First Impressions – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

I simply could not let another day pass without talking a little Witcher 3. A full review is coming! I swear it! There’s a whole lot of game to dig into, though, so this First Impressions article will have to suffice for now.

The Witcher 3, for those who aren’t aware, comes from the lovely lads over at CD Projekt RED. They are, in short, a series of open-world fantasy games in which the player assumes the role of Geralt of Rivia. He is, by trade, a hunter of monsters, wraiths and all sorts of baddies. He inhabits the world that is full of all the kinds of sights and sounds one would expect from a fantasy tale. Life isn’t easy for those in the lower classes and, frankly, is rather bleak. The nobility of the land views people as expendable pieces adorning the chess board that comprises their lands. One of the things that have always stood out about the Witcher universe is while it embraces the setting and the things that define them the developers crafting it have always done their best to subvert expectations whenever possible. It is a series in which choices are not necessarily right or wrong but shades of gray. Somewhere in the middle of a heap of political intrigue, magic, feudal oppression, blood, and steel there is a Witcher. His exploits carry him all over the world to tangle with tentacled beasts, romance sorceresses, parlay with Kings and hopefully make a bit of coin in the process.

Geralt is a classic example of an anti-hero. The Witcher code mandates that if a job is done there better some pay involved. Sure! He’ll help you out but always for a price and just what he’ll do for that? It’s negotiable. They are humans who have been trained to the peak of physical limits, pushed past them and then granted heightened senses and strength via mutagens. The silver-haired protagonist also knows a bit of magic to boot though it’s mostly for either repelling foes or keeping them at bay long enough to get in reach of his steel or silver swords. There is a lot more involved with the backstory of Geralt and the lands he treks through. There could be a few posts just about the rich lore of these games (based on the original series of novels by Andrzej Sapkowski).

All that in mind let’s talk about the third installment of CD Projekt RED’s Witcher series a bit shall we?

An Expansive World

Witcher 3

There was a marked increase in the “size” of the Witcher universe in transitioning from the first game to the second, Assassin of Kings. If the second game doubled the size of Geralt’s world, then Wild Hunt possibly quadruples it. It is astounding to think of just how many things there are to do out in the wilds of this open landscape. Ride off in any direction and one is bound to find a new quest, a new area to comb over. What are those bits of stone in the distance through the trees? Elvish ruins infested with wraiths? Time to explore. Great treasure could await our Hero. It could also result in his untimely demise.

My time with the game thus far, bordering on about 25 to 28 hours, has taken me through desolate bogs, fields bursting with wheat ready for the harvest, dense forest full of unspeakable horrors and mountain vistas so beautiful I couldn’t help but stop to appreciate them. The collected lands of Velen, Novigrad, White Orchard and Skellige are massive and feel larger than nearly any other virtual world I’ve inhabited in a single player RPG.

Villages tucked away in far corners of the land have an organic feel to them with denizens reacting to things in a way that just feels right. A storm rolling in means that merchants will pack up and head inside, kids will be ushered indoors by their Mothers and these tiny spots on the map will board up for the evening. Conversations that occur as you canter on by aren’t about the pending conflict between the massive Nilfgardian Empire and Redenia. They could care less about that but, rather, are worried more about where the next meal comes from. The next town over might be quite different in its disposition with villagers looking rosy-cheeked and far more hospitable even to the likes of a Witcher.

The large cities feel humongous with numerous alleyways and side streets to disappear down. Bandits might spring up to steal your coin, or there might be a faint whiff of decay in the air. A bit of detective work might just land a new quest in your log, opening up an entirely new chain of quests to embark upon. These sorts of things can be easily missed if you aren’t just actively looking for them. The sheer breadth of content in this game is staggering, and it shows the potential of what a truly great open world fantasy RPG can be. Is this the game that finally beats Skyrim? I invested about 150 hours into Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls iteration yet I’m finding myself constantly surprised with Witcher 3‘s open world. Time will tell on that one. Stay tuned, folks.

Superlative Writing

Witcher 3

The world being massive is a huge point for Wild Hunt, but far more important is just how top-notch the writing is. Geralt, by the nature of being a Witcher, is far more restrained in how he emotes. Emotion is present, for sure, but showcasing that is considered a detriment to the way others of his kind get the job done. It would be easy for the writers to go with that and simply make the protagonist a flat gray slab with a sword. They, instead, choose to weave strong emotional responses into Geralt’s dealings. He is restrained for the most part, but he also knows when to draw his sword. He clearly loves and does so intensely in certain cases. This is a game of choice, however, and he can be as cold and unmoving as one would hope him to be or he can be quite compassionate. The brilliance of it comes in just how those interactions evolve as players work through dialog trees.

Geralt is a strong presence, as he should be, but perhaps even better are the characters the revolve in our Hero’s orbit. Yennifer, whom we finally get to see in Wild Hunt, is a manipulative sorceress who will lead people around her towards the conclusion she desires. Conversations with her feel very layered, and I’m constantly wondering what her ulterior motive is yet when moments of real emotion occur they don’t feel stilted or abrupt. She is a principal character in the tapestry of Geralt’s life, and she feels every bit the major player. She doesn’t feel shoehorned in. Triss Merigold, whom players will remember from prior games, also returns though in not quite the same way as anticipated. She too is a sorceress though she doesn’t quite have the megalomaniacal tendencies of Yen. Mostly she’s just trying to get by, avoid being hunted down and burned at the stake by The Church of Eternal Flame and live her life.

