Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: Bandai Namco
The Witcher 3 has finally arrived bringing with it a whole lot of expectation, a hefty dollop of hype and a sizable portion of, “It better be good”. Having now sunk a terrifying amount of my life into the game and fully intending on sinking a lot more too I’m here to say it meets those expectations and punches them in the face. CDProjekt Red have delivered something sublime here, a compelling RPG that has great writing, oodles of worthwhile quests and enjoyable gameplay. There is, of course, flaws, but not enough to stop this being crowned one of the greatest games of all time. Yes, it’s that good.
The actual overarching plot of the game is surprisingly straightforward; legendary Witcher Geralt is trying to hunt down his adopted daughter Ciri, a badass in her own right raised in the manner of a Witcher who is being pursued by the dreaded Wild Hunt, a name familiar to series veterans. Geralt therefore goes from place to place with the incredibly overused plot device of having to do jobs for numerous people in return for information about Ciri’s whereabouts, which in turn has the nasty side-effect of making the player feel like a leaf simply being blown about by the whims of whomever you meet. Geralt is portrayed as cool, calm, collected and intimidating, a man always in control of the situation, yet the plot mostly has him completely devoid of real agency, having to blindly complete quest after quest to get information. Eventually the narrative does manage to free itself from this irritating cycle, but not before you’ve spent a massive chunk of time wandering around the map at the behest of almost everybody you meet. Even later Geralt still feels like he has minimal say in what’s going on. Getting away from this, though, we return to the overarching narrative. A simple plot isn’t an issue as some might almost believe; it’s really all about everything that occurs in between, namely the colorful characters and engaging events that are spawned from the brilliant writing and equally fantastic voice acting. The long-spoken of Yennefer finally appears, for example, joining several returning characters, including Triss Merigold, and a whole host of wonderfully realised new NPCs whose story arcs are engaging. It all builds toward one of 36 potential ending variations which make your choices payoff in a nice way, even if the main thrust of the ending itself feels….messy, tossing in a few twists and moments of faulty logic that don’t work too well. But problems aside the Witcher 3 conveys brilliantly rich, layered tale that weaves together some subtle humour, underworld dealings, high fantasy, monster slaying, magic, politics and more without ever tripping over itself. It’s all about those people you encounter, the diverse case of men and women who all have distinct personalities, understandable motivations and agendas of their own to pursue. The option to skip dialogue is there, but this is one of the very few times in a game with so much recorded chatting that I’ve never wanted to use it. Conversations are interesting thanks to the great writing and voice acting.
One of the biggest questions that needs answering is whether the Witcher 3 is suitable for newcomers. Sure, it’s the third game in a very narrative driven series and therefore traditionally wouldn’t be a recommended jumping on point for anyone, however the previous two games were arguably niche titles that never really entered the mainstream conciousness. They were popular, but weren’t very well known. The Witcher 3, though, has hit the mainstream’s attention with all the power a hammer swung by Thor and looks set to sell incredibly well with plenty of players looking to leap straight in. To that end the Witcher 3 actually holds up surprisingly well as while it is a continuation of the previous game the plot is almost entirely separate, therefore it’s pretty easy to get up to speed as the writers do a good job of delivering exposition without slapping players in the face with it. Of course veterans will still take much more from the story as they’ll already feel connected to certain characters or understand references to past events. It’s a testement to the developers that almost everything in the game conveys information in one form or another, sucking you in to the world and plot quickly.
This in turn makes it very easy to sink into playing the role of Geralt. So many RPGs opt for mute protagonists and a first-person view in order to allow the player to transport themselves into the world, which is nice in its own way but I’ve long been a fan of actually taking on a mostly predefined role, and Geralt fits the bill nicely. For those that don’t know what Geralt is, Witcher’s are essentially professional monster hunters, trained from childhood and mutated in numerous ways to make them vastly stronger, faster and smarter. They wield special silver swords for killing monsters as well as standard steel for humans, and can use a small range of magic to augment their other skills, including expert tracking. However, while the Witchers were created out of necissity over the years they’ve become mistrusted and maligned by the population who fear them, often accusing them of stealing children and being heartless monsters in their own right since they don’t take a contract without payment. It took only an hour or two for me to enter the mindset of Geralt and begin trying to play as a proper Witcher, considering each fight carefully, negotiating the best price for a contract, applying oils to my swords for bonuses in combat, brewing potions and keeping my gear in order, all while trying to navigate dialogue options in a way I image someone like Geralt would. Geralt is largely predefined, but he is slightly malleable through dialogue choices, letting you tweak his personality in a lot of ways, and some of the choices feature timers, forcing you make a quick and decisive decision.
