The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the most grown-up video game I’ve ever played. Not only because of the confronting and frequent violence, its (both male and female) nudity, gratuitous cursing or endemic brutality. It’s a combination of these elements and an unrelenting look at a diverse range of adult themes that make Wild Hunt as confronting and satisfying as it is.
The drama of the narrative and the characters who populate The Continent form the heart of Wild Hunt. CD Projekt Red’s vision for its world is so fully realised that it feels like an actual, lived-in place, populated by elves, dwarves, magic and monsters; alongside real people with real lives. Like the best comic books, The Witcher 3 takes place in a fantastical setting but is grounded in a very human story: Geralt’s quest to find his adopted daughter, Ciri. This basic, human driving force is an interesting fit for Geralt, whom as part of his Witcher training is said to have been cleansed of all human emotion. Despite reports of the contrary, it’s clear there’s a spark of humanity left inside him.
Geralt is given a wide range of options when engaging in frequent conversations with NPCs, mirroring the Mass Effect-style. By default, Geralt is flippant when dealing with people and emotions, but there is usually the option for him to opt for a more human response. This is clearly an example of player choice by the developer, but works in favour of the story too. Geralt clearly can’t help but be influenced by humanity; his love for both Ciri and Yennifer revealing greater depths to him than should exist. In the opening chapters of the game, the sorceress Yennifer – Geralt’s lover and Ciri’s adoptive mother – is also missing and the impetus to find her and subsequently Ciri clearly casts Geralt as a man struggling with his own (lack of) humanity.
It’s that Geralt is an established character and not a ‘choose-your-own’ faceless, voiceless construction that really elevates Wild Hunt. A character with motivations, beliefs and his or her own voice will always be far more engaging than the dubiously more immersive characters of The Elder Scrolls. This counts for Ciri too, who players will occasionally take control of in flashback sequences that help fill in the narrative blanks of Geralt’s search.
Rather than having you view a far-removed cut scene, Ciri is endeared to the player because she’s, well, playable. I already cared a great deal about finding Ciri based on the strength of Geralt’s conviction alone, but once I was able to personally identify with her, the desire to bring these two characters back together was overwhelming. It’s a wise move on the developer’s part to occasionally break-up the gameplay by introducing Ciri’s sequences. They act as a carrot, enticing players back to the main quest which can be oft forgotten in the face so much additional content. I can honestly say that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the content on offer in Wild Hunt, it’s an enormous game and the more I played, the bigger it became.
The mission structure in Wild Hunt is like the mythical Hydra. Completing an objective — whether in a main or secondary mission — will usually create two or three additional objectives. Completing a mission will more often than not create a handful more. Wild Hunt feels like its ever-expanding, but you do feel a sense of purpose. The ever growing mission list threatens to derail your passion for finishing by making you feel like you’ve not made progress. Luckily, the design is so well constructed that each new mission and objective only spurs you on harder. Likewise when exploring; the more characters spoken to, the more missions there are: which in turn spawn more missions and on and on it goes. It can, on occasion, be exhausting to be certain that you’ve reached the end of a quest tree, only to discover you’re barely halfway.
In the over sixty five hours I’ve spent in the leather boots of Witcher Geralt of Rivia, I’ve been exposed to all manner of people, problems, tragedy and human nature, both at its best and worst. Domestic abuse, homosexuality, miscarriage, rape, transgender, alcoholism, racism, radical religious zealotry, bigotry and so much more exist in the world of Wild Hunt;. no concept is celebrated or derided. No spotlight is shone upon a specific issue; they’re simply presented as they are. It’s fascinating and often mortifying, but never a focal point. Much like the real world, these themes only serve to add to the tapestry and culture of The Continent.
Geralt rarely makes a judgement on any other character’s traits, opting to exist as a passive observer, knowing his role — in his own words — as a freak and an outcast. He is quick to violence, but only as a last resort, often opting to use words or a Witcher (read: Jedi) mind trick to diffuse a situation. Years of exposure to dozens upon dozens of horrors in his career means Geralt remains calm in the face of adversity and depravity. That said, Geralt’s sense of fatherhood is clearly a driving influence throughout his travels, but especially during one particularly harrowing mission. Without giving away too many details, Geralt is tasked with locating a missing wife and daughter. Suspecting the husband’s involvement and subsequently learning of the abuse suffered by the women at his hands, our protatonist flies into a rage. Every conversation with this character in the aftermath of Geralt’s discovery is tinged with fury and reflects upon his own need to find Ciri, not to mentionhis guilt at having lost her.
Though long, the strength of Wild Hunt’s narrative and gameplay means you’ll want to continue playing. Wild Hunt also allows players to progress at their own pace; while there is an almost limitless number of activities to participate in, you’ll never feel overwhelmed. Additionally, with so much on offer, it’s rare to feel bored. Feel like a change of pace? Go play some Gwent, or do a treasure hunt. Want some drama? Play the story. There are always enough options at hand to ensure every play style is countenanced. Plus, there’s the entire massive world just waiting to be discovered.
And trust me: it is massive. Prior to release, estimates have put Wild Hunt’s game world at around 20% larger than that of Skyrim. This is thanks to Wild Hunt’s release on current-gen consoles only. CD Projekt Red’s dedication to remove loading screens from their world is commendable.. The world stretches out in front of Geralt for what seems like an eternity and he’s able to explore it fully. Even when entering the interior of buildings the game refuses to cut to a loading screen. It’s a testament to the power of the new consoles — and of course the PC — and a great example of why cross-gen games need to die. That said, you’ll still encounter semi-regular loading screens when entering cut-scenes and upon death. They can be extended, but usually only when booting up your console for the first time and not once your session is live.
The game’s visuals are even more impressive than the lack of loading. Wild Hunt is a true beauty. It’s gorgeous and thankfully, largely manages to avoid the drabness of last-gen’s browns and greys. Fields give way seamlessly to forests and mountains. Lakes and rivers permeate the landscape while cities, villages and hovels sit scattershot across the land. The eye popping visuals extend to both the playable and non-playable characters alike. The most nobody of NPCs (villagers and the like) are noticeably uglier and have had less attention given them than more important characters, but largely, characters models are incredible across the board. That truly can be said of Wild Hunt as a whole. Playing on PS4 there was occasional texture pop-in, but the framerate remained rock solid no matter how much action took place.
While I’ve largely focused on narrative, let it be known that gameplay in Wild Hunt is just as important. While not revolutionary, actually playing Wild Hunt is an undeniably great experience. Combat is the most frequent occurrence outside of conversations, and unfolds like a mixture of Assassin’s Creed and the Batman: Arkham franchise. It takes longer to master than either as Wild Hunt refuses to hold the player’s hand, but once it clicks, the power of being a Witcher becomes all too apparent. Combining swordplay with Witcher powers and ranged weapons keeps combat fresh, and the wide range of enemies with different fighting style means you’ll always be on your toes. Outside of combat, there is a huge number of things to do all of which provide hours of content and hours of entertainment.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the first, real current-gen title I’ve experienced. Its refusal to compromise sets it apart from any game released thus far for this generation. Its skillful portrayal of many wide ranging and often problematic themes should be applauded, as should its narrative. Coming out of the recent controversies and issues associated with gaming, Wild Hunt takes a stance and it’s a brave one. While the dozens of hours required to even complete the main quests may deter some players with limited time, I’d suggest viewing Wild Hunt more like a novel or TV series than a film. Take your time, absorb everything it has to offer and revel in the first big steps forward in gaming for years.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was reviewed using pre-release code on PS4, as provided by the publisher.
Review: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt