The Witcher III: Wild Hunt

PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher Bandai Namco/CD Pro­jekt Red De­vel­oper CD Pro­jekt Red For­mat PC, PS4, Xbox One Ori­gin Poland Re­lease May 19

New­com­ers to the fic­tion shouldn’t worry about play­ing The Witcher III with­out prior knowl­edge. Even for those who’ve fol­lowed the whole se­ries so far, the pol­i­tics and peo­ple of this world are dif­fi­cult to re­tain, and al­most ev­ery­one we meet in the first few hours of The Witcher III is new to us. It re­ally does feel like you’re suf­fer­ing from am­ne­sia when you’re be­ing in­tro­duced to a pa­rade of char­ac­ters whose ap­par­ently close per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with pro­tag­o­nist Ger­alt are com­pletely opaque.

The story’s not dif­fi­cult to fol­low as such, it’s just that the game doesn’t fo­cus the fic­tion on the player as if they were the cen­tre of the uni­verse. The im­pres­sion is of a rich and com­plex low-fan­tasy world that ex­ists in­de­pen­dently of you, one you’re drop­ping in on rather than one con­structed ex­pressly for your en­ter­tain­ment.

The Witcher III opens in a pe­riod of war. Think War Of The Five Kings-era Wes­teros in Game Of Thrones: sol­diers wan­der­ing around rap­ing and killing like they own the place, vil­lages half-empty and smoul­der­ing, bat­tle­fields lit­tered with corpses and ghoul­ish beasts feast­ing upon them. Ger­alt and a fel­low witcher are search­ing for a girl – the for­mer’s pro­tégé, Ciri, who has been stolen away by a quasi-su­per­nat­u­ral army called The Wild Hunt. This mys­te­ri­ous force shows up now and then to visit unimag­in­able dev­as­ta­tion on an un­lucky lo­cal town, as­sum­ing war hasn’t al­ready razed ev­ery­thing to the ground.

The witch­ers are look­ing for an­other woman, too: Yen­nefer, a pow­er­ful witch, who hap­pens to be a for­mer lover of Ger­alt’s (she of the trans­form­ing crow charm that bores through an un­for­tu­nate sol­dier’s eye socket in the gra­tu­itous se­quence CD Pro­jekt un­veiled last year). Like most open-world games, The

Witcher III stacks its mo­ti­va­tions – you’re try­ing to find Yen­nefer, so you must help out this per­son who might have in­for­ma­tion, lead­ing you to un­der­take this quest, dur­ing which you’ll find this sub­quest, and so on.

This en­tire process feels nat­u­ral. Rid­ing around on Ger­alt’s steed, you can hold a but­ton to stick to the paths or wan­der off to see what hap­pens. Stop­ping at inns lets you soak in the am­bi­ence, per­haps wit­ness­ing a near-con­fronta­tion be­tween sol­diers and peas­ants over the arms dis­played over the bar, ask­ing for in­for­ma­tion, or par­tak­ing in a game of Gwent (a new, Hearth­stone- like card minigame). From there you might get a han­dle on some­one who needs help, but some­thing else will in­vari­ably catch your eye on the way to wher­ever they are. Points of po­ten­tial in­ter­est ap­pear on the map as ques­tion marks once you’ve spo­ken to the right per­son or read some­thing on a town no­tice board, but you

never know what they’re go­ing to be un­til you ar­rive. This can be ex­tremely danger­ous: crea­tures don’t scale in The Witcher III, and of­ten what you’re greeted with is a pound­ing.

The ac­tual quests are usu­ally familiar – go here, kill that, fol­low me, fetch that – but it’s what hap­pens along the way that takes up most of your time. The first big task that The Witcher III doles out is track­ing, re­search­ing and even­tu­ally killing a grif­fin that’s been har­ry­ing both the lo­cals and the in­vad­ing Nil­f­gaar­dian mil­i­tary. Along the way, how­ever, we catch an ar­son­ist, break into some houses, es­cape from a swamp crea­ture, find two wounded sol­diers hid­ing in a hut, track down a miss­ing fry­ing pan, and lo­cate some ban­dit lairs. Stay­ing fo­cused on the main thread and just pro­gress­ing the story is im­pos­si­ble with such a plen­i­tude of temp­ta­tions.

