Looking back over my last 60 hours with The Witcher 3, I feel a bit like its wandering protagonist: A very attractive man standing alone on a hilltop, looking out over a vast kingdom, unsure where to begin.
Just kidding; I look like garbage right now. I've spent the last week and a half mostly shut in my apartment, blinds drawn, headphones on, eating potato chips and staring at my television. Over something like five dozen hours, I've killed countless monsters, saved scores of villagers, shagged a sorceress or two, and finally watched the credits roll. I've seen a fair chunk of The Witcher 3, but I've also left a substantial amount of it unexplored.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an open-world role-playing game that casts you as a legendary and sexy monster hunter named Geralt of Rivia. You spend most of the game guiding Geralt as he explores a collection of massive open outdoor areas, taking on quests, slaying monsters, talking with people, making difficult moral choices, and gradually levelling up his gear and abilities. Basically, doing the whole RPG thing.
Let's start by getting my recommendation out of the way. Should you play this game?
The Witcher 3 is a wholesale improvement over the already-good Witcher 2, combining the free-roaming exploration of Red Dead Redemption with the complex branching storytelling of a Dragon Age and the tightly designed melee combat of a Monster Hunter or a Dark Souls. It doesn't always execute those things as well as the games from which it draws inspiration, but thanks to some sharp writing, smart design, and marvellous technical wizardry, Wild Hunt is engrossing despite -- and even occasionally thanks to -- its many familiar elements.
Wild Hunt was developed by Polish video game studio CD Projekt Red. Like the first two Witcher games, it's based on the works of Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, though it uses his books as a springboard for its own tale, rather than directly adapting them. Think of it as fairly standard dark fantasy mixed with a healthy dose of grim Eastern European fairy tale. There are dragons and mages and elves and dwarves, right along with witches who lure children into the wilds and mischievous grubkins who haunt houses and torment people's dreams.
The resulting milieu has a dash more personality than your average fantasy video game -- there's a reason the Polish Prime Minister gave President Obama a copy of the second Witcher game as a gift. If gaming's fantasy genre at times resembles a collection of chain restaurants, The Witcher is an unexpected serving of local cuisine.
Geralt is a Witcher, one of a now-defunct line of genetically-mutated warriors originally created to hunt and kill the beasts that infest the world. (The world, in this case, is known simply as "The Continent.") At the start of the game, a great southern empire called Nilfgaard is steamrolling its way northward, conquering or killing everyone in their path. The conflict mostly serves as the backdrop for a more personal story, as the Nilfgaardian emperor summons Geralt and charges him with tracking down a young woman named Ciri -- née Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon -- the emperor's daughter and heir. Ciri was last seen somewhere beyond the Nilfgaardian lines, in the Northern Kingdoms that continue to fight for independence.
Geralt's task is immediately complicated by several factors: 1) That Ciri possesses some immense but little-understood cosmic power; 2) that for reasons unknown, Ciri is being pursued by an unstoppable interdimensional attack squad known as The Wild Hunt; 3) that the sorceress the emperor has enlisted to aid Geralt in his quest is Geralt's own lost love Yennefer; and most of all 4) that Geralt raised and trained Ciri himself, and thinks of her as his own adopted daughter.
From there, Wild Hunt races outward toward all points of the compass. The resulting tale is remarkably dense and far-reaching, sweeping up dozens of characters across several warring nations, all while straining admirably to resolve numerous lingering plot threads from the first two Witcher games while maintaining focus on the father and daughter at its emotional core. No story could accomplish so much with perfect grace, but I was surprised by how close Wild Hunt came, and how often.
Despite its grand scope and substantial cast of characters, Wild Hunt is a lonesome game. Geralt is an ageing member of a dying race; he's an outcast from society and a warrior without a master. In this, he embodies the complementary and familiar archetypes of the wandering ronin of Japanese fiction and the lone gunslinger of wild west cinema.
Wild Hunt's geographical size is impressive on its own -- this game is much larger than previous bragging-rights-holders like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto V, and it feels it. That immense size doesn't just exist for its own sake; it serves an important function in the game's overall design and effect. Wild Hunt conjures the illusion of an actual kingdom full of actual villages populated by actual people, and through sheer size effectively conveys the feeling of wandering an endless wilderness.
