"Eh, it was a video game," I flippantly told a friend shortly after I got back from a recent Witcher 3: Wild Hunt preview event in San Francisco. "I don't know. It was alright, I guess."
I'd had a nice enough time tracking down supernatural beasties (and regular, non-supernatural arsonists) and snarling my way through conversations, but I didn't feel wowed. I got to take control of Geralt from the massive fantasy RPG's get-go, learn the ropes, and do a handful of quests. Certainly, the whole thing was very pretty and dashing and it was implied that two characters did a sex right before the video game part showed up, but it was hard not to feel a creeping sense of "been there, done that." Grabbing quests, hearing randos sputter out their sob stories, calling my omnipresent horse from the ether cloud horse realm in which it assuredly resided -- it was a familiar rhythm born of other open-world-ish RPGs like Skyrim and Dragon Age. Each step felt like second nature, for better or worse.
And yet, the next evening I found myself feverishly re-downloading The Witcher 2 to get my fix. I wanted more Witcher 3, but Witcher 2 -- its hunt less wild, its Geralt's face not yet a wooly paradise of angst-fertilised scruff -- would have to do. That moment really struck me because, as I said, I thought Witcher 3's first few hours were OK, but it wasn't like somebody had to pry my fingers from a controller or scrub my fingernail flecks from a keyboard.
But clearly, the game resonated with me on some deeper level. It triggered that gamerly compulsion to lose myself in a world, to cannon ball into the deep end and sponge up every last bit of its mythology. To hand my friends and family five bucks and tell them to go see a movie for the next couple months, because I had plans that evening. And the next evening and the next evening and the next evening and --
The Witcher 3 quietly, insidiously sunk its hooks in deep. It was the little things that got me, I realised. Little things like:
- Ciri is gonna be a handful. The Witcher 3 opens with a flashback to a simpler time, when Geralt was chilling at Witcher school with eventual long lost love Yennefer and training eventual playable character (albeit only for brief chunks of the game) Ciri. The latter quickly picks up the nickname "she-devil," and it's not hard to see why. She eschews her lessons with an old Witcher master to go practice walloping stuff in the Witcher fort's yard, only to reveal that she actually taught herself the lesson when everybody's yelling at her. When everyone is, rather justifiably, like, "What, why didn't you just tell us that," she retorts that an advantage not saved until the proper moment is an advantage wasted. What I'm saying is, she schools Witcher school. So yeah, even as a pre-Witcher-mutation kid, she's kind of a badass. It will be interesting to see what she's like to play as, especially given that Geralt will apparently spend a lot of the game searching for word of her whereabouts. One developer told me that what Geralt hears about her might not match up with the truth, aka what we get to play. Hmmmmm.
- The name "Ciri" will never stop making me think of the annoying voice that lives in my iPhone, Siri. I realise that The Witcher books did it first. I'm sorry I'm uncultured, but this is just how it's gonna be.
- Witcher Vision is pretty cool. At any given moment, you can hold down a button to put Geralt's field of vision into a sort of detective mode. This lets him see footprints, clues, key items, and the like. In practice, sleuthing around various environments -- be they houses, dilapidated beach huts, or seemingly inconspicuous forests -- isn't very challenging, but it adds a lot to the feeling of being a Witcher. Which brings me to my next point:
- The game is great at making you feel like a Witcher. Taking jobs, following footprints, studying monsters for weaknesses, brewing just the right potion to exploit those weaknesses, being called a "freak" by children on decrepit dirt roads -- it all builds to create this image of a fantastical beast detective/slayer, a misunderstood profession that everybody hates until the second they need your help. That, in turn, helps elevate quests beyond typical garden variety collect/kill fare, even if that is ultimately what you end up doing a lot of the time. The Witcher 3 knows how to dress up its quests, and sometimes that makes all the difference.