Plenty of th­ese en­coun­ters of­fer you some kind of choice about how to han­dle them, but it would be mis­lead­ing to call them moral choices. In­stead of bi­nary Paragon/ Rene­gade moral­ity, The Witcher III op­er­ates on the ni­hilis­tic prin­ci­ple that there’s no point in try­ing to do the right thing, be­cause chances are the con­se­quences will prob­a­bly be ter­ri­ble re­gard­less. An early ex­am­ple of this comes in one of our first sub­quests, in­volv­ing a dwarf whose forge has been burned down by a drunken racist. Af­ter track­ing down the cul­prit, a vil­lage youth, you can ei­ther take a bribe from him to keep quiet, or hand him over to the dwarf and the au­thor­i­ties, who promptly have him hanged.

The Witcher III’s world, then, is not a pleas­ant place. Racism ex­ists. Sex­ism, too. Vi­o­lence is ev­ery­where: heads go fly­ing in com­bat, blood sat­u­rates Ger­alt’s clothes af­ter a battle, and mon­ster de­signs are grue­some rather than fan­ci­ful. It doesn’t take long to be­come hard­ened to the un­re­lent­ing grim­ness of it all. The en­vi­ron­ments are the light to all that shade. The dream-se­quence open­ing gives a glimpse of Skel­lige, a Scan­di­na­vian-Scot­tish hy­brid with ex­tra­or­di­nary, ma­jes­tic moun­tains. The first thing you see upon leav­ing Ger­alt’s bed­cham­ber is a breath­tak­ing view of those moun­tains from the bal­cony. The swampy, forested re­gion that fol­lows seems brown and un­in­ter­est­ing un­til you see it at sun­set or in the early morn­ing, when the plants are lit as if by fire and the pale light re­flects off wa­ter­logged ground.

The even­tual show­down with the grif­fin, how­ever, is mildly dis­ap­point­ing. Hav­ing spent hours pre­par­ing for the battle, pick­ing leaves from bushes to make po­tions and craft­ing a new breast­plate from sal­vaged bits, it turns out the grif­fin can be dis­patched with em­bar­rass­ing ease by keep­ing your dis­tance and skew­er­ing it with a cross­bow. Ad­mit­tedly, we only dis­cover this af­ter try­ing to face it on the ground, re­sult­ing in lac­er­a­tions from its poi­soned claws and a swift death. It’s rem­i­nis­cent of Dark Souls’ first big battle with the Taurus De­mon: try to de­feat it atop the bridge and it’s one of the most chal­leng­ing bosses in the game, but drop on its head from the tower and the fight’s over in min­utes. We’re hop­ing for more from The Witcher

III’s later mon­ster en­coun­ters. The process of track­ing and re­search­ing them builds nat­u­ral an­tic­i­pa­tion be­fore the fight. And bat­tles in

The Witcher III are thrilling – com­bat may not have the heft of, say, Dark Souls or Mon­ster

Hunter, but it’s nonethe­less some of the best sword­play around. Enemies do not wait pa­tiently in line for Ger­alt to tend to them, but rush in and try to mob him. In­tel­li­gent and re­ac­tive use of the var­i­ous spells is as vi­tal as par­ry­ing and coun­ter­ing. It’s a long way from the tooth­less sword com­bat that per­me­ates so many open-world games.

There are buggy mo­ments in the first five hours that vin­di­cate the ex­tra few months CD Pro­jekt has given it­self by de­lay­ing the game to May. Oc­ca­sion­ally see­ing horse hooves clip through the ground or a sword poke through a char­ac­ter model wrenches you straight out of

The Witcher III’s world, like be­ing awo­ken sud­denly from a dream. Yet even th­ese lit­tle wrin­kles man­age to flat­ter, show­ing how ab­sorb­ing it is when things are work­ing as they should. This is go­ing to be a game that you don’t so much play as in­habit.

In­tel­li­gent and re­ac­tive use of the var­i­ous spells is as vi­tal as par­ry­ing and coun­ter­ing

Ger­alt rep­re­sents a twist on the neu­tral pro­tag­o­nist. His metahu­man sta­tus keeps him at the fringes of so­ci­ety, an out­cast and a mer­ce­nary. De­spite his in­volve­ment in the po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions of the con­ti­nent, he has few strong feel­ings about them

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