The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
PC, PS4, Xbox One
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