Each of the game's many small villages offers something new; a man will flag you down, asking for help dealing with a beast that's been killing his livestock. Or maybe a merchant's wagon will have gone missing and she'll offer Geralt some coin to track it down. Perhaps one village will have a message board covered with notes left by the villagers: Please stop stealing milk from my cows; has anyone seen my lost hat; can someone help out with the bog wraith that keeps killing people? The villages all start to blend together, effectively conveying the feeling of a war-torn kingdom full of shitty little villages populated with desperate people.
Through all of that, Geralt rides alone. He enters each new village or encampment atop his horse, and every time, the moment feels iconic. Here is the lone swordfighter, the mysterious stranger, coming to bring justice. Witchers are reviled by most common folk, viewed as mutated abominations. Passersby will spit on you as you pass or call you names once your back is turned. Over time, those you have helped will call out to you as well -- you may pass through a village and hear someone thanking you again for your help -- but by and large, the message is clear: These people do not love you. They may need your help, but they do not want it. You will never belong.
I've always liked Geralt of Rivia. I never finished the first Witcher game, but I've played its terrific (if flawed) sequel a number of times, and I'm charmed by the taciturn monster-hunter in the title. On paper, Geralt is a mishmash of every male empowerment archetype you can imagine. He's part Jedi, part Batman, part Kwai Chang Caine, part Don Juan, and part Solid Snake. He has eyes like a cat and awesome white hair. He is both the greatest swordsman and the ablest lover to walk the earth.
Yet thanks to some spry, consistent writing and a fine voice-over performance by actor Doug Cockle, Geralt feels like a consistently believable, three-dimensional person. Geralt helps The Witcher games stand apart from role-playing games that let you create and customise your own character, picking your race, gender, backstory, and disposition. Here, you're playing as Geralt of Rivia. You may help choose which decisions he makes, but he remains his own man.
Because Wild Hunt's story is a culmination of two previous games and a whole collection of short stories and novels, it can be dense and difficult to follow. Game of Thrones' recent popularity has given the general public a higher threshold for complex, politically driven fantasy narratives, but Wild Hunt feels like hopping into the middle of Storm of Swords without any preamble or hand-holding. I'm familiar with Witcher lore, but I often found myself saying, "Wait, who?" before pausing the game and referring to in-game character descriptions to catch up with what the hell was going on.
It can feel as though Wild Hunt requires the player to maintain a cheat-sheet just to keep a handle on who's who. To wit: There is a character named Ermion and another character named Eredin, joined by yet another character named Emyr. All three are major players who are important to the narrative, and Geralt and his friends often refer to more than one of them in a single sentence. While it would be easy for characters to refer to Emyr as "Emperor Emyr," which would greatly help clarify things, he's frequently just referred to as "Emyr."
Although Wild Hunt's narrative complexity should be a consideration for anyone thinking about playing it, I'm reluctant to say it's all that much of a problem. It's a demanding tale, but often a rich and satisfying one, full of interesting characters and some well-written, surprising dialogue.
It helps that the names in this game are incredible:
At one point in the story, Yennefer gives Geralt a device called a Potestaquisitor. Say it out loud: "Poh-tes-ta-quiz-itor." Not only is that maybe the best name for a magical device I've ever heard, it also leads to this outstanding conversation:
Monster-killing badass though he may be, Geralt is rarely the person in the room with the most power. He spends his time consorting with emperors and kings and sorceresses, and is only ever truly in command of himself. Therefore the player's choices are usually small-scale and personal, yet another way Wild Hunt differentiates itself from other similar RPGs like Dragon Age and Skyrim. This is not the story of the mighty army commander or the mystical chosen one; it's the story of the guy who works for the army commander, the guy who knows the mystical chosen one.
Characters don't always do what Geralt suggests, meaning that your decisions don't impact the story in the ways you might expect. For example: A character is considering doing something rash. You're given the choice to tell her to go for it or to tell her it's a bad idea. If you say it's a bad idea, she might brush you off and go for it anyway, but your lack of support in that moment could be an issue down the road. Or, she might decide not to do it on your advice, and change the narrative in a more obvious way.
