Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt RED
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Reviewed On: PS4
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review.
The term “open-world” is one that PR guys love. It is a buzzword by this point, a promise of something that few rarely deliver. An enormous open-world that not only has innumerable things for the player to do but feels layered, intricate, lived in? That is a pipe dream for most. Some have managed to achieve it. We’ve seen John Marston in the Old West with Red Dead Redemption, explored the Wastelands in Fallout 3, entered a living and breathing Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV and let loose our barbarous yawps in Skyrim. The exploits of Geralt of Rivia can now be included among those successful moonshots. CD Projekt RED has not only made a fitting sequel to an already superlative series in the Witcher but one of the absolute best open-world fantasy RPGs ever. It might also have some of the strongest writing ever seen in a video game. Such hyperbole! “Didn’t he spew enough of this in his First Impressions article?” Not even close, Chief.
A Big Wide World Out There
The Witcher series, based on the uber-popular Polish fantasy novels of the same name, features a whole lot of monsters to kill. A lot of men too! There’s intrigue by the bucketload, plenty of muddled gray areas in the choices players make and an overall mature take on a low fantasy sort of setting. It is the sort of grit and grime that presents the sort of swords and sorcery one expects of the setting, mixed with the far dingier reality of life in an age of war. It is a series that has never skirted the issue of how the grandiose game of chess, that rulers play with human lives, can affect the greater whole.
It has also shown that the spread of that effect is a slow moving tide that encompasses the land. It was a wonder to see that in action with Wild Hunt. There are villages within Velen (one of the first major areas of the game outside of White Orchard, i.e. Tutorialvania) that show the ravages of the escalating conflict. People speak in whispers about Temeria and the incoming invasion from the Northerners, Nilgaard. A few minutes down the road in the nearest hamlet one finds a much sunnier disposition in regards to the people encountered. Villages further from the conflict don’t readily reflect the tumult of the lands. Villagers are happier, tend to stay outside more often, long into the evening hours. They don’t shy away from the stranger entering the town for the most part until they realize a Witcher has just showed up. That’s when the barbs come out.
Some will gladly ask Geralt of Rivia’s help to deal with a local foglet or help find their lost frying pan. Most, however, will call him a freak, mutant, or worse. He is the sort of fellow that fixes problems, for sure, but they sure as hell don’t like him or want him around after the job is done. Witchers don’t do anything for free, though, as is their code. And Geralt is no exception to that rule. One can even haggle with potential employers over the price of a job with a sliding scale for the amount. Push too hard and they’ll likely refuse. Settle on the right price and perhaps the local marshes will be free of the murderous beast lurking within. Good thing he carries that silver sword with him, eh?
Oh yeah: small things matter. The big picture on a game like this is important, no doubt, and it certainly gets the broad strokes correct. It is, however, the minuscule details that stand out often: riding through the cobbled streets of Novigrad only to hear an off-handed remark from Geralt about a distinct odor in the air — that leads to an interesting series of quests that are completely optional and easily missed, if one doesn’t pay attention. The bend of the trees and the natural movement of the grass as a storm whips in across the region will lead many folks immediately heading inside for shelter. Merchants pack up and leave at nightfall or during inclement weather for the most part. That bit is nothing new per se, but it’s another touch in an already detailed universe that Geralt inhabits that makes it feel alive. NPCs tend to have varied conversations and feel natural, though at times, a bit reactionary as if they mostly exist to be furniture. It doesn’t quite hit the level of the Bethesda clockwork intricacy of Fallout 3 but there is a certain level of autonomy to the people that populate the cities and villages of Velen, Novigrad, Skellige, and so on.
Monster Huntin’ is my Business and Business is Good
By trade, Geralt of Rivia hunts down the things that go bump in the night and generally helps clean up the messes of others. He is the fantasy equivalent of Winston Wolf. He always gets paid, always get the job done one way or the other, and tends to look good while doing it. He’s a Mary Sue character, sure, but then again who doesn’t want to be a dual-sword-wielding-arcane-magic-slinging-kiss-stealing-horse-riding Witcher from Rivia! He’s dined with kings and queens, but also in alleyways, on pork and beans and what not. He’s good at his job and this time around, CD Projekt RED did their due diligence to provide players with an outright tutorial straight out of the gate when it comes to combat. It also helps that, as opposed to the initial versions of Assassin of Kings or the nigh impenetrable mechanics of the first game, things are far more streamlined.
Combat can be distilled down into a few simple components. There are fast attacks and heavy attacks. There are Signs — to be used to varying effect such as shielding, slowing an enemy, manipulating them or even setting them ablaze — along with potions, oils, a crossbow, and bombs. The last part isn’t as complicated as it sounds. For example, to execute a quick attack, a quick press of the Square button on a PS4 will get you going. Triangle will bring down that sword with a Heavy Attack, and Signs are mapped to the R2 button. A radial menu can be brought up with L1 to quickly select between Signs or to toggle between items for specific quests — tap R1 to use said item. Evasion comes down to either sidesteps (O) or full-on dodges (X). L2 will set Geralt into a defensive stance and, if timed right with an enemy strike, will riposte and momentarily stun to allow for a counter attack. Finisher moves will occur if attacks are timed correctly and, as is a tradition with this series, they are quite brutal. Heads will roll.
