First introduced in Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels, the rich lore of the Witcher series immediately gained my admiration and respect. With a deep, detailed world, fully realised characters, and exceptional story, it provided a lore ripe for video game adaptation. CD Projekt Red took on this task and not only managed to encompass the lore and “feel” of the books – they made two exceptional RPGs that rate among the best I’ve played to date! The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the third in this series and, as you have probably surmised, one I approached with lofty expectations and no small amount of trepidation. Avoiding all press releases, I even took a week off work I to ensure my review was bereft of external influence. Whilst my bias is strong, I feel I have the integrity not to compromise this review and provide you with a reasoned summation of the BEST GAME EVER!
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt tells the story of Geralt of Rivia – A Gwent player who travels the world seeking opponents against whom he can test his skill. Considering neither of the preceding titles contained the card game (Gwent), this may seem strange; however, the ambiguity proves inconsequential, as the surrounding story and adventure distinguish The Witcher 3 from all other card game adaptations. When not competing in tournaments, you are treated to a gloriously rendered 3D world, in which you may progress the arching story while collecting cards and finding new challenges. Set among the warring nations of the Northern Kingdoms and the Nilfgaardian Empire, Geralt’s travels take him… ok, I’ll stop the charade. While Gwent is a mini game in The Witcher 3, it’s obviously not the focus.
Gwent is an excellent example of what makes The Witcher 3 so amazing, though. Mini games in the previous titles were lacklustre at best, but Gwent had me absorbed for hours. Apply this precept across every element in the game and you might begin to understand the level of detail and care that CD Projekt Red have put in to the experience. From the mechanics used for core gameplay down to the individual stories of the people populating the towns; the detail is astounding. Furthermore, they combine the best parts of previous games with proven concepts for similarly styled titles (Assassin’s Creed, Shadow of Mordor) to produce something that surpasses them all.
Set as a third-person action-adventure the game’s strength lies in its enjoyable real-time combat, meaningful choices, detailed story, and immaculate presentation. Unlike its predecessors, The Witcher 3 is an open-world game, allowing for considerable exploration outside the core storyline. Where the others were somewhat restricted by progression in the main story, The Witcher 3 blends open-world events with core quest events seamlessly so as to retain a tight world presence whilst allowing for the added versatility of an open environment. True to the established style, villages, side quests, and events don’t just house isolated occurrences, but affect the game as a whole. Save some children here and you may adversely release an evil spirit that slaughters a village there. Choice is a large part of the Witcher games and rife with moral ambiguity. Every choice you make has the potential to affect not only the short-term outcome of the conversation, but events that occur in later chapters as well. Why is this good? Because it makes you focus on your decisions and “role play” your character, rather than micro-managing every decision based on immediate results. With thirty-two endings, there’s certainly no shortage of encouragement to weigh your decisions carefully!
As with most RPGs, guidance is provided via a series of primary quests. Interestingly, regardless of whether it’s driving the core storyline or just something on the side, all quests feel unique and don’t devolve into boring “filler content”. At its core, completion is still about performing the same few actions, but they’re so well disguised it never feels redundant. Say you’ve got a quest to examine a “beast” that’s appeared at the local graveyard. Your first task is to travel to the map marker; however, your path is blocked en route, forcing you to solve a small lever puzzle. Shortly after, you encounter an injured NPC who informs you the beast is a werewolf. Do you ask him to lead you to the lair or follow the tracks and go it alone? You check the bestiary (your in-game encyclopaedia of beasties), learn the creature’s weakness, and prepare for combat. Upon locating the beast, you hear it mumbling to itself – do you wait and listen to it speak or do you rush in for the kill while it’s distracted? The outcome of the quest depends on your choices and makes for a considerably more absorbing experience. Maybe you took the villager with you, so you weren’t able to listen to the werewolf speak and had to resort to combat. Perhaps curing the werewolf earns you a lesser reward and spreads word of your sympathy, closing options at one village, but opening them at another. Regardless of the result, your control over how you resolve a quest makes for an engaging experience above and beyond a normal “filler quest”.
Whilst the quests themselves are varied and interesting, I didn’t particularly like the interface for managing them. Divided by type, it’s clear to see what quests you have and how you’re progressing, but there’s no clear link to the map. The world map shows the location of your next waypoint, but doesn’t help pinpoint the location, meaning you must scroll around the map to manually locate it. Furthermore, you can only display one waypoint at any given time, which is cumbersome when trying to decide what quest to do next. As there’s no clear indicator as to the quest that might be closest to your current location, you must resort to tab swapping for comparison. This isn’t a major issue, and only really a problem when you have many quests or want to avoid excessive travel – but a point I felt was worth mentioning.