That makes it much easier to play Wild Hunt naturally, without worrying about your decisions. Will this decision have an impact down the road? Who knows! Might as well just keep playing and find out.
Eventually, all of your decisions do lead to one of a number of different endings. When the final foe is defeated, Wild Hunt thankfully doesn't fall into the trap so many other open-ended RPGs do, ending on a vague non-resolution and dumping you back out in the world to mop up unfinished sidequests. Instead, Geralt and Ciri's story has an honest to goodness ending, and it happened to be an ending that I found unexpectedly affecting and satisfying. Of course, that was just my ending; your ending might be depressing and awful. It's possible to go roam around and complete unfinished sidequests after the story is complete, but it's not supported by the narrative -- you're simply warped back in time to before you began the final mission.
For its first half, Wild Hunt is less a tale of high adventure and more of a mystery. Geralt and his allies are tracking Ciri's path through a war-torn no-man's-land called Velen and onward to the neighbouring Skellige Islands, hunting down witnesses who may have seen her passing and questioning the men and women with whom she fought or sought shelter.
In fact, Wild Hunt is mostly a game about solving mysteries. Most of Geralt's optional monster contracts and other sidequests -- of which there are loads, and of which I've played but a fraction -- involve a mystery of some sort. What kind of monster is making off with children in the night? Was it a beast that killed that merchant's assistant, or was it the merchant himself? Who's stealing food from the town taverns? For the most part, these mysteries don't actually require any input on the part of the player -- you don't get to assemble the clues and figure things out for yourself -- but it's still a lot of fun to guide Geralt as he uncovers clues and cuts closer and closer to the truth.
Each step along the main questline brings Geralt closer to Ciri but also brings with it new complications. That rhythm makes up the bulk of the main story missions in the game's first half. Geralt finds a warlord in Velen who sheltered Ciri for a time, but before he'll tell Geralt what he knows, he needs Geralt to help him with a few more domestic issues.
That formula lends the game its structure in the early goings -- Geralt will find a lead, but before that lead bears fruit, he must solve a series of problems and usually, slay a series of monsters. It's contrived but effective, particularly in the payoff at the end of each quest: When a character finally gives Geralt a further tale of Ciri's exploits, it's told through a playable flashback where players are actually given control of her.
Ciri's playable sections are self-contained and brief, but they're numerous and effective. By letting us see the world through her eyes, even briefly, Wild Hunt gives us more insight into Ciri's character than if she were simply the object of other characters' remembrances.
She's also just a lot of fun to control -- she was trained as a Witcher and has a few unique magical abilities, in particular an ability to teleport around the battlefield and catch foes unaware. Ciri's a formidable swordswoman, and a nice change of pace from her slower-moving, more methodical adoptive father.
[Spoilers] I was expecting that Geralt would track Ciri for the bulk of the story, and that when he finally found her, the story would enter its endgame and begin to wrap up. So I was pleasantly surprised that Geralt actually reconnects with Ciri at the story's halfway point. Their reunion simply shifts the story from mystery to full-on adventure, as they unite with the rest of their friends to directly confront their mysterious adversaries in the Wild Hunt. This narrative pivot gives the game even more space to make Ciri an actual character, rather than an ever-out-of-reach objective fuelling Geralt's quest.
Players can't take control of Ciri at will, but once Geralt and Ciri are reunited, the dual-perspectives trick is used to nifty effect during a couple of climactic showdowns. The story lets us see key events through Ciri's eyes, rather than Geralt's, and through it all, Geralt and Ciri are given space to explore their familial bond. Some of the best dialogue choices revolve around how best to support Ciri while also trying to teach her the lessons she'll need to survive. Are you gruff, or permissive? Do you try to protect her, or let her choose to take risks? Many of your interactions with her depend on your understanding of both her character and of Geralt's, and their interplay is often fascinating. The Daddening of Games continues! [End Spoilers]
"Wild Hunt" is actually a pretty good subtitle for The Witcher 3, but it could just as easily have been called The Witcher 3: Hello Ladies. There are more beautiful women in this game than you could shake an enchanted tree branch at, and you sure can have sex with some of them. (Indeed, you can even do it while sitting astride a stuffed unicorn.)
The Witcher series has always been unabashedly sexy; as you meet people aware of Geralt's legend, it becomes clear that he's as well known for banging sorceresses as he is for slaying monsters.