Speaking of Geralt it’s easy to write him off as another typically gruff hero with a voice so gravelly it could be used for making driveways, but he’s actually quite a fascinating character, exhibiting a far more complex personality that you’d initially give him credit for, including some deadpan humour, genuine caring, interesting insights and much more. Even his monotone voice works, managing to suit his personality. This is a fearless man who always feels in control of the situation, and only in the most extreme circumstances does his voice betray strong emotions, a fact that even he deadpans about in one particuilar scene where he ends up in a play. Still, not everyone is going to appreciate this quiet character, relatively well-defined character over somebody such as Shepard from Mass Effect, a far more malleable avatar.
Breaking away from the relatively linear design of the previous game the Witcher 3 has embraced a monumental open world that dwarfs the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, granting you free rein to wander where you wish at any time. You do have to be careful when blindly running around, though. While so many modern RPGs scale difficulty with the player, and thereby also tend to negate any feeling of increased power that comes from levelling up, the Witcher 3 is happy to let you run face first into beasts and quest lines that will leave you whimpering like a child that just had to witness his favorite toy being run over. Thankfully all quests do come with a recommended level, and enemy levels are also clearly indicated, with green meaning all is well, red offering a challenge and skulls meaning you might want to run away and live to fight another day. It’s always a nice feeling to get yourself some better gear and come back later to whoop the ass of a monster that decimated you earlier in the game, or to finally acquire equipment good enough to tackle a contract that’s been sitting in your quest list for a while. It also helps that the large world is jaw-droppingly beautiful at times. Provided you’ve got the hardware to run it the Witcher 3 looks sublime, and even at lower settings it’s a striking game filled with beautiful vistas, fluid animations and high levels of detail. It’s only tarnished by some examples of crap texture work that appear from time to time and a few graphical hiccups to boot, but nothing that stops you from marvelling at just how damn pretty everything looks. The audio work is equally impressive with a magnificent cast of voice actors breathing life into the rich writing, fantastic sound-effects and a satisfying, soaring score stands among the best examples of videogame music. With a good audio system and capable rig the Witcher 3 is one of the most immersive RPGs in a very long time.
Of course scattered liberally around this world is a variety of side-quests to tackle. Even the most innocuous of side-quests can spiral into an adventure that spans several hours of gameplay, and often ties into the primary plot or other quests in ways that ensures that they feel important in the grand scheme of things. Characters that you encounter and help out reappear later in the story missions or other quests as the game crafts a richly interwoven tapestry, changing events based on what occurred previously and ensuring that everything in the world feels connected. Your actions can have surprising and impressively diverse consequences much later in the game, lending a feeling of palpable weight to every decision you make. Entire settlements and chunks of the land can become decimated by your actions, or the consequences can be more personal with people you’ve come to know and love throughout the course of a quest being killed off. And by heck does the Witcher 3 excel at choices. There’s no crappy morality bar here or sugar-coating; the things you come face to face with are usually morally gray at best. There’s rarely ever a clear good choice to be made where everybody comes out smelling of roses. This is the first game in a long time where I had to stop and seriously consider what to do in any given situation. Many games have claimed to be mature and gritty, but what they really mean is that they aren’t afraid to be violent and gory. The Witcher 3 is mature and gritty in a much truer sense, painting real, emotional scenarios through clever writing and outstanding presentation. Even the smallest, simplest side-quest feels worthwhile thanks to the superb quality of the facial animations, voice acting and writing. Sure, there’s a few generic, throwaway quests to be found, but for the most part this vast, compelling world is filled high-quality stories to experience, which makes exploring feel wonderfully satisfying. There’s always something to find, from an amusing little tale, such as the odd voice of the AllGod emanating from a ruined temple, to monster nests that need destroying to harrowing tales that span several hours and that left me feeling elated, sad and touched. The best of these stem from the main characters you meet during the primary storyline. Their arcs tend to diverge into side-quests so that you can continue helping them out if you want. An early example of this involves a man known as the Bloody Baron, whose story had me hooked from beginning to sad end. Much of what you do still boils down to going somewhere and killing some stuff, but it’s the way those quests are dressed up in compelling narratives that makes you keep going. This is a game that deals in abusive relationships, miscarriages, curses, betrayals, love, humour and monster slaying, all with the same level of care and quality applied to each topic. Nobody would have blamed the developers for taking the Ubisoft path and just chucking in a lot of basic fetch quests, but CD Projekt RED didn’t do that and the result is simple glorious, while also proving that you really can make a huge world without resorting to cheap filler content.
