Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One | Developer/Publisher: CD PROJEKT RED | ESRB: M | Controls: Keyboard/Mouse, Controller
This Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review was played on a mid-high-range PC on an Ultra/High settings mix. As close as both Microsoft and Sony’s consoles have become to PCs in architecture, they simply do not have the capabilities of a quality PC build, and thus these two aspects of the game could be markedly different experiences for other players on consoles or lower-end systems. Keep that in mind.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the culmination of nearly 10 years of work from CD Projekt RED in Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s world of The Witcher. Whether they choose to continue the franchise – a topic they’ve become rather wishy-washy on over the last couple months – Wild Hunt feels like a satisfying conclusion to the story of Geralt. I was quite happy with the ending I received after pumping an estimated 80+ hours into the game.
There are things to dislike about the title to be sure — bugs and issues with the controls that will both amuse and frustrate — things that, taken out of context, would prevent many a game from being labeled good, let alone being labeled a masterpiece. Despite any embroilment on misrepresentations, or perceived failures to achieve mythical levels of quality, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is just that: a masterpiece of the modern, open-world RPG genre and gaming in general.
Story, music and presentation are the factors that characterize my feelings on a game, and usually in that order of importance. Witcher 3 provides all of these in abundance. This third entry into the series, and final of this trilogy as the developer has labeled it, continues – and in many aspects finalizes – a story that began in 2007 – one that will have taken the average gamer around 100 hours to complete.
The trouble with huge open-world RPGs for the completion-minded gamer such as myself, is that side missions and alternate objectives become chores. Our compulsory need to try and see and do everything leads to hours and hours of boredom in numerous fetch, gather, and kill quests with no heart in them at all. The Witcher 3 of course has quests that feature these jobs, but it becomes quickly evident that the majority of your side adventures are fully fleshed-out and well worth your time.
A perfect example of this is one of the side quests early in the game called “Wild at Heart”. It’s a side quest picked up at one of the many notice boards found in towns and villages across the land. Using Geralt’s investigative skills and Witcher senses, along with information from townsfolk, a story of betrayal and sorrow emerges from what begins as a missing persons case. Within this simple side quest taking roughly 15 to 20 minutes of gameplay, you will solve a mystery, uncover a beast (or two), and be presented with a choice of how to deal with it. In the end it’s a tragic story, and doing the right thing is not a black and white decision.
It’s fully voiced and interesting, and indicative of the great lengths that CD Projekt RED have gone to fill out their world – a world of moral ambiguity. Decisions don’t necessarily have negative or positive outcomes. These are shades of grey, and the player takes an active part in determining short-term outcomes. Long-term ramifications of choices are a completely different thing, and this is a major strength of the series to my mind.[pullquote align=”right”] The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is Ciri’s story.[/pullquote]
Geralt of Rivia is the hero of our tale in the conventional sense. A closer examination will reveal that, although he has some modicum of influence on the course of events, he’s really a player in the story and not the main focus. Though we see nearly everything through his eyes, it’s really about the characters around him. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is Ciri’s story more than Geralt’s, and in a larger context about her impact on the game’s world rather than his.
The bond of father and surrogate daughter provides an emotional backdrop to a dark and violent world full of deceit, monsters, and poverty overseen by warring factions devastating the land. There seems to be some sort of misconceptions about Geralt in various media outlets as an emotionless, womanizing, masculine figurehead. The Witcher’s world has always been far more nuanced than that, dealing with issues of racism and politics, and treating sex in a much-more adult manner.
Much as in the real world, sex is about a multitude of things – power, manipulation, love, and casual release. Geralt has the reputation of being a ladies man. The women with whom Geralt associates use him just as much as he does them, and often times you’ll find it’s simply a case of two consenting adults having fun. Too often we treat these topics as through the eyes of children, or filtered through the specific agendas of adults.
As for Geralt’s demeanor outside of the bedroom, anyone paying attention will know that he’s not some sort of emotionless, uncaring lout. No matter how you play the game – and Wild Hunt definitely gives you the option of being a cold-hearted bastard – his overriding focus is on finding his daughter and making sure she is safe. The process of becoming a witcher removes the ability to have offspring, and dulls the emotions to make more efficient warriors, yet anyone paying attention will find in Geralt a complex man full of humor, love, and, in my play-throughs, a sense of justice, loyalty, and the will to do what is right.
Some of my favorite moments in the game involve Geralt’s banter with his companions, or his dry, humorous reactions to soldiers and villagers. One hilarious sequence involving a few witchers, too much free time, and a lot of booze had me literally laughing out loud – a rarity for games. There is a diverse range of emotions and topics of discussion explored throughout.