There's an element of sexual fantasy stitched right into Witcher lore: Because of the nature of their mutations, Witchers are sterile. STDs don't appear to be much of a thing in this world, which basically makes Geralt a big walking dick, all pleasure and zero risk. Furthermore, Sorceresses are also sterile, and in the course of their magical training learn to make themselves unnaturally beautiful. When Witchers and Sorceresses get together, it's a recipe for wild, no-strings-attached sexytimes. That contributes to the game's playful view of sex, at least as it applies to Geralt and his potential consorts. The sex scenes I saw as I played were often goofy and ridiculous, but sex often is goofy and ridiculous. Sex just isn't that big a deal here, and it's refreshing.
Women and the relations between women and men both play a large role in the Witcher universe, and like many other popular fantasy series, the series does both well and poorly by its female characters. Here again we have a fantasy world where the shittier aspects of our own -- sex-slavery, rape, domestic abuse, systemic brutalization of women and minorities -- are alive and well, where imaginary castles and kingdoms come with all the bloody baggage of the actual middle ages. Men are subjected to torture and brutality as well, but as it tends to go with these things, women are singled out for sexual violation. A low point comes midway through the story when Geralt comes upon a scene of profound fucked-upedness, a group of women who have been sexually brutalized and murdered seemingly purely as a means of motivating players to kill the man responsible. (Probably would have wanted to kill him without seeing a dead prostitute nailed to the wall, thanks.)
However, many of the story's most interesting characters are women, and more than just being powerful and capable, they're complicated, difficult people with distinct and often conflicting motivations. (It's just that they look like Victoria's Secret models and happen to favour skintight riding pants.) Wild Hunt also occasionally surprised me with its willingness to actually say something about oppression, rather than simply depicting it. At one point I had Geralt chase off a couple of men who were harassing a frightened elf on the street. Rather than thanking him, she angrily accused Geralt of intervening just so that he could feel like a hero. This solves nothing, she said. Those men will be back tomorrow, but where will you be?
Ciri is at once chaste and comely, a daughter figure and eye candy, which, yes, is awkward. She's given a rushed romantic subplot but robbed of the chance to consummate it; she's a strong fighter and arguably more deadly than Geralt with a blade, but she spends the entire game with the center button of her blouse undone and her bra showing. Wild Hunt, then, is somewhat like Geralt -- surrounded by powerful, complicated women, enthusiastic but not always sure of how best to proceed.
Most of the thrusting Geralt does over the course of Wild Hunt is done with one of the two swords he wears on his back. (How's that for a transition, eh?) Geralt is one of the most renowned swordsmen alive, and the majority of the game's quests culminate with him pulling steel and stabbing something until it stops moving.
Wild Hunt's combat is a significant improvement over The Witcher 2. It finally feels as though the PC-focused CD Projekt Red has warmed to controller-based combat, and the majority of the game's controls sit happily beneath the player's fingers. The left trigger puts Geralt into a guarded posture, ready to ward off most regular attacks. Players are given two buttons for dodging; a short dodge that doesn't drain any stamina and a longer roll that does. Attacks involve stringing together various combinations of heavy and light thrusts. Geralt and his foes are animation-locked a la Monster Hunter and the Souls games, meaning combat is as much about careful timing and tactical position as it is about aggressive offence.
Geralt has a variety of offensive and defensive abilities aside from his swords. He can cast signs, a low-grade kind of Witcher magic that lets him blast gusts of air or fire at foes, conjure a protective shield around himself, or crawl inside the minds of his human opponents and leave them defenseless. Geralt can also craft any of a number of explosive bombs and is equipped with a nifty crossbow that comes in mighty handy when taking on flocks of airborne beasts.
Those skills can be mixed and matched, as well. You could craft a bomb that dispenses a cloud of explosive dust, then ignite it with a fire sign and watch your enemy burn… or ignite it with an explosive bolt from Geralt's crossbow. You could throw a powder that binds a spectral foe in its corporeal form or cast a sign that lays a mystical trap to accomplish the same goal.
