As the owner of a PS3 and a terribly temperamental laptop, I’ve never had the chance to immerse myself into The Witcher franchise before. The first game, The Witcher, was only available via PC; the second, The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, was available on the PC, and later the Xbox 360. Now The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is coming fast, and set to release to both PC and next-generation consoles, which for the first time includes Sony and the PS4. With developer CD Projekt Red growing its team and using next-generation technology, The Witcher 3 is being seen as an opportunity not only to invite new players like myself into the final chapter of The Witcher saga, but to expand what it means to be an open-world fantasy game.
When I sat down for my hands-off presentation at E3 2013, the first thing CD Projekt Red wanted to make clear was that even though The Witcher 3 is the last of a trilogy and the conclusion to protagonist Geralt of Rivia’s story, it is by no means a barrier to incoming players. With the massive empire of Nilfgaard entering into the fray and starting a world war, the slate has been absolutely wiped clean. This not only ties up all loose ends that were introduced in previous games, but allows CPR to tell a different story with Geralt, a more personal one. Does this mean that the theme of political turmoil and the use of side-stories will be completely absent? No, not at all. But it helps the team invite in new players while not ignoring what veteran players have experienced in the franchise before.
Also new to The Witcher 3 narrative are the eponymous Wild Hunt, a menagerie of ghastly phantom warriors who, even within the confines of the The Witcher‘s magical world, are a myth and legend to most. The Wild Hunt will be as much a driving factor for the narrative as the empire of Nilfgaard, and will also be part of Geralt’s personal journey. Where the first game started the foundation for the gameplay and world, and the second enriched the story and plot, the third is looking to take all of that and make for one deep, enticing game that will take Geralt’s tale to new heights, especially since The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the end of Geralt’s story (at least, for now).
The first thing we were shown to give us a taste of what makes Geralt Geralt was a great little CG animated sequence that involved our hero coming across a group of men trying to hang a woman. At first Geralt seems like he’s going to keep his nose out of their business, being told to shove off and go about his usual monster hunting. But then he changes his mind, literally ripping into the men using his enhanced senses, agility and speed to take down each aggressor until ony one remains. The final would-be killer, in fear, stumbles away, asking “What are you doing?” And Geralt responds in a low, grave voice: “Killing monsters.” He then leaves the last man, noose tied around his neck, for the now-free woman to do with what she pleases.
Welcome to the world of The Witcher.
Just like the previous installments, The Witcher takes its lead from The Witcher novels, written by Andrzej Sapkowski. Much of Geralt’s personality, the monsters he faces, and the situations he becomes apart of are based on the subject matter of the series. But what Sapkowski doesn’t quite do in his novels, according to CPR, is describe the actual world Geralt travels in, which became the developer’s aim for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt: to build a bigger, better, more fully realized world.
What the developers at CPR did was to split much of their world–which is said to be 35 times bigger than The Witcher 2 and reportedly 20% bigger than Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim–into three large and distinct regions, each with its own personality, its own history, and its own unique inhabitants.
No Man’s Land, for example, is said to be a sparsely populated, war-ravaged territory, and largely based on Slavic mythology. The land is full of murky swamps and dark primeval forests, with monsters that “lurk from behind every tree.” Its fields were stripped bare by passing armies, driving No Man’s Land to become a place of anarchy, and described as a place where “might makes right and gold buys life.”
Skellige, on the other hand, is a wind-swept and rugged archipelago, based mainly on Nordic and Celtic legends, sagas, and culture. Made up of a number of isles, this land is populated by a proud and noble people, which include monster-hunting and fame-seeking warriors, druids who guard nature’s secrets, and bards who sing of legends. The Skelligers are described as stubbornly independent, ready for war against the Nilfgaard invasion with their longboats, spears, and fierce fighting spirit.
