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I have never been as glad to eat crow as I am now, as I write this review for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the threequel that puts the cap on the videogame saga of Geralt of Rivia, the monster slayer originally created by renowned Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkwoski.
Back in March of 2013, when the title was announced as an open-world game, I immediately lowered my expectations. As talented as the folks of CD Projekt RED are, open-world games tend to be massive undertakings that require sacrifices compared to more linear titles. The bigger they are, the bigger the sacrifices, and The Witcher 3 promised to be a very, very big title.
In my mind there were two, very likely possibilities: The Witcher 3 would come out as either a massively unpolished, nigh-unfinished title, CD Projekt's own Gothic 3, or as a game that sacrificed the focus on storytelling and quest design of the first two in favor of cookie-cutter, easy-to-design quests.
And yet, somehow, CD Projekt has managed to pull it off. A few small sacrifices might have been made along the road, yes, but this is still a Witcher title through and through, only on a massive scale that rivals big AAA productions. And it's very, very good.
Story and Writing
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt picks up about six months after the end of The Witcher 2. Geralt, with his memories now fully recovered and free of his obligations to King Foltest and Vernon Roche, is reached by a letter from his old flame, Yennefer. Not one to ignore a call from his sorceress lover, Geralt sets on a journey with the help of his Witcher mentor Vesemir, who he meets along the way.
That's, in short, the initial setup for the game, though it doesn't take long for the action to change focus, as Geralt is hired by the Emperor of Nilfgaard Emhyr Var Emreis (voiced by Charles Dance, who brings gravitas but not his best acting along) to track Ciri, Geralt's adopted daughter and heir to the empire. The search for Ciri is the focus of the first half of the storyline, and explores sides of Geralt that the previous games barely teased.
The Geralt who searches for Ciri is a mature and highly intelligent tracker, a man, or mutant, who hunts Ciri not because of a contract, but because of familial obligations. This is a Geralt who regained his memories and also his place in the world. But Ciri isn't the only character with whom Geralt has ties. In The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Geralt meets old acquaintances and new faces, and his relationship with each of them feels real and nuanced.
This is in part because Geralt himself is excellently presented, just as most of the major NPCs. His voice-acting is spot-on (Doug Cockle is now comfortable with Geralt and is able to convey a full emotional spectrum with his almost deadpan delivery, a far cry from his weak 2007 performance) and his facial animations are excellent. But it's also because Geralt is a fleshed out character. While he has never been a blank slate, here CD Projekt made the conscious choice to abandon even the pretense.
Sure, The Witcher 3 still features pivotal and not so pivotal story decisions, but at the end of the game I had the sensation of having gently nudged Geralt along a certain path, rather than having controlled him. This is best exemplified by the dialogue options. They tend to be short and on point, while Geralt's actual responses tend to be much more articulate and can include some lengthy back-and-forths with the NPCs, even moreso than in previous titles.
I personally prefer to make my own characters, and when I can't, I'd still like to have as much control over their actions and dialogue as possible, but even I have to admit that this is the decision that made the most sense. Geralt is a character with a long history (and a delightfully daft sense of humor), and free of the need to cater to the whims of the most bizarre player decisions, CD Projekt could carefully craft a character arc and some really excellent dialogue.
But that's not to say that there isn't a chance to take a stance where it makes sense. Just as in the previous games, Geralt can express his feelings in dialogue, and make decisions that influence the outcome of quests and the fate of many characters. Some of the decisions have to be made within time constraints, a mechanic introduced with The Witcher 2. Thankfully it's used sparingly, and the time limits are as lax as they can be when the goal is putting pressure on the player.
There's a lot more to say about The Witcher 3, about how it perfectly captures the human cost of an invasion while recognizing that armies are formed by actual human beings, about how it manages to humanize without trivializing, about how it doesn't shy away from portraying both good and evil, and all the shades of grey in between, rejecting a simplistic "everyone is a bastard" worldview while still recognizing the complexities of human motivation.
