The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Hands-on Previews

The embargo has now been lifted and, as a result, plenty of publications have published their own hands-on previews on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. From what I can see, the response seems unanimously positive, with praise for almost every aspect of the game: combat is apparently improved, the side quests the journalists found were interesting, the graphics were gorgeous and the writing on par or better than in the first two titles. Keeping in mind these impressions come from a controlled environment, and that open-world games can't be fully judged until a large number of hours has been put into them, let's hope the game will be capable of eliciting the same feelings after release.


Though Skyrim is often seen as the standard for open-world gameplay, Wild Hunt feels unique in its approach and visual look, and blends a lot of different environments together. With wildlife to hunt, plants and other roots to collect for your alchemy (which allows you to craft potions and tonics), and many other dangerous foes and creatures populating the swamps, forests, dungeons, and many other locales, the world of Wild Hunt is one that keeps things interesting for players. With fast-travel available -- which can only be done when standing near sign posts -- and along with Geralt's trusty stead Roach, you'll be able to freely explore the bounds of the world with ease.

Of course, with the world in chaos, Geralt must always keep himself several steps ahead of foes. Advancing upon the free-form combat from The Witcher 2, Wild Hunt refines the system to make it feel more dynamic and fluid. With his knowledge, combat prowess, and cunning as his greatest weapons, Geralt's arsenal of abilities can be freely used on the fly. For instance, your stamina bar, which controls sprinting outside of combat, allows for Geralt to use magic, such as blasts of fire and telekinetic energy, along with hypnosis and trap magic. He also makes use of bombs and other gadgets to take down foes at a distance. The crossbow in particular is useful for flying foes, and can even be used when fighting creatures underwater.

There's a lot of respect and trust given to the players, and the developers were keen on letting them go at their own pace. In the starting territory of White Orchard, Geralt found word that the local garrison commander knew the location of Yennefer, but would only reveal it if Geralt and Vesemir could eliminate a large griffon terrorizing the country side. Of course, this is for the main story. If you choose to stray from the path and mingle with the locals, like I did, you'll discover side-quests and other oddities that could use your attention.


Combat has always been the weak spot in The Witcher, but I think CD Projekt's finally figured it out. The controls actually seem pretty similar to The Witcher 2, but animations are more fluid and Geralt is just generally more responsive. It now plays wholly like an action game and less like the weird action/strategy hybrid of Witcher 2 and (even more so) The Witcher.

What I'm calling "Act One" ends with the gryphon battle CD Projekt's been touting, and while combat's not on a level with God of War, it's at least fluid and functional enough that the encounter feels momentous.

Some other things have been simplified. Geralt's "Witcher Sense," which highlights important objects in the world, is now an infinite resource accessed by holding down the Left Trigger. It's a lot like Batman's "Detective Mode" in the Arkham games now, and you'll put it to similar uses tracking enemies, looking for clues, and the like. One quest had me sussing out why a noonwraith was haunting a village. I mean, I still killed it after I figured out why, but at least I knew the reason.


The notion of choice and consequence is one that the Witcher games have long championed. However, while the 2007 original allowed for a degree of neutrality, its 2011 sequel was far more black and white, forcing Geralt into political binds that the witcher had no business being roped into. Happily, The Witcher 3 offers a return of the notion that even when not making a decision you are still making a choice. A segment of game play concerning a family feud set several hours further into the game highlights how this can affect not only the story but also flavour the game play. Two very different segments play out one stealthier, the other more combat orientated depending on your action or inaction and the knock-on effects are both immediate and far reaching.

While you can bumble through dialogue and answer every dispute by taking a sword to that which displeases you, word of your deeds will carry far and wide. We're used to the world revolving around us and our characters but here this effect makes narrative sense for Geralt is the embodiment of a living legend and most who meet him are keen to gossip, be it with him or behind his back. The local village inn is a fine example of this, serving as it does as a place to relax after some strenuous monster slaying but also a place to gather further work, overhear rumours of the mysterious white-haired Ciri (the game's second playable character), get into a fist fight with or indulge in a game of Gwent. This last is a card-based battle game that looks engaging enough to form the basis of its own standalone title. Clearly, there's an awful lot going on and Geralt is often at its centre, with the decisions you take shaping his story and leading to any of the three dozen endings that CDPR has planned to reflect your own personal experience with the White Wolf.


Avoiding the million-and-one-icons trap is a confident design choice, though I certainly didn't run out of things to do in my three hours with The Witcher 3. I wasn't just swimming to Siren islands (or whatever they might be called), but getting involved in politics and leaping into water wells. The bit with the well was a side quest, wholly optional, but it still crammed in plenty of story and intrigue. Like the political mission that would come later, this one required me to investigate using my keen senses. The Witcher 2 also allowed you to seek loot, see footprints, and detect scents in this manner, but you can now hold a button down as long as you like to keep this special vision mode active. It's a small but subtle change that makes looking for clues a natural action rather than an annoying one. And thank goodness for that, since seeking clues related to a well-haunting ghost was all the more intriguing as a result.

A hop into the well and a bit of exploration told me what I needed to know about the spirit I had to banish. When I had performed the necessary ritual to draw her out, I realized that even my silver sword was not the only weapon I needed: my magical signs were also necessary. As before, Geralt can perform five basic signs: Aard (Force push, as it were), Quen (a magical shield), Igni (a fire blast), Axii (a charm that makes friends out of enemies for a time), and Yrden (an immobilizing trap). My sword would make no mark in the shadowy fiend unless I cast Yrden, which caused her to materialize, and allowed me to strike her through. And what a fiend she was, clad in a bride's dress and a laurel of decayed flowers. This is a dark and oppressive world, and enemies are not only frightening in and of themselves: they are symbols of the grotesque horrors that human beings visit upon each other. In this case, only a great act of violence can turn a once-vibrant young woman into such a hideous and protective ghoul. This small side story said a lot about what this place stood for, and what its people were capable of.


