Release Date: May 19, 2015Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: CD Projekt REDPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentGenre: RPG
Beginning life on the PC, where it made the jump from books to games, The Witcher series has become synonymous with adult content and stories that are dictated by the player. In this series, your actions actually impact the world and the characters within it, but this isn’t handled in an overly simple good or bad, red or blue manner. Here your choices are much more organic, blended into the game and its world, and Geralt isn’t a clear-cut hero. He’s a Witcher, a mutated human, trained to be an elite hunter of monsters. He’ll lend his skills to anyone, as long as they can pay.
As the series has grown and evolved, it’s changed in many ways.
The first game was a more complex, traditional RPG, whilst the second was a more action-oriented title, simplifying some of the RPG elements. With this, the third game in the series, things change again. Wild Hunt retains the more simplified RPG nature of the second game, but it has opened up the mostly linear plot into a sprawling open world setting. Although this world is still divided up into zones, these areas are vast, far larger than before, and the entire world is larger than most other RPGs.
It’s into this new, open world we reprise our role as Geralt, one of the greatest Witchers. Events have moved on since the second game, and early on you’re asked a series of questions about your previous actions (in quite a clever way). This means you can effectively carry over your progress and character from the last game. As the story opens, Geralt is looking for his lost love, Yennifer. Soon, however, events escalate, as these things always do, and you become embroiled in all sorts of events, including going up against the titular Wild Hunt.
Where to go, what to do?
As soon as the game begins, and you finish the short tutorial, you’re set free in the large opening area. You have a goal, as is common with RPGs, but you can also wander around, exploring the world and picking up side quests.
At first, the game is easily one of the most daunting I’ve played in a long time. It’s very easy to get into major trouble, as the game doesn’t try to make things easy for you. Even in the early stages, it’s common to encounter a group of high level enemies you’ll have little chance of defeating, and if you play on the harder difficulties, even healing is difficult, relying on food, which can become scarce as you’re forced to guzzle down wild banquets to get some health back. You can even stumble into some actual side quests, and be quickly thrown into a battle with enemies who’ll quickly stomp you into the ground, with your only choice to flee and fail the quest.
However, many deaths, some wins, and a few successful missions later, and you begin to level up and get stronger. You’ll also become more comfortable with game’s combat, an area where, even as a stalwart Witcher fan, I feel the game lets itself down.
The combat here is much the same as the system seen in Witcher 2. In fact, it’s more streamlined than before, which actually makes it more enjoyable in my opinion, at least on paper. In practice, though, the combat, whilst solid, needs some work. The main reason for this is Geralt’s overly sluggish response.
This is especially apparent when trying to skillfully dodge an attacking monster. You can dodge and roll with perfect timing, but often Geralt doesn’t respond fast enough, leading to lost health, or even death. Frame rate drops don’t help either (although I found this to be a rare issue), and the camera can make it difficult to navigate the environment and fight at the same time. Basically, the combat doesn’t flow as smoothly as it should. It’s still great, and Geralt’s mixture of attacks, spells, and potions make for a robust system that’s both enjoyable and rewarding, but it would have been so much sweeter if it was more fluid and responsive.
As before, Geralt still uses his twin swords, using steel for humans and other non-supernatural foes, and silver for all manner of ghosts, ghouls, and creepy nasties. Thankfully, this time Geralt automatically draws the correct sword for the job, which makes it easier to react to quick attacks and ambushes. His spells (signs) are just as, if not more useful than ever before. There’s a greater emphasis on them here, and they can be used more often. These can make the difference in a fight, and the right spells need to be used against the right foes. Fire can damage some foes greatly, whilst mind control can stun enemies, opening them up for attack, or giving you time to escape. I found it very satisfying using mind control against foes on horseback, forcing the horse to throw them off so I could stroll over and take them out with a single execution attack.
Potions are one of the Witcher’s special abilities, and like spells, they’re essential here, again, even more so on higher difficulties. Potions can heal you faster, increase your damage, and can also give you night vision. Many big fights require a lot of preparation, including the various Witcher contracts, and so having the right potions to give you an edge is imperative.
I see everything
Geralt’s other skills include his fantastically useful Witcher sense. This lets him see usable and secret items in the world, as well as detect foes at a distance. It’s also used when he’s trying to track people, or a monster he’s hunting. It’s a great feature, and one that’s used well, especially when you have to follow tracks of footprints or locate evidence. As useful as it is in specific situations, it’s also a constant benefit, as it makes finding lootable containers and secrets much easier.
