The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Review

Providing an initial sense of purpose is something that grand-scale RPGs have historically struggled to do. For all the merits of The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age and Final Fantasy, it’s not unusual for their opening hours to be marked more by a sense of loss and frustration than awe and wonder. This comes down to how they decide to introduce you to their worlds, using narrative clichés that force you to search for both a purpose within it, and to work out exactly who you are. JRPGs tend to give you amnesia, Western ones often have you break out of jail… with amnesia.

In both instances, you’ve neither any idea about why you’re doing what you’re doing, what the wider plan is, or who you are. As a result, you feel lost; searching for a reason to exist as opposed to feeling like an important player in the world.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt makes no such mistake, relying on direct and decisive storytelling to draw you into its setting and plot from the instant you begin. It’s a show of confidence that persists throughout the rest of the adventure, developer CD Projekt Red clearly more at home than ever in its ability to weave an engaging narrative across what is a world of simply breathtaking scale and diversity.

Protagonist Geralt has, over the course of his previous two outings, always felt like a more robust and interesting character than anyone else to have taken centre stage in modern fantasy videogaming. The fact that he is an authored entity, rather than the result of avatar creation tools, gives The Witcher’s writing team a great deal more creative freedom when it comes to putting him in situations and under
stresses that allow his personality to shine through. They don’t need to worry about what kind of person people are playing as, and as a result they’re able to throw much more engaging storylines at the player.
“Decisive storytelling Draws you into the setting and plot from the instant you begin”
It’s a direction that allows us to instantly get under his skin and understand his motivations and worries, and it’s this that The Witcher 3’s opening hours does so well. After the first couple of missions are completed, not only do you have a very clear vision of what needs to be achieved but you understand why it needs to happen, where Geralt’s emotional attachments come from, and how the myriad other characters in his world will be affected by it.

Wicked Witcher
To say that this is a game that feels like an ‘adult’ experience thanks to exactly that is an understatement. Where Dragon Age et al can often feel like comparatively childish playgrounds in which you’re free to (within limits) do as you please, The Witcher 3 immediately besets you with responsibilities and makes certain that you understand just how much others are relying on you. Yes, you’re free to wander the world and taste all that it has to offer, but at all times your grander purpose is made clear.

In large part that is achieved by the way in which inane side-quests have been removed and replaced by examples that make every effort to further inform and expand upon the primary narrative. Playing-spaces this large are frequently filled with missions asking you to ‘collect five of these’ or ‘kill eight of those’, but they’re so few and far between here that you’re genuinely shocked when they do occasionally pop up.

It’s not unusual at all for what seems like an extracurricular quest to spiral on for hours, evolving into a new and important plot that ultimately goes on to greatly alter your perspective on the characters that populate the world. What this does is make you excited about every new quest that you stumble upon, as you’ve no idea about where it might take you and how it will help you further understand the bigger picture.

Again, this is an expectation that is set up extremely early and carries itself through the entire journey. Without wanting to overstate the achievement or put too much pressure on The Witcher 3’s future genre peers, a new benchmark has been set when it comes to the creation of a complex web of narrative threads that take every opportunity to overlap and interact with one another. Considering the sheer volume of content on show here, few people would have complained about the inclusion of fetch quests or typical assassination missions. The reluctance to cut such corners, however, has made for a far more interesting and satisfying game.
“The characters are so well drawn that they start to feel like genuine friends”
Ultimately, it’s the quality of the characters and the skill of the writing team that prevents Geralt having to take part in such lows. In the majority of cases, quests are interesting because the personalities involved feel like real people, with real problems, and that makes you want to understand them and play a part in their lives.

Emotional attachments
Rarely do you come across anyone that feels wholly ‘good’ or ‘evil’, with different character traits revealing themselves the more you interact with individuals. A baron that you’ve heard nothing but bad things about might court your sympathies once you take the time to understand him and learn about his past, while a seemingly dependable ally could be revealed to be rather less trustworthy through an action that seems initially incidental. This kind of character development is often stretched out over the course of many quests, adding yet another level of long-term intrigue and helping once more to deliver something that feels genuinely adult in nature.

Some of the characters are so well drawn that they start to feel like genuine friends, to the point that you find yourself making excuses for them when they do act in a way that hurts others or undermines your own goals. For a game to be able to make you want to defend someone who is making your life more difficult is a rare feat and, again, it’s an area in which other RPGs (fantasy or otherwise) have some catching up to do. And this connection between Geralt and the rest of the cast is heightened enormously by the strength of the acting. Almost every character in the game is voiced, and any that you converse with directly certainly are. This dedication to providing everyone with their vocal
chords means that very few non-playable characters feel like second-class citizens, and it’s even easier for you to establish those emotional connections.

Further, different accents and quirks of speech make some regions feel like genuinely foreign lands; not least when you first arrive and are taken by surprise at a turn of phrase or voice pattern. Geralt himself sports his trademark husky, monotone speech (think Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid 4), which serves to make everyone else sound more interesting by comparison.

Plunder and lightning
Speech is far from the only detail that has been given such care and attention. A full day/night cycle sees not only the light levels change, but also the weather. Stormy nights can morph into sunny days, only for the following evening to bring a wind that looks as though it’s going to snap the trees.

This prevents any given location feeling like a superficial, two-dimensional place. Novigrad might be an enormous, bustling city that exudes great strength and authority at every turn, but even it seems to cower under the force of torrential rains. Similarly, rural retreats such as White Orchard are picturesque regions in which to take a stroll under the heat of the sun, but the gloom that accompanies incoming grey clouds makes you long for a comforting interior.

