Our The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review remains in progress. Unfortunately, PC review copies were not available until the release date on May 19, and this is a huge game, so the full review will take a little longer.
Let me reiterate that point. This is an enormous game. After about twenty hours with it, I feel I have barely scratched the surface. While I avoid spoilers, I’m sure I’m less than halfway towards the game’s conclusion. Part of that is the endless number of side-quests I’ve undertaken, and part of that is my desire to be the greatest Gwent player of all time (Gwent is The Witcher 3’s wonderful collectible-card mini game).
But my time so far has at least revealed the game’s rhythm, its form, its design, and its beauty. And all-around, I can say that it is brilliant. While, as with any game, some minor annoyances and faults can be identified, CD Projekt RED had made them invariably hard to find.
The Beauty of the Beasts
The first thing one notices about The Witcher 3 is its phenomenal visuals. Here it’s not only the polygon count that matters, though that too is high. It’s the attention to detail, the careful design of each texture and model. Faces go beyond utilitarian masks, bringing the characters beneath to life. Detailed sketches of missing people hang to signposts, rich paintings line the walls in wealthy bedrooms, and candles burn on graves and alters in the middle of an otherwise abandoned forest.
Landscapes are evocative too, swamps and hills rolling far into the long draw distance. Wind sweeps the branches of trees before a storm that’s seen in a cloud bank on the horizon. You can feel the rain coming before the actual drops start to fall. When dawn breaks in the game’s active day-night cycle, the sky fills with purple and oranges. The musical architecture aligns directly with the visual demands as well.
Music switches smoothly from the calm atmospheric melodies of exploration to the high-intensity battle music that matches the fast-paced nature of combat. Wolves howl in the distance from beyond the treeline, and the floorboards creak actively underfoot. The immense quantity of voice acting is also excellent, whether it be the witty banter between the eponymous Geralt and his sorceress lover, or the horrible cries of a bereaved mother. The details both auditory and visual are entwined in a romance just the same.
Give me a Quest
Much of this voice acting appears in the game’s many and detailed quests. Whether it’s the long line of main story quests or the dozens of side-quests available in each region, each is a detailed adventure with many options for how to complete it. Few of these are mere MMO-style kill or fetch quests. Instead, each quest fills in the narrative and forces the protagonist to interact with NPCs and make decisions that have ramifications down the road. Do you kill the witch whose research notes threaten to produce a new plague, or let her go on the hopes that she will instead choose to develop a cure? Do you let a werewolf eat a murderous lover, or save her from its jaws?
Choice is in everything, including whether you bother to do these quests at all. Given the game’s long length, you’d easily be forgiven for glossing past these.
As for the main quest, while excellently wrought, it can be confusing for those unfamiliar with the previous games or the source material. As someone familiar with neither, I found it difficult to follow complex discussions of invading armies, the world’s regions, and even the game’s many off-screen characters. Reading a primer may be advisable for those that jump into the Witcher franchise for the first time here.
So far, I’ve got only a vague understanding of the main story, but the characters here are strong enough to keep my interest even if I don’t fully understand their motivations. And those characters are explored wonderfully and at length in the many conversations and cut-scenes.
Sword and Sorcery
Cut-scenes are long, and there are long tracts largely spent dealing directly with people. But for much of the game’s length, Geralt is out in the world armed with his two swords (a normal one for people, silver monsters), and his spells. Monsters and enemies are frequent, and quite difficult even on the game’s mid-range difficulty settings. Given the amount of combat, it’s a joy that the action-focused fighting is so fluid and fun. Geralt can dodge, parry, and throw multiple types of attacks into his adversaries. His spells can protect him, set traps, blast fire, or daze his opponents. He can also drink potions, apply oils to his weapons, throw bombs, and use crossbows. Mastery of all of Geralt’s abilities is critical to success, as many monsters are unforgiving and can take a considerable amount of time to defeat.
Unfortunately, sometimes the control scheme can get in the way of both this fluid combat and exploration. Geralt tends to handle more like a tank than a human being, taking an inordinate amount of time to change direction or stop running. One gets the feeling that Geralt weighs several tons and only a force of will can stop him once he begins off in given direction.
This control issue also affects exploration. It’s often difficult to look or interact with specific items. Geralt might run past a lootable corpse over and over again, or walk awkwardly around it. Even when standing right next to interactive objects, it can be hard to target them in order to get the button prompt to use them. I spent a solid five minutes once trying to find the right angle the game seemed to require to open a treasure chest. It’s unfortunate that these very fixable problems made it out of testing in such an otherwise polished game.
There is, of course, a RPG system underlying the combat. Geralt gains experience and levels up in the usual way. Each level provides an ability point that can be used to improve Geralt’s main combat and spell-casting abilities, or to grant them new effects. As an action-RPG, however, the level up options are limited compared to more tabletop-inspired games. Indeed, in many cases it feels that the main advantage of gaining levels is the ability to equip better gear, on which Geralt is very reliant.
This gear reliance is, in some ways, welcome, since it provides a real sense of reward for exploring optional areas, or going on the game’s optional treasure hunts. Rewards come in the form of set-items for Geralt which significantly boost his abilities. After equipping these new items, you notice a sudden and significant boost in your ability to deal with the threats that once challenged you. It may even let you move on to the next monster-hunting contract or get back to the quest that you couldn’t complete before.
Back to Witchering
And I’ve got quests I really need to get back to. I want to get back to them, and that’s perhaps as high praise as I can provide. These days it’s the rare game that truly captured my imagination and makes me want to jump right back to it as soon as I have the opportunity. So far, the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one such game. Its beauty, its enjoyable combat, its colorful characters and detailed rendering of a realistic medieval world have triggered my sense of wonder.
So that’s it. I’m going back. See you in week.