The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was arguably1 the best game released in 2015, an achievement all the more remarkable for 2015 being a very good year for games in general. It felt like the first genuine step forward for RPGs in years, portraying both a believable world and empathetic, human characters who effortlessly drew you into a plot that felt like it had real, emotional stakes. Furthermore, it was a plot that was all the better for being a self-contained whole; there’s no cliffhanger or trailing for a sequel, just a complete story that took the time to give itself a satisyfing denouement, with a half-hour coda afterwards where you took stock of what had happened and tidied up loose ends. Unfortunately when it comes to expansions this is something of a double-edged sword: how on earth do you follow up something like that in an expansion pack while keeping the level of quality as high as the original game?
To their credit CD Projekt do almost manage to extract themselves from the corner they’ve backed themselves into. Almost. The first expansion pack for Witcher 3, Heart Of Stone, is a 10-hour story that uses new locations nestled into the previously-empty northern area around Novigrad. It adds almost nothing outside of that story, with precious few sidequests, no new gear and only an underwhelming runeword system to really engage your brain mechanically — but that doesn’t matter because Heart Of Stone’s main questline is the best standalone questline in the game by some considerable distance, only being beaten out by Wild Hunt’s story because it doesn’t have 60 hours for the player to get emotionally invested. It’s a tale of two antagonists: Olgierd, a cruel bandit lord who is apparently immortal, and the mysterious, mesmerising Gaunter O’Dimm, who returns from his brief cameo at the very start of Wild Hunt to draw Geralt into his scheme to collect on a debt Olgierd owes him. Geralt has to fulfil three of Olgierd’s wishes, each of which starts its own standalone questline, and each of which tells you more about Olgierd and how he came to be the way he is. The wish quests themselves are fantastically varied and a lot of fun, being by turns humorous, action-packed and full of pathos (there is a particularly good one where Geralt has to somehow take a dead man on a night out on the town) but pulling the strings behind them all is the enigmatic O’Dimm. He’s charismatic, to be sure, and captivating to watch — in fact you’ll have trouble tearing your eyes from the screen any time both he and Olgierd are in a cutscene — and this is precisely why he’s the creepiest antagonist Geralt has faced yet; you find yourself coming down on O’Dimm’s side to begin with since he’s so personable and Olgierd is such a monster, but the chances are that by the time you finish Heart Of Stone your opinion on both of them will have flipped around by a hundred and eighty degrees. As ever with The Witcher, nothing is as it initially seems.
There’s a lot of great work that’s gone into generating the atmosphere for Heart Of Stone; thanks to the antagonists, the writing and the general direction of the cutscenes it comes across as precisely the sort of unsettling folk story that would make it into the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It’s a style of storytelling that particularly suits The Witcher, and in this case I think the fact that there’s very little outside of the story has allowed CD Projekt to tackle it with an unusual degree of focus. Nevertheless I was definitely feeling the lack of any mechanical additions after a while; you gain six or seven additional levels during Heart of Stone, but since there’s no changes made to the mutagen system and you probably maxed out your skill slots during Wild Hunt there isn’t anything to do with them. Similarly I was still using the same set of Mastercrafted Griffin armour after ten hours of Heart Of Stone that I’d already been wearing throughout the last quarter of Wild Hunt. Does this hurt Heart Of Stone at all? No, not really – fixing mutagens isn’t really in the scope for a piece of £7 DLC, after all; it doesn’t hold back the story at all, and story-wise HoS is CD Projekt at the top of their game. They quite wisely left all of the mechanical fixes and additions for Blood And Wine, the second, meatier expansion pack that came out last week and which I have much more mixed feelings about.
Blood And Wine adds a whole new region for Geralt to meander around in. Toussaint is a jarring contrast with Velen, since it’s a sunny, grassy idyll full of pleasant vineyards and a populace who are generally happy to see a witcher riding into their village. The reason they’re so cheerful (aside from their country not being a war-torn hellhole) is because they’re protected from monsters and bandits by a collection of classic chivalric questing knights, who are played far straighter than I was expecting; they’re genuinely into the whole chivalric code thing and have very few rough edges aside from some stereotypical snobbishness. Still, sometimes you just need a professional to get the job done, and that’s where Geralt comes in: he’s summoned by the Duchess of Toussaint to solve a series of particularly grisly murders committed by something that seems hell-bent on chewing its way through her retainers. Since Blood And Wine is 20 hours long that’s far from the whole story, though; resolving the main plot takes up about half of that, and the other half is the same open-world gameplay that Wild Hunt nailed so well, riding around fulfilling contracts and solving other monster-related problems.
