The Witcher III: Wild Hunt

EDGE - - PLAY - CD Pro­jekt PC, PS4 (ver­sion tested), Xbox One Out now

Come on, CD Pro­jekt, not all of us are blessed with su­per­pow­ers. Ger­alt Of Rivia may be able to track man, beast and ghost across the North­ern King­doms with his Witcher Senses – pick­ing up their scents and blood trails, fol­low­ing in their foot­steps – but even he would strug­gle to iden­tify the tiny text and icons on his new game’s UI. Few things be­tray a PC de­vel­oper un­ac­cus­tomed to the needs of the con­sole player quite like an un­scaled in­ter­face, and so it proves here, with menus and flavour text de­signed to be viewed from 18 inches pre­sented as-is to those sit­ting ten feet from the screen. The Witcher? The Squin­ter, more like.

In fair­ness, CD Pro­jekt has had other, more press­ing con­cerns in mak­ing The Witcher III for con­soles. This is a stu­dio, and a se­ries, with a rep­u­ta­tion for tax­ing even the most pow­er­ful PCs; this, how­ever, is the first game the stu­dio has ever made mul­ti­plat­form at launch, and as such it can­not del­e­gate to the player the job of tin­ker­ing with set­tings to find the sweet spot be­tween vis­ual qual­ity and per­for­mance. The re­sults, on PS4 at least, are pre­dictably un­even, with some con­spic­u­ous pop-in and a fram­er­ate that tops out at 30fps and fre­quently dips far south of that. Such mo­ments are eas­ier to for­give since they are the re­sult of a de­vel­oper with its heart in the right place, re­fus­ing to com­pro­mise on a few core prin­ci­ples: 1080p res­o­lu­tion, dense sway­ing fo­liage, dra­matic shifts in weather conditions, and the big­gest drain, dy­namic light­ing. Tav­erns are among the worst of­fend­ers, where the clus­ters of can­dles on ev­ery ta­ble mean the en­gine buck­les un­der the strain of half-a-dozen light sources too many. Out in the wilder­ness, car­ry­ing a torch has sim­i­lar ef­fect; else­where, clouds of par­ti­cles – the poi­sonous fog in Crook­back Bog, for in­stance – will hit per­for­mance hard. CD Pro­jekt con­tin­ues its op­ti­mi­sa­tion ef­forts (a day-one patch has im­proved, though far from erad­i­cated, such is­sues) but its rep­u­ta­tion as a stu­dio of re­mark­able tech­ni­cal prow­ess has been tar­nished a lit­tle, how­ever no­ble its in­ten­tions.

In all other re­spects the de­vel­oper’s rep­u­ta­tion is in­tact, even im­proved. The Witcher III may be CD Pro­jekt’s first open-world game, but the North­ern King­doms ex­hibit a level of craft and care in their de­sign that be­lies their cre­ator’s lack of ex­pe­ri­ence. This world is vast and teem­ing with things to do, but it never feels clut­tered or leaves you with the sense that a sid­e­quest or vil­lage has been ar­bi­trar­ily dropped into place for fear of you get­ting lost or bored. In­deed, get­ting lost is al­most en­cour­aged: wan­der off and you’ll in­evitably stum­ble across some­one, or some­thing, in need of a help­ing hand or a blade to the stom­ach, but such mo­ments feel or­ganic and un­forced. Where other de­vel­op­ers rid­dle their maps with icons, CD Pro­jekt is re­strained and re­spect­ful, with only the most im­por­tant marked per­ma­nently on the map. Ar­riv­ing in Novi­grad, the game’s ma­jor city, with our swords and gear in sore need of re­pair, we had to wan­der the streets in search of an ar­mourer, since such map icons only shows up when you draw near. On re­peated vis­its, we had to re­trace our steps and, even­tu­ally, would learn the route by heart (along the har­bour­side, turn right af­ter the pub, left af­ter the bank, then fol­low your nose). A min­imap bread­crumb trail guides you through quests – al­though it, like much of the UI, can be turned off – but on the whole, the world is the work of a stu­dio that be­lieves in trust­ing the player, not pa­tro­n­is­ing them, and you feel a deeper con­nec­tion to this land as a re­sult.

Sim­i­larly, The Witcher III’s com­bat sys­tem presents you with a wealth of pos­si­bil­i­ties then lets you de­cide the ex­tent to which you want to en­gage with it all. Po­tions and de­coc­tions, brewed from in­gre­di­ents found out in the wild, give tem­po­rary buffs; oils in­crease dam­age against spe­cific types of en­e­mies. Ger­alt can also cast Signs, mag­i­cal spells that set en­e­mies on fire, slow or stun them. Al­most ev­ery­thing can be up­graded, and a sprawl­ing skill tree of­fers sig­nif­i­cant build di­ver­sity, al­low­ing you to fo­cus on alchemy, Signs, com­bat or a broad spread of all three.

where games of this type fall down, yet while The Witcher III is hardly Dark Souls, its sword­play is a few quick cuts above that of­fered by most of its peers. The FromSoft­ware com­par­i­son is an apt one, in fact: with a short, sharp dash to dodge; a longer, slower eva­sive roll; light and strong at­tacks; and a parry that’s mapped to the left trig­ger, there’s an un­mis­take­able whiff of Blood­borne to the game’s com­bat. Mobs are smarter than the av­er­age RPG lot, too, hang­ing back rather than guile­lessly charg­ing in, work­ing as a unit to try to sur­round you – and if you should get penned in, you won’t last long. Right from the off, en­e­mies hit hard, and the heal­ing sys­tem is built around us­ing po­tions and food to slowly re­gen­er­ate health, rather than im­me­di­ately re­store it, mak­ing it hard to turn a bad si­t­u­a­tion around. The so­lu­tion is one of care­ful, pa­tient play, con­trol­ling space and wait­ing for an open­ing be­fore ex­ploit­ing it rapidly and bru­tally. Steam­ing in and mash­ing but­tons is, even on the de­fault Sword And Story dif­fi­culty, sim­ply ask­ing for trou­ble, and that’s a re­quest the North­ern King­dom’s ban­dits, beasts and spec­tres are only too happy to hon­our.

It is the sort of sys­tem around which en­tire games are built, yet it is used un­com­monly spar­ingly here: there’s still plenty of com­bat, of course, but it’s used as a change of pace or a punc­tu­a­tion mark for quests that are de­signed more around walk­ing and talk­ing than hack­ing and slash­ing. Witcher Con­tract sid­e­quests will in­volve a lengthy pe­riod of re­search – iden­ti­fy­ing the beast in ques­tion by talk­ing to lo­cals and ex­am­in­ing corpses, then pre­par­ing for bat­tle and track­ing it back

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