The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has been in my hands for a couple weeks now, and for those two weeks I spent a lot more time than usual with a large, silly smile on my face.
I enjoy games. I love them, and I probably wouldn’t be who I am without them, but there are a few of them that make me feel truly happy to be a gamer. They make me feel fortunate for the fact that I’m able to travel their words and live their wonderful stories.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of those games.
During the past two weeks and even earlier, I have shaken my head reading disgusting crap (pardon the French) about the graphics being allegedly “downgraded,” or pundits shaking their fist at the title’s moral compass. Every single time I just looked at the game on my screen, and the smile magically came back.
Actually, I should say on my “screens,” because after receiving a PC review copy, since my new rig’s delivery had been delayed, I was very happy to purchase a PS4 version on my own to keep playing. The first few hours of the game easily convinced me that this was a game deserving my sixty bucks, and what came afterwards definitely confirmed that feeling.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt tells the story of Geralt of Rivia, a “freak” mutated and engineered to fight monsters, and still reviled and hated by those he protects. He’s no saint, and depending on how the player drives him, he can definitely be a cynical bastard and a borderline anti-hero, yet, he’s probably one of the most charming, deep and likable protagonists I have played in thirty years with a controller/joystick/mouse/keyboard in my hands.
It’s not just the fact that the folks at CD Projekt gave the player the power to truly shape Geralt’s choices. His personality feels like it has true weight, conveying the decades of experience weighing on his shoulders, the countless horrors he saw, the women he loved and the dilemmas he faced.
Most think of the “uncanny valley” as something purely visual. The Witcher 3 still didn’t cross that gap with its graphics, but it definitely jumps over that sort of uncanny valley that makes so many video game characters feel somewhat unnatural in the way they behave and see their own world. In the worn-out shoes of Geralt of Rivia I felt perfectly at home.
The rest of the cast is also masterfully designed and written. Meeting each character, including many secondary ones, is a true pleasure, with each conversation revealing a microcosm of emotions and motives that really feels natural and interesting at all times.
The world itself feels just as alive, and I’m not even talking about graphics. Most open world games feel pretty lifeless, with NPCs going about their lifeless routines, and a whole lot of space barely filled with not enough substance. The World of The Witcher 3 is so rich that I often felt like just cantering around on my horse at the slowest possible pace to observe and enjoy what was going on around me.
Something that really stroke home is how the game tackles the depiction of war: many games touch the topic, but few manage to do it in a realistic way that truly stirs the emotions it should. I don’t think I ever played a game (especially of the AAA sort), that really made me feel the tragedy of war as something tangible and omnipresent as it should be.
In most other games war is simply a plot device, while in The Witcher 3 it’s a living and breathing entity that pervades everything around Geralt, and its tragic nature that eats everything and everyone hits the player like a hammer in the face. Even The Witcher 2 failed to achieve this, mostly due to the excessively supernatural nature of the events associated with the theme. It still felt a lot like a fairy tale conflict.
On the other hand, war in The Witcher 3 is something that touched me deeply, as it’s tangible and tragically human. One of the first quests you’ll play, sends you to search for a missing soldier in the middle of the field of a battle happened a few days before. That was no heroic conflict. It was a massacre fought by peasants and farmers drafted to go to their death, faced with a horrible death followed by oblivion as their corpses were left to rot on the battlefield, with of their relatives too busy trying to survive in the devastated countryside to even go look for them.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of a very realistic and touching depiction of war that permeates every village, every field, and every little corner of the world of this game. I’m not ashamed to admit that I found myself just riding over a forsaken battlefield, surrounded by broken corpses and burned banners, and I cried.
It didn’t even happen just once, or in story-driven moments. It happened at times in which I was simply traveling around, with emotions stirred by those lonely, derelict battlefields and by the perfect background music underlining that desolation.
And music is, in fact, another of the most satisfying aspect of The Witcher 3, that comes with an absolutely fantastic soundtrack, basically always on point with what’s going on on the screen.
