According to CD Projekt RED, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is the end of Geralt of Rivia's tale. The character, who occupies a world based on the works of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, will continue to have other adventures, but they won't be covered in further games.
Wild Hunt is also a marker for the growth of the studio since that first release in 2007. The first Witcher was developed using a heavily modified version of Bioware's Aurora Engine. It was a rougher game from a rougher studio. The combat tried to exist in the gulf between RPG strategy and twitch action. The story's pacing was odd and disjointed at times. Loading times in original non-Enhanced version were bordering on insanity. Despite these problems, The Witcher was great. It looked amazing, the game nailed Geralt himself, and the choices available to the player were on the nuanced grey side. You weren't choosing between good and evil in The Witcher; you were choosing which evil you could live with.
If The Witcher was the result of a young studio attempting to carve out a name for itself, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is the result of an older, more established studio. The core of the game has remained the same - a commitment to deeper, less pulp-style storytelling - but the shell containing it has changed. That unique mix of click and twitch gradually gave way to dodge-and-counter action. The focus on faux maturity has lessened from those early days; Wild Hunt still retains an open mind when it comes to sex and nudity, but that mind is more subtle and restrained here (most of the time). It's the difference between a teenager, doing things just because they can, and an adult, doing things because they're efficient or the right way forward.
The rough edges have been sanded off, but with them also a bit of what made the original game stand out a bit.
In Wild Hunt, Geralt is on a quest in the midst of a war. The land is ravaged by a major conflict between Redania in the north and Nilfgaard in the south. As royalty and military vie for power, Geralt is busy looking for the whereabouts of his friends and family, who have gone missing on their own adventures. Yes, this is a quest that could be solved if they had any sort of mass-communication system available. (They make it a point to say that a comparable in-world device, the Xenovox, is pretty hard to come by.)
Preventing Geralt from finishing his quest is any number of monsters, bandits, pirates, and puzzles. Chief among these obstacles is the eponymous Wild Hunt and its dark lord, Eredin. Like a magical Darth Vader and the Empire, these armored warriors ride across the world, leaving icy cold and fiery death wherever they go. They want one of Geralt companions for their own nefarious needs, so it's up to Geralt to stop them.
Wild Hunt is an open-world game. Yes, there are breaks between certain regions on the World Map, but those regions themselves are huge. The shared zone of Velen and Novigrad feels much larger than Dragon Age Inquisition's Hinterlands, which seemed to stretch on forever.
Wild Hunt sticks close to the open-world formula established in other games. Spread across each map are various points of interest: towns, hidden treasures, bandit camps, monster dens, places of power, and the abandoned attempts at civilization. With all the visual filters on, your early maps are simply full of question marks for you to explore on foot, by boat, or via your teleporting horse, Roach. (Seriously, you can summon Roach from nearly anywhere. It's kind of freaky.) Wild Hunt falls into the same open-world gameplay loop you experience in games like DA: Inquisition, Assassin's Creed, and Far Cry: go to unknown place, do the things that pop up in that place, move onto the next unknown place. That's probably the only way to build such a big open-world title, but those similarities make the game feel safe.
Where the Witcher III triumphs over some of those other titles is the sense of place. The visual fidelity combined with the level design makes the world feel lived in. Not every vista is awe-inspiring or distinct, but that only helps the illusion.
As you canter through marshlands, dusty roads, cities, and more on Roach, you'll feel like these are real places you're wandering through. It's not just the plains, mountain slopes, and coastlands. It's not just the placement of trees, shrubs, and shallow marshes. It's not just the day and night cycle or the weather system. The Witcher III feels real because all of those things are working together in tandem. Cresting a hill, stopping beside a dead tree on a rainy night, and seeing a sleepy, worn town below you; these are moments where you believe in the world CD Projekt has crafted.
Quests are broken up in main quests, secondary quests, and Witcher contracts; all have a recommended level range to keep you on the straight and narrow. Main quests move the overall story along, secondary quests have you helping (or harming) the local populace, and Witcher contracts task you with hunting and killing particularly tough monsters in each region. Some quests you'll receive from people, others from the region's Notice Board, and you'll even find a few quest clues on corpses out in the world.
One strong point of the Witcher III is there's a sense of build-up in the main quests, Witcher contracts, and larger secondaries. Geralt is a medieval Batman, collecting information by talking to people or using his Witcher Senses to suss out clues. You'll examine scenes of murder, follow tracks, and gather information. Sure, the game will helpfully mark areas of interest on your mini-map and offer up a breadcrumb trail to get you where you're supposed to go, but if you want to freeball it, you can turn all that stuff off in the menus and get the real hunter's experience. (I did not. I'm not that hardcore.)