A lot could be written about the ways the game treats family, the one that ties by blood and the one formed by choice, about the ways it seeds plot elements that won't get used until later in astoundingly natural ways, and about the ways it recaptures the atmosphere of the original game while still maintaining the most sophisticated aspects of The Witcher 2, but I'll stop here. Suffice it to say, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the best-written game I've played this year, the best written game in the series, and one of the most satisfying fantasy stories I've ever played.
Gameplay, Controls and Interface
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a third-person action-RPG in the same mold of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. When out of combat Geralt can walk around, jump, vault over obstacles, climb, swim, dive, ride horses (almost all of them called Roach), and even use his Witcher Senses to uncover clues and tracks. In theory, this should feel liberating and open up exploration avenues, but unfortunately the impact is dampened by the game's unfortunately poor controls.
This is largely due to the frankly ludicrous amount of input lag and the heavy momentum to Geralt's movement. Simply put, Geralt takes a while to start moving and a while to stop moving, which makes the controls imprecise and annoying. There have been times where I made Geralt fall and die even though I stopped pushing the stick in time. What I should have done is anticipate the fall by stopping earlier, acknowledging Geralt's momentum. Speaking of pushing the stick, I have mixed feelings about the state of the controls on PC. There is certainly plenty of good news: the standard gamepad and mouse and keyboard schemes are both perfectly supported, and it's possible to switch between the two on the fly without any difficulty. I mostly used the gamepad during my playthrough, but the mouse and keyboard controls cover all bases and include the sort of standard shortcuts and hotkeys that we should expect from a PC title.
However, neither of the control schemes feels great. The default mouse and keyboard keybinds felt clunky to me, as opposed to the generally more comfortable controller setup, but when it comes to navigating menus, using the mouse simply makes a lot more sense, as the interface feels designed around it (ironic, considering this is the first Witcher title to launch on more than one platform from day 1, though I won't complain). In spite of being seemingly PC-focused, the inventory isn't great either. There are very few item categories - books being sorted together with potions is a particularly egregious example - and it makes the inventory a mess to navigate. It is possible to automatically sort the inventory, but it can only do so much when it's so prone to get cluttered by design. A junk category would also have been welcome, simply because finding the loot you intend to sell is a real pain.
On the higher difficulties the inventory hassles are really exacerbated by the need to go in the inventory and use or equip potions, oils and bombs often. It's possible to drink potions mid-combat again, unlike The Witcher 2, but oils have to be applied before combat. (correction: Contrary to my initial impressions, at least on the standard PC interface, it's possible to equip oils during combat.) These items need to be crafted with the appropriate components only once, and are recharged when meditating, provided you have alcohol in your inventory. It can be unintuitive at first, but it works well.
As for combat, it's a natural evolution of The Witcher 2's combat system. Signs have been rebalanced across the board to offer more but less overpowered tactical options. Blocking doesn't consume stamina and parrying requires precise timing. There are now two dodge moves too, a short side step for repositioning, and a long dodge roll. The camera is also a bit looser and more zoomed out during combat encounters, though it loses sight of the enemies a bit too often for my liking.
In the last couple of years I have been playing a lot of Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne, and in comparison The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt's combat didn't really do it for me. I want to be clear about this: I don't think the two combat systems are directly comparable. In terms of encounter composition, presentation and rules of engagement, the two game series are fundamentally different, and I'm not entirely sure The Witcher 3 would be better if it tried to ape the Japanese action-RPG series.
I do, however, think that the Polish developers should have put more thought into what makes a combat system work. The tuning is simply off. Collisions are often too large, and monster animations often play in staccato, with large moments of inactivity punctuated by attack animations with very short windups. Too often it's hard to understand what attacks Geralt will perform at a glance too, though fortunately the game is a lot more consistent than The Witcher 2 in this regard.