Understanding one's enemies is important, which makes the preliminary, detective-like investigation of each individual monster more than just a roadblock between you and the inevitable showdown. It's crucial that Geralt understand what he's going up against in advance, so that he can brew the appropriate potions, equip the appropriate weapons, and apply the appropriate oils to his blade. You can't change Geralt's loadout in the middle of combat, a smart restriction that forces players to think like a Witcher and take their enemy's strengths and weaknesses into account ahead of time.
Geralt's combat animations are remarkably detailed and fluid, and they have a tangible impact on the way the game plays. I regularly felt as though I was in control of an intelligent fighter and was impressed by how smoothly Geralt shifted his posture and focus to move between enemies, even on a crowded battlefield. Part of The Witcher's appeal is the promise to let you feel like a wily, unstoppable badass, and Geralt's elegant move-set and expanded arsenal accomplish that goal far more ably than previous games in the series.
Some of my favourite fights in the game involved one-on-one matchups against armed, human-shaped opponents, but the game's many beasts can be a fun challenge, too. I particularly enjoyed taking on various breeds of flying monster -- Geralt carefully watches winged beasts circle and dive, leaping just out of reach of their claws and cutting them down before they can escape.
Wild Hunt is more enjoyable on higher difficulty settings -- on its default "normal" setting, Geralt quickly becomes overleveled and endgame fights can become trivial. Furthermore, he can slice through most enemies without using any of his spells, potions, oils or bombs, which makes things feel much less strategic and rewarding.
While higher difficulties force you to keep on your toes and rely more heavily on Geralt's bag of tricks, they also reveal shortcomings in the enemies' artificial intelligence. Most bosses simply spam the same two or three attacks, meaning that fights against them feel like fights against predictable video game bosses, rather than contests against unpredictable, intelligent foes. While the higher difficulty does make those fights more challenging and therefore more rewarding, it can also draw out certain encounters, turning them into battles of attrition as Geralt executes the same dodge and counterattack over and over, gradually chipping down the boss' health.
Combat is also occasionally where the game's technical performance becomes an issue, or at least that was the case during my playthrough. I played a "debug" copy of The Witcher 3 on a special PlayStation 4 that Sony loaned me, meaning that I was essentially playing a final version of the game, minus a day-one patch that the developers are already promising. The game runs well for the most part, holding to what felt like a decent unlocked 30-ish frames per second with the occasional dip.
In combat, however, things can get jerkier, particularly when a bunch of characters are fighting on screen at once. When the shit really starts to hit the fan toward the end of the game, the developers' technological ambitions finally overwhelm the PS4's capabilities, and the frame-rate and responsiveness become a real problem. This only happened to me a few times, but it did detract. When the frame-rate begins to fluctuate, it becomes harder to feel as connected to Geralt's movements, which can obviously be a problem in tougher encounters. I've yet to play the PC version of Wild Hunt, which will likely benefit from a steadier, higher frame-rate.
I'm also hopeful that the PC interface will improve inventory management, which is a real mess in the console version. As you make your way through Wild Hunt, Geralt will accumulate more quests, sidequests, crafting items, herbs, books, notes, monster parts, and upgrade materials than any reasonable human being could know what to do with. So it's a problem that Wild Hunt's menus are so convoluted and unwieldy -- it takes ages to scroll through your inventory to find whatever object may be necessary for a given task, particularly if you're in the habit of hoovering up every book and magical item you come across.
By the end of the game, the "usable items" tab of my inventory looked like this:
Which book is which? No clue. I'd have to scroll through each one in order to find the book I'm looking for. New items are temporarily bumped to the top of the pile, but if you want to find something you've already read… well, good luck. It's equally befuddling that books fit into the same "usable items" category as potions and tonics.
Stores are difficult to navigate, too, and the fuller my inventory got, the more the menus would lag as I'd flip between them. I imagine everything is much easier to deal with when using a mouse and a keyboard, but given how well the rest of the game works with a controller, even that feels like a half-solution.
This may seem like a small thing to harp on, but given how much of the game is spent navigating various menus, it really isn't. Game developers, hear my plea! Someone needs to come up with a better way for players to interact with complicated character- and inventory-management systems. I don't know quite what the solution looks like -- a second screen? radial menus? -- but it sure ain't this.
