Based on the medieval fantasy book series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, CD Projekt RED's the Witcher series has garnered quite a following over its first two iterations. With the franchise's third outing set to hit in May, I sat down with the game for an extended hands-on to see exactly how the game's coming together. And so far, it's looking very impressive.
Boasting a landmass some 35 times larger than that of Witcher II (which makes it "20% larger than Skyrim"), Witcher III: Wild Hunt is a sweeping, comprehensive RPG that goes way beyond the first two games. Apart from sharing the same protagonist, and a few sub-characters, it has very little in common with the prior games. This is a deliberate move by CD Projekt RED, since this is the first time the series will be appearing simultaneously on both major consoles (as well as PC), and the developer felt it was important that players could jump into the series without feeling the need to catch up on past endeavors.
The game is set in the late 13th century, and follows the exploits of Geralt of Rivia, one of the few remaining witchers left in the world. He has a variety of different offensive and defensive spells at his disposal, ranging from traps that hold enemies and prey in place to "these are not the droids you're looking for" mind tricks that can be used to placate certain enemies, or coerce them into speaking the truth. He's also an excellent swordsman, is able to use a crossbow and can also clamber and climb over things, not quite in the same parkour fashion as Assassin's Creed, but he's definitely far more athletic than he was in Witcher II.
The main story arc is quite epic in scale, comprising Geralt's personal mission to track down his friend and lover, a beautiful sorceress called Yennefer, finding Ciri, a particularly gifted girl known as the "Child of Prophecy," and ultimately thwarting the army known as the Wild Hunt that is laying waste to the Northern Kingdoms.
What this boils down to is a large-scale RPG that incorporates many main missions, a slew of side missions, and a range of dungeons that scale from "a hole in the ground to almost complete cities." It all takes place in a massive, beautifully crafted world that really does feel alive thanks to things like people tilling the fields, groups patrolling the outskirts of villages, and, when you're way out in the wilds, bears, packs of dogs and wolves – and worse – prowling around ready to kill you unless you're armed with the right items and weapons to take them down.
Exploration is largely done on horseback, although there are quick-travel options that let you jump from area to area once you've explored them. This is quite a godsend as some quests require a fair bit of travel as you take items and pieces of information from place to place and from person to person.
What surprised me during the first few hours of the game was how much dialog there is in the game. Everywhere you go, there are people to talk to, and some conversations are moderately complex in nature. For example, while visiting an inn and looking for leads, I ended up speaking to five different people, all of whom had something different to say that helped add color and context not only to the mission I was on, but also about the kind of person Geralt is, how people see him, and how they view the general politics of what's going on in the outside world. It all helps contribute to a feeling of being in a real world filled with characters who aren't just milestones along the road.
What's also notable is the quality of the graphics. Characters are extremely lifelike and very nicely rendered to a very high level of detail, including wrinkles, cuts and scars. Each character has a distinct look, and the overall effect is impressive, from younger characters with fresh-looking faces through deeply scarred warriors to peasant women, weathered beyond their years.
Of course, along with plenty of dialog comes plenty of action. While there are a few of fetch-type quests, most lead to bigger and more impressive set pieces involving monsters. One interesting aspect of the game is that monsters live out in the world, and can be encountered in two different ways. Most of the time, Geralt will find a quest involving hunting down and destroying a monster – such as the first quest I encountered that involved slaying the gryphon that was terrorizing a local village. However, monsters can also be encountered by exploring and finding them in the ecosystem, and can be fought on the spot. If Geralt is successful in his efforts, he can then go looking to see whether there's a reward for the monster's death.
Sometimes, however, a monster will need specific preparation to be able to beat it, so if Geralt is unsuccessful in his immediate efforts, he can then go looking for clues as to how to beat the monster. It's a smart setup that gives the player a number of different choices – including the option to leave a monster alone, and perhaps go and level up in a nearby dungeon and then come back when Geralt is stronger.
As you might expect from an RPG, there's plenty of character development in the game. A skill tree lets you focus on different areas of your offense and defense to help augment your playstyle. You can boost your Fast Attack, learn and develop a Strong Attack, activate Marksmanship, which lets you wield a light crossbows so that you have a ranged attack, boost your defensive capabilities or learn Battle Trance, which generates adrenaline when you fight, which you can use to unleash special moves. There are five levels of each branch, allowing for deep specialization in each area.
While I did get to play the game for around four hours, I barely scratched the surface of what's promised to be a 100+ hour game. So far, the game is looking very impressive, from its massive, lush, living world to the myriad of characters who live there, it's certainly feeling epic in scale and scope. Many of its locales are absolutely beautiful, with some scenes looking like they've just been lifted out of a Constable painting. The combat system looks challenging and varied, and I like hope open the game feels: while there's the main story arc to follow, there seem to be plenty of side activities to do along the way.
Set for release on May 19th, Witcher III: Wild Hunt is definitely looking like a game to watch – especially if you're a fan of big-scale RPGs.