Overall, the game's combat system does the job but nothing more. A lot of the problems from The Witcher 2 are still present, but between the easier difficulty curve (the game is only moderately challenging at the start), and increased mobility options and responsiveness, it's perfectly serviceable. It's not the kind of combat that could ever support a whole game on its shoulders, but it made me groan a lot less than I had in the past with the series. I did still groan, however.
The Witcher 3 also includes a number of side activities that I'd be remiss not to mention. There is Gwent, a card game that replaces dice poker. I thought I'd miss dice poker, and I still do, but Gwent won me over. It can feel a little counterintuitive at first in terms of ruleset, but it's a fun and surprisingly engaging diversion, with a decent amount of depth. It wouldn't hold up in the real world, though, due to the prevalence of a few obvious winning tactics.
Horse racing isn't particularly fun. The tracks aren't signposted well enough, the controls are cumbersome, and the other riders don't seem to have to deal with the same stamina constraints the player has to. I ended up winning the harder races by positioning myself in front of the other racers while I was trying to regain stamina, which felt like cheating and didn't remind me of horse racing at all. The game occasionally expects you to chase people on horseback too, and that's painful.
Finally, there is fistfighting. While in The Witcher 2 it was a simple QTE minigame, fistfighting in The Witcher 3 uses the same controls as the normal combat, though the options are more limited (it's not possible to use signs and the attacks have obviously a shorter range). Initially it's on the easy side, but it soon turns into a more elaborate activity the requires you to study the fighting style of high level opponents. Not mind blowing, but certainly enjoyable.
Character Progression and Gear
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt's character progression system is a bit of a mess. I spent a lot of time thinking about the way CD Projekt handled leveling, and I still have no idea what they were hoping to accomplish. A bit of context: every time Geralt levels up he obtains a slight stat boot and an ability point. Ability points can be spent on skills, which are divided into four skill trees: Combat, Signs, Alchemy and General.
Once obtained, skills have to be slotted, and this is where The Witcher 3 gets slightly weird. Geralt starts with only three skill slots, and progressively unlocks more, for a total of 12 slots. There are also four mutagen slots, that can be freely swapped. The mutagens synergize with the trio of skills they're placed next to: the more skills of the same color (red for Combat, blue for Signs, green for Alchemy), the stronger the effect of the mutagen will be.
About the only advantage I can think for this sytem is that it maintains a semblance of character build even Geralt is fully leveled up, but it also takes away the pleasure of being overleveled in the first place and too aggressively pares down the amount of skills available at any given time. It also negatively affects the relationship between the player and character advancement: to get the most out of Geralt at an early level a player has to commit to a skill branch.
There are also a few other nitpicks: a lot of the early Combat skills are very boring, a few of the General skills end up being phased out very quickly, and the Alchemy abilities' effects are very poorly explained. I'd be more than willing to pass over these, though, if I felt the general design was more sound and had a clear direction, which I don't. At this point I'm starting to wonder whether it was a good idea to mix skill trees with a premade character with iconic abilities.
Loot isn't very good either. As usual, Geralt uses both a silver and a steel sword, though it's still possible to loot and equip other types of weapons. There are also various crossbow and bolt types, armors that come in three types (light, medium and heavy) that affect your playstyle, and trophies, which can be obtained by boss monsters and offer different stat bonuses. It's all very standard and very solid stuff, so no complaints here.
What doesn't work, however, is the distribution of loot and the progression curve. This is due to a mix of underpowered quest rewards and swingy loot tables. A roll of the game's internal dice can determine the difference between finding some common items or a rare piece of equipment, which will more often than not be better than one specifically crafted for Geralt as a reward for a very long quest chain.
To exacerbate the issue, there are level limits on equipment. It's perfectly possible to craft or find amazing items, just to discover that Geralt can't use them yet because he's not at the right level. It's a mechanic that cheapens the power curve and diminishes the rewards for exploration in an open-world game. Just like with the character progression system, I can't think of a real reason for this design decision, which makes it all the poorer in my eyes.