Issues of classism and racism are addressed. These could be no better conveyed than through the changing districts of major cities within the game. Novigrad is the best example of this, as you ascend from the dirt and mud-filled streets on the outer edges of the city, to the lofty, cobblestoned and well-light manses of the rich nearing the temple district. The poor, the prostitutes, and the drunks wallow in the muck down below, while the privileged look down from above. Taking it even further, many of the non-human races are pushed outside of the city walls, beyond the surrounding bridges. Persecution of those that are different is a large undercurrent to our story, with Geralt falling into this camp. Many people throughout the lands are not shy about letting him know what they think of this white-haired “freak” and spit as he passes.
The journey, greatly simplified, boils down to one of a daughter, her adoptive father, and their friends. How far will Geralt go to find and protect Ciri? What choices will he make along the way in order to reach that point, and who will come along for the ride? The points in between are chosen by the player and the game does a wonderful job of showcasing the effects of your decisions through mini montages at various times during the game. They provide piecemeal moments of closure for the smaller narratives as the larger story unfolds.
CD Projekt has shown a quite-obvious commitment to visual fidelity, with The Witcher 2 still putting some mid-range machines to the test on high settings. The Witcher 3 has taken things up a few notches, a remarkable feat considering the expanse of areas that their game features. From farmer’s fields and villages to sprawling cities, and from snow-capped mountains to rocky shores and islands, the environments feel consistent, yet diverse at the same time. Short of user-made modifications, no game aside from The Order has played with a diversity of lighting styles this well.
In fact, The Witcher 3’s sunrises over the mountains, or similarly at your back while upon the open seas, are truly stunning, and some of the most realistic effects I’ve ever seen. Getting the mist-like fog of sun rising over a mountain top, the swirling effects of a sudden rainstorm on trees, or finally nailing down realistic god-ray effects is as impressive as it is beautiful. They’re realistic touches that again bring to light the attention to detail permeating the game. From bloody, war-torn battlefields to sprawling farms, small villages to large cities, the game’s world, aside from magic and monsters, feels like a place that could exist in medieval times.
It’s a wonder to move through, though it’s somewhat of an annoyance that movement is one of the games biggest flaws. A week ago I would have told you that mounting a horse and swimming were two of the biggest annoyances of the game. Getting a hold of a horse would sometimes involve backwards animations or simply ignoring of commands. Swimming was annoyingly locked directionally during diving and surfacing. Both of these things have received patches to the benefit of the game and this review, as they are things that would drop gameplay scores to a degree.
Geralt’s movement out of combat is kind of floaty, based on momentum-style turns. It’s far too easy to get both he or his horse caught on collision meshes for various objects. I could harp on the horse movements for a while here — Roach is loath to jump over things on your command, doesn’t follow the automated path running nearly enough and often incorrectly, and senses drops in height or enemy proximity inconsistently — but Geralt isn’t much better. Attempts to jump over low to the ground items will sometimes default to climbing animations and Geralt can often find himself temporarily trapped in between barrels and boxes, or in depressions of the terrain.
The movement controls aren’t unforgivable, though definitely annoying, but they disappear during combat when you are appropriately using the targeting system. If you don’t target your enemies, you may find yourself bouncing back and forth between them like combos in Batman games, though much less effectively. The real key to combat lies with preparation. The more casual of gamers will keep the difficulty level pretty low and simply click through their fights, but on higher levels, or if like me you like to attempt to attack enemies far above you in level, you’ll need to make use of potions, oils, and decoctions to complete challenging fights. This will in turn require you to use the alchemy system, and to find better potions and upgrades through exploration of the world.
The same is true of your armor and weapons. While you can find perfectly useable sets of armor, along with both steel and silver swords for fighting human and monster enemies types respectively, the real powerful items are found in blueprints hidden in dark caves, crumbling castles, or sometimes random city locales. For those that love to explore, you are truly rewarded here and the game will take note of your adventures.
How you make use of these things beyond basic defense and attack value will probably be most informed by how much you use your witcher powers and the manner in which you choose to upgrade Geralt’s skills. You can devote upgrades to signs (magic powers), attack, alchemy, and general. The first three of these each has a color association which can pair with a mutagen to enhance them further in the character screen. Gradually you activate new or enhanced abilities and powers for Geralt. From a more in-depth perspective you take much greater control over Geralt from a statistical perspective, pairing your best skills and abilities with bonus enhancements, to the strengths of your play-style. And so it is with all of Wild Hunt – click your way through the story or control things down to the smaller details, based on how you enjoy playing the game.
