Apologies for the lack of posting over the last month. I wasn’t dead, I was playing Witcher 3.
It’s so rare these days that I play something that actually lives up to the hype.
The Witcher 3 is an astonishing game in so many ways. Astonishing in its looks, which are utterly gorgeous. Astonishing in its writing, which is some of the most intelligent, mature and downright natural I’ve seen in an RPG to date. Astonishing in the sheer amount of content it throws at you; it’s the first time I’ve played a game that told me it’d take me 50 hours to complete the main questline where it actually took me 50 hours to complete the main questline. And given the uniform high quality of the above, it’s also somewhat astonishing that it fucks up during the final act and rushes the ending in a rather perfunctory manner – but we’ll get to that in good time. There’s far more good here than there is bad, and probably the most astonishing thing about the Witcher 3 is not just its ambition — there’s plenty of games that have tried to do the sprawling, seamless open-world gameplay W3 does — but that it comes within a hair’s breadth of fullly delivering on that ambition in a meaningful, satisfying way.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt continues the hazily-remembered adventures of Geralt, a century-old mutant monster slayer for hire. It’s been a long time since I played Witcher 2 and so I had very little idea what had happened in that game, but as it turned out that didn’t matter so much — while Witcher 3 does dump you into the middle of things somewhat it also makes a fairly fresh start on what had come before, with the main plot involving established characters from the books rather than relying too heavily on knowledge of the previous games. It kicks off with Geralt searching for his one-time paramour Yennefer, but that’s a story thread that gets resolved in the tutorial area; what this game is really about, and what you will spend about three-fifths of its length engaged in, is the subsequent continent-wide search for Geralt and Yennefer’s adopted daughter, Ciri. Ciri is a young woman with magical dimension-hopping abilities (and witcher training) that would ordinarily make her quite capable of taking care of herself — except thanks to her abilities she has aroused the interest of the Wild Hunt, a spectral brigade of interdimensional cavalry with an apparent death fetish, and what little information you have indicates she’s on the run from them. You’re given three leads on her possible location that kick off questlines in each of the game’s three major areas — the war-ravaged countryside of Velen, the city of Novigrad, and the Skellige island chain — and then the game kicks you loose and leaves you to try and cope with just how sodding huge the whole thing is.
The Witcher 3 is a big game. It’s a big, big game, and perhaps uniquely amongst open-world games it’s stuffed full of detail that matches its scope. Most games that try the same thing — any Ubisoft game, for example, as well as Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series — present you with a sizeable open world map that’s seemingly open-ended and which you can explore to your heart’s content, but which turns out to have content that’s been diluted all the way down because of the scale1. These games have big worlds, but there’s very little that’s worthwhile in them apart from the scenery, making exploring them a rather empty and meaningless activity. The Witcher 3 by contrast managed to keep my attention almost the entire way through a variety of methods; the town noticeboards scattered throughout the map where you can pick up minor quests and Witcher Contracts, the scavenger hunts for blacksmithing plans that take you to ruined castles that have been put on the map specifically so that you have somewhere awesome to explore (rather than because they’re needed for a quest), and even exploring the random points of interest that crop up the map will sometimes reward you with an alchemy formula or — rarely — a Place of Power that’ll give you an additional ability point. The side quests you pick up aren’t usually the Fedex variety that other developers churn out en masse as filler content, either — some of them are, but the majority are nice little 10-15 minute diversions that require you to do something a bit more complicated than talk to somebody in the next village.
In short, for all its size (it’s a much bigger game than any open-world title I’ve played previously) Witcher 3 is the first open-world game that’s actually made exploring that world an exciting and rewarding activity in mechanical terms. In visual terms, well, I’d happily have spent a couple of dozen hours wandering around even without a veritable cornucopia of stuff to do, because it’s hands down the prettiest game I’ve ever played. Doubtless this perception is aided by my semi-recent installation of a GTX 970, but even so the quality of the visuals CD Projekt have achieved is downright stunning. Wind howls, and trees and even grass bend and shake and rustle in that wind. Rain pours, and in the distant, moody skybox you can see lightning flashing down from the heavens. In the periods of calm I spent my time trekking through otherworldly forests (that actually felt like forests rather than somebody doing a copy and paste of a tree) and clambering over snowy peaks; riding through farmland being worked by peasants and running through built-up cities. Thanks to the vast amount of time and effort that must have been spent putting of these features together the world of Witcher 3 looks like an actual place rather than something that’s been built for a game — even the swamp area looked both fantastic and real.