There are a few positive aspects to the way the game handles gear, however. Crafting never overtakes the normal loot progression like it does in other games, but it's still useful due to a few unique items that can be created and/or upgraded. For example, the unique Witcher sets found throughout the game can be upgraded to stay competitive throughout the length of the main storyline. It's a bit laborious, especially considering certain recipes require high-level crafters, but I didn't mind it.
Quest Design and Choices
Quests in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are divided in a few categories. Main quests are related to the main story and necessary for its advancement. Secondary quests are quests that might or might not be related to the main story, but that aren't necessary for completing the game (quests linked to important NPCs are part of this category, but so are quests that are completely unrelated to the story). Witcher contracts are paid contracts on particularly strong monsters. There are also some treasure hunts, which I don't think I need to explain.
The main and secondary quests in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are designed in more or less the same way quests were designed in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. That's to say that the quests excel at framing, pacing and very often offer interesting choices. Quests usually involve simple detective work and some combat, but often also make use of the game's side activities. They do, however, lack opportunities for the players to really feel clever and approach objectives in a non-obvious way.
For example, an early side quest, Wild at Heart, offers a linear investigation that can be interrupted before its natural end at the suggestion of an NPC, and ends on a moral dilemma. At no point is there any doubt as to how to progress: the game very obviously points what to do to the player, and Geralt draws every conclusion completely by himself. But the rest of the quest more than makes up for this problem: it's a well-narrated tale of love, strife, and dirty secrets, with a proper climax and moral dilemma at the end.
And there are many quests like that in the game, placed organically throughout the vast maps of the game. Taking a monster contract might naturally lead to an encounter with an old friend, for example, though it's perfectly possible to stumble on the situation simply by exploring. All quests are crafted with care, often so much that they could stand as their own short stories. They often feature multiple solutions, interesting dialogue, and a plethora of different activities.
The game's activities are also shuffled in interesting ways that keep the pacing interesting and the various small narratives unpredictable. The timed dialogue mechanic, for example, takes another meaning entirely when you have to decide whether to read from Dandelion's hilariously overwrought cue card or improvise some more realistic bandit dialogue (no, I'm not going to spoil the context). There are even times where a quest's predictable ending might take an unexpected turn and open another, radically different quest.
The Witcher 3 takes great pains to present choices that make sense and follow through with their consequences, though it never matches its predecessor on this front. Most of these consequences come in the form of story content and opened or closed quests, so the end result is that of a personalized narrative rather than a massively transformed experience. The game also offers save imports from The Witcher 2, though it feels mostly inconsequential, and three different playable epilogues that are accompanied by ending slides.
It's all great stuff that capitalizes on the best elements of the series, and the consistency on display is frankly incredibly impressive. After completing the game, my quest log was still full of potential stories to explore, and I can't really think of an actual disappointing quest. This is the mark of a great game, and one of the reasons I'm so impressed with The Witcher 3.
The Open World
The open world was one of the biggest selling points for the game pre-release, so I'm practically obliged to dedicate a few paragraphs to the way CD Projekt RED handled world design and content distribution. First of all, a clarification. The Witcher 3 isn't an open world in the same way The Elder Scrolls games tend to be. The game doesn't feature one contiguous map, but two main, very large areas, and a couple of smaller ones. That said, the various regions themselves work effectively as open-world maps, with all the open exploration we've come to expect.
Each of the regions has its own feel. For example, Skellige is an archipelago with vast mountain ranges. This radically changes how the player traverses the area: going from point A to point B often takes twists and turns, and to go from an island to another you're forced to either use a boat or use fast travel. Incidentally, I'm really pleased with the way The Witcher 3 handles fast travel. Geralt can only fast travel from a signpost to another signpost, provided he discovered it first.