It all flows very well in action and all the core concepts are introduced to the player within the first twenty or so minutes of gameplay. Those returning to the world of Witcher will find that things move a fairly brisk pace. Combat just feels better this time around compared to the last two games, and it’s a welcome change. The pursuit and destruction of a gryphon, foglet or a nest of harpies (because screw harpies) with a combination of Signs, crossbow and quick stabs/finishers is very satisfying.
100% Organic Questing
Playing this game and sticking to the critical path of the main storyline can be challenging. It is so very easy to suffer from Skyrim Syndrome while playing Witcher 3. In the midst of hunting down Ciri one will often come across a handful of sidequests on the journey to the next waypoint. Open-world games such as this aren’t really meant to be powered through via the main storyline — the sheer amount of content offered is one of the game’s strongest points. I attempted to stick to the main storyline as much as I possibly could. Even then it still took 65 hours of playtime to finish my first run. Prepare for an investment with Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
What works so well, as far as how quests unfold, are how the side-stories and smaller bits all interlock together with the larger threads. Main quests resolve as they do yet leave lingering questions. It feels as though CD Projekt RED was definitely intent on leaving far more things tied up this time than they have ever done before. If one slavishly sticks to the primary path through the main narrative of searching for Cirilla there is a boatload of lore, character development, world building, and exhilarating experiences that can be missed entirely. The game has a three-act structure and although it never clearly delineates between the two, there are certain points where the player is told to save now as there is no going back. I had to force myself to continue on at a certain point without resolving a lot of hanging story threads that I cannot go back to in the original save file of mine due to this. Be warned.
That said if one takes the time to truly explore the nuances of this game, really live the Witcher’s life, romance them ladies, save folks and work those contracts then one of the most rewarding and truly satisfying open-world fantasy RPGs awaits. I’m currently working on my second playthrough and loving it all the more this time around. Take the time to truly explore Wild Hunt as it offers a deep and immensely well-written experience that, hands down, sets a new bar for what the fantasy RPG should be.
The Bards will Sing of This
The main narrative of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one that goes all over the known world, explores forgotten corners of it and deals with matters intimate and world-changing. It is a tale of finding that which is lost, fighting back against an indomitable foe and hopefully finding a way to live on. The stakes are high, as they always are, but player choice factors in heavily with three different main variations on the ending along with numerous ways in which small changes manifest as well. It is a rousing adventure that brings to the forefront the strong relationships that have always been a cornerstone of the prior entries. Geralt is certainly the star of the show but Cirilla stands out among the cast of strong female leads not only in characterization but also in her familial relationship with Geralt. She specifically stands out in her interactions with characters in the flashbacks we see of her and also in the way she deals with problems as their presented. The player often steps into her shoes and sees the immense power she wields, yet she is still naive in many ways. She is, by far, one of the most interesting characters to ever show up in the series and thankfully delivers in every way.
The search for Ciri is central to the plot and even involves the Emperor of Nilfgaard, all sorts of intrigue and the potential to completely change the history of a nation should one choose to do it. It takes a bit longer to ramp up than, say, the story for Assassin of Kings did but once it gets rolling it is hard to find a better story around. The last act, in particular, is full of epic moments and surprises that are just fantastic.
A Sight to Behold
It isn’t a shock that this game looks really good. Console versions feature some of the best water effects I’ve seen in a console release with particle effects that few can rival aside from The Order: 1886. The PC version is, of course, the pinnacle and if one’s system can handle it there are certainly magnificent vistas and beautiful places to see. Video cards across the land are weeping at the prospect. The Playstation/XBox versions have no shortage of stunning views either and I found myself pausing often to take a look at the scenery. The game suffered from a bit of buggy texture pop-in and strange animation bugs in the first few patches, but those have since been addressed. There is a bit of open-world jank that seems to always be present in these sorts of games but it never gets in the way of things. It is, by far, one of the very best releases this year to come to console or PC in terms of graphical fidelity. Set them FOV sliders, son.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is CD Projekt RED’s finest achievement by far. It is an open-world RPG masterpiece that features superlative writing with organic characters, stories that are worth hunting down, and a scope that few games can stand beside. The world has never been bigger or more alive than in Wild Hunt. They have done the original source material proud with their adaptation of the original Polish works and, in the process, set a new standard for what an open-world fantasy roleplaying game should be. Few games offer as much depth to its questing, satisfaction in its combat or the need to seek out every single dialog option imaginable. It improves upon the outstanding Assassin of Kings in nearly every single way. This is a must-play.
[signoff predefined=”APGN Call to Action”][/signoff]