Combat feels like the same dodge-and-counter affair found in Shadow of Mordor and the Batman Arkham titles. Geralt has fast and strong attacks with his pair of swords, a crossbow, magical signs he can cast, bombs, and potions at his disposal. You can dodge and roll away from attacks, parry, or use a timed parry for a counter-stun. For many of your encounters, the swords and signs will be enough. There's a solid ebb and flow in basic combat, and you'll begin to feel when you should use a strong attack to throw back an enemy's weapon and poke at them with a weak attack combo. Terrain and enemy group size can throw you off occasionally, but the difference between life and death is not rushing the fight.
Speaking of medieval Batman, you know what makes Batman such a bad-ass? Prep time. The same holds true for Geralt. The more impressive monsters and bosses require planning to defeat. You'll need to have a specific bomb, coat your weapon in a certain oil, or have a specific potion available. In these encounters, knowing what you're up against is key. That information can be found in your bestiary in some cases, but in others, you need to gather that intel before the fight. A Moon Dust bomb will pull incorporeal beings back into the flesh. The Yrden sign can trap and slow certain monsters within its magical ring. A Golden Oriole potion neutralizes poisonous attacks. These are the real Hunts, when the Witcher III truly shines. The battles themselves aren't Dark Souls hard, but that feeling of satisfaction when you use all of the knowledge available and triumph over a monster is similar.
Geralt is still the same charismatic character you remember from the previous Witcher games, but he's mellowed with age. He's still hard and callous on the outside, but the nature of this adventure makes everything more personal. From the onset, he's out to protect his friends and family; everything in-between is merely a bridge to that endgame. It's not particularly heroic quest to save the world, but it's very personable one.
I've always been cognizant of the fact that when I'm playing these games, I'm not myself. When I play Mass Effect or Dragon Age, I am me. I'm making the choices that I think I'd make in those situations. I tend to be on the "good" side because I see myself as a good person. When I'm playing a Witcher game though, I'm always playing my ideal version of Geralt. I'm wondering what he would do, if he would get involved. Sometimes this means demanding payment for good deeds and sometimes it means not getting involved. CD Projekt takes great care in providing options for players while still staying within a range that's true to the character of Geralt.
Speaking of options, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt still retains those grey choices the series is famous for. You still have to choose between two options that are diametrically opposed, but equally evil. Honestly, in some cases I just flipped a mental coin. You can always go back and try the other choices in a second or third playthrough.
I must give a round of applause to composer Marcin Przybylowicz and sound designer Pawel Daudzward. The Witcher III has an amazing soundtrack. I rarely comment on music because it tends to go in one ear and out the other, but certain tracks in this game are top-notch. I actually stopped playing at one point to look up who was responsible for the soundtrack. It's that good.
Which is not to say everything in Wild Hunt is perfection and rainbows. The game's durability system is an annoying money-sink. Weapons seem to degrade far too quickly. It just feels like a money sink, throwing crowns at a blacksmith or buying repair kits to keep my weapons honed during my lengthy exploratory runs.
Then there's the game's crafting and alchemy system. In theory, the idea is that players can find crafting materials out in the world or via dismantling items, and then use those materials to create weapons, armor, and other consumables. You're supposed to hunt around the world, finding diagrams to make specific items and tradesmen that are high enough level to craft them.
Unfortunately, it feels like its too complex. Diving deep into the crafting system is its own byzantine religion. In practice, it turned me into a hoarder, holding onto every bit of crafting material I came across, because I never knew when I might need something. Do I need that Dark Iron Ore for a Dark Steel Ingot or a Dark Iron Ingot? Should I use my leather scraps on Rivian leather or hardened leather? Do I want to keep this as a Flawless Emerald or turn it into Emerald Dust? Sure, you can dismantle material into their lower counterparts, but that costs currency.
This fuzziness in crafting materials creates a compound issue because there's no way to sort or manage your inventory. Sure, it's divided into tabs, but my "Usable Items" and "Alchemy and Crafting" tabs ended up being full of nonsense. I didn't want to discard anything in the early hours for fear of getting rid of something useful, so I had bags full of random, non-descript icons.
Of the two sides of crafting, Alchemy ends up being more useful because you need the various potions, oils, and decoctions. Crafting armor and weapons is more of crapshoot. You'll end up finding a number of great weapons if you simply explore and you can afford to purchase others. I rarely aimed at crafting a specific weapon or armor. If I happened to be at a blacksmith and there was something in green (meaning you can craft it) that was better than what I was wearing, then sure. But I never set out to craft a specific weapon or piece of armor. If just feels like an obtuse and unsatisfying system.
