By Mina Summers:
With the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, CD Projekt Red’s saga has grown into something magnificent. It’s a game of truly epic scale that still displays an eye for every detail. It’s one that sees its hero, Geralt the Witcher, fully transformed from the sword-swinging Mr Loverman of the first Witcher into a mature, reflective hero, and one where story, systems, art, music, action and lore all seem to mesh together into one dazzling whole. It’s the best fantasy RPG of its type since The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and sets a new benchmark for the genre.
All the same, you’re probably expecting more from a review than just breathless hyperbole. Well, imagine a game that takes everything you love from The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, Skyrim, The Legend of Zelda from Ocarina of Time to Twilight Princess and Red Dead Redemption. That pretty much has Wild Hunt covered. With the third Witcher, CD Projekt Red is playing in the very biggest leagues.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the slowest of slow burns. Developer CD Projekt Red has stated that it would take something like 200 hours to play through absolutely everything the unprecedentedly dense open world has to offer. After spending about 50 hours with the game since its release, I easily believe that.
It's worth saying immediately that the characterization and storytelling of The Witcher 3 is considerably better than The Witcher 2. Where that game often felt like a litany of confusing schemes and plots, The Witcher 3 introduces its actors smartly and efficiently — even as the cast ballooned in the middle third of the game, I never felt especially lost or confused about the various intrigues in play.
The Witcher 3 opens with Geralt in search of multiple people, namely former love interest Yennifer and his adopted daughter, Ciri, whom appears to be the object of the attentions of the nightmarish Wild Hunt. The story rapidly spirals outward, involving kings and their agents, aligning the political machinations of sorceresses and rulers both with and against Geralt as he seeks to find Ciri and unravel the mystery of her disappearance.
The Witcher 3 might have the best-designed quests of any RPG ever, too. Missions in games like World of Warcraft or Dragon Age: Inquisition can feel like busy work; in The Witcher 3, everything – no matter how trivial – has a point. There are the story missions, of course, which propel the main narrative, as well as Witcher Contracts, which require careful research and planning, but it’s in the side quests where the game really shines. If some amphibious horror isn't trying to drown their children, there's a disease-spreading ghost trying to wipe them off the map, or some other magical catastrophe to handle. Add interference from armies on both sides, and life is pretty grim for the have-nots who use the last of their savings to hire Geralt, asking for protection from just some of the things trying to kill, corrupt, or kidnap them.
So far, every secondary mission has a strong narrative backbone, with at least one plot twist or legitimately challenging moral decision thrown in. Quests usually follow the same formula – talk to a villager, look for clues using Geralt’s “Witcher Vision” (basically, Arkham City’s Detective Mode), and kill a monster – but the circumstances are always different. The stories are all fairly intimate, too, making Geralt’s decisions feel both important and personal.
A lot of the game between quests is spent on horseback bouncing from village to village and investigating points of interest, as one does in any number of open world games. And what beautiful points of interest they are.
During the past few weeks and even earlier, I have shaken my head reading disgusting crap (pardon the French) about the graphics being allegedly “downgraded,” or pundits shaking their fist at the title’s moral compass. I mean, sure, compare it to the original screenshots and it isn’t quite there. But even so, I have found myself - on more than one occasion - sitting on a hillside, with my trusty steed Roach, watching the sun dip below the horizon. Which is all the more impressive when a raging cockatrice is flying at you through the glare of it.
The Witcher 3’s detailed settings and breath-taking landscapes are worth sacrificing a few frames per second. Even better, the game is just as big as CD Projekt Red promised. While the beginning area, The White Orchard, seems perfectly manageable – and even a little repetitive – the rest of the world opens up after a couple of hours, and it’s full of interesting things to do and see. The Northern Kingdoms are incredibly deep as well. Ruins don’t exist just because the landscape needs some scenery; those castles are there for a reason, and they’ve got history behind them.
So far, fighting is the only weak link. Mechanically, the combat system falls somewhere in between the Arkham games’ rhythmic button taps and Assassin’s Creed’s semi-automatic “parry until there’s an opening” sword fights. Most of the strategy comes during preparation, not combat itself. Making sure that Geralt’s equipped with the right potions, explosives, and oils is key, while battles quickly devolve into mashing the dodge button and occasionally attacking. The gory finishing moves sell Geralt’s prowess with his blade, and players will feel powerful, but early on the combat is a little too easy.
The game’s user interface feels like a first draft, too. The menu system is clunky and tedious, and inventory management is – to be charitable – a complete mess. Geralt and his horse, Roach, stagger around like they’ve had too much vodka, and the finicky controls and unpredictable camera can make simple tasks (especially looting dead bodies) a chore.
The game’s crafting system is deep and not nearly as complicated as it looks, and almost all of the side activities (except for horse racing; see above, regarding the game’s controls) are interesting diversions. The Points of Interest – basically, mini-quests involving things like bandit camps or hidden treasures – offer some welcome surprises, and never take too long to clear out. That’s nice, given that there are literally hundreds of them. Gwent, The Witcher 3’s in-game card game, takes a while to get the hang of, but it’s deep enough that it could easily be a stand-alone game of its own, similar to Hearthstone.
And yes, with its rampant sex and violence, The Witcher 3 can be pretty exploitative. During Geralt’s more, ahem, intimate moments, the camera remains stuck in Geralt’s point of view, with lots of disconnected, close-up shots of naked breasts and his partner’s mouth, which hangs open with near-orgasmic pleasure. It’s pretty much textbook objectification. Violence is similarly fetishized, with slow motion shots that show off every brutal decapitation and dismemberment.
That’s worth bringing up because the storytelling itself is so sophisticated that it’s actually jarring when The Witcher 3 devolves into a reductive, macho power-fantasy. Rated M for Mature and real maturity aren’t the same thing, and it’s not always clear that CD Projekt Red knows the difference.
Or maybe they do. After all, this is a game that cuts to two rabbits humping in the middle of an otherwise serious cutscene, features a love scene on a stuffed unicorn, and opens with an act of violence (something involving a raven and a man’s eyeball; you’ll know it when you see it) that’s so ridiculous it’s hilarious. Despite its deep and nuanced story, there’s definitely a pulpy, Robert E. Howard-esque undercurrent to the proceedings. It’s pretty clear that CD Projekt Red is in on the joke; whether or not it’s a funny one is up to the individual player.
With commiserations to Bioware and Bethesda, Wild Hunt is the new RPG by which all other RPGs should be judged. Not only has CD Projekt Red delivered the largest and most convincing fantasy open-world we’ve ever seen, but a storyline, quests and graphics that make it an incredibly compelling place to run around in. It’s the GTA V of sword and sorcery sagas and the biggest, most breath-taking game you’re likely to play this year.