In terms of pure content the Witcher 3 spans probably around 70+ hours if you want to see and do everything, and almost all of it is worth checking out, but it’s hard to put an actual number on it because, quite frankly, I didn’t do all of it. And there is, of course, the titular Witcher contracts where Geralt can ply his trade as a professional monster slayer, taking on contracts to slay beasts causing problems for the locals. Unlike many of the other quests, even when they do involve killing creatures, too, Witcher Contracts tend to be far less narrative driven, though they do still feature some interesting little snippets of story. Rather the focus is on taking on the monster, but first some preparation helps; you can negotiate a price with the contract offerer, and then you’ll often need to ask around for some clues about the creature and its whereabouts, investigate areas of attack and such, until you finally confront the enemy. If you know what you’re facing you can always apply an oil to your blade for some extra damage bonuses, plus make sure you’ve stocked up on potions and sharpened up your sword. While these missions may lack the outstanding writing of the other quests there’s a simple charm to just going out and killing monsters. On the easier difficulty levels preparation isn’t that important, but ramp up the difficulty and Witcher Contracts become tough battles, and I can’t explain how satisfying it is properly prepare then wade into battle, barely escaping with your life and a bloody trophy.
Having said that the Witcher Contracts don’t favor story, the truth is that the Witcher 3’s narrative is never gone, it’s absolutely everywhere, happily infesting every little inch of the world. Witcher contracts still offer glimpses into the everyday lives of people who have to live in constant fear of monsters, as well as poverty and starvation. Even when you are simply moving from place to place the environment manages to carefully and constantly fill in details, while the conversations between NPCs let you in on what’s going on, often offering bites of information that ties in with other quests or even leads you to interesting locations. Speaking of which question marks scattered around the map indicate something worth checking out, sometimes it’s a monsters nest or an abandoned village or some treasure. These can be found by simply exploring, and it’s quite worth doing because you may discover blueprints for rare Witcher gear or an awesome new sword. Plus there’s plenty of things that don’t show up on the map to find, too. It would be impossible to walk from one end of the map to the other without feeling like the Witcher’s world is completely real, filled with its own religions, monsters, rulers and customs that vary from place to place. The Skellige islands, for example, not only sport a surprisingly diverse range of environments but also a people who feel radically different from those in, let’s say, Oxenfurt, one of the larger mainland cities. This is a world where sorceresses are being burned at the stake, and peasants have to deal with poverty, monster attacks and a war being waged around them. It’s a tough, harsh life, except for those in the large cities. Even there, though, there’s poverty contrasted with wealth.
If there is one shame to all the questing and Witcher contracts it’s the heavy usage of Witcher Senses – basically Detective Vision from the Arkham series or Eagle Vision from Assassin’s Creed. When in this mode tracks and items of interest are highlighted bright red, and it’s frequently used across almost every quest. In fact it sometimes feels as though you can’t go more than a few minutes without using it, and since it doesn’t require anything more from a gameplay standpoint than dumbly wandering around to find the glowy red things it can become stale pretty quickly. At least its heavy usage is thematically relevant, though, bringing to life how Geralt is able to read the environment and track his prey with his super-human senses, so as flaws go it’s an easily forgiven one.
The skill tree is probably the only area of the Witcher 3 that could potentially be described as uninteresting, typical RPG fare. You can invest points in increasing your swordsmanship, magic, alchemy and general abilities, but none of the skills are very exciting, in truth. The best RPG’s levelling mechanics bring with them a wonderful sense of joy when the game informs you that you’ve ranked up, but the Witcher 3 never managed to evoke that from me. Still, it does have some cool ideas; you can only have a certain amount of skills actually active, so you do need to quite carefully consider where to spend your points, otherwise you could find points essentially being wasted in abilities you aren’t actively using. Mutagens can also be applied that give you extra bonuses, and their effects are amplified for every skill that matches the Mutagens color, which is a neat design choice that encourages you to concentrate your talents more.