The Emperor of Nilfgaard, voiced by Charles Dance (of Game of Thrones fame) is an imposing figure that expects results and, frankly, doesn’t have time for your bullshit. He’s got an Empire to run after all. Ancillary characters like Zoltan and Dandelion are just as great as they ever were in the prior games as well. The Devil is in the details, so to speak, as small touches are what bring things home for me. An argument over the crest upon the wall in a local tavern, the day-to-day goings on discussed between townsfolk instead of the latest battle from the front. The world behaves in a way that feels natural though, perhaps, the open nature of it can break immersion just a bit. That speaks to, perhaps, the greater problem of having such a big wide world full of things to do that are gated, in parts, by a level. RPG mechanics are great and all but sometimes it is jarring to ride three minutes west and encounter an enemy ten levels above you who can easily kill you whereas a few minutes prior the same sort of beast was dispatched without problem. They aren’t major concerns as, well, this is a video game after all, but I do have to wonder if the growth in scope has also made the story, in ways, feel less intimate?

There is more to be seen of course, but I do love the way this game handles its quests. Main storylines can be embellished by secondary quests and so on. Completion of a main story quest line doesn’t always mean that bit of story is done for others may open up as well. It is very segmented and charted for the player yet it, too, feels more proper in its progression. The choice given to players means that more often than not lives will hang in the balance. I have chosen poorly numerous times already and will, without a doubt do so again, but that is the beauty of it. This is the story that I’m helping to craft after all.

Pacing can be a bit problematic in spots but then again that’s due to the open nature of the game. When you can laser in and focus on a single line of quests, though, there is some of the best storytelling to be found on these modern consoles and PC right now. The Bloody Baron line, in particular, surprised me in ways I did not expect.

Gorgeous Geralt

Witcher 3

So, yeah, this game looks phenomenal. Character models are quite lovely, and the world they inhabit is breathtaking at times. The dynamic beard growth, much touted in press releases prior to launch, lives up to its hype. It is great to see the progression of time as not only hours tick away, but Geralt’s beard gets more scraggly and wild as they days pass. The hair, in general, looks and moves so well though I’ve noticed a weird bit of motion present consistently for Geralt even inside where no wind is present. It’s that sort of Bethesda-level bug that happens with an Elder Scrolls game that doesn’t break things but, rather, is a bit humorous. The motion capture is quite good with character actions looking exceptionally clean though, in a weird way, things feel a bit over-animated at times? That shows in combat, and certain movement as a bit of jank gets introduced from time to time.

The weather effects are quite good with the way foliage moves during a gale or storm looking fantastic. Skylines are beautiful and you’ll be hard pressed to not want to take at least a few screenshots while playing. The water effects are astounding and, if playing on a console, this is one of the best looking games one could one on PS4 or Xbox One. The frame rate is consistent for the most part though occasional hitches do happen during cutscenes (which is bizarre).

Test Your Might

Witcher 3

Combat. If the combat falters in a game such as this then a lot of its better points would be lost in the mix. How does it feel to wield those silver and steel swords once again? Pretty damn good. Players are given, from the start, a great introduction into the mechanics of the game with a lesson in parrying/riposte, light and heavy strikes and making use of Signs. Agni, Axii, Quen, Yrden, Igni and Aard all make their return. Each of them serves their purpose well. Pro-tip: Level Axii just a bit. It’ll pay off later with more dialog options and even some interesting twists during certain scenes and combat scenarios. One of the biggest problems with the prior game, though CD Projekt RED later addressed it with a more expanded tutorial, was that its systems felt nigh impenetrable. That isn’t the case anymore as combat is far easier to get a grasp of this time around yet subtle nuances remain. Throw bombs, potions and oils into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a deep combat system that doesn’t feel overwhelming. The radial dial for mapped Signs works well, as it did in the console release of Assassin of Kings and feels snappy when making use of it on the fly. The finishers that Geralt can execute feel satisfying and are, of course, sufficiently gruesome. Nothing on the level of Mortal Kombat X’s violence but hey.. this isn’t exactly a happy universe players are trekking around in. Death is around every corner. Geralt is well equipped to handle everything that comes his way though, be it beast or human.

More will come with the full review, but I just wanted to speak a bit about Witcher 3 before then. This game is excellent and, so far, lives up to the aspirations established by its predecessor Have you been playing the game thus far? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to follow @APGNation on Twitter for the latest in news, reviews and interviews. More Witcher 3 soon!

Jeff Pannell
Written by
"Nation! I face you! This is Jeff, resident horror aficionado and lifelong video-game addict, reporting for duty. I'm currently 30 years old, living in Texas (born and raised) and gaming is, well, more than just a thing I do. It is a passion. I love to write about it, talk about it, think about it and well.. GAME. I was but a young lad when I was introduced to the wonders of the Atari 2600 and, eventually every single console imaginable. Obsessed with RPGs and fighting games and binging on any and all video games he can. I serve as Lead Editor and member of the APGNation Editorial Board. I look forward to bringing you news, reviews and interviews for many years to come.

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