It operates side by side with top-notch voice acting, led by a Doug Cockle in top form. Even more than in previous games of the series, he pulls the “raspy voice” dark hero without a hitch and without feeling forced, all the while managing to still convey just the right degree of emotion.
The game’s visuals are nothing short of fantastic, especially for an open world game, a genre in which minute detail often has to take a back seat to the demands of tight asset streaming, and in which designers often get distracted by the need to fill the space within the constraints of time and budget, instead of truly creating.
The Witcher 3 demonstrates that it’s possible to create a large open world without skimping on its small components, and every corner is a pleasure to observe and explore. Rolling hills, impervious mountains, and dangerous cliffs… Everything is artfully arranged down to the pixel to create a picture that satisfies the eye and stimulates curiosity.
Cities are especially beautiful. They’re big, complex and features an enormous amount of variety, exactly like a realistic city should be, and that’s something seldom achieved in games with the current level of technology.
Foliage is the only aspect that leaves a bit to be desired, with textures that are a bit rough when observed from up close, but it’s a very minor flaw, mostly hidden by the omnipresent wind that will keep vegetation moving most of the time (with a very pleasant visual effect, I might add).
Everything is bathed in the ever-changing light of a beautiful day/night cycle, with weather and different lighting conditions for different regions ensuring that the vistas never get boring. It’s just a pleasure to watch.
Characters are equally satisfying, with faces that feature extreme levels of detail, and not just for main characters, but even for secondary NPCs to whom you’ll speak for just a few moments. The only drawback is that some faces have been repeated a few more times than I’d personally like. That said, most characters you’ll find yourself talking to will leave a lasting impression simply because of the attention and effort that went into designing their faces down to every little pimple and scar.
As I mentioned above, I played (and I see myself keep playing for a long time) both the PC and PS4 versions (and I tried the Xbox One version as well). While the PC version on ultra settings is absolutely astonishing in its visuals, the console port still feels extremely satisfying despite the slightly lower detail and occasional frame rate dips. If you don’t have a powerful gaming PC you shouldn’t worry about missing out. The Witcher 3 looks fantastic regardless of your platform of choice. For reference, the screenshots included in this review are from the PS4 version.
Gameplay is equally refined, and especially combat feels a lot better than in the previous chapters of the saga. Geralt has a lot of tools in his arsenal, allowing for a very wide range of approaches to almost every fight.
I don’t remember many situations in which I felt like I absolutely had to follow a certain approach, and juggling between sword fighting and magical signs is extremely satisfying. The level of challenge is not daunting, but it definitely keeps you on your toe unless you play on the easiest difficulty setting.
You can probably get by against the easiest enemies by just spamming weak and strong sword attacks, but you’ll soon feel yourself in need of mastering all of your tools and Geralt’s extreme mobility in order to survive.
Ultimately, fighting in The Witcher 3 is simply a whole lot of fun, even due to the extreme variety of enemies you’ll meet during your travels. You’ll often find yourself checking the bestiary in order to learn each beast’s weaknesses, and to devise new strategies to put them down. That said, my personal preference remains with human enemies, that in my experience keep offering the most interesting and fun encounters.
The only sizable flaw is that your swords tend to deteriorate way too fast, and that constant red icon on your screen tends to be a dampening factor to the enjoyment of battle. Having them repaired or taking care of the fixing yourself with a repair kit is easy enough, but it really feels like nothing more than an unnecessary genuflection to realism versus entertainment.
Crafting is another rather large part of the game, and you’ll often find yourself hunting for ingredients for both the extensive alchemy system, and to create new equipment.
Alchemy in particular has been changed radically from the previous game. Now potions don’t need to be drank before a fight, but are instantly accessible in two quick slots or even from the inventory while you’re fighting. This will probably make a few fans frown, but ultimately it turns alchemy into less of a niche element that you’d use only before boss fights, and more into a useful tool against every enemy, no matter when or where.
