I love this time of year. As odd as it is to long for a time where video game releases are few and far between, the holiday season can be overwhelming with nearly every AAA release coming out at once. Contrast that with May, whose only major release I care about can be my sole point of focus, and if I finish quickly I have time to knock things out of my backlog. Can’t really accomplish that in November.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is definitely a game I would’ve had my eye on regardless of when it came out. I was impressed by the previous two entries and longed for more adventures in the boots of Geralt of Rivia. My main concern with the game is that the scope was starting to get almost too big. CD Projekt Red was trying very hard to dwarf Skyrim in terms of content, and having an open world that massive can lead to trouble from a QA standpoint. Hell, the game had already gotten delayed once. I’m happy to say though, that the game lived up to all of its lofty promises and then some.
If you’re not familiar with The Witcher, the games are based on a series of Polish novels, only a handful of which have been released in English. Fortunately, the games don’t require prior knowledge to fully understand and enjoy them. You don’t even have to have played the previous games in the series, though towards the beginning of The Witcher 3 you will be asked a series of questions based on events in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings that slightly alter your world and tweak its outcome.
You play as Geralt of Rivia, who is known as a Witcher, a sort of mutant/human hybrid engineered specifically with the intent of killing monsters. Witchers are subjected to torturous injections and arduous training from the time they are children up until adulthood in order to become as skilled as they are. One such trainee, a lass known as Cirilla (or Ciri for short) is on the run from the Wild Hunt. Ciri was trained personally by Geralt and as such, he looks at her as an adoptive daughter of sorts. And as any fatherly figure would do, he takes it upon himself to seek her out and discover just why it is she’s being pursued.
As simple as the synopsis is, the writing in The Witcher 3 is phenomenal. Geralt crosses paths with many characters, each with their own set of problems that he must help fix in order to gain leads as to Ciri’s whereabouts. The story is also told through dream sequences and flashbacks, some even allowing the player to take control of Ciri to play through her segments rather than be told what happens to her, which is a bonus. There are also a ton of sidequests not related to the main story that are worth pursuing just to see the conclusion of an NPC’s character arc. You’ll help friends tie up loose ends, families avenge their brethren, or take sides in a village wide feud on what to do with bloodthirsty monsters that plague it. And that’s all on top of diversions that exist purely for the humor.
Because the characters are so chatty, players wanting to just jump right into the action will be put off by the amount of dialogue. Though fans of Bioware’s recent titles should feel right at home with these proceedings. And just like Dragon Age and similar games, many of the decisions you make will directly influence the world and the ending you get. Some choices even have to be made within a limited amount of time, so you won’t always have time to think about whether or not you should intervene in a situation.
The Witcher 3 looks fantastic as well. Characters animate fluidly and move in a believable fashion. The distance you can see is incredible, and the game abides to the rule that if you can see it, you can go there, whether it be by boat or horseback. Some of the CG movies had some stuttering issues (though this has since been corrected with a patch), which was a little disappointing to see while watching the opening sequences for the first time. The VA’s that you’ve become familiar with reprise their roles, including the gruff Geralt. The narration given by Dandelion on the “story so far” loading screens is rather spot on as well. And let’s not forget the stellar soundtrack, which is included with the game if you bought it at retail. Big thumbs up to the presentation overall.
The combat more closely mirrors the second game than it does the first, which means the game has more of a Fable/Kingdoms of Amalur vibe. Geralt can be equipped with two swords, a steel one for humanoid opponents and a silver sword for monsters. He automatically pulls out the correct one for the monster he’s fighting, which takes away from the strategy a bit, though it’s admittedly helpful in the heat of combat. You can use X for a quick swing, Y for a powerful attack, and A to dodge. Witcher signs, bombs and crossbows can be mapped to your right shoulder buttons for extra utility, plus the directional pad will activate any potions at your disposal. If you hold down the left trigger, you can block attacks so long as you have the stamina to do so, though hitting it just as the enemy strikes will allow you to parry. It feels weird at first, but you grow used to it over time.
Much like the recent Batman titles, Geralt’s Witcher senses will highlight things in the environment that can be looted or are otherwise important for progressing the story. This comes up a lot, making this into a sort of Victorian era CSI. While it is useful for figuring out what needs to be done next, it’s relied upon far too much for plot progression and slows the pacing down. Still, its utilization for tracking down drunk Witchers was quite hilarious, and forgives this somewhat.
