Several months have passed since the release of the Witcher series’ third installment – enough time for people to have experienced enough of the gameplay and made sufficient progress through the storyline to establish informed opinions. I’ve made a point of avoiding as many of these reviews as possible, so as to try and remain original and objective (naïvely idealistic?) in my own evaluation of Polish studio CD Projekt RED’s latest effort. After purchasing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in a bundle with an Xbox One console, it took very little time for me to come to the realization that I was playing an example of a next-generation console title which had not fallen short of its developers’ ambitions – a refreshing experience to say the least.
I had previously dabbled in The Witcher 3’s predecessor, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings back in the Xbox 360 days, but found the gameplay, storyline and characters insufficiently compelling to draw my attention away from other games in which I was invested at the time (namely The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, being a major contender in essentially the same league). As such, I instinctively approached its sequel with some trepidation, but I hoped the boost in production values that has been facilitated by next-gen console power would be enough to win me over. I couldn’t possibly be any further from disappointment. The combination of the capabilities of modern gaming machines and CD Projekt RED’s development experience has yielded a result nothing short of exquisite. If the makers of Witcher 3 have blundered in any aspect of their product, I’ve yet to identify it. This game delivers every element I love about fantasy games in more-than-satisfactory amounts; enormous quantities of in-game content, breathtaking visuals, a captivating fictional setting with rich history and lore, convincing sound design and a poignant soundtrack.
I’ve not yet completed The Witcher 3’s storyline, so rest assured there are no spoilers to be found here. A brief exposition, however, can do no harm. As expected, this instalment of the series sees protagonist Geralt of Rivia – freelance monster-slayer and master of cold sarcasm – return as the chief playable character. The campaign centres largely on the character Ciri – a female witcher who trained (sans mutations) under Geralt’s guidance, and became like a daughter to him. She is being pursued by a group of supernatural warriors known as the Wild Hunt, and the early stages of the storyline see Geralt attempting to locate and save her. This plotline is set against a political backdrop wherein the Northern Kingdoms have recently been subjugated to the rule of the Nilfgaardian Empire – a conquest which has met an unsurprisingly mixed reception from the locals. One is able to explore the astoundingly vast world that has been created, containing countless NPCs with which to interact and a Bethesda-scale anthology of quests to be obtained.
Skyrim, the fifth instalment in the Elder Scrolls franchise, is generally considered to be the godfather of all open-world RPGs, and, honestly, it has been met with very little competition for the title. I have long held it among my top three (these three shuffle positions quite regularly, however) greatest video games ever made. I’d wager that every keen Skyrim player could recall his or her first ‘scenery moment’ during gameplay, wherein they take a moment’s break from questing and just appreciate Bethesda’s masterfully crafted landscapes, the likes of which had not been seen in a game previously. To say that The Witcher 3 has come close to emulating these spectacular scenic visuals would be a gross understatement; rather, next-gen technology has allowed CD Projekt RED to surpass them. Find an appropriate vantage point and you’ll be treated to breathtaking scenery on an almost Peter Jackson-esque scale. My personal favourite spot to indulge in this kind of mountain-gazing is Skellige, a set of mountainous, Scandinavian-inspired, Viking-inhabited islands to the west of the Northern Kingdoms’ mainland.
It’s not just the world that’s beautiful in Witcher however; armour and clothing textures, weapons, monsters and even human faces (game developers’ perpetually elusive white whale) deserve recognition for their graphic excellence. Whilst audio lip-sync can slip marginally during some dialogue sequences (perhaps a little presumptuous to blame the developers, probably the result of my cheap cables), the facial animation is indubitably some of the best I have seen – a testament to the advancement of motion capture over the years, and to the mastery of Faceware Technologies Inc., whose client list boasts the likes of Ubisoft, EA, Crytek and Rockstar.
In essence, Witcher is a fantasy game aimed at teenagers and young adults. But even medieval high fantasy needs to address relatable themes to remain interesting. CD Projekt RED has clearly embraced this, as they tackle many social and political themes in an impressively sophisticated manner. Chief among these are war, poverty, love, sex (shying away from very little of Geralt’s debaucheries in what has become somewhat of a hallmark of the series), and even the systematic persecution of a minority demographic. This mirroring of society is a necessity in good fiction, and is one of two pieces of evidence (the other being increasing budgets) that games are catching up to the film industry in terms of production value, didacticism and audience.
