This is a preview about The Witcher 3. But I would like to begin by talking about a game I didn’t like. That game is Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Dragon Age: Inquisition. A game that tossed me into the deep end. A game that had zero compassion for a hapless noob like me with zero knowledge of the previous games, zero understanding of lore. A game that felt as though it jumped straight into the third act and gave zero fucks about explaining what was going on and why. There’s a green thing in the sky. You go fix that now. All that jibberish? All those feuds that make the story compelling? You don’t need to know about that. No, I won’t explain. Piss off. Go away.
Dragon Age: Inquisition. A game that seemed to oscillate wildly between waaaaay too much exposition or absolutely no information whatsoever. A game that seemed to hate its story but was crazy in love with its own lore. No balance was struck. 12 hours in I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. Just following markers on a map and killing things.
Welcome to the point of this intro: when I went to play The Witcher 3, having no previous experience with the series, I expected the worst. I expected a Dragon Age-esque experience. I expected a frustrating couple of hours. I didn’t expect to leave thinking that I had just played a possible game of the year candidate. No sir. I did not expect that at all.
I think of myself as someone who is fairly critical of video games, even games released to almost widespread acclaim. Please see above for proof of that fact. I didn't like Dragon Age: Inquisition, but The Witcher 3 completely disarmed me. It’s rare that I sink into hyperbole, but I can’t help myself. I feel like I’ve been waiting for years to play an RPG like The Witcher 3.
Now I’m going to attempt to explain why.
The Witcher 3 Has Actually-Quite-Good-Really Writing
If you were to put all video game writing on some kind of statistical graph, I’m fairly sure the median point would fall somewhere between ‘outright garbage’ and ‘sub-optimal’. Where would The Witcher 3 fall on that spectrum? Probably somewhere between ‘holy-shit-I-don’t-hate-this’ and ‘wait-a-minute-video-game-RPGs-can-have-good-dialogue’? I know, I was as surprised as anyone.
It’s the subtleties. The manner in which bland exposition is reduced to a minimum. The way a universal depth is suggested in the dialogue instead of being rammed down your throat at every opportunity. I never felt the need to trawl through ridiculous history books in The Witcher 3 (like in Skyrim). I never felt like I had to explore every dialogue choice like I did in Dragon Age. In The Witcher 3 dialogue is cold, clean and efficient. It never treats you like an idiot, it always works to create relationships and build story. It works to create in-game connections you care about and it does so effortlessly. I say this as someone who had never played a single hour of The Witcher prior to this preview. I left feeling as though I understood Geralt’s motivations and cared for the fate of those surrounding him. Actually cared.
Every Scar Tells A Story
Video game scars are totally in vogue. Dragon Age: Inquisition had scars for days, but in The Witcher 3 every. single. person has scars. To the point of parody. It’s almost comical. At first it bothered me, then I grew to love it.
I grew to love it because it fits with the idea of ‘suggested’ histories. Where did those scars come from? In The Witcher 3 scars feel less like randomised geometry dents built in a character creator and more like untold stories you might get to hear, but even if you don’t those stories still exist.
Why does it work in a game like The Witcher 3 and fall flat in others? I think it’s because care has clearly been put into every character in the game. Care has gone into their backstories, care has gone into their look. Care has gone into making sure their dialogue rings true.
It’s funny how I feel as though The Witcher 3 can get away with the scar overload while Dragon Age couldn’t. I think it’s because in Dragon Age scars felt like a short-cut. Insert scar here; get weighty back-story. In The Witcher 3 the quality (and restraint) of the writing work in tandem with the visuals. It all feels very legitimate.
The Witcher 3 Feels Like A Real Place I’d Like To Visit
The game I was most reminded of during my time with The Witcher 3 was not Skyrim. It was Red Dead Redemption.
Skyrim is the easier comparison, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense. The Witcher 3’s world feels far more sparse, far more like a ‘real’ place. The Witcher 3 does a far better job of filling in the gaps. It feels more ‘designed’. In a good way.
I’m struggling to put this into words. Whilst whilst playing The Witcher 3 I felt as though I was inhabiting this large world minus the sacrifices that size and scale usually entails. That’s why the Red Dead Redemption comparison makes so much sense. I loved Skyrim, but so much of its world felt wafer thin. With Red Dead Redemption the sparseness of its environment is a thematic decision. It makes sense in terms of the universe and the story being told. I got the exact same feeling with The Witcher 3. The world makes sense. It works. It feels cohesive.
It rings true. Call it what you want — call it ‘immersion’, call it ‘engagement’ — but my time spent in The Witcher 3 was one in which I felt spellbound. I was there. I was living that life. For two to three hours I was legitimately able to suspend my disbelief.
There Is Actual Variety In Missions
Here is a list of things I did in The Witcher 3:
— Had a bath. Looked at a lady’s bottom. — Did a tutorial in which I learned to move around and fight and what not. — Rode a horse. — Played an actual card game. Within the game. — Declared my love for a lady who smelled of lilacs. — Fought a bunch of bad guys. — Tracked a Griffin. — Found the ingredients for a trap for the Griffin. — Fought the Griffin. — Killed the Griffin with a bow and arrow. — Went to a mad, totally rowdy highland party in a castle filled with Irish and Scottish people. — Fought bears trying to kill everyone at the rowdy highland party. — Embarked upon a ‘Cluedo-esque’ investigation trying to figure out who let the bears into the party. — Used Batman-like ‘Witcher’ abilities to track down the culprit. — Helped make a totally awesome Irish woman the new Queen of some cold looking region.
Compare that to most video games these days: follow marker to location X. Kill all the things. Repeat until oblivion.
Best of all? Almost everything I did felt polished, unique and cohesive. At no point did anything feel tacked on (or tacky).
The Witcher 3 felt like the kind of RPG I’ve been waiting years to play: the kind of game that balances scale with design; visual fidelity with scope. The kind of game that sucks you into its universe but doesn’t feel weak and flimsy minute-to-minute. For the longest time it felt as though you could have one but not the other. The Witcher 3 seems to do it all and sacrifices nothing. That’s sort of scary — in a good way. You should be excited about this game.