The final region is called Novigrad, whose main port city and surrounding area are inspired by medieval Amsterdam. Novigrad is said to be a grand, rich, colorful and corrupt city, where players will witness the persecution of mages by an all-powerful cult, while simultaneously dealing with the underworld figures who plan to profit from the ongoing world war.
What makes Wild Hunt‘s world bigger and better is both a matter of size and quality. Not only is the world said to be so large that it would take nearly an hour of real-time to make it from one side of the map to the other on horseback (thank goodness for the Fast Travel option when mounts aren’t available), but The Witcher 3 will also have no loading screens or artificial barriers. Be it by foot, by horse, or by boat, Geralt can explore an entire world that lives and breathes like a real world. There’s even a full day and night cycle and a full weather system, both of which can affect gameplay. Fight a werewolf on a full moon at night, and you may want to turn tail and run; take a small boat or swim during a bad storm, and Geralt is vulnerable to shipwreck or dying due to cold.
This new emphasis on particular regions and realism also extends to the new economy system. Most games have players just go to a new town and buy new items. Here, where you buy certain items affects its price. Go to a community where bears are nearby, and bearskin items will be cheaper; go to a mountainous region far from the sea, and fish will be more expensive. Players could, conceivably, set up a whole business as tradesmen, traveling to and fro to gather items and resell them to different towns. But this realism with the new economy system works in other ways as well: like, for example, killing the merchants of a particular town could potentially cripple that local economy or cut off important contacts for particular goods. This is all comes down to the heart of the The Witcher franchise: consequence.
All of the NPCs you encounter in the game will be given their own duties, habits, and schedule to follow, marking a parallel with how a real community would exist. What you do affects not just your enemy, yourself, or the local area, but the world. The butterfly effect is a perfect concept for what CPR are going for in Wild Hunt, with everything you do said to cause ripples of various magnitudes. What you do to one man in one town can change the fate of another character you meet later; how you deal with one situation can completely alter a later encounter with another.
This also means a change in approach to quests, something CPR looks to make “more natural.” You may hear a man’s name thrown out in conversation, and think nothing of it, only to later encounter him and have something branch out from it. You may hear of a beast roaming the woods and terrorizing a nearby town, and later run into it and decide to tackle it. CPR is encouraging the idea of exploring when the urge hits you, something that goes hand-in-hand with their tearing away of artificial barriers.
During the demo, we got to see Geralt speaking to an old friend about the state of the world, and Geralt’s quest to find information on the Wild Hunt. His friend tells him about a man in another town who claims to have seen the hunt, and so Geralt decides to–without a prompt or quest checklist–go check out this man. On his way there, Geralt sees some ruins, and decides to check it out. There he suddenly comes across a “fiend,” a monstrous stag-like monster with large, sharp antlers and an ominous third eye in the center of its head. He had a decision: should he fight it, or ignore it? He decided to take it on.
Once it saw him, it went berserk and charged, and Geralt dodged immediately to the side. This caused the fiend to get its antlers stuck in the stone wall behind Geralt. This, too, happened naturally: no quick-time event or hint pointed out this tactic, it didn’t feel scripted or programmed to happen a particular way, it just happened. With the fiend stuck, Geralt attacked, varying between his acrobatic sword skills and fiery magic spell. The fiend freed itself, and seeing Geralt as a threat, turned to its special ability: altering the immediate area with some kind of spell that turns the air dark drains the ground of color (I honestly wasn’t sure how this affected either the beast or Geralt, but clearly it wasn’t meant to aid our hero). And this is where CPR wants to make each creature feel unique. With Geralt’s profession as a monster hunter, he has experience and knowledge on the weaknesses of many creatures he’s come across or heard about: and so Geralt would know (and players would too, through their bestiary) to strike the eye or the area around it, damaging its nerves. This would cause the fiend pain every time it attempted to use that eye again, making it less likely to use that same attack and in turn make Geralt’s job of killing it a little easier. At the end, the beast escaped, only for Geralt to comment on possibly tracking it down later, which CPR assured us would lead to a continuation of this “mini-story,” Geralt’s own Arthurian questing beast, if you will.