Despite being a sequel, no preliminary knowledge or understanding is required before starting the game. Everything you need to know is imparted via game dialogue; however, as you would imagine, many references are more enjoyable if you have existing knowledge of the circumstance. For example, you may garner from dialogue that Djikstra and Geralt have a less-than-amicable relationship; however, if you’ve read the books, you can greater appreciate just how strained it is – and why. The Witcher 3‘s story is tied very closely with the novels – moreso than the previous two games, which used amnesia as a means to link to the lore without directly referencing the books. It does an excellent job of converging the two storylines (novel and game) while providing newcomers with a tale that is easy to follow and understand.
Game dialogue is well written, and structured in a way more like what you’d expect from a film than a video game. Emotions are cleverly imparted, using inflection and facial expressions in lieu of “just telling” you what a character is thinking. This gives conversations a very natural feel, and helps when you’re prompted to make a difficult conversation choice. Micro expressions let you know how Geralt reacts to the conversation around him and, more importantly, how your decisions affect him. If Geralt is disgusted by an NPC action, do you let it slide or argue your moral standpoint? Watch his face and body language with each decision and you’ll notice distinct changes. It’s hard to explain just how rewarding this is without providing spoilers, but rest assured it’s so seamlessly integrated that you probably won’t notice it unless you’re searching for it. Having replayed a few quests to test alternate outcomes, it was interesting to note Geralt’s demeanour when dealing with others. His face was visibly downcast or more happy depending on who he was talking with.
The line between film and game is further blurred by CD Projekt Red’s use of virtual cinematography. Their awareness of space helps emphasize character point of view, creating a mood that most other games just don’t have. Seamlessly integrated with gameplay, this is further enhanced by the outstanding graphical presentation and quality of the title. Now I know “graphics aren’t meant to be important,” but they can certainly help enhance an experience. The attention to detail displayed creates an aesthetically pleasant and believable environment, while fidelity adds the level of detail to make it “pop” under scrutiny. Small effects, like individual strands of hair and tree branches reacting to the wind, or the light bouncing off reflective surfaces, don’t feel gaudy and helps maintain the illusion that you’re looking into a real world – not a digital representation. The aesthetic appeal of the game isn’t just restricted to pretty views though – every location is unique and feels like it was designed with practicality in mind. I can’t imagine how much time was spent designing areas in game, but nothing feels out of place and is exactly as I would imagine it in real life.
Surprisingly, the versatility of the design doesn’t impede your interactions or affect the realism. Good spatial design and accurate edge detection gives objects a feeling of weight or substance that makes every object feel tangible. There are, of course, a few exceptions, the most noticeable of which is the occasional invisible barrier. You are able to climb most ledges in the game; however, there are a few where, for story purposes, you aren’t meant to pass. Unfortunately, rather than provide a visible deterrent, you often find you’re just unable to climb the barrier. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s noticeable when it does, and is a little annoying. Am I approaching this head high wall wrong, or am I not meant to be able to climb this one?
In fact, there are a few movement quirks that feel a bit “off” in The Witcher 3. Much like Assassins of Kings, you aren’t able to pivot on the spot, you can’t walk backwards and interaction points for objects are very precise. This can prove frustrating when trying to activate small objects, as if you overshoot the trigger point, you must walk forward and perform a U-turn to go back for another try. This is especially noticeable in close quarters, underwater areas (of which there are few) and when using your “Witcher sense”. Witcher sense is a new feature for the series, and is used when investigating leads for quests. Similar to the detective mode in Batman: Arkham Asylum, it’s used to highlight objects you can interact with – orange for regular items and red for quest-critical ones. It feels a little “cheaty” at times – instead of searching a room for a quest item, you can simply activate your Witcher sense and make a beeline for the red object. My main issue with Witcher sense, though, is that the camera zooms in close when activated, and movement becomes a lot less precise. Whilst minor in the scheme of things, it did exacerbate the issues I had with moving and interacting with items.
Fortunately, these issues only really pertain to precise interactions. Navigation around the world is easy and incredibly streamlined, with three forms of movement at your disposal. While walking or running is a good way to explore, it’s not always the most efficient. For this reason, you’re given Roach, Geralt’s trusty steed, who doubles as Geralt’s inventory – upgrade his saddlebags to carry more items. Navigation on Roach is a breeze, as you can simply hold a button and he will follow the current road/path, or you can manually guide him to travel considerably faster than on foot. As an added bonus, Roach isn’t affected if you’re encumbered (carrying too much and unable to run) making it considerably faster and easier to reach a merchant and lighten your load. Key map locations are connected by fast travel markers, so there’s very little time wasted traversing the environment to reach a destination. In such a large game, ease of movement is essential to enjoyment, and CD Projekt Red nailed its implementation in this case.