Of course having to trudge around such a huge world on foot would quickly become tedious no matter how beautiful it is, and so the game wisely provides you with a horse from the get-go — which somewhat surprisingly is intelligent enough to path around obstacles such as trees without your intervention, making galloping hell-for-leather across the map to the next town possible without your horse getting stuck on a pebble in between. If the horse isn’t enough then fast travel is available, with signposts acting as fast travel points, but you can only fast travel between these points, not to them. This means that if you venture into a monster-infested cave you are going to have to find your way back out again and to a fast travel point before zipping off somewhere else, which I think strikes a nice balance between player convenience and player immersion.
The quality of the visuals extends to the character models, too. In fact it goes double for the character models; your basic peasant looks okay, but any named character will have a level of detail that beats the crap out of anything Bioware’s ever done. This is important for two reasons. One is for fantasy dress-up purposes, as the armour Geralt wears and the swords he wields are intricately and individually detailed. Each particular type of sword has its own individual scabbard, for crying out loud; most games don’t even bother with scabbards and just bolt the naked weapon to your character’s waist through the power of magnetism, but here the act of Geralt drawing and sheathing his sword is both real – he’ll tilt the scabbard with his other hand to get it at the right angle for that over-the-shoulder draw — and useful, as it signals that things are about to get serious. The armour meanwhile looks almost uniformly gorgeous, and I particularly liked that the various sets of upgradable armour you can craft genuinely look like they’re being upgraded, starting out as a simple breastplate and gradually having more chain and plate added to them by the blacksmith.
Even more important than scabbards, though, is that Geralt and friends now have the ability to communicate their emotions non-verbally in a way I’ve not quite seen before in a game. Back when Mass Effect came out in 2007 I remember being very impressed with the facial animation as it allowed at least some nuance in how characters expressed themselves, but any further advances since then have been slight; Dragon Age Inquisition was arguably no better at it than a 7-year old game. The Witcher 3 makes the first genuine progress on it in a while, as characters can now communicate through subtle features like raising the corner of their mouth in a suppressed smile or furrowing their brows in confusion. This is a great step forward for the Witcher series in particular, as it has always suffered somewhat from having an unlikeable dick for a protagonist; in this iteration they’ve toned down the antihero side of Geralt so much that he’d almost come across as stoic and unfeeling – if it wasn’t for his facial expressions2, which let him communicate wry amusement or fatherly concern without having to rely on writing or voice acting at all.
It’s good that Witcher 3 can do this, as I believe much of the core questline simply wouldn’t work if you didn’t absolutely buy Geralt’s father-daughter relationship with Ciri. The level of detail in the character animations goes a very, very long way towards selling it, though; Geralt’s always looked after his friends — albeit with a great deal of exasperation — but his interactions with anything involving Ciri are noticeably different as for the first time in the series he’s not afraid to display un-Geralt-like emotions like tenderness or despair. He spends twenty hours of game time marching through a warzone chock full of atrocities and “gritty” fantasy cliches with his usual muted reaction, which makes the first time he gets genuinely angry something of a shock — and it’s all because he meets somebody who tried to hurt Ciri. It’s not just limited to her, though, as if you choose not to pursue a relationship with Yennefer (of course you have multiple options for romantic involvement as this is an RPG in 2015) they spend the rest of the game acting like an awkward divorced couple who have been forced into the same PTA meeting with their child, and it’s utterly hilarious – and believable. Then you’ve got Geralt’s friends, most of whom unhesitatingly drop what they’re doing to help out once they find out Ciri is in trouble. They’re her adopted family, and they genuinely care.