And that idea of being a monster hunter is something CPR most wants to return to with Wild Hunt (whose title, upon reflection, may serve several meanings). Geralt’s status as a witcher means he is magically engineered to be a warrior and slayer of beasts: CPR feels like this role was less present during previous installments, and wants to change that. But this doesn’t mean you’ll just stumble into a cave, find a monster to kill, and then the quest is over. In Wild Hunt, there are 80 new monsters being added to the game, all of whom have their own backstory, their own ties to the their local community, and their own abilities. These are monsters Geralt may have to learn about as he goes, adding a sense of discovery that is reminiscent of games like Pokemon and other monster-hunting/monster-breeding franchises.
This was shown off during the “Heart of the Woods” quest, which had Geralt come across a series of tracks that revealed a monster nearby. Using his special vision, he couldn’t exactly determine what beast it was–or if he wanted to deal with it–and so wanted to investigate. He comes to a town called Fayrlund, which is divided among two camps: the elders, and the youth. The elder believe they need to heed the destruction of the “Woodland Spirit” as a message from their local deity to change their misguided ways; the youth find nothing divine about their absentee deity (who has allowed them to suffer for too long) and want to have the “Woodland Spirit” removed. Geralt agrees to check it out, as long as they have the funds to pay for his troubles.
Geralt takes a trip into the nearby woods, taking notes as he goes along, which players can keep in mind for the fight to come. Using his witcher vision, he could determine that the creature was very strong, and decided it made no sense to attempt to parry blows, for example, should he ever come across it. Eventually he put his evidence together and decided it was Leshen, a territorial creature that draws its power from the forest and can mark an unsuspecting human as a vessel to be reborn through if ever slain. Geralt returned to the village and shared the news, choosing to tell the leader of the youth, Sven, that he should kill the marked human before the Leshen is killed, instead of simply exiling them (which would send the marked human far away enough from the Leshen’s home to render it incapable of resurrection). The youth enthusiastically agreed to kill whoever needed to be killed, who he assumed was one of the elders.
Through his bestiary Geralt also knew that crows were associated with the creatures, and so, when he saw that none of the Elders were marked, he followed the crows in his witcher sight to their source, which turned out to be the the good friend (perhaps even love interest) of Sven’s, Hilde. Sven tried to consider other options, but his allies reminded him of his zeal to do whatever it takes to make their home safe. Geralt left them to debate their plans and went on his way.
While tracking the monster, Geralt knew he had to destroy the Leshen’s connections to the forest to draw away its power. Using his witcher senses, he found the totems, but met opposition in attacking flora and ravenous wolves. One by one he destroyed them, and when done, used his senses to follow a trail of crows to the center of the forest. There he met the Leshen, a woodland demon more than a divine spirit, angry and powerful and waiting to kill. After a battle between Geralt’s fancy swordplay and magic, and the Leshen’s wolves, flora, and powerful punches, the Leshen went down, and it was time to take a trophy and prove to the village that the monster was slain.
Did the Leshen return through Hilde? Were the villagers still divided on what to do? Did Geralt return to smiles or pitchforks? I won’t spoil how the quest ends, but suffice it to say, it’s dark, and falls directly into the gray area that Witcher fans have come to expect. There’s even a sort of motion comic “epilogue” to what happens following your visit to the village, and CPR promises that you can visit locations after a mission or quest and find it still reeling from the decisions you made. Again, your actions and their consequences will change the world.
It’s clear from everything I saw that CD Projekt Red has its very own personal quest: to lure in gamers with a game that has well over 100 hours of content (reportedly), and to build a world as engaging and addicting as Skyrim. And from what I saw of this pre-alpha build (played on a PC with a gamepad), this game could very well succeed at its goals when the game releases next year to the PS4, Xbox One and PC.
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