Often those of us prone to wandering in open worlds are met with the issues of the game not realising we have already been somewhere, or accomplished some task earlier than the game expects of us. The Witcher 3 handles this brilliantly most of the time. Already killed a monster or found an item before finding a quest notice? No problem. Geralt or his quest-giver will address that this has already happened, and you can close out the quest at the same time you officially receive it. Already explored an area that someone suggests you go to? Geralt will mention that he has already been there, and the quest will again update or complete as necessary. Again, attention to detail!
Wild Hunt’s music and sound design further the experience. While I’ve always found the voice performance of both Triss and Dandelion a little too “modern” in tone, they don’t take anything away from the game. Geralt’s consistently almost-monotone delivery has always worked to punctuate moments of emotion — when he’s angry you know it, and the dryness really sells his sarcastic humor. Many of the secondary characters are masterfully performed: the three crones, Johnny the Godling, Dijkstra, the Bloody Baron, Ciri, Zoltan, and so on are all excellent. Charles Dance’s work as Emperor Emreis may seem simplistic, but I found it understated in its menace and regal tone, if a bit too brief, probably due to my choice of avoiding his character.
The sound effects are excellent: the crunch of snow under Geralt’s boots, the splash of water throughout the swamps and bogs, each monster’s distinctive sound in the distance, the wind as it rustles through the trees during an approaching storm. Everything is complimented by the soundtrack, which changes somewhat dynamically as Geralt flows in and out of combat, and travels to various parts of the world. My only gripe here would be that, as I explored, I often found a singular track repeating in Velen or Novigrad, which is not really representative of the numerous tracks the complete musical score has to offer. The majority of the music is expanded and re-orchestrated versions of themes found in the previous games. They’re really well done, crossing the gamut of emotions from the tension of driving rhythms paired with a bandit fight or a monster encounter, to the quiet sad sounds matching the feelings of a small town decimated by surrounding war.
As I’ve mentioned, the movement is clunky at times, though some of that has been patched. Given the multitude of quests available, and the huge amount I completed during my time with the game, quest bugs have been amazingly absent. I experienced only a singular quest that was not correctly marked as complete. I honestly expected more crashes and quest bugs, simply due to what I know of the scope of an open world game of this size. I crashed to desktop only twice in 80+ hours of gaming. The bulk of bugs manifest themselves during longer play sessions: floating enemies or NPCs, the odd invisible items or people, and the one-time occurrence of detached heads and floating, t-posed villagers. Whenever this kind of strangeness began to occur, I simply saved and reloaded, or took a break from playing, and the troubles were gone on my return.
If I haven’t made it abundantly clear, the many, many positives of Witcher 3 far outweigh any bugs, gameplay annoyances or perceived “visual downgrades”. This is a game that is unapologetic in tone or content, and though it can easily be picked up by those that have never played a game in the series before, it was clearly made for fans, with loving attention to detail. It’s full of call-backs to previous entries, down to the tiniest plot-threads, and it truly took stock of decisions, both ones you’ve made previously (save those savegame files!) and ones you make over the course of the Wild Hunt.
I ended with what you would definitely call a happy ending for Geralt and his friends, and though I think the return to the series is inevitable, due to profit motives alone, this would be a fitting end. The story, visuals, sounds, and voice performances merge with a combat system that is deep for those hoping for challenge. Tens of hours of side quests and monster hunts will expand your gameplay time without detracting from or bogging down your overall experience. Even a first-time completionist has incentive to return, in order to make different choices and see how that effects both the smaller stories and the overall one.
The Witcher 3 is highly recommended for fans of open-world RPGs, and those who value in-depth stories of worlds steeped in lore. The Witcher 3 is also recommended for casual fans of action-adventure romps as well. This definitely sets a new bar for the genre. While I have thoroughly enjoyed the series and would not be opposed to more, I fully look forward to CD Projeckt taking their experience and knowledge, and moving to the world of Cyberpunk – Geralt could use a rest.
Until that comes about, and it sounds like it may be a long way off, I am content to return and finish remaining side quests while awaiting the story DLCs scheduled for later this year and into 2016. There are times when I will simply wander the countryside on horseback, the brilliant oranges of the setting sun mingling with far-off purple and grey storm clouds paralleling my movement.
This playthrough of the Witcher 3 begun on an advanced review copy by the developer and was upgraded to a personal retail copy (pre-ordered) after release. Somewhere along the way this broke the GOG Galaxy game client from tracking hours spent with the game. The estimate is 80+ hours, with a level 35 character and a huge list of quests completed, with a smaller list of quests left to go. The game can continue to be played after the main storyline is finished.