The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
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