitants of the lands Geralt explores. Facial animations are better than I’ve ever seen them in a game here, with subtle movements suggesting emotion where no script can go. This goes hand in hand with now predictably excellent voice acting, which brings together the old casts and mixes it with new, often established gruff voices (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance is absolutely superb, in case you had any doubt).
But The Witcher has never been about style over substance, and that wasn’t the case in the limited time I had with the game either. Following a much improved tutorial – played out during a flashback that gives a heap of context to the story – you’re given absolute free reign over where to go and what yo do. Maps are sprawling, and it’s one of the first times where I felt every inch of it could realistically be explored. Should you see a mountain top in the distance, you can bet there’s a track leading up there. Smoke from nearby villages invites you in, opening up even more juicy activities to get your monster hunting claws dirty with.
Walk up to a notice board or citizen in need, and you’ll quickly fill up your quest log with many errands to run. CD Project Red have been critical in the past of filler, fetch quests that most plague RPG titles and so it was easily my most anticipated facet to give a go. Getting my fill of monster hunting contracts, I set out to hunt down a particularly nasty Moonwraith, who had been denying access to a nearby well. The well is, incidentally, the only source of water around – since the rest of the streams have been run dead with the blood of those standing up to the invading Nilfgaardians. This was all established before the quest even began – in full, via dialogue, from the contractor in question.
Side quests in particular setup their own little micro-narratives that all weave into one another and impact the small villages you’ll trot endlessly to and from between. Sticking with this Moonwraith in particular, the quests began with a small confrontation at the well, followed by more savvy monster-hunting skills in the form of investigations. Geralt’s Witcher Sense highlights important items that helped me piece together the reason why the Moonwraith refused to leave the site, directing me to a bracelet that would allow me to finally send it on its way to the next level of life. The effect of this side quest became immediately apparent around nearby settlements, as folks thanked Geralt for his aid and even gave further insight into the horrific murder that took place there.
At first it seems like a higher-tiered side quest than most, but my next one was very much the same as far as quality goes. Here, a simple wolf hunt with a fellow hunter lead to an enticing exposition on what it means to be a monster, with Geralt identifying himself as one of the kin. The hunter, in retort, explained how his label of monster came about because of his sexual preference – which again tied into another little narrative tit bit that the previous Moonwraith story touched on. These slowly started to form a compelling history of the area I was currently exploring, and it sucked me in like no other RPG ever has. The story-telling, even in this small sample, was nothing short of exquisite.
The same could be said for the small slice of core narrative I was treated to, which wasted little time to get really interesting. This concluding chapter is all about finding Yennefer, after the amnesia-ridden Geralt managed to get back on track after the last game. Many trailers have teased her major involvement in the narrative, as well as that of former Witcher apprentice Ciri. Without giving too much away (even though I wouldn’t consider it a spoiler), a lot of what was thought to be the main narrative drive actually resolves itself in the opening few moments. Relationships between core characters was vastly different to what I expected, and the path I was set upon near the end of my play time teased me with a far more tantalizing tale than a simple cat and mouse chase. CD Project Red have been purposefully misdirecting their intention with this concluding chapter – which leave many unanswered questions before launch.
As for the aspects that haven’t changed too much, combat is relatively familiar in The Wild Hunt. It’s still all about fast strikes gracefully paired with perfectly timed parries and desperate rolls out of danger, although it does feel a bit tighter than the previous outing. What does change is the way alchemy and health are handled, with the biggest coming in the form of consumable potions during battle. You’ll still have to meditate to concoct them before engagement, but downing a pitcher of milk or Cat potion can now be done at any time. And it’s a good thing too, since Geralt’s health does not regenerate anymore. In fact, I often died for the simple reason of not remembering to meditate before a fight – which was equal parts engaging as it was irritating. It takes a fair amount to get used to after playing differently for so long.
And if there’s one thing that can be said for certain about monsters in The Witcher 3 (as well as pesky sword-wielding humans), it’s that they pack a hell of a punch. The Withcer 3 is a difficult game, and playing on the mild Normal setting saw me handed my armoured ass to me on several occasions. It’s down in part to the heavily tweaked Sign (or magic) system, which has now become an integral part of combat. The five Signs of old are still present, but carry a greater weight this time. For example, not throwing a shield over myself often lead to massive losses in life, and not making full use of Igni (fire) or Axii (Geralt’s force push) made my repertoire feel half empty. Signs were nice to have earlier on, but they’ve become an inescapable part of Geralt’s combat system this time around – which also adds nicely to the strategies you’ll need for different types of creatures.
It’s probably the biggest change to the remnants of The Witcher 2’s influence over the series, which still holds a surprising amount of weight on the game overall. CD Projekt Red might have ditched the smaller, focused hubs for a large, streamlined open-world, but none of the DNA that made it one of the best RPG experiences of this generation have really disappeared. Narrative strings fly loose in the wind, but all seem to end up tying themselves up nicely with each other – giving the sense of a strong, interconnected world throughout. These four hours are only a sliver of what the entire game has to offer, so for now I look forward to seeing if this high standard of quality is sustained through the suspected 200+ adventure.
There is one thing that I am absolutely certain of though: I was excited for The Witcher 3 before, and I’m even more so after getting my hands on it. CD Project Red may just have their best title yet waiting for us all.
Last Updated: April 27, 2015