As part of this change, potions, bombs and oils don’t need to be prepared manually every single time. After unlocking each recipe, you’ll always have a certain supply of each item available, and it will replenished every time you meditate.
This has been pointed at by many as a change enacted to appease casual gamers, but ultimately I found it to be a smart choice, aimed to turn alchemy into a fun and powerful system more than into an overly situational chore fueled by endless flower-picking.
While a limited amount of effort has been made toward streamlining, The Witcher 3 retains very deep RPG elements, with extensive character building, allowing for an extreme variety in how we specialize our own Geralt. That’s definitely refreshing.
Too many “RPG” series have abandoned a large portion of their deeper RPG systems in order to focus more on the action, but CD Projekt RED did not make that mistake. To fit the needs of those who don’t really want to spend too much time min-maxing options and crafting items, they simply created an extra-easy difficulty level that allows the player to ignore most of these aspects.
Yet, those who enjoy spending time to create their perfect build won’t feel like they’ve been neglected. While many modern games of the genre seem like action games with some stats tacked on to them, The Witcher 3 definitely feels like a love song to those that actually enjoy RPG titles and everything that comes with them.
That said, the game’s best RPG feature isn’t in its stats, in its character building or crafting, but in how much the player can actually roleplay. Few games offer so much variety of choice and so many unpredictable consequences to these choices.
Not only the way you behave during the story will radically change the ending, but it will strongly affect your perception of both the world and of Geralt, not to mention how the world will react to Geralt’s actions. That’s what really characterizes The Witcher 3 as a truly fulfilling RPG.
This isn’t just expressed in the main storyline, which is absolutely engrossing on its own, but even in “minor” quests. Airquotes are obligatory, because very few quests truly feel minor. Simple fetch quests are almost non-existent, and basically every mission, including contracts, has a meaningful story and leads to interesting events, or to learn something important about this or that character.
While most open world games have a whole lot of meaningless padding around their main story to help them feel “big,” CD Projekt RED managed to pair the typical large amount of content of the genre with a density and quality that are definitely unprecedented, minimizing boring “errand boy” tasks in favor of much more meaningful content.
Unfortunately, the vast amount of quest-related content and the unpredictable nature of open world games with prominent systemic elements, caused the game to be shipped with a certain amount of glitches and bugs, but we aren’t even close to the levels that we’ve seen in many other titles of similar size and scope, and the issues aren’t widespread enough to make the experience much less enjoyable.
Last but not least, there’s Gwent. RPG purists might find it a little disturbing, considering that it’s an obvious breach of the world’s lore. Basically, it’s a collectible card game, and it fits into Geralt’s world pretty much like cars or wristwatches would, but let’s be honest here, it’s incredibly fun and addictive, and it’s just one more addition to the enormous package that comes with this game.
The mechanics are simple, but the multi-turn approach in which the player needs to balance between winning each turn and holding enough cards in reserve to play the following ones is a stroke of genius, adding a definitely original layer of depth to the game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it released as a stand-alone mobile game in the future, because it would not fare badly when compared with the likes of Hearthstone or Magic 2015.
Ultimately, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a crowning achievement for CD Projekt RED. Eight years ago, a small and completely unknown Polish studio released The Witcher using an engine borrowed from BioWare. Back then, the game already shown clear hints of greatness, even if many elements seemed to be held in place with duct tape and spit.
Today, we can easily say that the students have surpassed the masters, placing themselves firmly at the top of the RPG food chain.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an emotional cavalcade across an enormous, compelling world that shows the love and sweat poured into its creation in every tree, building, character and quest. It’s almost everything I ever wanted from RPGs and open world games combined, and hopefully it will set an example for future games within the same space.
While I ride, fight, smile, cry and love as Geralt of Rivia, I’m happy to be a gamer. I truly am.