It’s a set of relationships that arguably wouldn’t be possible without the characters that have been built up over the last two games, and the game plays them to the hilt with a surprising degree of tact and maturity. I find it a little astonishing that I’m using the word “maturity” to describe a game in the Witcher series — which has historically tried far too hard to be what the average fourteen year-old male would view as mature — but the writing here finally sells the morally grey world of The Witcher in a way that doesn’t seem forced. Nearly everyone in the game comes across as a nuanced human being rather than a caricature, including some characters who would be horribly stereotyped as unambiguously bad if they had appeared in almost any other game.
Of course the characters in the game who are horrible stereotypes are the Wild Hunt, the game’s titular villains. This is a little bit disappointing, all things considered, as they’d probably be acceptable bad guys if they weren’t oddly one-dimensional when contrasted with everything else in the game. They apparently have a long and detailed backstory with both Geralt and Ciri that’s left almost totally unexplored; as far as you’re concerned they’re just interdimensional assholes who crop up at various points in the story to do something unspeakably evil. This leads to a bit of a pacing problem; as with most games of its type Witcher 3 front-loads its content, packing 60-70% of it into the first open-world chapter when you’re trying to find Ciri. This works really well thanks to everything described above, and it probably took me around 40 hours to resolve this part of the main story in between doing secondary quests, Witcher Contracts and scrabbling up the plans and materials for ever-better weapons and armour. Then once you’ve chased up all of the various plot threads the game continues into Act 2, where there’s a gathering of allies you’ve encountered so far and a climactic battle with the forces of the Wild Hunt. Act 2 is the game’s high point and contains the payoffs for many of the relationships and storylines — which is why it’s a little confusing as to why the game then continues into an Act 3 that is markedly less polished than the preceding four-fifths of the game.
Act 3 is almost entirely about defeating the Wild Hunt and it’s by far the weakest of the three, carrying that reek of “Oh shit we have to finish the game now” that’s been dogging triple-A RPGs ever since the original Baldur’s Gate trilogy wrapped up. Major plot threads that are set up in Act 1 are resolved in fifteen-minute side quests; enemies that were built up to be powerful supernatural threats are defeated in boss battles where they shuffle around flailing at you ineffectually while you hit them with your sword. Even the resolution to the main quest is more than a little lacklustre as it’s filled with far too many cuts to a character’s face while something happens offscreen that the developers didn’t have time to animate. It still takes around 4-5 hours to clean everything up (and they do have time to jam one last outstanding quest in the middle) but it’s really conspicuous how thin it seems in comparison to the satisfying RPG smorgasbord they’ve been feeding you up until this point. At least they do have time for one decent ending – not to the Wild Hunt strand of the plot, but for Geralt and Ciri. Which is good, because if they hadn’t wrapped that up properly it would have sabotaged nearly everything in the game; it doesn’t matter how good your content is if you don’t bookend it properly, as Bioware found out to their cost three years ago.
I’ve just spent 2,500 words talking about the setting, the plot and the characters, and almost none talking about the mechanics. Let’s quickly redress that balance: the swordplay is decent enough and I like the skill tree, in which there is a whole subtree for brewing potions and bombs which I imagine becomes very important when you’re doing the Witcher Contracts on higher difficulty levels. These are meatier secondary quests that involve you hunting down a powerful monster using your Witcher Senses (which is basically Detective Mode from Batman: Arkham Asylum). Each monster has its own detailed backstory as to what prompted the posting of the contract, and you’re given some clues to help you track it down. You follow the trail and dig up information on what type of beast it is, and then before you fight it you prepare accordingly by coating your sword in the correct type of anti-monster oil, equipping the type of bomb that it’s weak to, guzzling down a few potions that’ll give you the edge in the combat etc. etc.