- Hunting makes me feel good. And also like Batman. I spent most of my post-tutorial Witcher time going on hunts for troublesome monsters, and that easily made for the game's best questing. The most basic (yet well crafted) example involved a haunted well, which I discovered was actually occupied by something called a noonwraith. After a bit of research, I discovered that the wailing, wedding-dress-clad spirit was a deceased bride who was bound there by some relic. I then had to hunt around in houses and, eventually, at the bottom of the well to find a bracelet and the noonwraith's old bones, which she was no longer using. One ceremonial cremation later, I had a fight on my hands. More research had revealed that this kind of spirit was vulnerable to Geralt's spell-esque Yrden sign, which normally immobilised enemies. In this case, however, it brought the noonwraith into the physical realm, allowing me to damage it. Shame I forgot to brew any potions. Despite all my other preparation, the noonwraith nearly ground my bones to make her bread -- or whatever it is ghosts do with bones.
- It's still damn hard. If you were worried CD Projekt might dull The Witcher's difficulty for console crowds, you can stop now. The first time I died, it was against a random pack of wolves who convened their meetings of the jerk wolf society in a swamp where everything was poison. I also never managed to successfully bring down the first big baddie of the main quest, a griffin that was terrorising a cluster of nearby towns. After investigating everything from what pissed the griffin off to how old it was, I managed to draw it out with a plant that apparently smelled an awwwwful lot like rotting flesh. I dodged its swooping strikes easily enough, but on the ground its rush attack -- which best resembled a tank trying to run someone over -- reduced Geralt to an ugly smear one-part viscera, one-part beard, and one-part feathers. After a couple tries I nearly beat him, but then I ran out of time in my demo session. Oh well.
- Choices aren't "moral." Geralt isn't really good or evil, and that comes out in the choices The Witcher 3 offers you. Sometimes it's about role-playing Geralt as either a stoic malcontent or someone who's a bit more open with strangers, a bit more willing to turn down payment if he sees that people are on a shoestring budget (and dietary plan; I'm saying they eat shoes) anyway. In one bit, a guy I was questioning about Yennefer's whereabouts asked if I loved her. I didn't have to say anything, but I felt like -- after all his journeys and the self-discovery that came along with it -- Geralt might be ever-so-slightly more open about his feelings. "[Long sigh] Of course it's about love," I had Geralt reply, annoyed but relieved to get that off his chest. In that same area, I was also offered the option to question people the normal way or start busting out Witcher signs to hypnotise them into telling me what I needed to know. My travelling partner, Geralt's old master, wanted me to keep things quiet, but a couple of staunchly anti-Witcher jerks refused to cooperate, so I STOLE THEIR MINDS. This all culminated in brutal fisticuffs outside a tavern, but nobody harassed me for doing things my way or anything like that. I made a series of choices, and the game reacted. Simple as that.
- Everyone has PERFECT HAIR. It's all so swishy and shiny. Video game hair usually looks like somebody took a bowl of sludgy porridge and let it harden on their head, so The Witcher's next-gen GloriousLockTech (TM) is a welcome reprieve. Basically, I dare you not to be hypnotised by the pendulum-like movements of Geralt's ponytail. I dare you.
- Combat is better (but still janky). True to their word, CDP has definitely upped Geralt's ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a mutant with two swords and a nearly un-ageing body who is kinda like Wolverine from X-Men and he's totally Wolverine from X-Men. It's much easier to break out of combat animations now, which is basically a godsend. I never really felt like I mastered timing or distance, though. The former was especially apparent when I was trying to counter attacks with a quick press of the block button at just the right moment. I just couldn't find the sweet spot. It never quite felt natural. Meanwhile, the interface for switching signs mid-battle is still finicky and awkward, and dodging non-humanoid enemies is an imprecise science, to say the least.
