The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the third action role-playing epic from Polish studio CD Projekt RED, makes you feel like you’re playing so many of your past favourites at once. And though some of its emulations feel like thinly scraped butter individually, as a whole this is still one of the best sequels you’ll play this year, thanks to how cohesively both action and role-play fornicate… as it were.
If you’ve been untouched by the growing international influence of The Witcher and have no idea what this awesome albeit poorly marketed series is about, then welcome to the tutorial. Based on a series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski – I’m Polish and even I have trouble with his name – this fantasy tale is all about the political machinations of its Tolkien-esque world, with war as a backdrop rather than an overriding theme.
In Sapkowski’s fiction, Witchers are monster-hunter mercenaries who, gifted with limited magic, take up contracts for coin. You return as Geralt of Rivia, a seasoned Witcher with the scars to prove it, who starts the game searching for an old flame known as Yennefer. Your search takes you across a countryside scorched by civil war and riddled with people looking to profit from it. This is all the better for Geralt, whose apolitical motivations keep his pockets deep and his bed warm.
Line Your Pockets
The heavily story-driven campaign is easily one of the most intriguing the fantasy genre has ever had to offer. You can easily lose hundred of hours to an absorbing narrative that keeps you hooked from quest to quest. As a contract man, you typically play two sides of a war as you take down mythic beasts, solve local mysteries, and double as soldier for hire. The actual plot is riveting enough, but the variety of the ample load of side missions is so enthralling that, like an Elder Scrolls title, you often forget about the main story arc entirely as you endure marathons of side-quest grinding.
The game disregards heroes and villains and upholds pragmatism.
Like The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, which we reviewed a couple of years back, the choices you make are almost always morally ambiguous. Ultimately, each of the hundreds of main and side quests will end in a way that never suggests ‘paragon’ nor ‘renegade’. Just because you decide to turn a rebel on the run over to the opposing faction does not make you a villain. By that same token, aiding him or accepting a bribe in lieu of silence does not make you a hero. The game disregards heroes and villains and upholds pragmatism in a world where it’s not always about being of exceptional character as much as it is about surviving. This complexity keeps things freshly fascinating as characterisation feels tangibly consequential.
Beware of the learning curve! Melodramatic warning? Perhaps. But rest assured that even ten hours into Wild Hunt your screen will still be getting spammed by frequent first-time ‘How To Play’ windows. The tutorial never appears to end, which is both comforting and deflating. On the one hand, the constant text help is indicative of how much there is to do in the game. On the other, much of the inevitable playtime is devoted to micro-management. Managing inventory, looting, crafting, trading, alchemy, enchanting and breaking down materials are a huge part of the game. Dismantling items endlessly into other materials, which in turn can be used to craft different items in correct combination, has all the labyrinthine complexity of a Minecraft Watcromp. For the detailed character-builder – or those with a love of watching grass grow – the standard RPG inventory system within is wonderfully robust, but for those who just want to skewer some Water Hags, it’s a pain in the arrowed knee. Thank the makers none of this micromanagement is forced down your throat – the game can be played ably without even touching your spacious satchel.
And for those that opt for the course of quest-grinding action, you will not be deterred. The combat, though not as fluid as a third-person combat focused adventure game – yes, I’m referring perhaps unfairly to one recent fantasy title lauded for its masterful mechanics – is top-notch for a game stemming from BioWare’s Aurora engine, the same engine that acted as the muscle for skeletons like Neverwinter Nights. Combat is still second fiddle to narrative here, but it’s so refined that you could almost mistake The Witcher 3 for a third-person action game – which in no small part it truly is. Your attacks are balanced by powerful magic ‘signs’ which do everything from confusing, trapping, burning, and blasting enemies with telekinetic fury.
A second warning, humble traveller: the road ahead is harrowing. Yes, I’m speaking in cryptic metaphor… what say you, peasant! Translation: this game is hard, man. The first two games both sported a steep difficulty, and the third in the series is no exception. At best it’s only slightly more forgiving, but not by much. Monsters don’t level up with you in this game. Instead, an entire world of dangerous higher-levelled enemies is open to you, so you’re just as likely to come up against a foe who –insult to ego – is far too much for you to handle. This is one of the more brilliant tricks of the game’s design that encourages, without downright obligating, undertaking side contracts and gaining experience. As a result, speed-runners will need to do just that if they have any hope of making it past the first region.[yt_video id=”nDiD6M2cQ2k”][/yt_video]
Speaking of your world, it should be noted that you will unlikely navigate a more beautiful wilderness this year. The graphics, powered by the new RED engine 3, incite drool at every bend of every road and river, and if anything make your stay in Temeria feel like a vacation. Odd, I know, considering the bloodbaths that await, but its coupling with decapitating gratuity only enhances the beauty of the lush brush. In fact, the graphics are so deceptively good for an action RPG that occasionally I found myself missing the smoothness of Shadow of Mordor from last year. This comparison is not to discredit The Witcher 3’s occasional rough corners – horses getting stuck on obstacles, being unable to jump on imperfect ledges – but rather to praise its visuals, which are so clean that they dramatically overshadow the less polished real-world physics. And at the risk of sounding misogynistic, the crisp renderings don’t hurt on the scantily clad women either (Or the naked ones).
The wealth of voice-over on hand is as qualitative as it is quantitative. Geralt hits a well-rehearsed steadiness between the gruff-spoken clichés of any number of famous anti-heroes, and loves to omit pronouns and articles from his sentences like a real Rorschach. E.g. “Got to keep moving. On our tail. Won’t stop until they’ve found us”. His insipid whisperings start to get annoying after a while, especially when unrealistically drowning out the volume of goings on instead of the other way around. Regardless, the sound gets top marks for terrific VO and a subdued soundtrack that drips ambience. The new haggling system in dialogue decision is also a great refinement of an age-old RPG formula. When taking up contracts, you can sometimes negotiate for a higher fee. So instead of the usual “It’s a deal” or “Time to die”, you can also work out a compromise.
Every day it seems a genre becomes more obsolete. More and more, AAA heavy-hitters are a caramelised concoction of past and present influences, so that where once you had a bunch of niches that serves different needs, you now have a bunch of low-risk mega developers producing pop gaming the same way pop music is produced: appeal to as many people as possible. The mainstream is always the ticket to commercial deification and what that’s meant for gaming is sort of a frappe of the most popular qualities of niche titles. The annual record-smashing hits from the likes of BioWare, Ubisoft, and Bethesda may still technically operate different genres, but are not as radically dissimilar as they would have been a decade ago.
A review code of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was provided courtesy of Xbox. The game was reviewed on Xbox One.
Live The Legend
The analytic assumption above is not to suggest a tone of condemnation nor appraisal, but merely to raise the point that blockbuster gaming is more homogeneous every day. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt definitely feels familiar, like CD Projekt RED have taken the blended the best of the blockbusters into one, and though much of it – bugs or not – feels jagged in its control, the massiveness of the game cannot be understated. For customisation obsessives, micro-management is available aplenty. For monster-hunters, bloody mayhem. And for the sight-seer, greenery galore. Role-play and action have never parried so perfectly.