I've never played a Witcher game. I own the Enhanced Editions of The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings thanks to the magic of Steam sales and GOG. I've been interested in the series since the first game was released to rave reviews, but I've never found the time to sit down and play them.
So, it was awkward for me to go and see the demo for The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt at E3 last week. The guy with the striking yellow eyes and white hair; that's Geralt, right? The protagonist of the series, who makes a living as a bounty hunter for monsters. During the demo, Geralt meets people who he seemingly has a history with, but I sadly couldn't tell if this was the first time we've seen the characters or not.
I spoke to The Witcher 3 executive producer John Mamais, who said that CD Projekt Red is prepared for new players like me.
"We don't expect people to play the first Witcher and The Witcher 2 or read the books to be able to understand what's going on. It's a very deep social and political story. Characters are very deep and have backstories. So, it is hard to just jump in and understand. We understand that," said Mamais. "So, we need to look at it objectively, as if we don't know anything about the other two games. We'll introduce [the backstory] so people can understand it, so they can just jump into it."
Mamais said that some of the backstory may come in the form of interactive comics, like the release of the Mass Effect: Genesis comic for the PlayStation 3 version of Mass Effect 2. Even without the relevant backstory, The Witcher 3 will drop Geralt into a whole new conflict.
"We're probably going to do an introductory movie which explains things better and do whatever we can to set it up so when people play the game, they're going to be prepared," Mamais told me. "At the same time, Witcher 2 kind of ended at a really important point. Witcher 3 starts with the Nilfgaardian army invading the north. It's a reset of the political landscape. You should be able to get into it. That's our goal, to make it easy to get into."
The Witcher 3 is CD Projekt's first open-world game, without the loading times that were present in previous games. The demo was gorgeous, featuring burning cities, wind-swept cliffs, and majestic forests, all affected by real-time weather. Visually, the game's environments and denizens are heavily Nordic-influenced, from the fishing towns you’ll visit to the brand-new boat Geralt can ride. The studio is taking care to fill every part of the open-world with a rhythm and a story. The CD Projekt Red employee running the demo said the new world was "35 times bigger than the one presented in the Witcher 2," with a "unique blend of main storyline, sidequests, and random encounters." I lacked the baseline experience to be awed by the "35 times" metric, but it sounds great on paper.
From what I saw in the demo, The Witcher 3 pulls to together bits and pieces of other titles to create a compelling whole. The dialogue system, which now sports 40 extra bones in characters faces, reminded me of the Bioware-style interaction found in Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Geralt can hunt his prey using his new Hunter's Vision, not unlike Batman's Detective Vision in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The world itself had this feeling of 'go anywhere, do anything that will probably get you killed,' recalling The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, with long fields, dark forests, and high mountains to explore. Combat mirrored other action-RPGs like Fable, but Mamais said CD Projekt worked hard to raise the bar compared previous entries in the series.
"Our lead combat designer on Witcher 2 is still lead combat designer on Witcher 3, but we also hired some other talent to come in and help us. To improve it, to make it feel better. We're changing the way combat works pretty deeply," he told me.
"On the Witcher 2, when you attack something there's a series of animations that happen that you have to wait to play out. It's kind of frustrating. What we wanted to do is make it more responsive. You don't have this connected series of animations that's going to play out. I think we had 20 animation sequences in total on Witcher 2 for the combat. Now there's like 96, but they won't be connected, they'll just be unique animations. It's going to feel more precise and more responsive."
In combat, Geralt switched seamlessly between sword-fighting, dodging, and the use of signs (the game’s chosen name for magic). Monsters each have their own tips and tricks to take down: in the demo, one monster blinded Geralt with magic, hiding itself from his vision to attack him from behind. In Geralt’s darkened vision, only the faint outline of his enemy could be seen, requiring the use of a magic shield for protection while his vision recovered. CD Projekt says there’s 80 monsters to kill in the game, each with their own patterns to discover. The game has no bosses, merely very powerful monsters that you must study and hunt to take down.
The change to an open-world was a measured decision on CD Projekt’s part. The studio loves open-world games, but it felt that no open-world game had storytelling as deep as a linear title. CD Projekt is hoping to change that with The Witcher 3.
"I think the most important thing is depth of storytelling in an open-world, because I don't think anyone's really gotten that yet,” said Mamais. “I think open-world games have shallow characters for the most part. A lot of gameplay mechanics in open-world games are really fun, but I think the depth of character and depth of story still can be worked on. We want to achieve that."
Open-world action married to deep storytelling is something I’ve always wanted in the action-RPG genre, and I’m glad PCs and consoles have gotten to the point that developers can create those kinds of experiences. Even in its pre-alpha state, The Witcher 3 looks like an impressive additon to the western RPG catalog. From what I’ve seen, the game not only has me onboard, but I may actually have to go back and finish the previous two titles to get me in the witching mood by 2014.