That's nearly 2,000 words so far on The Witcher III, but I'm not done yet. It's a very, very big game, one I'm methodically making my way through. I'm scratching every itch, exploring every nook, and generally taking my sweet time when it comes to the main plot. That means you're not going to be seeing a score at the end of this. Do I love the game? Hell yeah. I love the vast open world, I love the landscapes, I love the hunts, I love the odd characters Geralt finds himself entangled with. I think the Witcher III is a great game, but I'm not done with Geralt's adventure yet, so I'm not giving it a score yet.
So, it was wasn't very "soon". It was a hectic week. But I'm finally ready to give The Witcher III it's final verdict.
As I said before, one thing the Witcher III does very well is create a strong sense of place.There is a level of craft that CD Projekt Red has put into the Continent, the place where the Witcher's tale takes place. As you wander the world, the placement of the hills and valleys, swamps and forests, feels right. It feels like your window into the world, like CD Projekt sent a team to photograph real places to re-create them in game. Even the towns feel like slices of civilization, places where hardworking people are trying to find a life in the wilderness, instead of a template dropped randomly in the world.
The Witcher III's closest competition, Bioware's Dragon Age: Inquisition, had a problem in its largest area, the Hinterlands, where the entire thing felt a bit game-y. There were solid breaks and transitions between certain areas where the blocks fit together a bit too snug. CD Projekt Red is better at hiding that, giving the right amount of blending space between landmarks.
The integration extends to the quests and the Witcher contracts that populate the world. When you run up against a camp of deserters fleeing the war, it feels right that they're deep in the woods where no one else would find them or patrolling a road, looking for easy prey. A wraith haunting the ruins of an old stone tower? Totally makes sense. In fact, it works so well that you can turn off the map icons and still make a solid guess of where certain things will pop up. World-building like this makes me very excited for Cyberpunk 2077.
On the middling area is the the combat. It works and there's an appropriate weight to it when you're fighting human enemies, but that weight feels off when you're fighting certain monsters. Ultimately, combat outside of specific monster encounters and Witcher contracts is a thing you get through. It's not bad, but it's not necessarily exciting. Wild hunt throws the occasionally curve balls to keep you on your toes and you can rarely zone out completely, but it's certainly not The Witcher III's strongest facet.
The Witcher Senses also get a workout in the game. I was fine with using them, as the visual effect was less prominent and annoying than the Detective Senses in the Batman: Arkham games, but the game leans heavily on the mechanic. It's actually an issue that extends to most open-world titles, which build huge world, but need a way to indicate to the player that an object is interactable, not just set dressing. Tracking, Witcher contracts, even finding simple items in areas will require your Witcher Senses, so if that's not your thing, you've been warned.
Regardless of how I tried, craft, alchemy, and the game's inventory never really worked for me. By the end of my experience with The Witcher III, it was this melange of words, numbers, and colorful icons assaulting my senses. On our podcast, a fellow reviewer acknowledged that he needed a spreadsheet to keep up with everything, which is rarely a good thing. Wandering through crafting was simply not satisfying at all and I wish CDPR had spent a bit more time with it.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is a great RPG experience. If you're an RPG fan who is jives with the open-world, you'll find something really amazing here. No, you can't create your own character and no, there's not a party of colorful characters dogging your every step, but there is some great roleplaying to be had and the cast of The Witcher III stands up well to other titles in the genre. It's such a well-crafted world that I think it needs to be experienced. CD Projekt Red has progressed beyond that scrappy little Polish developer it once was and The Witcher III is the studio saying, "Look at us, we can stand alongside the best!"
And they can.
The Nitty Gritty
- Interface: There's no inventory sorting! *grits teeth*
- Lasting appeal: The ability to save prior to major choices, means most player will just jump back a bit and see any alternate outcomes. That said, The Witcher III will keep you occupied for quite a while if you dig into everything.
- Sound: The soundtrack is simply amazing. Find it, buy it.
- Visuals: The Witcher III may not look as good as its 2013 promotional materials, but the game still looks damn good.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is probably one of the most well-crafted RPG worlds yet. As you wander the countryside, it feels like a real place filled with the real struggles of the beings that live there. Geralt's story is personal and quite grey; it's not about saving the world, it's about saving his surrogate family. Is it perfect? No, the combat is rote at times and the inventory and crafting needs work, but in the end, The Witcher III is a top-notch RPG experience.
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