At one point partway through the story, I found myself wandering an estate to the far east of one of Wild Hunt's large northern cities. I had just attended a posh afternoon horse-race, and was in no rush to get anywhere.
As I strolled along, I found this guy:
That's a peasant working in a field, shoveling dirt. I stopped and watched him, noticing that after plunging his shovel into the digital "ground" at his feet, he was actually coming up with some dirt. He'd then swing the shovelful of dirt over to his side and dump it out.
I couldn't help but marvel at the amount of work that must have gone into that one small detail. Someone had to animate the peasant, of course, but someone also had to create the dirt. They had to make it its own independent object, to give it weight and assign it the physical properties necessary for it to fly off of the shovel just so.
Wild Hunt is laced throughout with that sort of minor technological revelation. At first glance, it may not look all that much more advanced than other similar games we've played before. Spend an hour or two playing, however, and its many small bits of programming chutzpah have a cumulative effect.
This world doesn't just look lovely in still images; it moves. A gust of wind tosses the branches of a nearby copse of trees; Geralt's hair flutters along with it. Characters' jewellery and armour swing lazily as they walk; their sheathed swords and weapons bob to and fro along with their strides. A nighttime bonfire spits orange light, setting the trees' shadows dancing against the darkness.
Wild Hunt's developers have used their considerable technological prowess to create a beautiful tribute to the natural world. The sun in this game has moods; its light casts down in a variety of flavours depending on the time and the weather. Humans innately understand that the sun has a slightly different shine at different times of the day, but most digitally-generated sunlight maintains only a few hues and temperatures. Thanks to some no-doubt complicated lighting technology, The Witcher 3 recreates the sun's light with at-times awe-inspiring results. Rare is the video game that can effectively capture, say, the peculiar tint of the sun as it shines through gathering storm clouds in the late afternoon at a far-north latitude.
While Wild Hunt represents one of the most effective attempts yet at digitally re-creating a photorealistic world, each impressive technological feat also necessarily reveals a shortcoming. Characters emote more believably than in similar role-playing games, but their faces still often resemble doll-masks, rigged up to register emotion on cue. Some cutscenes may be rendered with natural motion-capture and impressive fidelity, while others are stilted and robotic. A forest tableau may look beautiful one moment, only to be marred by a strange, hitching herd of deer stumbling their way across it.
In other words, even The Witcher 3's most exciting technological advancements are like any other technological achievement -- they're worthy of celebration on their own, but they're waypoints along a path toward some as-yet-unreached destination. Inevitably, they will be surpassed.
Consider the peasant: He may have dirt in his shovel, but he's not actually digging a ditch. In some imaginary game released five years from now, that dirt will actually move from the ground into a pile behind him. In five more years, he'll finish digging and move on to the next row.
For now, though: How cool is it that this guy is actually shoveling dirt?!?
As time passes in Wild Hunt, Geralt's beard grows. You can get a shave at any of the game's major cities, but as the days and weeks progress, his beard starts to grow back.
The journey from this…
…occurs across what seems like ten different steps, with Geralt becoming beardier and beardier with each passing day. It's yet another remarkable technical achievement in a game full of them.
Like a lot of Wild Hunt's best tricks, Geralt's ever-growing beard connected me to the game in a subtle but potent way. His beard wouldn't grow in overnight; it would take just long enough that by the time it had fully grown in, I'd reflect on whatever it was we were doing the last time he got a shave. Time is passing, the game was reminding me. Slowly, but surely.
"Something Ends, Something Begins." That's the title of one of Sapkowski's later Witcher short stories and a concept that plays an important role in Wild Hunt. This game is an ending and a beginning. It's an ending for Geralt, but, in his protege Ciri, he sees hope for a new beginning. It's the end of CD Projekt Red's stewardship of Geralt's story, yet it feels like a beginning for them as well, as they have finally achieved many of the narrative and design ambitions that previously seemed just out of their reach.
Wild Hunt is a grand adventure that feels distinctly of its time. It manages to set new standards for video game technology while accentuating the fleeting nature of technological achievement as an end unto itself. It is a worthy exploration of friendship and family, mixing scenes of great sorrow with scenes of ridiculous lustiness, tempering its melancholy with bright splashes of joy and merry monster guts. Come for the epic showdown between good and evil; stay for the unicorn sex.