Played on: PlayStation 4.
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a massive open world game that marks CD Projekt RED’s latest entry into their fantasy role-playing game series based on the novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Whilst The Witcher 3 isn’t without its flaws, these pale into insignificance once weighed against the living, atmospheric game world CD Projekt RED have created.
Full disclosure time: I haven’t finished The Witcher 3. In fact I’m nowhere near close, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the main story, side quests, or even just exploring the world on offer. Yet I’ve sunk well over 30 hours into The Witcher 3 in the last week and a half. That’s serious game time. Normally this sort of scale and time investment would put me off, but CD Projekt RED have created a world so alive and interesting that, at least for me, it is impossible not to get lost in its majesty.
The Witcher 3 picks up from where its predecessor left off. Whilst having played the previous Witcher games is very helpful from a narrative point of view, CD Projekt RED have done a great job of explaining past events and ensuring new players can get stuck into The Witcher 3’s war torn world without too much difficulty and confusion. An early scene (which happened at around hour 15 for me!) allows you to pick some key decisions from the previous games to contextualise your version of Geralt and the world around him. Unfortunately a lack of information about the consequences of these choices makes them seem somewhat pointless. Yet even when characters or events from the previous games do get in the way for new players, CD Projekt RED always do enough to keep you invested in the current story thanks to the rich context that is created around The Witcher 3’s narrative in isolation. Physical copies of the game come with a map, soundtrack CD and Witcher 3 booklet, the latter of which also helps to explain some of the lore and key characters in The Witcher 3.
I didn’t get on with The Witcher 2, so I can tell you that whilst the story in Wild Hunt has left me a little lost at times, there is always enough information tying you to your current objectives to ensure you have a vested interest in the plot. What’s more, the mechanics in The Witcher 3 are much more enjoyable than in the last game. Combat is a lot more intuitive and fluid, and yes easier, with Geralt able to switch between his silver sword (for monsters) and steel sword (for humans and animals), cast spells, use his crossbow and throw bombs on the fly. Movement also feels more fluid, even if Geralt does suffer a little bit from Assassin’s Creed syndrome; an unfortunate lack of movement finesse in a third-person game. It can be a little clunky and difficult to move Geralt into precise positions at times, but otherwise The Witcher 3’s massive open world is made easy to navigate thanks to the inclusion of Geralt’s horse Roache, who is always just a button click away, and boats for crossing large bodies of water.
There are plenty of role-playing elements in The Witcher 3 to get stuck into with crafting, looting, alchemy and upgrading all pivotal mechanics. Yet CD Projekt RED have done a great job of explaining the basic principles behind these systems for newcomers. For example, it’s made clear that using Witcher potions also has a poisonous effect on Geralt. These systems are as in-depth as you could want from a role-playing game, yet simple enough so as not to be daunting. The inventory system and character upgrades are similarly simple to manage, whilst constructed with enough depth to let you create a Geralt you want to play as. The only gripe here is that all of the menus related to these systems have clearly been developed with PCs in mind making them a little clunky to navigate on consoles. The text throughout The Witcher 3 is so small at times that it’s almost unreadable, so be prepared to run up to your TV and squint every now and then if you’re playing on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.
All of these gameplay systems, whilst pivotal to the actual game, take an inevitable backseat to The Witcher 3’s world. It’s huge. Rolling hills, dense woods, mucky bogs, sprawling cities, decimated towns, and tumultuous bodies of water populate the massive map on offer in The Witcher 3. The world is divided into playing areas, with the smaller introductory land of White Orchard being followed by the massive open No Man’s Land of Velen and its main city Novigrad, as well as the smaller Skellige Isles region. Around almost every corner of every winding path in The Witcher 3’s world there is something new to see and explore and it never feels anything short of being completely alive. It feels like everyone you meet has their own story to tell, and many come with their own personal side quests that only the most cold-hearted player could ignore. The oppressive, war torn atmosphere of The Witcher 3’s world feels so real, and this is never more noticeable than when you talk to the most innocuous looking person, struck by unthinkable tragedy. The decisions you make in the game effect the lives of these virtual citizens, and this makes your actions as Geralt feel consistently meaningful. CD Projekt RED have created the most interesting and absorbing open world since Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, in my opinion. In both of these games your actions really feel like they have tangible consequences, and in both it’s all too easy to devote countless hours to just seeing what you can find without ever touching a quest; it’s video game tourism at its absolute best.
There are problems for The Witcher 3 though. On both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One frame-rate and frame-pacing issues distract a little from the experience, and there are several bugs, including a game save losing bug on the Xbox One. The performance issues can be combatted on the PC by tweaking the graphical settings, but there’s no denying that it takes a monstrous rig to get the best from The Witcher 3 on its lead platform. No doubt CD Projekt RED are working hard on fixing the bugs that launched alongside The Witcher 3 (in fact several patches have already come out across all platforms), but its a shame that these niggles still persist after the game’s extended development time. Of course with a such a massive game bugs were always going to surface, but this will be of little consolation to the few Xbox One players who have been forced to restart their 30+ hour playthroughs because their game save has disappeared.
There is also the controversy over The Witcher 3’s visual downgrade to consider. Personally I think The Witcher 3 is the best looking game I’ve ever played, with stunning water, vegetation and character animation. Yet this is clearly not the same game CD Projekt RED showcased two years ago at E3. They’re not alone in using isolated sections of developed gameplay to showcase their work in progress though. Ubisoft did exactly the same with Watch_Dogs, and they too were accused of subjecting their final game to a huge visual downgrade. Nonetheless, The Witcher 3 highlights the perils of not delivering on a perceived promise. Other developers should take note.
Ultimately none of the controversy, bugs, criticisms or niggles can detract from what The Witcher 3 really is. The superb yet simple combat system, stunning, living and reactive world, and great narrative all combine to make the best fantasy role-playing game created to date. It’s like Game of Thrones, but interesting. In seriousness though, I’ve played Fable, Skyrim, and Dragon Age, but The Witcher 3 beats them all hands down with its meaningful characters, weighty conversations and interactions, excellent world, and endless wonder. And if you didn’t like The Witcher 2 then that shouldn’t deter you from giving Geralt, and CD Projekt RED, another chance to win you over.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an absolutely essential game for all but the most fantasy or role-playing adverse gamers. With all of the development time devoted to a glorious single-player story (meaning there’s no tacked on co-op or multplayer), CD Projekt RED have proven themselves to be one of the best studios around at the moment. Even with its current level of bugs and performance flaws, The Witcher 3 is still an outstanding game. When those issues are fixed, it will deservedly go down as one the best games ever made. And credit where it’s due, the physical game’s excellent map, booklet, soundtrack and sticker package comes as part of the standard edition making The Witcher 3 feel like £50 well spent, reminiscent of how all physical games used to be. There’s also all of the free DLC packages CD Projekt RED have planned for release for The Witcher 3 in the future, which also add to the game’s already excellent value.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the sort of game you could spend hundreds of hours playing. And more importantly you absolutely should. It is, without doubt, one of the standout, must own games of this generation.
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