It's everywhere, the humour, and it's a real shining point. There's a great familiarity and patter between Geralt and Vesemir, a kind of father figure to witchers. Their roaming duo reminds me of Unforgiven and the relationship Clint Eastwood has to old partner Morgan Freeman: a gruff, world-worn familiarity, with unspoken tenderness and understanding beneath. There's a great moment early on where Geralt reluctantly reveals he had an intimate moment on a stuffed unicorn, and it's so understated, and the actors' deliveries so natural, that it works. Equally the game can catch you off guard, a thug blurting "well f*** off then!" ably doing the job for me.

There's another element of Unforgiven that The Witcher 3 shares, and it shares it with A Game of Thrones too: the brutality. Your trot down to the village at the beginning takes you past the helpless victims of a raid hanging from trees. This is a dirty rotten world filled with dirty rotten people. One lady in the village pub screams "c***!" and slams another woman's head repeatedly into the table. There's blood, and there's horror. The world of The Witcher 3 will punch you in your face and give you gout. In fact it's so in keeping with the tone of A Game of Thrones that when I'm sent to the Skellige Islands later on, I feel as though I'm with the Greyjoys of George R. R. Martin's imagination, on the Iron Islands - and that's no place to go for a weekend away let me tell you.


CD Projekt RED have done a good job retaining the intimidating complexity of The Witcher while streamlining the controls. Playing with the Xbox 360 gamepad on a PC combat controls were very responsive and navigating Witcher Signs was much improved from my experience in The Witcher 2. It isn't Dark Souls by any means, but it is the best combat in the series yet. Menus and inventory will still scare newcomers but the best comparison is the jump Mass Effect 2 made from the original, but managing to retain inventory, items and character customisation while still making things easier to use. Witcher Sense is also new and replicates the effect of the Witcher Medallion in the previous game but doesn't have limits on use. You switch to a darker, narrow focus that highlights footprints, blood stains, smells and items you can interact with.

Dialogue trees retain the style of The Witcher 2, not feeling like open ended conversations as much as items to check off, but the special conversation abilities used to coerce or intimidate can produce some fun responses. The interaction of systems is at work everywhere, while I didn't get enough time with the game to see choices have long term effects I did start a fight by using sorcery to interrogate a bar rat and earned the ire of a garrison for raiding their stores, recreating one of my favourite moments of Knights of the Old Republic where the Sand People turned on me for doing my RPG player duty of rummaging every room for items.


The open world provides more opportunities to engage with colorful NPCs and find cool quests. I couldn't help getting distracted by them and had a hard time staying on the main quest. This is to the game's credit, and where I expect even more choice and consequence. My first side quest was with a crazy old lady freaking out because a man stole her pan and then her house. She seemed more concerned about her pan, which was hilarious in itself. To open the locked door to her house, I tapped into Geralt's telekinesis power. While inside, I used his witcher sense to figure out what was going on. Some may say that the witcher sense gets overused, but I still enjoy piecing things together (and unexpected outcomes). In this situation, the man stole her pot because he was writing a letter and needed to use its soot for ink. He also left behind buried papers and a dead body. Clearly, he had something to hide and was up to no good.

Later, I found a man begging me to track down a chest full of medicine that he lost. It's always to your benefit to get some extra cash, so I take on the quest. When I get to the location, I find the small chest, but I also notice a carriage tipped over and the quest giver's arrows in a dead body near it. Obviously, the quest giver is a murderer. I confront him about it and he panics, trying to leave on horseback. I strike him off his horse and he tries to explain that he needed the medicine for his men and was willing to kill to save others. War is still all around, and many have suffered and sacrificed for it, so it's not far-fetched but why would he run in the first place? I have the option to give him the chest or not. I can even punish him if I want. I choose to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I still second-guess the decision. What if I've let a murderer run free?

VG247 has both a preview and a piece on the game's graphics. A snippet from the latter:

I don't know which element to gush over first. Perhaps let's start with something few other games manage to do: proper vegetation. No matter how hard they try, most games don't do trees very well. They're just big blocky columns plopped down in such a way that they never get in your way. In The Witcher 3, the trees and shrubs are scattered much more naturally, not afraid to impede the player. This helps create a feeling of isolation; just a short distance from town you're isolated, unable to see or hear civilisation. Just like real life, in those places where we still have any natural growth woods left. Throw in the wind system, with vegetation bending and bouncing back before breezes, and you have something beautiful.

Now let's throw some light in there. I don't remember being blown away by the sky boxes during the day night cycle, but I did love the changing light. Sometimes it goes pink with the sunset, which does detract from the seriousness of cutscene events when it's glinting off the helmets in half of the shots. It filters through trees, casting dappled pools that come and go depending on the weather and angle. It glares off snow, and sparkles on water, and is altogether delightful.

It's particularly pleasing to see that the PS4 and Xbox One version holds up against the PC. Of course, if you have a 4K display and a rig powerful enough to turn all the settings up to maximum, then the PC-loving wizards of CD Projekt RED will reward you for your investment.

Finally, GameTrailers has a video preview.