It’s October, which means Halloween, which means it’s time for spooky surprises. As such: BOO! A totally unexpected review of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Which is even more unexpected because it’s actually November and Halloween is already over. Er. Double boo?
I’m not going to waste your time. The Witcher 3 has been out for, ooh, ages, so you doubtless know all about it and have quite probably formed your own opinions on it. So no, I’m not going to give you the rundown of the plot or how it all works. You already know it’s about some old guy called Gerald the Raver who kills women and romances monsters, or whatever. I dunno, it was awhile ago. I forget. I’m pretty sure I shagged a giant scorpion at some point, though.
Instead, I’m going to surprise you even more by complaining loudly about a whole lot of things, so I’d like you to remember the next few words very, very carefully: The Witcher 3 is a really good game. It is. It’s not quite the second coming or anything, and I’m kinda tempted to argue that I enjoyed it less than The Witcher 2, but it’s still totally worth your time and your money if you’re into a large, 80+ hour open-world action RPG painted in moral greys. Yet I’m about to slag it off quite viciously. I could spend this review being nice and talking about how it’s very pretty and it’s got lots of involving side-quests, but everyone has already talked about that stuff. That’s obvious. I’m going to look at the stuff it doesn’t do quite so well.
But first… credit where it’s due. CD Projekt RED have done a fine, fine job of patching up The Witcher 3 since launch, and what was initially a slightly rough PC version has been polished up quite a lot since then. The inventory has been rejigged, there are now storage chests for excess gear, crafting is slightly less annoying than before, fewer quests are horribly broken, etc. Okay, some of those patches broke more bits of the game, but the dev team have done a really good job of actually supporting the PC version, and it’s come along leaps and bounds over the past couple of months. I no longer get 10 FPS on the main menu or in cutscenes, for instance, which is the sort of thing you definitely want fixed.
And there are a lot of things it does right, too! Most of the characters are fun to interact with, the main story is decent enough, there are some fantastic set-pieces, there are loads of genuinely excellent side-quests, the world has been designed with a lot of love and attention to detail, and – if you turn off all UI helpers and quest markers and Location of Interest identifiers and so on, and don’t check your map – it’s an utterly fascinating world to, quite literally, get lost in.
Christ, I’m bad at this “slagging off The Witcher 3 stuff”, aren’t I? Alright, let’s actually get started. I’m ready to give it a good kicking.
My playthrough of The Witcher 3 took me about 80 hours, which is hardly unheard of for a giant, open-world RPG. The fact that I was completely bored with most of the game’s mechanics and systems around, ooh, 30 hours in, was a bit more problematic.
This point might actually be a little unfair, and tied into the Reviewer’s Curse. Basically, when we have to review a game – especially a long, long game – we have to marathon it to get a review done in a timely fashion (no jokes, please), which means we’re not quite spending the amount of time per session as other people would. You might play The Witcher 3 in stints of a couple of hours, over a month or two, while I was going through it in 10-12 hour sessions. So, yeah, it’s entirely possible that I got fed up with the combat a lot faster than you might.
But that still doesn’t change the fact the combat isn’t really in-depth enough for the length of the game. Once you’ve taken on one group of bandits or one pack of drowners, you’ve taken them all on; this certainly isn’t Dark Souls, where total care and attention needs to be paid to every single movement you make. A Dark Souls comparison is obviously hugely unfair, because that’s a game based around pitch-perfect hard-as-nails combat, but The Witcher 3 rarely feels particularly challenging once you get used to the way combat works. And you’ll get used to the way combat works pretty quickly, at least when compared to how long the game actually is.
It’s also really, really level dependent, which is also a bit disappointing. One monster hunting quest had me taking down a griffin (or gryphon, or whatever), and the quest was a few levels higher than me. This led to a tremendous, titanic fight, where the huge flying bastard landing even a couple of blows on me would basically end my monster-hunting career permanently. This was fun! Frustrating, because of the slightly finicky timing on dodges and the slightly unexpected way hitboxes work, but it was a genuinely challenging fight, and I relished that. Still, I gave up on it after a dozen or so attempts and resolved to come back later.
