So I’ve finally done it. After several weeks, my time with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has come to a close. Typically with games, once I’ve arrived at the end I simply set the controller down and that’s that. However this time more than anything I feel a sense of accomplishment. It’s sort of like finishing a lengthy novel. At first you’re not sure if you want to read that thing. It’s 800 pages long, and to add to that it’s a hardback. You’re kind of intimidated. But all your friends are reading it and talking about it, and you feel like you should try it out. And then, once you’ve finished, you find you’re glad you took the plunge because it had you engaged with every page. That’s Witcher 3, easily one of the most content filled games to be released in years.
So what kept me coming back to The Witcher 3? After all games can be a big time commitment, and as is the case with any piece of media that vies for a significant chunk of your time, it has to get more than just one thing right. So what does Witcher 3 get right? Well, let’s start by getting one thing out of the way; the game is Polish studio CD Projeckt Red’s masterpiece. The effort and affection they put into this game are abundantly clear. Looking past that, however, the game nails aspects important to any RPG, namely a beautifully crafted world and an interesting and well developed story, and that’s what kept me hooked. It’s what gave the game it’s own unique identity. That said, the game is not perfect. It has flaws. Some of which can be downright frustrating at times. If you’re looking for a new game to sink your teeth into and haven’t made up your mind on whether or not The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a worthy addition to your collection, then allow me to give you a first hand look into what I experienced during my time with the game.
Discussing this is a no-brainer. It’s the first thing I noticed when I loaded into the game. As far as open world games are concerned, Witcher 3 is easily one of the best looking currently on the market. My time with the game was spent on the PC version, played on a system equipped with an Intel i7 5820k and a GTX 970 running with a factory overclock. At 1080p it’s the first game I’ve come across that my setup has struggled to handle at maximum settings. Most taxing of which is Nvidia’s HairWorks tech, which brings realistic hair and fur simulation into the game. It’s a cool little feature which adds another layer of believability to the game world, but at a rather unwelcome cost in performance. I found it wasn’t worth the tradeoff in my case, but if you have the hardware to handle it I think you’ll find it’s quite impressive.
Other aspects of the character models are also fairly well done. The game opens with a cutscene involving two of the story’s main characters. What stood out to me was the facial motion capture. Considering most of the game’s cutscenes are rendered in real time in-engine, its safe to say Witcher 3 nails this better than a fair share of games manage. The benefit of good mocap is that it lends to conversations and expressions between characters looking natural. It’s something easier to achieve with prerendered CGI you’d be used to seeing in a Pixar film but a tad more difficult to find in games. In addition to this, skin and hair (even with HairWorks off) have a decent sense of realism to them. One of the things that turned me off a bit with last year’s Dragon Age: Inquisition was the rubbery and plastic look of all of the characters, and Witcher 3 getting these right in addition to the solid mocap I think really helps the game in its ability to push a narrative without breaking player immersion.
In addition to the characters, CD Projekt Red put an equal amount of time into crafting the environments. The playable landscape is massive, with multiple regions you can travel between. It can honestly be a bit overwhelming at first, but once you get your bearings you quickly become enamored by the world you’re in. There is a fast travel system, but most of the time I found myself not using it because I enjoyed just riding my horse through the landscape so much. Landscape that is rich with wildlife, from deer and wild horses to monsters of every shape and size ready to kill you should you stray too far off the path. Trees sway in the wind, rainstorms appear out of nowhere, cities are intricately detailed and brimming with people, and of course there is a full day to night cycle, all which let the world feel alive. It’s stuff we’ve seen before in other games such as Skyrim, but with the technology of 2015 behind it. If you enjoy playing games with the latest and greatest visuals, then it goes without saying you should take a look at Witcher 3.
But pretty graphics alone aren’t enough to make a game, especially not an RPG. A successful RPG, I would argue, needs one of two things to succeed: either an interesting story that gives the player a reason for interacting with the game world, or enjoyable gameplay that requires a degree of skill or time investment from the player, and then upon success rewards the player accordingly with new items and abilities. Ideally most RPGs strive to achieve both. I would say in the case of The Witcher 3, the game’s strength lies in executing the former.
If you played the first two games in the series or if you’ve read the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski on which the games are based, you should be pretty familiar with the setting. As the player you assume the role of Geralt of Rivia, one of the few remaining professional monster slayers, known as witchers, left in the world. Witchers are the result of children kidnapped at a young age who are forced to undergo harsh training and ingest a cocktail of poisionous substances which bring about performance enhancing mutations. This is done to aid them in battling monsters, but unfortunately the vast majority of children don’t survive the process. Those that do survive become the product of a larger world which is grim and cruel in nature, and where things are rarely seen plainly as good or evil but rather in shades of grey. To add to this, racism runs rampant and due to your mutations, and the fact they make you look slightly different, you’ll quickly find most people don’t like or trust you.
All this sets up the challenges players will face as they progress through the game. The main story will see you searching for your adopted daughter Cirilla, known throughout most of the game simply as Ciri, who has been missing for several years. If you know the books you should be familiar with Ciri already, but the game also does a decent job outlining who she is and showing the player that this is someone Geralt cares quite a bit about. Motivated by the revelation that Ciri is being pursued by a deadly and enigmatic group of riders known as the Wild Hunt, you must search through a vast world for clues as to her whereabouts before the Hunt catches her. Along the way you must be prepared to face down all manner of deadly creatures but also deal with schemes and hostility bred against you by peasants, nobles, and even kings.