Alchemy is your friend in the Witcher 3 as potions provide many benefits and if you’ve got the difficulty set to offer a challenge then they are often the extra bit of oomph needed to complete a Witcher’s Contract against some huge, horrible beast that wants to rip your legs off and beat you to death with them. In a terrific move the developers have implemented a system where having hard alcohol in your inventory when you meditate will automatically replenish any potions you’ve crafted, meaning once you’ve finally gathered the ingredients required you never have to worry about wandering the countryside in search of plants again or having to travel across the map to find a vendor selling what you need. Bombs and oils will also be replenished, again ensuring you don’t have to scour the land to stock up again. Meditation also replenishes health (vitality, in the game) except on higher difficulties where you need to simply use potions and food to patch yourself up.
Of course crafting new items is also included, though Geralt himself is only capable of repairing gear, and that’s provided he has the tools to do so. Schematics can be brought to blacksmiths in order for new weapons and armor to be created. Indeed the best stuff in the game usually has to be made this way, the schematics discovered in chests located in obscure places or given as rewards.
Combat is the best the series has ever seen without a shadow of a doubt, yet is still struggling in many regards. Fighting monsters and human enemies has quite a slow, thoughtful pace to it that feels good. You need to wait for an opening to really go on the offensive, using both the roll and dodge (essentially a smartly executed side-step) to position yourself accordingly to strike a couple of blows before backing off, or in the case of a human enemy correctly timing a parry will let you launch a counter attack. At his disposal Geralt has a light and heavy attack, plus a small selection of spells that are often used to exploit certain weaknesses. A spell which slows down enemy movement in a zone, for example, also forces Wraiths to materialise, while a mind-controlling spell also handily forces Alghouls to retract their spikes. Governing it all is a stamina meter. Dodging and casting spells all deplete the bar, so you have to keep one wary eye on it at all times and carefully judge what you need to be doing, especially since wearing heavy armor slows down stamina regeneration. If you need to use a spell, for example, it’s good to go on the defense using just standard movement and the dodge in order to let the bar refill so you can cast your magic. Combat isn’t quick or even fluid, then, but more like a brutal, slow clash. In crowds of enemies, though, things go wrong as it becomes hard to actually focus on stamina and correct placement when claws are coming from nowhere. Enemies are very aggressive. It’s here you also realise that dodge, roll and even parry all feel stiff and a little unresponsive. Cancelling out of animations, for example, is hit and miss. The problem is compounded by the fact that you can still take damaging while rolling, and only investing points in a specific skill can reduce that damage. Meanwhile hitboxes can feel a little iffy as you get struck by a wide blow while trying to dodge. Throw in a crowd of enemies and things can become annoying as it seems damn near impossible to roll or even dodge without getting hit by a second or even third beast mid-way through the animation. The lock-on system is also a pain because trying to swap between foes mid-combat feels tricky, yet without the lock-on it can be hard to target specific enemies at any given time, so you might find yourself battering the wrong goon. With tighter controls, a better lock-on and some invicibility on the roll the combat could have felt much better. Still, as it stands it’s decent, its methodical pace giving it a very different feeling from most other games.
The combat is held back by a simple case of controls, though, an issue that plagues other aspects of the game, too. Geralt, to put it bluntly, moves like a lumbering mountain. It’s hard to stop on the exact spot you want, for example, and when you go to sprint he’ll take a few slow steps first before finally running. In combat the dodge, side-step and even parry never feel as precise and responsive as they need to, as talked about, making it less about reacting to an attack and more about tapping the dodge button well in advance of an assault so that Geralt can actually get moving. Even then it’s not uncommon to be rewarded with a claw in the face for your efforts. These problems extend to Geralt’s horse, Roach, a handy beast for getting about long distances but one that can feel clumsy to control. He also tends to get caught up in scenery, and when whistled upon the game seems to delight in spawning Roach in stupid places where he proceeds to get trapped.