Well, not quite the same. Toussaint seems like altogether too wholesome a setting for a Witcher game; it’s an idealised combination of 15th century France and Italy that’s — unbelievably — played for laughs. Nobody seems to have any serious problems in Toussaint: the monsters are treated as more of an annoyance than anything else; everyone speaks in an atrocious accent; everyone uses ridiculous swearword standins like “Go diddle yourself, bumbotch”; and the entire place just has this hey-nonny-nonny feel to it that makes me feel like I’m playing Carry On Witcher. I dislike grimdark settings that are grimdark for the sake of it, but Wild Hunt’s brand of grimdark felt like it had a point and it’s so weird to go from that to something that feels a little like a Mel Brooks spoof at times. Toussaint looks incredible, but because I found the atmosphere so much less compelling it started to show up the open-world gameplay for what it really is, at its core: something barely one step removed from an Ubisoft game where you ride around the map ticking off points of interest. They’ve still gone to a fair amount of trouble to drop in some interesting landmarks, but anything that’s not a full-on secondary quest started to feel hollow and insubstantial. The secondary quests themselves seemed a little more hit-and-miss than in the main game; there are some really good ones, including the one where you participate in a classic knightly tournament, but others came dangerously close to what, for CD Projekt, counts as phoning it in.
Blood And Wine at least recognises that you can’t play another 10 character levels without bolting an additional tier onto the Witcher sets so that the player has something to work towards; this it duly does, and the Grandmaster tier armour is both an effective money sink and feels like it’s worth the huge investment involved, since you now get some pretty awesome bonuses for wearing a partial or full set. There’s also a new mutations system which gives you something to do with your mutagens and character points by spending them on a collection of powerful passive abilities, only one of which can be active at a time; unlocking these also unlocks additional slots for your skills that aren’t attached to a particular mutagen, allowing you to branch out a little in your skillset without feeling like you’re missing out by not min-maxing it. Of course since I’m me I did min-max it, and my Signs build became even more broken; Igni could now be fired off three times in a second, it could do critical hits, and anything that was killed by it exploded. Even stuff that didn’t catch on fire didn’t stand up long to being repeatedly bathed in waves of flame – and while there’s a few more fire-proof enemies in both expansions it’s rare that you’ll find one that can’t be beaten with a judicious amount of dodge rolling while your Stamina quickly recharges. I’ve come around a bit on my opinion of this system, though. When I played Wild Hunt I thought it was just broken — and it kind of was. It felt like I shouldn’t be able to faceroll through combats by dumping all of my points into Igni and blue mutagens and hammering Q. However, Blood And Wine finally adds enough elements of complexity that keeping my build broken required some thought and more than a little bit of work to get the right mutations, and so it finally felt right that my Geralt was so ridiculously powerful since I’d put in a fair bit of effort to make him so.
So Blood And Wine is a bit more of a mixed bag than I was used to from The Witcher, and so the second expansion was left hanging on the strength of its main plotline rather more than I think it should have been. Said main plot does a decent job, introducing an old friend of Geralt who is played with a surprising degree of warmth, compassion and humanity, and who is a damn sight more interesting to talk to than fucking Dandelion, but at the same time it feels substantially more disjointed than anything in the main game or Heart Of Stone. That’s the story of Blood And Wine in general, in fact; it’s the opposite of HoS in that it’s a very substantial expansion that goes too far and does too much and is decidedly unfocused as a result. Some parts of it are great, others are rather substandard, and so I was a little disappointed to come straight out of the stellar experience that was Heart Of Stone to encounter something that was rather more uneven. Still, substandard for The Witcher is still a cut above most RPGs today — I think that Blood And Wine, flawed as it is, would probably not do too badly for itself (and might even do better) if it were standing off somewhere on its own rather than directly in the shadow of Wild Hunt. And to be perfectly honest, given how miserly the price-to-content ratio of most DLC is these days (looking at you Bioware), paying £20 for at least 30 hours of content whose major failing is that it’s not quite as good as 2015’s best game is not a bad result at all.
- In that I argue it. ↩