- All quests have story. Or at least, all the ones I played did. This isn't like Skyrim, with its auto-generating grocery list of "go here, do this" kill/collect tedium. Most of them had me talk at length with at least one character or had multiple objectives that turned typical fantasy RPG quest-givers into people I actually cared about. Even the noonwraith quest, which I obtained from a board in a town square, caused character-driven ripples in my personal story a little bit later. I actually encountered my favourite character in my (admittedly brief) time with the game this way. Her name was Tomira, and she was an herbalist I barged in on to ask about a plant that would lure the griffin out. However, she and Geralt quickly bonded over general world weariness, and both observed that neither of them were all that they seemed. They saw through each other's masks. They were mirrors of one another from very different walks of life. Despite Tomira's cynicism, I ran out and made a Witcher potion to (hopefully) help her dying patient. While neither Geralt nor Tomira was certain the potion -- Witcher tested, definitely not mother-approved -- wouldn't just kill her patient, she was grateful nonetheless. In the end she gave me a nice reward added, "Thanks. For giving a damn."
- All games need horse autopilot. Seriously. Just find a path, hold a button, and the horse does the rest. I could get used to this.
However, I also noticed some stuff that made me kinda worried. For instance:
- The Witcher 3 might be tough for newcomers to parse. Right off the bat, I was dealing with tons of key Witcher characters and loose plot threads. Admittedly, once I broke away from the main plot and started side-questing, things will simple enough. Even then, though, this is a world pregnant with quivering masses of mythology. CDP has said time and time again that they want this one to be self-contained enough that anyone can play it, but I have my doubts.
- There were lots of hitches and glitches. On the upside, most of the glitches I encountered were graphical in nature, and those can be fixed up with a few more months of polish. Still, there were a lot of them, not to mention a frame rate that would occasionally drop into the single digits. While I'll still give CDP the benefit of the doubt on this one, I am slightly worried given the series' history of launching with, let us say, some issues.
- I don't know about all that running and jumping. Geralt can run and jump and climb now! Like an assassin who's also a parkour master or a courier who's also a parkour master or any other modern video game character (who's also a parkour master). In my experience, however, it all felt kinda creaky and disjointed. Movement controls felt robotic. Clambering up cliffsides caused Geralt to pause briefly before hoisting himself up. In the grand scheme of things, these are smaller issues, but they prevented me from feeling the intoxicating flow of forward motion that other games with hyper-mobile main characters achieve.
- CUUUUUUUUUT-SCEEEEEEENES. No two ways about it, The Witcher 3 starts out slooooooooowly. After my first hour, I felt like I'd mainly watched cut-scenes -- up to and including one that was a cool fight scene against the aforementioned griffin. Why couldn't I play that, I immediately wondered? Why couldn't that have served as my first taste of just how fierce my new feathered foe was going to be? I play these games to be Geralt, damn it -- not Geralt's silent spectator and occasional life coach.
- Inventory and potion-brewing interfaces are still kinda clunky. At first I had trouble telling when I had enough ingredients for certain potions, and the process was not well-explained. Menus, meanwhile, tended to be awkward to navigate, with a few too many tabs, panes, and sub-panes to cycle between.
- Please fire the camera man. Or kill him. The Witcher 3's third-person camera is mostly fine outdoors, but it's utterly wretched in cramped confines.
- Sauron and his magical ice blimp. The main villain -- at least, for the brief moment I saw him during the opening flashback -- looked a lot like Sauron from the Lord of the Rings movies, except with some kind of magical ice blimp. It was kind of silly. A lot of The Witcher is kinda silly, despite the game's generally self-serious tone. It remains to be seen how much (or even if) this interferes with its ability to tell an engaging, believable story.
- Can it stay fun for a million-billion hours? There is obviously tons to do in The Witcher 3, but is it all fun? Can it stay fun for 50 or 100 or 200 hours? How much of it feels like filler, meaningless flab ballooning out the hips of an experience that already has plenty of meat on its bones? Can the writing hold up over the course of hundreds of side-quests, or will it eventually descend into the unnecessary apostrophe-ridden slums of generic fantasy? What about the main quest, with all its branches? The Witcher 2 kinda fell apart toward the end. Here's hoping The Witcher 3 manages a more graceful conclusion.
So those are my big takeaways. If there's anything else you want to know, feel free to ask in the comments. I will (probably) get to your question eventually (maybe).