I went off, completed some other side quests, gained one level of experience, trotted on back, and utterly murdered the poor thing with nary a scratch. What was previously a fight for my life suddenly turned into just another slog against a monster with a big health bar, and that’s what tends to happen. Even on higher difficulties, fights are usually too hard or too easy, particularly if you get good at abusing the various oils, potions, and bombs at your disposal (which, in all fairness, is pretty important on those higher difficulties). I’d honestly have preferred there to be some sort of middle ground between the two, but it’s extraordinarily rare for The Witcher 3 to find that sweet spot.
The next problem I want to highlight is another that, again, is probably incredibly unfair of me. Most of the game is well-written, and a few moments (Triss and Geralt visiting a manor during a party; the infamous scene with the Witchers drinking at Kaer Morhen) are some of my favourites of the year, even if the former does involve Triss getting smashed on a sip of wine. But holy shit, some of it is awful, and that stuff actually sticks in my mind more than the positives.
There are two specific examples I can give without venturing too far into spoilers, but both of these were massive, massive disappointments. The first is a murder mystery quest taking place in Novigrad, which is so riddled with structural problems that I’m amazed it was left in the game. Geralt should’ve fingered the culprit during their first appearance because way too many clues are dropped right then and there, and the culprit “assists” with the investigation despite doing nothing but hurting their own chances of getting away with it. Etc. What could’ve been a decent, clever quest (like The Witcher‘s superb investigation quest during that game’s second chapter, which actually required some careful thought and processing of clues) is instead a ludicrous and unbelievable farce.
But that’s just one side quest, and one that isn’t of huge importance, despite being tied into a character arc. The other example quest is far, far more spoiler-y, so I’m going to have to talk around it.
This quest is the culmination of a chain of side quests that have run through the entire game, and plays a heavy role in what happens during the ending. As such, you’d expect some sort of grand finale, with some decent dialogue and maybe a bit of an emotional punch. Instead, you get a boss fight that comes out of nowhere with someone randomly acting completely out of character and going “well, I’ll have to kill you now” and then absolutely no acknowledgement of what just happened from anybody else involved. I was actually told “Quest failed/unfinished” when embarking on the very final main quest of the game, but my decision in that quest still factored into the ending, so… well, that was probably a bug. But the quest, nonetheless, counted as being completed.
It’s sad that things like this leave a bitter taste in my mouth, but unfortunately, these quests aren’t the only ones to suffer from this. Others are also buggy, poorly planned, or just plain stupid. Sure, a few quests are going to be rubbish – this is a big, big game, after all – but when a couple of major quests that show huge promise and/or massively affect the ending of the game are flat-out awful, it’s hard not to wince.
I’m also a little disappointed by the open world, because I was expecting… well, a living world. I remember pre-release videos talking about how you might clear out a bandit encampment or a monster nest, and then you come back later and people have moved in, and there’s now a new town there, and new traders available, and so on. This is technically true. More literally, though, it’s a series of Ubisoft-esque markers on your map, and beating up the enemies there results in a short cutscene of people moving in and then you’ve maybe got a new trader to visit. Actual instances where it felt like I was having an impact on the world – aside from the more obvious decisions and plot stuff – were incredibly rare.
And… God, there are lots of other little bits that really annoy me. The way fast travel works, for instance, particularly when trying to move back and forth from the Bloody Baron’s little castle in the first major area. Or the fact that the horse is an idiot and horse combat is awful.
Or the sodding awful crafting system, which actually required me to make physical notes of what merchants sold what items, and what those items turned into, and… okay, so I need 16 of this dust to make four of those, but then I also need another two dust and I need to combine it with four pieces of leather to make this, but… wait, maybe if I disassemble this, then I can… right. Okay, that’s one of the crafting items needed for my high-end gear, after travelling back and forth between three locations to barter for shit. What was the next bit, again?