The Witcher 3 has some of the best voice acting and one of the greatest sound tracks I’ve heard in a while. Alternating between orchestral, vocal, and tribal music, the audio is contextual to the situation. Always adding emotion to scenes, it never feels out of place. Voice acting is exemplary, with vocal inflection used to impart how that character is feeling. Coupled with facial expressions and great character design, this makes all characters feel fully fleshed out; from a core character like Yennefer, all the way down to a scared peasant asking for help with the local ghouls.
For those unaware, a Witcher is a mutated human with a good working knowledge of alchemy and monster biology. This knowledge, coupled with honed swordsmanship and basic sorcery, are the tools with which a Witcher plies his trade – monster slaying. While monster hunting was included in the first two Witcher games, it never felt as integral as it does in The Witcher 3. Monster Contracts can be taken up at any time and operate somewhat similarly to quests. You must learn about the monster, choose a path of resolution, and exact it. If you choose to fight a monster, you must learn it’s weaknesses and exploit them in order to succeed. This was seamlessly integrated into the open world to accentuate the environment, whilst providing alternate forms of challenge or entertainment. My only gripe with these was that I felt the rewards were in contrast with the in-game economy. During main quests, a chest full of riches may contain 120 Crowns, yet a poor village scraping together a “meagre sum” for a contract will give you 400 to kill a beast.
As with most Western-style RPGs, The Witcher 3 utilises action-based combat with a heavy reliance on statistics and levelling. Most levels are gained by completing quests rather than just killing monsters, which helps discourage “farming” to overpower your way through the game. Statistical comparison between items is simplified – equipping, modifying, and crafting of items provides colour-coded indicators. Combat is never dull, and allows for a great deal of versatility in the way you execute your kills. Different weapons affect enemies in alternate ways, and you can use potions, oils, Witcher signs (spells), and differing attack styles to affect the result of a fight. Knock an enemy down or get their health low enough, and you can perform execution moves, which are both satisfying and visually appealing. While some dexterity has been sacrificed for visual appeal I felt melee worked very well and was both enjoyable and satisfying. An interesting addition to the third game is a crossbow, which felt too weak and cumbersome to be of much use for anything other than knocking flying enemies from the sky. It can also be used underwater, but is far too weak to be of any use – although it is very good at attracting swarms of drowners.
Unfortunately crafting has been considerably “dumbed down” in The Witcher 3. Low ingredient weight and a clunky interface trivialises the resource gathering process, resulting in a “collect everything” mentality. After your potions, oils, and bombs have been created once, they automatically replenish when meditating, meaning requisite search for components is almost entirely removed from the game. It’s a strange move as, while it reduces the requirement to micro manage your consumables, it’s still interactive enough to be a nuisance. Luckily herbalists often stock all the ingredients you need so you can just ignore resource gathering altogether and purchase what you need, when you need it.
Combat in The Witcher 3 can be quite complex or very simple depending on the difficulty you choose. If you choose “just the story!” you can just mash the attack button and win most fights. If you choose “story and sword!”, it’s a little harder, but nothing a potion or better sword can’t resolve. The “blood and broken bones!” difficulty is, in my opinion, what should be considered “normal”. Melee is important, but to succeed at more difficult fights, you really need to learn and exploit enemy weaknesses. What oil should you use on your blade to increase damage against a wyvern? What bomb is most effective against a werewolf? Should you use the Igni Witcher sign for best effect, or try to trap the fogling with Yrden? There’s great variety in the combat, but unfortunately it’s not likely to be realised on the bottom two difficulty levels.
However, an easy experience might be what you’re after, as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a very long game. At the time I write this review, I’m about two thirds of the way through Act 2 and that’s after a full week dedicated to playing and exploring the game. Even if you focus solely on primary quests, this game is going to take a while to complete, so if you’re not prepared for a lengthy experience, this perhaps isn’t the game for you. I feel that way about the Persona and Tales of… games, for example – although they don’t have the quest versatility and engaging story of The Witcher 3, so that’s probably not a fair comparison. This lengthy feeling is further exacerbated by the way primary quests meander. I understand quests must branch to provide extra content, but I felt it occasionally broke the immersion and sense of urgency they were trying to imbue with the dialogue.
It’s hard to be concise when talking about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, as the game is so expansive! There’s much I didn’t cover in this review, but I hope it’s given you enough to help understand why I consider this game to be the pinnacle of modern-day gaming. It tells an engaging story, replete with interesting characters, and provides a varying experience with real choice and impactful outcome. Most of all, it’s an absolute blast to play, and I can’t wait to get back to it. There are a few gripes that, when taken in context of the amount they got right, seem inconsequential, but shouldn’t be ignored regardless. If you like action-adventure games, you’d be remiss to let this one slip by.