Furthermore, the games in the Witcher series are known for their heavy emphasis on player choices. As such, you will frequently have to make decisions from what you feel like drinking at a tavern to whether or not someone lives or dies. Many of the choices will have an impact on the direction the story takes and even influence the ending of the game itself. This type of storytelling isn’t unique to the Witcher, but I found it’s the moral ambiguity and shades of gray nature to the world that made this aspect of the game particularly engaging because you are never completely sure if what you are choosing is actually the right course of action. In fact sometimes seemingly insignificant choices will have far reaching consequences later on. I’d definitely say its one of the game’s greatest strengths and something that gives it a high degree of replayability.
As far as games go the Witcher series has always had a solid narrative, perhaps aided by the rich source material it’s based on, so no surprise here. Characters are well fleshed out and side quests are handled beautifully. In fact I’d argue the way it handles side quests has raised the bar for other RPGs. There are no tedious fetch quests, no endless mundane tasks to complete. Instead each one has its own unique story and outcome. Some you pick up from a notice board, others are woven seamlessly into your travels, having you come across drama as you explore new locations.
My biggest complaint is that for about the last third of the game there is a noticeable drop in quality for a lot of the quests. For example, towards the end you find out one of the central villains actually has a rather interesting backstory driving his motivations. That’s barely explored. You also have one particularly important plot line resolved abruptly when a certain character, previously portrayed as cunning and intelligent, takes a course of action that is blatantly nonsensical. Overall, it is a matter of the game going from excellent to good, so by no means a deal breaker. I have to wonder if maybe there were time constraints towards the end of development. Regardless, it’s there and was the biggest negative I had with the game.
As for the actual gameplay, well, it’s never been one of the strengths of the series. It’s never been bad necessarily, but often it has been derided as either simplistic, in the case of the first game, or clunky, in the case of the second. Witcher 3 definitely retains a bit of the clunkiness of its predecessor – combat animations still carry a sense of weight to them – but overall things feel a bit more responsive. In addition, fighting enemies this time around is much more dynamic than simply rolling out of the way of enemy strikes and then rolling back to perform an attack as was often the case with Witcher 2. This time parry and roll mechanics seem a bit more balanced so that only one or the other is viable depending on the situation, and there is a new dodge mechanic thrown into the mix as well, to be used accordingly. It’s definitely a more refined experience that allows the gameplay to scale well across difficulties.
One of the last things I think is important to briefly touch on is how the game runs. No one wants to play a buggy mess, and if you’re on PC its important to know what kind of performance you can expect to get out of your hardware. As I hinted at earlier Witcher 3 is a demanding game. If you’d like to play the game with all the bells and whistles turned on at anything approaching 60 frames per second, I’d recommend nothing less than a system equipped with the current flagship card from either Nvidia or AMD. The game is also one of the few out there that effectively use multiple CPU threads. Heavily populated areas at times saw an almost even use of all twelve threads on my system. What this means is that while most games don’t quite benefit much from using a high end CPU, and are more dependent on GPU performance, Witcher 3 actually will make use of some the extra resources found in a high end set up. But don’t be dissuaded if you have a more modest build. I was also able to play the game just fine using a system equipped with a 4690k and 750ti at a mix of medium to high settings. So there is something here for everyone.
Witcher 3 also has its share of bugs. They are certainly within tolerance levels, but nonetheless they can still be an annoyance. Most of the major ones have been fixed at the time of this writing according to the latest patch notes released by CD Projekt Red. Some of the others still persist. Populated areas still suffer a deal of character pop-in. At one point I was randomly teleported several hundred feet into the air only to fall to my death. There is also this one recurring character in towns who circles about carrying a crate while doing this ridiculous looking high-knee canter. Again, these are by no means game breaking (the air-teleport I experienced only happened once over the entire course of my playthrough). I think most people will be able to ignore them easily enough. However, if you’re someone who is really sensitive to bugs, then you might want to wait a bit longer before purchasing while the remaining ones are ironed out.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a fantastic, beautiful game. After playing it I can easily agree with the consensus that this is a game of the year contender. It is by no means perfect, but what it gets right I think outweighs the negatives in spades. The game has the benefit of being able to be enjoyed casually or in a more hardcore manner. It can absolutely be completed in 30 hours, but can also stretch to over 200 for those willing to crank up the difficulty and go for all side quests and collectibles in addition to the main story. Other than graphics, the PC and console versions play identically, so regardless of what platform you own if you are a big RPG fan, and for some reason haven’t already picked this up, then do yourself a favor and get this as soon as you get the chance. Not so much a fanatic of the genre but still enjoy playing games with high production values and a good degree of fun to them? Then you should still make an effort to check this out, at the very least when the holiday sales start popping up in the coming months if you still haven’t played it by then. If you’re comfortable with a more mature game where the line between good and evil is often blurred, then you just may find yourself hooked on Witcher 3 like I was.