Witcher? I Barely Knew Her
It’s been a long time coming, but CD Projeckt RED’s hugely anticipated third entry in the Witcher series is finally here. While The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings did an admirable job of bringing Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s white-haired mutant monster-slayer extraordinaire Geralt of Rivia into the living room, the game’s somewhat inaccessible difficulty and underwhelming quests held it back from being quite as memorable an adventure as it could have been. Now, four years later, the Witcher returns in what is arguably the most ambitious role playing game in recent memory.
The story of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt revolves around Geralt’s quest to reunite himself with Ciri, his ashen-haired daughter figure who he raised and has been trained in the arts of the Witchers since a young age. Ciri is being pursued by the frosty forces of the game’s titular Wild Hunt, a mysterious frozen army who will stop at nothing to capture Ciri and spill the Elder Blood that runs through her veins. What ensues is a gargantuan adventure through a stunningly realized fantasy landscape as Geralt explores an extraordinary world teeming with quests to undertake, ancient dungeons navigate, and innumerable men and monsters to hack and slash to pieces along the way. You’ll even take control of Ciri at key points in the adventure, who employs a unique combat style that keeps the action fresh as you progress through the main story.
It’s difficult to put into words just how immense the world of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is. Developer CD Projeckt RED has provided players with a fantasy playground 30 times the size of Geralt’s previous adventures. It’s easy to lose focus as you traverse the game’s lush wilderness that runs the gamut from Velen’s soggy, corpse-filled marshes, verdant forests lined with lifelike foliage, and the frostbit mountaintops that loom over the island of Skillige. The first time you approach the towering fortifications of Novigrad you’ll be hard pressed not to be awestruck by the bustling city’s sheer scale. Thankfully, you’ll be able to venture out into the wilds on horseback and sailboats to speed up you travels. However, you’ll be hard pressed not to dawdle and meander off your set path as you take in the breathtaking scenery.
And explore these areas you shall, as each locale is jam-packed with quest boards where you can take on new missions for the townsfolk, including monster-hunting Witcher contracts that have you using both your brains and your brawn to tackle a variety of supernatural foes. Of course, being a super-powered mutant comes with its benefits as Geralt can tap into his Witcher senses – much like Batman’s Detective Vision from the Arkham games – which highlights points of interest and foes in red as you track your quarry and gather clues to assist you in completing your quest. CD Projekt RED’s masterful balance between exploration and combat is refreshing, as even the game’s most seemingly insignificant side quests are wonderfully well written vignettes that manage to pack more story than you’ll find in other retail games (we’re looking at you, Destiny), pulling you into the dark and fascinating world Geralt inhabits.
This level of depth manages to permeate not only the quests themselves, but Geralt’s dialog choices with the game’s NPCs. Though the Witcher mutations may have caused Geralt to lose some of his humanity, players are often given plenty of leeway to shape the character as they see fit. Do you want to solve the world’s problems free of charge like a silver-sword swinging Mother Theresa? Have at it! Will you nickle-and-dime the needy populace before undertaking a quest? You’re free to do that as well through the game’s built-in negotiation system that allows you to barter with quest givers. While these examples are straightforward, you’ll often be presented with morally ambiguous choices as well, where even the right choice leaves you feeling dirty as you’re pressed to choose between the lesser of two evils.
As a Witcher, Geralt is trained to slay even the most foul of supernatural beings and vile brigands. Sporting two swords on his back, one steel for dispatching human enemies, and another forged of silver for slaying monsters, Geralt will come across a wide variety of foes looking to tear him to shreds. Combat plays out with a familiar variety of light and hard attacks, along with a suite of powerful magic abilities that can be used to even the odds as you battle hordes of enemies at once. Magic comes in a variety of fruity flavors, such as IGNI, which scorches your foes with waves of armor-melting fire, AXII, which controls your opponent’s minds, and ARD, which knocks your foes off balance with a wave of energy, allowing you to move in for the kill. Each of the game’s magic attacks and sword abilities can also be upgraded through an expansive skill tree, allowing you to grow your character to your liking. You can even salvage mutagens off of fallen monsters, which allow you to augment your repertoire of abilities with devastating added stat bonuses.
However, the enemies Geralt encounters in his quest are vicious, and you won’t get far unless you learn to properly defend yourself from their relentless assaults. Mastering the defensive roll is key to surviving, especially when you come face-to-face with towering golems and vicious werewolves. You can also perform a last-second dodge with a tap of the O/B button, allowing you to quickly evade attacks without losing your offensive edge. You can also perform a riposte technique the moment before an armed opponent strikes, allowing you to move in with a grisly execution. Combat is a fast and fluid dance of risk versus reward actions. While it certainly takes some getting used to, practice and perseverance eventually coalesce, molding you into a highly efficient killing machine that will have you dropping dozens of foes at once.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is without question one of the most beautiful games we’ve ever seen. That said, the breathtaking vistas and stunningly detailed character models found within the game do come with a price. In the PlayStation 4 build of the game we were provided by the publisher, we were treated to gorgeous 1080p visuals and a locked 30fps framerate. However, during action-heavy scenes we experienced noticeable frame drops. While still very playable, it certainly breaks the immersion, and can cause some difficulty when timing your defensive maneuvers. Other nagging technical issues cropped from time to time as well, such as NPCs who steal center stage as they pop in and out of cutscenes, and occasional times when we summoned our trusty steed Roach, only to have him get stuck in a fence or castle wall. One particularly amusing glitch we encountered in our playthrough of the game happened as we triggered a quest while swimming in Novigrad’s harbor. When the dialog sequence began, Geralt was locked in his breaststroke animation on dry land, and when the melee began our hero was briskly swimming in circles through the air like an albino Aquaman on LSD. Thankfully, these incidents are few and far between, and future patches could remedy them completely.
If you like your games big and meaty, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt offers a veritable smorgasbord of adventure to sate your hunger. With a story that easily clocks in at 60 hours, along with enough sidequests to double the game’s playtime, you’ll be hard-pressed to find another game that comes close to delivering the amount of places to go and things to do that you’ll find tucked into this densely-packed Bluray. This is especially impressive given just how well-written even the most seemingly inconsequential missions in the game happen to be. Hell, you can even spend dozens of hours wandering towns in search of collectible cards and building the perfect deck in Gwent, the realm’s highly addictive card capture game that can be played against card sharks all across the land. The world is your oyster, and the Northern Kingdoms are teeming with adventure. Even the most jaded adventurer will be find it near impossible to avoid getting lost in the game’s staggering wealth of content.
Simply put, the third chapter in the Witcher saga is a modern masterpiece. While technical hiccups sometimes work to mar the game’s brilliant veneer, the tightly woven narrative and unparalleled living, breathing world combine to create an unforgettable experience. Developer CD Projekt RED have succeeded in crafting the first true AAA RPG of this generation that no gamer can afford to miss. If you’re looking for the first Game of the Year contender for 2015, look no further than The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Final Verdict: 5 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Warner Bros. Games ; Developer: CD Projekt RED ; Players: 1; Released: May 21, 2015 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PlayStation 4 review copy of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt provided by the game’s publisher, Warner Bros. Games.