And you know what? I’ve been horribly unfair to The Witcher 3 here. I have. It’s a game that should be marked by its successes more than its failures, because it’s stunningly triumphant in a lot of ways. It’s just that pretty much every other review out there has talked, at length, about its successes, and I don’t think its numerous failures should be ignored. This is partly because I’m a horrible bastard, and partly because this review is a million years too late and needs to actually do something unique other than go OH MY LOOK AT HOW WELL IT DOES ALL THIS STUFF, and partly because – this far after launch – I can actually dissect its problems pretty well. I mean, this really is stuff that’s stuck in my mind after playing it months ago. And hey: the game does have flaws, and they should be acknowledged.
I will say this, though: CD Projekt RED did a much better job than I expected marrying open-world design to an actual story and actual characters, which is a seriously difficult task. I was very, very skeptical about their chances of getting this right, because nobody else has really succeeded before. Much as I love Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim and so on (and much as New Vegas actually managed to get some proper, old-school Fallout mechanics and characters in there), they largely offer a relatively samey world with cut-and-paste characters and very little actual story. Or, indeed, very little to engage with that wasn’t related to statistics, weapons, or shiny armour. Even things like GTA5 and Far Cry tend to have a critical path and then totally unrelated side-missions that don’t really tie into the larger plot or world structure, and for that matter, I’m not sure I’d really call either of those “open world” in the same sense as something like this.
The Witcher 3 doesn’t do it perfectly, of course. There are the inevitable sections where you’ll be told that you have to go and do something right now but in actual fact you can bugger off and do plenty of side-quests, or maybe spend a few in-game weeks sailing to and from Skellige, and you’ll still turn up right on time. I’d argue that the alternative would probably have resulted in a much more interesting game, but also one that would be a lot more complicated to make, and one that would’ve been a lot harder to get into.
I’ve complained enough. Very quickly, then, let’s celebrate everything The Witcher 3 does right, and… that’s basically everything I haven’t mentioned, and even some of the stuff I have. The combat is really repetitive after 20 hours, but that’s true of almost every bloody game out there which isn’t completely focused on combat. The world is utterly sumptuous. Irritating prick Dandelion aside, the characters are great; in particular, Geralt’s gruff, uncaring manner is extraordinarily refreshing in the current crop of fantasy RPGs, and Thaler’s constant swearing is as hilarious as ever. Some of the side quests are works of sheer brilliance, and hell, when the main quest isn’t stretching itself out with annoying fetch quests, it’s also got some moments that really shine. The choices that impact the ending are wide-ranging and – in some cases – not what you’d expect, particularly when it comes to the stuff that relates to Ciri. The sections where you get to play as Ciri are a lot better than they have any right to be.
Personally, though, my absolute favourite thing about The Witcher 3 is the universe itself, because I’m a massive folklore nerd, and The Witcher is an absolute treasure trove for anyone interested in European folklore. If you’re not seeing things directly lifted from old folk tales, you’re spotting unique twists on them or realising that certain monsters are amalgamations of various old myths. The Witcher 3 is fantastic for this, with loads of stuff pulled from truly ancient eastern European folk stories, and plenty of quests use this for either grim or comic effect. If you’ve played the game through to the end then you probably spotted the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves references, because they’re pretty obvious and are related a lot more to Disney than the old fairy tales, but there’s a lot more than that in the game, and I’m sure there are plenty that I haven’t spotted.
The Witcher 3 has problems. It’s not the perfect game, nor is it the perfect RPG, despite what hyperbole and a number of overly excited launch reviews might have you believe. Despite all of my complaining, though, it’s a very, very good game, and one you really should play if you’ve any interest at all in morally grey RPGs with an action twist.
As far as major, triple-A RPGs with massive marketing budgets and huge amounts of hype go, this really is one of the best I’ve seen in years; it’s far, far better than the utterly mediocre Dragon Age: Inquisition, for instance. Indeed, it’s possibly one of the best games of its kind since The Witcher 2, and that launched back in May 2011. So yeah, I’ve complained. Yeah, it has problems. And yeah, you really should play it anyway, because it’s still really bloody good.
Now to try and review the expansions sometime before 2018.