The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
Polish fantasy novels is not where you’d expect to derive inspiration from for a series of third-person role-playing games on PC, and latterly home consoles. But that is where CD Projekt RED started when developing 2007’s The Witcher. Witchers are mutants trained in order to hunt and kill, for hire if desired. Geralt of Rivia is the protagonist in The Witcher, 2011’s sequel and the latest installment, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In the main you play the role of Geralt once more - The White Wolf - as he journeys through the Northern Kingdoms in search of Ciri, his daughter (not biological as Witchers are sterile), who in turn is being chased by the titular Wild Hunt. Taking on this role, and challenge is no mean feat. The game itself is perhaps the biggest ever made, but once you set out on your adventure you’ll not want to reach journey’s end. For the game is not only stunning in size, it’s just plain stunning.
For the first time in the series (and perhaps last given the developers have intimated this will be the end of Geralt’s stories) we have a true open world where, aside from one or two notable areas, you’re free to come and go as you please from East to West; North to South and anything in-between. As mentioned the game is massive. This is in two ways - one of which is the scale of the map. It’s bigger than Skyrim’s world and after tens of hours you’ll have barely scratched the surface. It’s a beautiful world, too. There are small villages, paths, mountains, desert areas and snowy mountaintops. There are lakes to sail across, open plains to ride through and gorgeous cityscapes to wander by. Along the way there is always something to do, and often more than you can cope with. It could be something as simple as collecting ingredients for alchemical potion concoctions, bandits looking to get lucky or something more impressive and time-consuming. Geralt can walk or run but is limited by stamina which needs to replenish. His horse, Roach, is too, but riding with the wind blowing through your hair is a faster way to travel. Once you’ve visited a place, discovered a location or bought a map denoting places of interest you can fast travel back and forth. An essential aspect of the game given the vastness of the world.
At first everything is overwhelming. There is so much going on and so much covered in the tutorial (which can take up to five hours if you do everything in detail) that as you set out to tackle the first quest and others which incorporate the prologue you will likely struggle to get to grips with anything. There’s the questing itself - one quest can take hours in many cases, but as you progress through it other quests are learnt about and added to your to-do list, as it were. There are main story quests, side quests, scavenger hunts for equipment, contracts for hire and more. It takes a while to get used to what’s available and working out how you want to tackle the game. Obviously the more quests you complete, the more experience points you gain and the higher level you become. Each quest has a suggested level to ensure you don’t get caught out too much, although aside from one occasion it was always very easy for us to park that particular challenge and come back to it later on, once beefed up somewhat.
The variety of quest is outstanding. It has to be given how many there are, but you can find yourself searching for a person of interest one minute, playing cards the next, then starring in a play soon after. Not forgetting all the staple killing, pillaging and romancing. Yes, Geralt is fond of the ladies and throughout the game he has the opportunity to have sex with various NPCs, some by way of payment to the establishment’s owner, and others because of love. Or something similar, anyway. Witcher games in the past have been criticised for the way they’ve handled sex, and female NPCs in general. Here though the sex scenes are full-on, yes, but handled tastefully on the whole. In terms of the portrayal of female characters progress can be seen, too. In fact, most of the ladies Geralt is entangled with are shown to be equals in most areas, and superior in others. One particular female character, key to the whole thing, is entirely superior to Geralt.
The characterisation is wonderful throughout the game. All the people you meet and interact with - many familiar to those who’ve played the earlier games - get meaty scenes where we learn about them, their motivations and generally just the way they are. We know who is to be feared, who is funny, who is sweet and who is many of the aforementioned adjectives plus many more besides. This is helped by the individual stories each has, and which are told by way of quest, as well as the acting. Whilst Geralt’s mannerism might be a little wooden (due to him needing to be as he was eight years ago, or just because he’s a trained mutant with minimal emotion? You decide.) the voice talent on display is on the whole excellent. The art of all key players in the world is impressive too, giving more feeling to each individual and who they really are, as well as showing great breadth of skill by the development team. The overall story is not in itself anything those well-versed in fantasy lore will be surprised by, but when connected by all these shorter stories and told through characters onscreen, what we end up with is something wholly engrossing.
As it’s a proper RPG there is significant scope to make the White Wolf what you wish him to be. As you level-up you’re rewarded with an ability point (also obtainable from one of the places of power dotted around the world) which you can put into a variety of skills. You can upgrade your combat ability, alchemical skills or magic. Whilst Witchers don’t typically dabble in magic - leaving it to mages and sorceresses - there are five basic ‘signs’ you can use throughout your time in the Northern Realms. These can be used in combat, or in-game, with one providing a fiery blast, another a telekinetic output and so on. These can also be upgraded using ability points - one upgrade path in particular leads to extra options during certain interactions, whereby you effectively use the Force. In addition to upgrading these facets of your armoury, you can put points into specific skills such as one which adds on a chunk of vitality, or another which regenerates health over time. What’s interesting is that you can’t end up with a superpowered Witcher come game’s end. Any skill you upgrade needs to be selected for use, and here there are limited slots (more open over time). It means you truly need to think about what you want to use, and remember to actually use it.
