I don’t have a lot of experience with The Witcher series. I’ve spent some time with the second game, but came in to Wild Hunt largely ignorant of CD Projekt RED’s work. I was somewhat sceptical of claims previous experience wasn’t a prerequisite to enjoying Wild Hunt, but it looks like CD Projekt RED are as good as their word. While a thick lore was always present I felt more intrigued than lost, wanting to uncover what was happening rather than drowning in a world I didn’t understand. It is a delicate balance and one that I hope doesn’t topple with extended play upon release.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is absolutely gorgeous. The sprawling vistas, stunning lighting effects as day turns to night, horses bucking and griffins swooping, those are all wonderful. Yet they play second fiddle to the facial animation and modelling. The scarred face and cats’ eyes of protagonist Geralt make him a fine model for the technological advancements four years and a new console generation can provide, but all of the cast right down to inconsequential NPC’s look fantastic. CD Projekt RED is boasting an open world 20% larger than Skyrim, and while our demo only covered a small corner of this world the scope is completely overwhelming.
The three or so hours I spent with Geralt on his latest adventure were split over two sections of the game: a griffin hunt that resembled but wasn’t identical to the 2014 E3 stage demo, and a later battle, investigation and chase enclosed in an icy mountain castle. Both highlighted improvements to the combat and movement systems of The Witcher 2; Geralt is far more acrobatic, able to leap, clamber, climb and run. Traversal wasn’t as fluid as Shadow of Mordor or Assassin’s Creed, there are a lot of chances for awkward moments among rocks, cliffs and trees but this is a small price to pay for the freedom on offer.
Horseback was the preferred method of travel on the griffin hunt, mounts can sprint, canter or walk with a convenient ‘hold button to stick to path’ option making longer journeys more manageable. Combat on horseback is perilous, it allows for quick escape but your horse bucks when scared and encountering monsters will soon see Geralt on the ground and his horse running for the hills. You have a Red Dead Redemption style ‘whistle for horse’ option which is incredibly handy but I found a few moments where my horse got stuck on the other side of a river or in the trees and I had to relocate and try again to summon him. Waypoints and quest markers were of great use in the open world but some twisting paths and long distances will mean you need to consult the full map before most journeys.
CD Projekt RED has 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.
A surprising amount of time was spent conducting Batman style investigation, using Witcher Sense to follow tracks and doing simple ‘crime scene’ analysis. It was an enjoyable diversion but only had one path to success in the scenarios I played and thus felt more like busy work than detective work. It was fun, but lightweight. The second scene followed a tense, brutal fight against giant grizzly bears with a straight criminal investigation that was limited to use Witch Sense and check the items and paths it highlights. It was a good storytelling tool but could be so much more, hopefully it used to its potential throughout the game. This limitation continued through the conclusion of that second investigation, where I had to present evidence and build a case against the accused. I felt that regardless of my efforts the scene would have played out the same way. I could be mistaken there, but the way the scene was written gave me that sense. It would be foolish to draw conclusions as to just how much your choices and actions matter throughout the game, even full reviews won’t get the chance to fully test that aspect of the game, but those hoping for complete influence over the game world should temper their enthusiasm until release.
Even in a short time with the game, epic moments were easy to come by. Spending an hour tracking down the griffin was rewarded with a suitably tense showdown while the aforementioned battle with bloodthirsty bears was challenging even with the help of several NPC’s. Searching through the aftermath of a battle looking for one particular body was made all the more eerie by doing so in the dead of night thanks to poor timing of the day/night cycle on my part. The Witcher isn’t afraid of a bit of gore or titillation but is indiscriminate in its approach, Geralt is just as likely to get out of a bathtub with a conveniently placed candle in frame as female characters are.
The Witcher 3 is going to be a life consuming game. It rewards exploration and offers a huge number of side quests, you could wander from the main path for hours. The game knows this and makes no apologies, but the systems that hold it together are strong enough to justify that level of investment. Fans of the series and the sprawling, open world style of RPG should be reserving a big chunk of their gaming time from May, The Witcher 3 looks like it will deliver on the promise.