I liked this focus on intelligent preparation, but unfortunately it was undone slightly by how sickening powerful my Signs character build was. Signs are magic spells, and one of these magic spells is Igni, which blasts a cone-shaped area in front of you with fire. It does a small amount of damage up front, and also has a high chance of setting anything caught in the cone on fire — which understandably makes them panic and flail around for a bit. They’ll also suffer from a damage-over-time effect that — absurdly — is based on depleting a percentage of the enemy’s health bar. The final, most crucial part of making this spell broken is that the amount of time it takes to recharge Igni before you can cast it again is less than the amount of time an enemy will spend running around on fire. You can just stand there and cast it repeatedly and anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the blast zone can’t do a thing until their HP pool hits zero. Even big tough monsters don’t stand a chance thanks to that DoT being relative to their health bar.
This was something of a shame, as up until I discovered how broken this was the combat had seemed very promising indeed. Positioning is very important, as you can’t defend against attacks from behind and so a large portion of any fight is about using Signs and dodge rolls to keep your enemies bunched up in front of you. Dodging and parrying/counterattacking each have their uses, and occasionally you’re presented with an enemy who forces you to switch tactics, like a baddie carrying a shield. I was playing on the normal difficulty setting and it was challenging in a good way to begin with; however the difficulty curve isn’t quite pitched right and doesn’t adequately compensate for the rate at which Geralt can gain levels, meaning it’s paradoxically harder at the start than it is at the end, even if you discount how broken Igni is.
I have a few more criticisms before I wrap up, largely related to how Jekyll and Hyde some of the Witcher’s mechanics are. I liked the crafting system, for example; it is detailed, sprawling and you have to work to get the higher-end blueprints, each of which are a significant upgrade over what came before that’s well worth the effort of making. I hated the crafting sytem interface, which was a series of linear lists that makes you scroll through 60 different types of crafting material before you find the one you want. I liked the skills in the skill tree, but I didn’t like the Mutagen system; in order to activate a skill it has to be dragged into one of your twelve skill slots. Every group of three skill slots also has an associated Mutagen slot, which offer a bonus for having three skills of the same type in those slots. Because higher ranks of the skill trees are only unlocked by investing a certain number of points in the lower levels of the skill trees this all makes for a system that completely discourages character builds that try to straddle two or more different skill trees; there’s no mutagens in the game that give you bonuses for this, and by doing so you’ll be both losing out on the existing mutagen bonus and make it more difficult to get those sexy endgame abilities. I would have liked to pick up skills outside the Signs tree but this would have just resulted in a character that was less powerful overall. Finally, the UI is uniformly terrible in every way, with an inventory system from 1995 and which commits such basic errors as quitting out of the map taking you back to the character menu rather than back to the game3. These are ultimately minor issues that don’t really detract from the gameplay, but I do feel like they stop Witcher 3 from reaching its full potential.
I haven’t talked about everything in Witcher 3. I haven’t even come close; it’s so big and filled with so much stuff that I don’t think it would be possible without writing a book. Certainly I can’t remember the last time I spent a whopping 60 hours on a single player game all in one go4 — it’s not something I’ve done since I entered full-time employment, and I didn’t think I had the time or the patience for something like this any more as that’s basically all my spare time for three weeks. That it succeeded in grabbing my attention so completely is startling in and of itself, but what’s even more impressive is that it took forty hours for the first cracks to show in the facade. That’s a staggering amount of quality gameplay that more than justifies a £50 price tag that I’d otherwise call inflated5; it is the best RPG I have played in years, and one which makes Dragon Age Inquisition (which, let us remember, was no slouch as a game itself) look dreadfully dull and unambitious by comparison. It has some flaws, but they’re not big ones, and they’re massively outweighed by the huge number of things this game does right. Play it if you can.
- I thought Skyrim was moving in sort of the right direction with the Dwemer ruins, but even they turned out to have nothing really worthwhile at the end of them. ↩
- Plus the tremendous questline that has him getting drunk with his witcher friends. Do not skip this. ↩
- It doesn’t sound like much, but this is actually intensely aggravating considering you’re going to be making this mistake for all 60 hours of the game’s length. ↩
- Although thanks to the magic of Steam, I don’t have to; it was Skyrim. ↩
- While I bought a box copy for £34 from Amazon because I am thrifty, I really don’t think I’d have begrudged it £50 for what it turned out to be. ↩