- World Design
The Witcher 3 is at its most beautiful while galloping through the billowing grasslands as the sun begins to crest over the horizon, bathing the landscape in a sweeping warm light as an all-night storm has finally dissippated. After fifty hours spent experiencing those gorgeous moments across the game’s massive world, CDProjektRed’s incredible new adventure has me feeling like I’ve only scratched the surface, but has given me enough to know that I love just about everything there is to love about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The most surprising fact may be that for as well developed and as long running a fantasy series The Witcher is, this is my very first experience with it and has me captured and feeling like I’ve been along for the ride since the very beginning.
Geralt of Rivia’s epic adventure is meaty, immersive and incredibly satisfying. That word immersive gets thrown around a lot, but The Witcher 3 does so much to steal that descriptor from likewise massive open RPGs along the lines of Skyrim. For the first time a living, breathing world actually feels like it is living beyond it just being a buzzword. Towns feel individualized, with various townsfolk having detailed character models and smooth animations that allow for a strong suspension of belief that many other games so massive don’t seem to manage to master. Along with the game’s absolutely stunning environments and weather system, it feels so incredibly believable and it’s so impressive that a game this big can look this great.
Despite being part of a series spanning three huge games and two decades of literature, The Witcher 3 is designed specifically to accommodate hoards of new players who are taking on this beast due to the series’ newfound platform availability. In game notes provide plenty of interesting back story, and for the most part the game’s dialogue keeps away from talking too esoterically to confuse new players, but slips in just enough to get you interested in learning more about the well-developed world. Characters from the series past like Yennifer and Triss fall neatly into place within your vocabulary. Dialogue and in game stories bring players up to speed with just enough to feel like they aren’t sitting on the outside looking in on a story they aren’t familiar with.
Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher, a group of warriors stolen away from home as children and specifically trained to become soldiers that take on monsters that have invaded the continent. Witchers have enhanced reflexes, senses, and magical abilities all given by going through an excruciating mutation process using herbs called mutagens. Geralt is often cited as the strongest of all of the Witchers and serves as the protagonist of the series. While the world would fall into chaos without the Witchers, many people see them as outcasts and despise them for their abilities.
The Witcher 3‘s story is mostly standalone. A young girl who Geralt had trained to be a Witcher has gone missing and is suddenly the target of an immensely powerful and horrific group of warriors called the Wild Hunt, who are feared the world over. Within the game, you spend your time travelling across the continent in an attempt to find her before they do. In the meantime Geralt gets caught up in webs of quests and affairs that keep the player engaged for hours as storylines develop and unfold.
Delving deep into these side quests are where the real meat of The Witcher 3 is. Geralt has a well developed personality despite canonically having none. His cold, grumpy demeanor is caused by the mutagens draining him of all emotion. Geralt wants nothing more to just get whatever job he is working on done. But as the player you get to define what that entails through dialogue options. You may contract to discover the whereabouts of a lost woman only to discover a greater plot involving horrific monsters and a woman trying to pay you off to go back empty handed. Many quests have branching paths and can be played in any way the player wishes based on the way they choose to portray Geralt’s actions. These decisions often have consequences of varying degrees later on. CDProjektRed also does a fabulous job of keeping side quest variety high so that it’s always exciting to see a notice board pop up with new missions, or a randomly appearing one show up along your path.
Throughout these missions and the plethora of question mark events spotting the land players will run into roving waves of bandits and hideous (yet incredibly cool) adaptations of monsters from folklore. Drowners, griffins, werewolves, vampires, harpies, dragons and tons more are beautifully designed and animated and plentiful for the killing. Combat becomes a blast as most monsters test your skills in different ways with their attack patterns.
Combat as whole stands out as the weakest aspect of The Witcher 3. I still love it though, as it makes fights a spectacle to see. Mixing something like part Shadow of Mordor and part Dark Souls, The Witcher has a challenging combat system that requires a lot of fine attention to detail. Fast and strong attacks, as well as short dodges, full rolls, and parries make up this system. With how frail Geralt is, combat can be challenging, but also is beyond satisfying taking down a horde of enemies or a giant monster. The beauty of it, though, comes from the game’s great combat animations for enemies and Geralt himself. Nothing feels stiff or awkward, so each confrontation, from wolves to dragons, are epic and satisfying to both watch and play.
Downsides stem from the game’s less than stellar lock on system. Without locking on, Geralt tends to swing in whatever direction he is facing, which in most cases I found more reliable than the lock on itself. Lock on causes the camera to dip down, making seeing enemies around you difficult. Attempting to adjust the camera tends to haphazardly switch targets around, making it easy to accidentally miss attacks mid animation. With the game’s sometimes punishing difficulty, this could easily mean you get surrounded and wiped out by a group of bandits. Even then, sometimes the hitstun on enemy attacks are too strong, allowing you to get pounced on by several drowners at once and be totally unable to move.
Luckily, the battle systems at play in The Witcher 3 makes it possible to become good enough at the combat in most cases to take out just about anything you want. It’s not uncommon to take out a foe 10 levels higher than you with careful patience and well timed attacks and dodges.
The game also rewards preparation. Using crafted oils and potions, Geralt can power up against certain enemy types, increase his stats or build up auto health regeneration. Tip menus often encourage using the bestiary and your inventory to give yourself the best possible advantage during the fight. It’s definitely something to be considered.
In addition to preparation and getting used to the combat, Geralt has a collection of five magical spells that he can toggle through that have various effects in and out of battle. For instance, Quen forms a powerful shield around Geralt that allows him to take one (or more if you upgrade) hit without taking any damage, allowing you to rush down strong foes or deal with being surrounded. Others such as Axii take over the minds of enemies to stun them and can be upgraded to even take control of monsters. Outside of battle it can be used during dialogue in creative ways that make the narrative bits of the game a lot more interesting. These skills at first feel limited when compared to other RPGs, but after messing around in the game’s extensive skill trees, it soon becomes apparent the number of permutations to Geralt’s abilities that are available.
Sound brings the whole package together with everything from monster growls, to the sound of rainstorms, to the quick slice of Geralt’s blade straight through an enemy all sounding like music to your ears. The battle tracks to the victory sounds all add to the epic fantasy adventure. While I wouldn’t call this game standout for its soundtrack, it works to build up a world already worth visiting.
There is no question in my mind why CDProjektRed is on the top of many people’s beloved developers list. It’s unbelievable the package they’ve put together with The Witcher 3. Not only is the game totally content packed (with more coming in the form of free DLC packs and huge expansions), but it’s totally visually stunning. Whether you are a series veteran or new to the idea of donning Geralt’s blades, this game is very difficult to beat. As you watch that playtime clock rise and only uncover more and more to see and do, it’s hard not to become totally engaged in this world and it’s characters for way more time than you ever expected. Subconsciously, I hope that yet another side quest will pop up after I’m done with the one I’m currently playing, just so I can have excuse to play just a little more. CDProjektRed warned us that the game could top a whopping 300 hours, and I’m perfectly okay with that.