Combine this with a population that goes about its day as you wander past, and a system of interaction that can see your decisions in one place have drastic consequences elsewhere, and you’ve got a world that seems truly alive. Too often RPGs can commit the mistake of making you feel as though their environments cannot exist without you, that if you weren’t completing quests then life as you know it would stagnate. That’s never a problem here. Geralt feels like a part of the world just like everyone else, rather than the reason for its very existence.
“The sheer size and power of the monsters requires planning and skill to overcome”
That sense of belonging is further aided by the intimately crafted and believably structured layout of the environment. Villages stand in the catchment areas of cities, rivers drop down mountains and weave through forests, blocks of ice surround snowy islands, and all manner of animals roam about seeking food and shelter. A big part of the reason for the world not feeling as though it revolves around Geralt is because it mimics so closely the workings of our own Earth, at least on an aesthetic level.

Hunting party
That said, there is empowerment found in the fact that it often feels as if only you can make a difference to people’s lives. Away from the main narrative, one of the most rewarding acts that you can undertake are Witcher Contracts, the best of which ask you to dispatch a monster that has been terrorising the locals.

It’s here that some of The Witcher 3’s most difficult challenges can be found, the sheer size and power of the monsters requiring serious planning and skill to overcome. A great deal of such contracts require you to investigate scenes and interrogate witnesses with a view to unearthing your prey’s location, acts that provide you extra insight into the psyche of the populace and give you more reason to help them.

Upon finding the monster you’ll have to combine all the knowledge you have of alchemy, spells, melee combat and equipment-crafting to win out. Taking the time to understand its strengths and weaknesses can pay huge dividends, and allow you to load up on the right kind of potions and come up with strategies regarding which types of magic to use before the fight begins.

Knowing if a beast is susceptible to fire, or whether it can be easily trapped in a force field that slows its movements, can save your life in the heat of battle, and prevent you from wasting valuable resources. By the same token, something as basic as planning different angles of attack for ground-based and flying enemies allows you to spend your crafting materials on the right kinds of weapons. Your crossbow might not do a huge amount of damage to land targets, but it’s crucial when it comes to dropping aerial foes from the sky.

Besting these contracts is a great way to level up, acquire new skills, and find rare and powerful items. Interacting with the monsters themselves also has the added advantage of providing more context to the environment, opening your eyes to just how magical of a place this is, and how difficult life can be for its less fortunate.

On the level
Said new skills are unlocked by collecting experience points and progressing Geralt up through a standard character levelling system. There’s simply no chance of unlocking everything before the end of the game, so it makes sense to concentrate your efforts on a number of key areas; split between alchemy, melee, magic, and ‘general’ traits such as improved health and better stamina.

There’s no right way to go about this. If you’re skilled enough in swordplay then there’s little reason to rely on magic, and vice-versa. Mirroring your options when it comes to deciding which missions to undertake and how to resolve them, there’s no direction whatsoever when it comes to levelling up and combining skills. That’s all left to you, and it’s wise to spread your first few ability points across
broadly different categories to allow yourself the chance to understand different approaches to combat.

Not all of the abilities are equally enthralling, though. The one major niggle, aside from the implementation of horse riding (see: ‘On Your Horse!’) is the reliance on Geralt’s ‘Witcher sense’. At the press of a button you can highlight points of interest in your immediate vicinity; quest-specific items glowing red, loot crates and reading materials yellow. The idea is sound and similar systems have been used to great effect in other games, but it’s employed all too frequently here. It’s somewhat disappointing, given the diversity and individuality of the narrative’s characters and various story arcs, to see a single game mechanic relied upon so heavily.

Ultimately, such a complaint is minor when compared to the qualities on show here. Rarely has a game exuded quite this much charisma and sense of place. Even rarer is a game capable of tempting you into such engaging emotional connections with not only its protagonist, but those characters around him.

It’s those personalities, and that narrative structure, that make The Witcher 3 the shining experience that it is, and cement it as one of the finest fantasy RPGs ever realised. Without doubt this is the grandest example of its genre available on the latest set of hardware, and the one that, whether you’re a fantasy fan or not, you really owe it to yourself to experience.

On your horse!
A new, annoying, four-legged best friend
Roach, Geralt’s horse, is an essential companion within a world that is simply too large to be traversed exclusively on foot. Not only a means to go from point A to B more quickly, his speed prevents you from having to fight every battle that presents itself. However, he is also a source of frustration. Too regularly he gets caught up on scenery, making you an easy target and undermining what is otherwise an impressively polished game. This hiccup was so irritating that we came to rely on the atmosphere-breaking fast travel, Roach relegated to being more ‘good idea’ than ‘reliable ally’.

Mutagenic Transformations
Do-it-yourself genetic engineering. Why not?
Acquiring and enhancing Geralt’s skills is a case of spending ability points earned (primarily) for progressing through character levels, and there are simply too many abilities to unlock everything on offer in one playthrough. Therefore, specialising in your preferred type of skills is better than being a jack-of-all-trades.

Each ability point alters Geralt’s genetic makeup, mutating his body and unlocking a new skill or enhancing an existing one. These range from gaining extra moves in melee combat, to improving his magic or gaining more from potions.

Geralt’s ability list is split into four individual segments, within each of which can be assigned a core mutagen type. It pays to take care when applying mutagens, as you receive a stat bonus if you assign them to segments containing abilities of the same type. For instance, if you assign an alchemy mutagen to a segment already housing alchemy skills, then Geralt enjoys a significant boost in health.

As only 12 skills can be assigned at any one time, you find yourself paying very careful attention to what you unlock. You must make sure you’re levelling up certain abilities to take advantage of the bonuses provided by your mutagens, but you don’t want to focus so much on one skill type that you leave yourself woefully exposed elsewhere.


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