Since launch, I’ve spent as much time as possible with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Unfortunately, as “playing The Witcher 3” is not the only task I have to do all day, this means I still haven’t played it as much as I’d like.
At this stage I’m wandering around the second act, marvelling at how big everything is and how much there is to do, and making vague strides towards the main story quest when I’m not distracting myself by punching ghosts in their gooey spectral faces. That’s hardly my fault, though – when you see a ghost, don’t you just want to punch it? Exactly. Anyway: I’m still nowhere near the point where I can actually review the game, but I figure I can dish out some details and thoughts on the first act.
The game never actually calls them acts, but as the first part of the game takes place entirely in the White Orchard area of the map until plot development lets you leave, I figure that’s a good way of describing it. It’s the tutorial zone after the actual tutorial, basically; you get a few quests, some exploration, some story and plot, and the chance to try out your various Witcher-y powers and level up a bit.
There’s nothing too strenuous within, but there’s a fair bit to explore and few chances to get your arse soundly kicked, even on the lower difficulty levels. Those who want to just rush ahead with the storyline are free to do so (if you don’t fancy exploring, you can probably get through White Orchard in around an hour, assuming being underlevelled won’t cause you issues) but oh, there’s a lot to explore.
The actual story of this first bit is finding out where Yennefer, Geralt’s on-and-off lover, vanished to, after she sent him a message requesting a meet. This doesn’t involve much beyond talking to people and solving a few problems (which, admittedly, probably sums up most games) but if you do nothing but follow this quest, you’ll likely only explore about a quarter of the map.
I’m a big fan of the fact that I’m not completely bound to stuff within my level. Yes, the game’s quest log warns me that certain things are a few levels above me, but there’s nothing stopping me from attempting them anyway. That aside, it doesn’t really do too much to warn me away from other bits and pieces that are too tough. Early on, I took a shortcut through a graveyard and found myself set upon by a high-level (and very angry) wraith, and had to beat a hasty retreat. I didn’t even have a quest related to that area, but it looked interesting, and I’m glad I went there. Running from my life from an unexpectedly lethal enemy is something I like in games that reward exploration, and it’s happened a few times since. On that note: fucking bears.
Most things that look interesting are actually marked on the map as Points of Interest. I suspect you can turn this off – and I might just do that shortly, because I fancy exploring by myself for a bit – but it gives you an indication that, hey, if you wander down into that empty-looking forest in the southwest, you’ll actually find something. You’re not told what that something is, though, so until you get there you have no idea if you’re going to wander into a Place of Power, a monster lair, or an herbalist.
I’m also a big fan of the way the actual quests play out. With a scant few exceptions, there hasn’t been much in the way of “Kill X monsters” or “Harvest Y roots” so far, and when they appear, they don’t tend to be particularly handhold-y. Yes, okay, one quest in the second area actually was “Go to these three areas and do a thing in each one”, but that’s about it so far.
As an example of each, one quest required me to brew a Swallow potion, and that’s all the direction it gave me. No markers on the map or anything. I checked the alchemy tab, saw what I needed to get, and figured out where I needed to go to get it. It’s not hard, but it actually felt like I had a degree of agency rather than just following instructions from the Mighty Quest Log That Must Be Obeyed.
Monster battles, too, have more going for them than just going to an area and punching things until they explode into showers of loot and experience points. You’re a Witcher – a specialised, superpowered monster hunter – and quests against bigger monsters actually feel like hunting. One contract from a town noticeboard tasks you with clearing up a haunting around a nearby well, and gives legitimate reason for why this is suddenly important now.
I head on up there, ready for a fight, and… there’s no spectre to be seen. So, okay, it’s time to investigate. Use the time I have to figure out the exact nature of this spectre, find out why it’s here and what’s binding it here, and get myself ready with the spells and potions needed to battle it. This is pretty much done using Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s Detective Mode and looking around for glowing red things to click on, but in terms of adding character to a quest and giving a sense that Geralt is more than a standard sellsword, it works wonders.
There is also a quest involving getting a frying pan back for an old woman. I don’t have much more to say about this, but it amused me.
And, yes, there are plenty of moral decisions to be made. Do you accept payment for doing these quests, from people who probably can’t afford it? How do you react to some of the horrors you’re likely to see? Do you get emotional and get involved in public disturbances, or stay cold and detached and focused on your Witcher work? I have no idea how many of these will actually impact the game, but I’m certain a few will, and in terms of morality it’s all rather delightfully grey. You’re rarely told what to think or feel, and there’s a pretty good argument for every choice you can make.
This is all stuff I like. I also like that it’s utterly beautiful, it isn’t blue and orange and instead uses lots of different colour palettes depending on the time of day, and it has excellent writing and solid voice acting (particularly if you like Scottish dwarves and Somerset farmers). Also, loading times are fairly minimal, and the areas are generally so damn big that even when they do pop up it’s usually been quite some time since the last one.