As for the gameplay and features, we are left with no doubt that this is indeed a Witcher game, although it is clear that improvements have been made to various aspects. Even on lower difficulty settings, enemies often deal a significant amount of damage, making the combat style all about timing – dodge, diveroll, strike at the opportune moment. Rinse and repeat until your enemy’s health bar runs as dry as Geralt’s sarcasm. In addition to removing all sentiment and sincerity, Geralt’s witcher mutations grant him the ability to use a plethora of magic spells, called ‘signs’. These include a fire-based attack, a telekinetic blast and a protective shield, among others, and almost all monsters you will be required to confront will be susceptible to one of these abilities. Furthermore, the game’s extensive crafting and alchemy functions allow for the creation of useful potions, oils to apply to your sword and even a variety of explosives, each individual substance effective against a particular enemy. All of the above can be either upgraded or replaced with improved versions. Additionally, a staggering amount of unique weapons and armours exist, which can either be crafted by, or bought from, blacksmiths and armourers. These craftsmen also repair your damaged equipment – handy when you’ve got a few spare gold to drop on fixing your broken sword.
Since Geralt is a professional monster slayer, I’m only giving you three guesses as to what his chief source of income is. While coin can also be made by way of fist-fighting tournaments, doing favours for NPCs, and the game’s complex and comprehensive commerce system, you will likely rely chiefly upon monster contracts, which yield a base rate of around 250 gold from the start of the game and usually involve eradicating some form of vile and/or nightmarish creature that has made a habit of pestering townspeople. You’ll find no shortage of these (often fetid) beings when wandering the wilderness, as Witcher serves us up a banquet of monsters in all shapes and sizes. We are treated to some original creations (swamp-dwelling Drowners, repulsive Rotfiends) as well as some old folklore favourites (Werewolves, Griffins, Wyverns, Trolls). Eighty species, to be precise, each with their own unique set of strengths and susceptibilities. More often than not, the game will spawn monsters which are at – or close to – your level, but not always. On occasion, you will be thrown into a scenario where you will be exploring the world at a modest level 5, for example, and happen to encounter a level 77 Griffin which could kill you by breathing on you. If this is the case, a red skull will appear where the creature’s level number should be, and this means hightail it out of the area. As quickly as possible. Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that if you avoid these outrageously high-leveled beasts, the game will become easy. This game is by no means easy and, until you master the controls and combat style, you will die. A lot. By no means allow this to discourage you from having a go, however. It’s all worth it for the learning experience, the challenge to be overcome and the sheer brilliance of the game in general.
Music is crucial to creating atmosphere in any video game, and so it is no coincidence that the greatest games of all time have also had the greatest soundtracks. As someone who knows a thing or two about music, I can say with confidence that The Witcher 3’s soundtrack is nothing short of superb. Exotic strings and percussion, along with more familiar western orchestral sounds are used to create a tasteful balance of dramatic, elegant and bombastic. Encountering enemies will trigger a frantically strummed Greek bouzouki and pounding kettledrums accompanying an erratic female vocal, while cantering peacefully across the countryside might induce a soothing interplay between a flute and some strings. Choose to roam the frosty slopes of the Skellige Isles however, and you will enjoy some decisively Nordic cello melodies. In short, the music of this game is as diverse as it is beautiful. Pick up a physical copy and you even get the soundtrack CD. It’s a good deal, trust me.
Mercifully, it seems I have been saved from my recent disillusionment and disappointment with the gaming industry by the Polish programmers’ efforts here. In a world where developers seem to be routinely disregarding storyline and content in favour of hyper-realistic graphics, CD Projekt RED have struck a rewarding balance between all the important facets. Are Bethesda now at risk of having their genre-defining magnum opus dethroned? Very possibly. My expectations of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s legacy are high, but let’s return in a few years’ time and see what kind of place it holds in the fantasy RPG pantheon.