All of these skills and abilities only further enforce the elite nature of Geralt. This is a man who’s very good at his job, and it outlines his position in the world.
Sadly, Geralt doesn’t have it all his own way, and making use of him and his skills are hampered by a couple of little niggles. Firstly, the menu system. Although serviceable, it’s a little overly complicated and is far from the smooth system it needs to be with such a range of options. You can quickly open the world map with a downward swipe of the touchpad, which is useful, but everything else is situated in a clunky menu system.
Weapon degradation is something that can really add to a game if done right. The Witcher 3 has it, but it’s not the best example, and in the early stages of the game at least, Geralt may as well be swinging swords made out of paper and sticky tape. After killing only a few enemies, your swords are likely to need repairing, which isn’t great when you’re a long way from the nearest smith, or don’t have repair kits on hand. Damaged weapons still work, but deal far less damage. As you’re often fighting enemies that are higher level than you, it can make things far more difficult than they already are.
Other issues include the tiny text size for many menus and item descriptions, and some annoyingly long loading times. There are also some bugs that have been found, which I’ve not noticed myself. These includes everlasting loading screens, crashes, and an inability to leave the tutorial. A patch is already in the works.
These are mostly minor issues, though, and ones that are highlighted much more only due to the quality of everything else here. Rest assured, The Witcher 3 is one of the best games of the year, and it’s a stunning example of what this generation of consoles, as well as the current tech level of PCs is ready to deliver.
If looks could kill
Visually, this is perhaps the most impressive game of this generation so far (despite the usual complaints about downgrading). As RPG worlds go, the locations here are some of the most detailed and realistic I’ve seen, with a multitude of different areas and environments. You’ll ride on horseback through plains, forests, and swamps, wander through the streets of towns and cities, and pick through dank caves and squalid dungeons. It’s all delivered with a fine eye for detail, which includes each and every character. Even the lowliest of NPCs are fully detailed, and the result is a living world, and one you’ll want to spend a lot of time in.
This is fortunate, as the game is big, very big. There’s a ridiculous amount to see and do here, from story missions and side quests, to the enjoyable Witcher contracts which are both investigations and boss fights, making the most of all of Geralt’s skills. Alongside all of this are various other diversions like taking out monster nests, finding places of power, looting guarded stashes, and even playing the game’s fully realized collectible card game, Gwent. You’ll rarely be without something to do, that’s for sure.
This treasure trove of content is wrapped up in a great story, undoubtedly the best of the series so far, and some of the most memorable and believable characters in the genre. Geralt is a perfect leading man, stoic and to the point, but not without a sense of humor or humanity, and the supporting cast, which includes many old faces from previous games, flesh out the world, lore, and story well. This is all enhanced by the impact you have, which has been refined further here.
So many times in the game your actions have an impact on further events, even when you’ll be totally unaware of this happening. For example, early on I was approached in a tavern by some unruly types, and my efforts at dissuading combat turned sour. I was left with no recourse but to turn to my blades. After my foes were dead, and the tavern owner not-so politely asked me to leave, I forgot about it. That is, until I arrived at their leader’s castle, where I was set upon by guards, and refused entry, even though I had to see the leader himself to further a quest. I was informed that the guards knew of my exploits with their colleagues in the tavern, and I had to find another way forward.
It’s this subtle use of player decision that really makes the Witcher‘s open-ended nature stand out, and shows that you don’t need a two or three choice dialogue tree to have players change the events in a game. CD Projekt Red should be applauded for this, and other companies, including Bioware, should take note.
Rise of the White Wolf
The Witcher 3 is one of those mammoth RPGs where a simple review cannot fully do it justice. There’s just so much to see and experience, with a story that will be very different from player to player, you have to experience it for yourself. Even then, to fully absorb everything the game has to offer, you’ll need to go through multiple play-throughs, making this a game that really could last months, or even years.
Mechanically, it doesn’t quite keep up with its ambitions, and the combat sluggishness, as well as an occasionally choppy frame rate and poorly designed menu do hamper it, but if you look past these problems, you’ll find one of the best RPGs of this generation, and a definite must-have title, regardless of your chosen platform.