Combat initially feels clumsy, basic and unwieldy. This isn’t unusual for such RPGs but if you’ve played Dark Souls or Bloodborne it can be uncompromising for a while. Over time you become more familiar with Geralt’s way of doing things and realise the system is surprisingly deep. You can arm yourself with swords, axes, a mace and so on. You can choose to have a normal stance or always be blocking. You can parry attacks, leading to an opening. You can dodge or dive from attacks. You can leverage your telekinetic ability to stagger someone and close-in for a quick attack or finish them with a stronger one. You can upgrade your weaponry to enhance intensity of your signs or just because you want a piercing bonus or a dismemberment one. You can carry trophies around once obtained from important kills, giving extra bonuses once more. Similarly your armour isn’t just about what looks good, or what has the best defence. Each piece brings with it specific assets, so it pays to kit yourself out for a given challenge rather than just wearing something that works all round.
Here, actually, is where The Witcher 3 has two ways to manage difficulty. It has standard difficulty modes, including Death March difficulty which is for the most able of Witchers alone. But if chosen appropriately the difficulty level can also lead to the game being all-encompassing or stripped down, dependent on what the individual prefers. To succeed on a higher level will require full understanding and application of all alchemical skill. It will need to make use of all bombs, potions and upgrade oils. Combat will need to be truly understood - when to dodge, parry or use the stronger, slower attack. On a low difficulty level though, combat can be button-mashing and alchemy can be overlooked. Different people will want different things from their time with Geralt. Organically this is provided for. It also makes for great replayability - essential if someone is to comprehensively finish the game (i.e. 100%).
Replayability is immense, actually. As already mentioned there is so much to do that something is bound to be missed on a first playthrough, even if you’re trying to do everything. Even if it wasn’t, your decisions truly impact the world. One example is that during a particular quest our choices led to a man and his wife heading off together to resolve the issue they had. That quest could have ended in the man killing himself when left alone. The former meant there were extra quests to do. The latter meant you would never know quests had been forgotten before they’d even been started. Choice is everywhere. What you do, who you do, when you do it. It’s fascinating to see how disparate two paths can be and the chance to try the alternative one day will be hard to pass up.
The Witcher 3 includes a collectible card game mini-game. It’s called Gwent and is brilliant. Other developers would be happy to release that on its own but here it’s a small diversion, which can become a very big obsession if you choose to follow the collect ‘em all quest (and obtain the shiny trophy at the end). As Geralt travels the land he plays innkeeps and merchants; friends and others, in an attempt to become the best at Gwent the world has ever known. Each time he beats a player for the first time he wins a card from them. Others can be purchased from various folk along the way. There are four factions, and a deck is built for each. It would take a lot of space to detail the whole game here, but effectively it’s best of three, with the winner being the one who scores the most points per round. Of course it’s not as simple as just having the higher total score in your hand. It’s truly absorbing. This can take precedence over the actual game at times, so enchanting is it to just play Gwent. As the cards are from the world you’re playing in your deck will be built of people you know, or perhaps will know in the future. This adds further enticement to the game of Gwent, and the adventure you’re on when you want to meet the person whose card helped you win so many rounds. As you go to each of the far corners of the world you’ll be able to take part in fight competitions and races as well, looking to become the best at those pursuits, too. All of this just makes you stop every now and then and reflect at the majesty of the world, the game and the whole package.
It’s not all perfect though. In fact there’s an awful lot wrong with the game, but most of it is incidental in comparison to that which is so right. Your horse can get stuck behind some trees and not others. The user interface is slow and disorganised - when you have looted anything and everything such that you’re suddenly overburdened, you need to go item by item to see which is heaviest. If you want to buy from a merchant you need to cycle through all your inventory screens - each loading all items - before you can see what’s for sale. Many character's visages are recycled. At times you’ll find yourself walking through furniture and quests sometimes can’t be progressed as no option to talk to the person you want to talk to. There’s no new game plus option, either, so if you want to tackle the highest difficulty you’ll be doing so right from the start once again.
None of that matters though. Even if you get frustrated such that you stop playing the game, you’ll be thinking about it and itching to play again within minutes. Hours will go by and you’ll not realise. The WItcher 3: Wild Hunt is an outstanding achievement. It’s amazing in size and scale, both technically and in terms of RPGs. It looks great, it plays well and each and every mechanic can be gobbled up or left by the wayside as the player sees fit. It has strong characters of both sexes, and stronger events to get to know them through. It can last for hundreds of hours or twenty-five if you’d like it to (and are that good at it!). You’ll not want it to end, just like you didn’t want your very favourite RPGs of years’ past to end either. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will sit in that list now. There isn’t any higher praise.