The placement of signposts, points of interest, and locations is very smart too. The maps feel dense without feeling compressed, and CD Projekt has been smart into weaving small vignettes where it makes sense, and rejected the temptation to go for high stakes all the time. There are treasures hidden in nooks and crannies, stories told through the environment and notes, bandit camps, and more. In all fairness, the exploration pace can start to feel repetitive after a while, but it does offer a nice break from the main questing.
Ultimately, I feel that The Witcher 3 didn't necessarily need to be open world. In hindsight, the only thing the game needed was to be on a larger scale than the previous two chapters, something at which it succeeded. But the open world implementation does not detract from the gameplay at all. Indeed, the feeling of scale and freedom offered by the game often enhances the story moments, as they feel more grounded in an actual world and less artificial as a result.
I mentioned the presentation in passing when talking about Geralt, but I worry that perhaps I haven't been clear enough: The Witcher 3 looks and sounds absolutely fantastic. While CD Projekt encountered some very vocal backlash for refusing to admit that some of the lighting solutions and effects used in the early trailers have been pared back by a significant margin, there's no denying that The Witcher 3 looks really good.
This is a world that matches its great scale with great attention to details, and it's enveloped by some lovely dynamic lighting based on the time of the day and weather conditions. The game also boasts some pretty impressive facial and body animations during cutscenes. They easily beat anything BioWare has released so far, and no shortcuts have been taken despite there being a lot of cutscenes (I can't actually think of a quest without at least one).
If someone pointed a gun at me and forced me to think of any failures related to the game's looks, I could certainly think of a few, though. In the long run, the recycling of NPC faces becomes extremely obvious, in spite of the different hair and clothing combinations. And speaking of clothing, for some bizarre reason CD Projekt's artist decided that the early armors Geralt has access to should look like poorly made Christmas sweaters, which is a far cry from the intricate armors from The Witcher 2.
The Witcher 3's audio department stands up to its visuals, thanks to a soundtrack with a lot of personality and some solid voicework. Voice actors from the previous games come back to turn in their best performances yet, and most big NPCs also offer some very convincing performances. The generic NPCs are more of a mixed bag. There are frequent comical bouts of overacting and simply not enough voices for the gigantic cast, but it's something that's easy to forgive when one considers the scale of the project.
Overall, though, The Witcher 3 looks and sounds amazing.
Bugs and Performance
The Witcher 3 is an open world game. You all know what it means by this point. There are bugs, a lot of them. My experience with the game hasn't been too bad on this front, but I'd be lying if I said The Witcher 3 is polished. I've had a few crashes, sometimes characters would spawn in T-pose and without a face, even during important cutscenes, Geralt's beard would sometimes disappear and reappear during a scene, and so on. Luckily, though, none of the quests broke during my time with the game.
CD Projekt has been aggressive with patches after the launch of the game, so hopefully the really bad bugs will be squashed soon and more quality of life options will be added in the near future. The patches have also helped with performance somewhat, but the game still requires an impressive rig to run with all bells and whistles turned on. I managed to squeeze a decent framerate from the game with a mix of medium, high and ultra settings on my mid-range rig, but getting really stable performance levels from the game is a bit of a challenge.
There's a lot more I could have said about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (yes, I know, Geralt's beard grows back dynamically after being trimmed), but it's about time I offer my conclusions, in case what I think about the game isn't already obvious.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt isn't perfect, but its achievements leave me in awe. This is a game that matches and often surpasses its two predecessors in terms of art, writing and quest design, while offering as much content as many juggernaut open-world titles developed by teams that number in the thousands.
It's a game that mechanically sits side by side with the mold of current generation, triple A titles, without losing the peculiar personality that made the original The Witcher resonate with me and many other RPG players.
Perhaps The Witcher 3 would be better as an action-adventure, with a streamlined loot system and no character system. But I'm glad it's an RPG. If nothing else, because it gives me an excuse to gush about it on an RPG-focused website. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is amazing. Bring on the expansions, CD Projekt RED. I'm ready.