I don’t quite understand how alchemy works, but it seems as though you only need to brew a potion once, and then the game will automatically replenish your stocks while meditating as long as you have some spare alcohol. If this is how it works then it saves a lot of time, because it means I don’t need to piss about finding another Drowner brain every time I want to make a Swallow potion. Of course, this might also mean that all the herb markers I’m seeing on the map are a bit pointless, but I’m still happy for the game to save me the irritating, boring legwork.
There’s also stuff I don’t like. I’m not going to go into my bizarre framerate woes because I talked about that in the previous article, but I do want to touch on the controls again.
In terms of the actual fighting, things aren’t that different from The Witcher 2, but for whatever reason things feel a lot more clunky. This might be because it’s been a long time since I played The Witcher 2 on PC (at least three years) or it might be that the latest version of REDengine has been reworked for open world stuff, and so feels a bit less precise in terms of careful, short-distance movement. I also still don’t like having shift as a modifier key for attacks – even though it sort of makes sense in my brain – but I’m too damn stubborn to change it at this point.
Controls aside, the lock-on system feels quite iffy too. It works fine in encounters against a small number of slower-paced humanoid foes (particularly if there’s one I really want to focus on) but changing your lock quickly seems to be basically impossible with a mouse and keyboard, and this makes it completely useless against multiple fast-moving enemies. It’s far more effective to just not use it against, say, a pack of wolves… but that mostly leads to Geralt rolling around and attacking thin air like an idiot. Perhaps I need to improve at parrying and counter-attacking. I haven’t had issues with combat difficulty so far and I’ve had some wonderfully entertaining battles, but I feel like I still need to learn a lot.
I also don’t like the horses, but that’s probably got nothing to do with The Witcher 3 and is almost certainly just me. I don’t get on with horses in games. Sorry. They offer faster movement but they’re unwieldy, hard to control, and horseback combat has never interested me. This is hardly exclusive to The Witcher 3, so if you enjoyed horses in Mount & Blade or Red Dead Redemption or whatever, you’ll probably think they’re fine here too!
The biggest disappointment so far, though, is that the world doesn’t feel quite as organic as the early footage led me to believe. I remember hearing something about how you could clear monsters out of an area and then, over time, people might settle there, and you’ll be able to come back later and find all sorts of new stuff. That’s what I remember hearing, though it might’ve been that I was listening to what I want rather than what was actually said.
This mechanic is indeed present in The Witcher 3, but it’s a lot less organic than that. Basically, you come across a marked area with monsters in it, and when you kill the last one you get a cutscene of people moving in, and there might be a new shop there or something. It’s pretty much the Outpost system from Far Cry, and it feels incredibly videogame-y. Considering this is a game where meditating and waiting for certain times of day is an actual important feature, it’s a little surprising. I’d have expected you to have to come back in a few game days or something, but maybe CD Projekt RED decided to just skip the middle-man and save you the hassle of sitting still and meditating a few times.
So now I’m on the second big area, and it’s a whole hell of a lot bigger than the first and is packed full of stuff to do. Initially, the segmented game areas gave me the impression that it’d be a bit like The Witcher 2 – big areas in different parts of the world, split apart by loading screens and story progression, only with a bit more freedom than before.
This doesn’t appear to be the case, because the second big hub area is fucking massive. I have no idea how it compares to something like Skyrim and that seems like a foolish comparison to try to make, but it’s several times larger than White Orchard, and it’s got far more points of interest on the map, highlighted notice boards indicating quests, and… look, it’s just big. Loads of stuff. Loads. My first quest there took me a little distance, and in that time I picked up (and completed) a quest, freed a man from a cage, dealt with a monster nest, came across a little settlement, investigated some quests there, broke my sword, and got a fairly major hunting contract. And I haven’t really gone anywhere yet. I kid you not: I raised my eyebrows when I saw the size of the map and how many markers it had on it.
The beginning of the second act is also where some decisions from The Witcher 2 seem to come into play, with a gentleman asking me questions about what choices I made over the course of that adventure. I suspect this is because I didn’t import a save but asked it to simulate a save for me, so I figure this conversation won’t happen (or will require no input) if you import a save or opt not to simulate one. Still, it looks like things are finally starting to kick off, and as I don’t actually have a save from The Witcher 2 on this computer, I’m happy it didn’t force me to import one to have my decisions impact the sequel.
I’m enjoying The Witcher 3, a lot. A lot more than I expected to, honestly. I’m not sure I’d say it’s a true open-world sandbox game – not in the same sense as something like Skyrim, at least – but I think that actually works in its favour. I need to play a lot more to really get my thoughts on that in order, though, and this second area could still surprise me, so I’ll save this all for either the review or (if there’s time) another article after another large slice of gameplay.