There’s other problems along the way, too. Indeed, I would have been genuinely astonished if CD Projekt RED had managed to create a game of this size without at least a few glitches and hiccups. Yet to my surprise I haven’t encountered any severe problems that have done anything more than irritate me briefly, though on console reports of save games being deleted were common, and some PC users have been experiencing crashes with AMD hardware, although the developer’s quick work at getting patches out seems to have remedied these problems. On the topic of AMD, though, we should talk about performance; with an FX-8350, 16GB of RAM and an R9 290 I was able to run the Witcher 3 quite well with a mixture of ultra and high settings with a few medium settings while maintaining a pretty solid 60FPS. However, it should be noted that sudden drops did occur while simply roaming, and were more common in the large cities. In fairness I could solve these by dropping a few settings, except for in the city where the sheer amount of stuff going on seemed hard to combat, but I was happy to have the higher graphics and take the drops in my stride as they weren’t getting in the way. Do note I wrote this review just before AMD launched a new set of Beta drivers focusing on the Witcher 3. Other problems I ran into included some graphical problems, dodgy AI where enemies would just stand there before eventually coming to life, a key for a captive’s cage never appearing, some audio hiccups, Geralt lighting or extinguishing nearby candles when trying to open chests thanks to context sensitive controls, and a few other little things. Having said this there have been plenty of people on various forums encountering other bugs and glitches, so it would appear that I’ve been relatively lucky in that I’ve only come across a few.
Along the way you even get to occasionally jump into the boots of Ciri for short sequences. Because she isn’t technically a full Witcher Ciri doesn’t use magic in the traditional sense, but she does come packing some extra skills that stem from…well, we won’t mention that due to spoilers. Skills like being able to teleport short distances, making her a powerful adversary in combat. Perhaps we’ll get to see more of her in a future expansion, maybe one focused on her exploits since she’s such an enjoyable change of pace.
Somewhere in the middle of creating this massive world the developers also found time to throw in a genuinely enjoyable little collectible card game named Gwent. You can travel around buying new cards to build a better deck with, challenging other players and entering tournaments to win special cards. It even has a surprising amount of depth for a game within a game, demanding enough thought to keep it highly entertaining. I almost can’t help but wonder if CD Projekt RED will consider adding a bunch of new cards in the future, or maybe even release it as a digital game in its own right, or perhaps an actual physical product, although it’d need some reworking for play against realm opponents rather than the AI.
Let’s also take a moment to consider the extensive DLC plan for the game, too. Normally I don’t touch upon DLC in a review because it’s not really the place for such topics, but in this case it’s worth talking about. Every week for eight weeks CD Projekt RED are going to release two pieces of free DLC for everybody that owns the game. They aren’t huge chunks of content, rather they are new weapons, a quest or two, armor etc, but it’s still amazing to see a developer willingly give back to the community by offering new, free content for everyone to enjoy. Down the line there’s also going to be two new expansion packs that add an estimated thirty hours of new gameplay. The first, Hearts of Stone, offers a predicted ten hours of content, while the second pack, Blood and Wine, has twenty hours of gameplay and an entirely new area, plus both will contain new gear and more.
The last time I got so utterly sucked into an RPG was the impressive Dragon Age: Inquisition, but eventually its hold weakened and I’ve yet to actually finish it. The last time and RPG grabbed me and kept me utterly hooked from beginning to end was Skyrim, nearly four years ago. The Witcher 3 drags players into its impressively realised world and refuses to let them resurface until they wandered the land, done everything there is to do and watched the credits roll. It’s an immersive, addictive experience from start to finish, and cements CD Projekt RED as one of the best developers around, true masters of their chosen medium. There isn’t anything that breaks the mold; we’ve seen almost all of this before in one form or another, but it’s all just done so damn well. There’s just so very little I can really criticise or wish was different. It isn’t innovative in a traditional sense, but it smacks companies like Ubisoft in the face and screams at them that massive world can be packed with worthwhile stories rather than filler content, that huge games can be launched with relatively few problems, that dark and mature doesn’t just mean bloody and shocking, that the audience deserve smart writing and that consumers can be treated with respect instead of ramming pre-order bonuses and other crap down their throat. It isn’t new, it’s just fantastic.
The Witcher 3 is a masterfully crafted RPG that stands amongst the greatest examples of the genre. To claim that it could sit upon the throne as king of the RPGs would be to actually attempt to determine the current occupant and that’s a whole debate for another time, but the Witcher 3 is one of the greatest RPGs of all time, and one of the greatest games of all time, too. It’s a beautiful, rich, wonderfully written and thrilling adventure packed with content, all of which feels worth experiencing. It is without a shadow of a doubt my favorite game of the year thus far and will quite likely take the crown as 2015 closes out, unless something even better manages to come along. Simply amazing. This is one of those games you need to play. It’s a masterpiece.