One thing I found to be problematic so far as controlling Geralt is concerned is that despite being a super human/mutant hybrid bred for killing, he can’t fall more than five feet without killing himself. Just the slightest leap from an elevated area will cripple you with damage, forcing you to down some potions or meditate (on easier difficulties) in order to regain health. I guess the devs REALLY wanted you to use the ladders and stairs they so painstakingly constructed.
Geralt’s horse, Roach, can be summoned from anywhere. Which is good, because you’ll need the extra horse power. The map is huge and fortunately the signs that you pass unlock fast travel for that location so you can warp between points on the map at will. Navigation is also aided by your minimap, which points the way towards your next objective for whichever quest you have selected. Depending on the terrain, the dots tend to get hidden on trails that are lighter in color, plus it gets finicky while you are in motion. But for the most part, it’s a useful tool to have.
Quests vary between killing specific monsters to playing cards to even participating in a fist-fighting championship. These quests/contracts can be obtained through random encounters with NPC’s, though there is a quest board in each town that will supply you with things to do. There are also numerous question marks dispersed around the map that will unearth hidden treasures and monster nests that are worth investigating as well. In other words, there is no shortage of things to do.
When you’re not hacking drowners to pieces, there’s an alchemy system in place for constructing new potions, though it’s far more simplified compared to its predecessors. Once you have the components together to construct a new potion or oil, it’s in your inventory for good. You’ll never have to construct it again. How do you get more, you ask? Meditate for a bit with some alcohol in your inventory and it will replenish your supply. Blacksmiths can construct new weapons and armor in much the same way, just so long as you have the necessary materials. There’s a durability system in place for equipment that depletes as it’s used in battle (at an alarming rate, I might add) but you can get any one of your items repaired at a blacksmith or by using a matching kit.
Despite the myriad of difficulty settings, there’s a weird balancing issue towards the beginning of the game. Each quest that you obtain has a suggested level attached to it, though you’ll find that there are not enough quests in the opening areas to keep up with it, even if you do everything. This makes the opening hours, a period where you are just discovering the mechanics, far more of a hindrance than it ought to be in that stage of the game. Once Geralt grows stronger and the world opens up to you it becomes a non-issue, but still worth one noting.
Due to the game’s day/night cycle, you’ll begin to notice that certain events only take place at certain times of the day. There are a few obvious ones, like shops being closed during the late night hours, but folks needed for quests may be in bed or gone altogether. Nowhere does time advancement become more apparent than in Geralt’s face (or his beard, more specifically). That’s right: if you use the barber to shave Geralt’s beard, it will grow back completely within a few in-game days. I don’t know why this is such a big deal, but it’s the coolest thing and something more games need to see. Hell, I’d have put it on the back of the box.
It bears mentioning that my copy of the game actually came with a manual (gasp), which is a first for me with any game I’ve bought for the Xbox One thus far. It also comes with a map and a note from the devs thanking fans for buying the game, which is a nice little heart warming gesture. Also, there would be a selection of free DLC available to those who bought the game, with some available for download right now (and not just cosmetic either). Well played.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is everything that I wanted Skyrim to be. It’s a big game, sure, but the combat system is far more robust and the side quests drive a far more interesting narrative. This is a world that I care way more about getting lost in. There are still some nagging bugs to be worked out, but I’m impressed at how well everything functioned at launch compared to your average Bethesda game. In fact, I even enjoyed it more than the most recent Dragon Age title. This will be the western RPG to beat this year.
Short Attention Span Summary
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt makes its way onto current gen consoles on what is so far the most impressive RPG title to be found on the Xbox One. It looks and sounds great, plus the combat is solid and the writing is superb. Like all open world games, there are some issues to be addressed in terms of stability, but I surprisingly haven’t run into any game crippling issues. There is no shortage of things to be done, and even the most minor of side quests has better writing than the entirety of some games. There’s even a card game called Gwent that can be played with the majority of NPC’s if you find yourself amused by such things. It’s hard to believe this all came together in just a few short years. RPG developers, take note.