The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - Introduction
This review comes from the heart of someone who spent their entire weekend avoiding the grasps of sleep to see the story of Geralt through to its final conclusion and has seen the vast majority of what there is to see in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. As the author of this piece, I have played the previous Witcher titles with a passion, and I've even delved into some of the short stories. The world of Geralt of Rivia is complex and I've had my hands in the gameworld since the first Witcher hit the shelves, so with some authority I can speak about the success and failure of the last installment in the Witcher saga. Fear not that this is some hardline corporate review of the game - I can and will say everything that I believe is both perfect and flawed within the game and leave to you, the reader, to decide for yourself knowing this if the game is or isn't for you.
As a note, this is a no spoiler review. I do not mention any plot lines and use screenshots that don't tell you anything that you wouldn't find in random Witcher III promotional material.
For those of you uninitiated, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is the third and final game in The Witcher saga, a non-canon continuation of the short stories and novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The video games are developed by a studio known as CD Projekt Red, whose first title was The Witcher, which began development in 2002. The Witcher II: Assassin of Kings was their second product, which sold over 400,000 titles in the first week, and they've put out a MOBA and an adventure game based on the Witcher franchise. The Witcher III is the final video game story of Geralt of Rivia, at least this story, and after support ends for The Witcher III they will move on to an open-world game about the Cyberpunk 2020 roleplaying game.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - Positive Marks
The game is gorgous and deep, a mixture of both beautiful graphics and deep gameplay elements that combine into an experience that's similar to watching a 40 hour long movie that you can't get up from. The game draws you in and engage you on a level that's deep, sometimes personal, and very emotionally driven while blasting you with some of the best graphics I've seen in any RPG title on the PC or console. Calling this a next-gen RPG is like calling butter the perfect accompaniment to bread, as the statement is both true and accurate. The Witcher III doesn't bring to the table innovation, instead it brings refinement, and with it smooth gameplay, alluring graphics, and a story that's so deep you'll fall for hours before you realize there is still a ways to travel.
To start with, the gameplay is wonderful. The combat isn't innovative, its derivative, which is to say there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes there is already a great solution to an easy problem, but what CDPR did was definitely fine tune and polish the combat so that it flows like a freshly sharpened katana through cherry blossom leaves, leaving each leaf drifting to Earth as if it was never cut. There are moments where it's beautiful to watch Geralt dodge out of the way of an attack, landing behind the enemy who then dodges and the two dance, while there are moments of panic and frustration as Geralt is cornered and escape is the only method out. The mix of various components to combat - quest items, bombs, potions, food, and signs along with parry, dodge, and roll give Geralt a full toolbox to play with in each encounter.
The Witcher III acknowledges these tools and crafts each combat scenario with various ways to handle it. For instance, most Nekkers, Ghouls, Drowners, etc. will clump together if you approach quietly, allowing Geralt to dispatch with at least two of a group of four or five with a single bomb. Then, with their numbers thinned, you can battle the remaining enemies with an advantage. Likewise, various signs, potions, and bombs work against specific enemies - the game constantly preaches the need to study monsters and those who journey into the labyrinth that is the monster encyclopedia will quickly find everything they ever wanted to know with how to deal efficiently with the monsters that plague the world.
To put this in an easier to digest way, the combat is fun and works well with all of the components available, but it's not anything that hasn't been seen before, it's just very well polished, which there is nothing wrong with. Not every game must reinvent the wheel.
To continue to speak about positive elements of gameplay, the new potion crafting system works wonderfully. Being able to craft anywhere and use anywhere is a huge boon. In The Witcher II I would rarely bother with potions unless the game told you that you needed to (like using a Cat potion for instance to see in the dark). In The Witcher III, I spent much of the early game stocking up on herbs and crafting potions to make my adventures easier. It's wonderful to be able to use the quick-action system plus being able to use potions from your inventory in combat. The potion restock system (meditating with strong alcohol in your inventory) is a welcome change from the pain of Dragon Age: Inquisition where the need to constantly gather potion supplies took away from the flow of the game.
The story though is the highlight - the gameplay, while polished and fun, is nothing but an excuse to move from one cutscene to another. The story in The Witcher and The Witcher II was strong, it had a lot of elements, but it doesn't compete with The Witcher III which takes all of the elements from the previous games, tons of elements from the book, and introduces even more storylines and then puts a bow and ties them all up. There isn't anything to leave you scratching your head with in The Witcher III. If you do a quest for someone, then that plotline will have the option to play out until the end. Recursive dialog also rewards you for completing missions as the world evolves with you, with the exception of White Orchard which only responds to events located within itself, the rest of the world will be shaped by your actions.
Speaking of actions, choice plays such a critical role. You can at any given time make a small minor choice and bring about a major impact on the world. Entire towns are populated and destroyed based on Geralt's actions and the game always presents multiple avenues of reaching the same or similar goal and these aren't choices of pure combat vs. skill checks, but both moral and ideological decisions along with a variety of alternative methods for completing a quest. Sometimes decisions early on will show themselves later on, including if you'll need to talk your way in, fight your way in, or sneak your way in. NPCs aren't binary, they have a variety of different colors, and quests include many different ways to complete them. A good analogy is that there isn't anything that honestly derails the main story, but there are a lot of small things that greatly impact how the various events playout.
The story is what drives the game for me. There are so many characters and you build an attachment or have a previous attachment to so many of them. There is a point where you are given the option to say or not to say you love someone, and a tear literally, as in it honestly actually did, shed from my eye over the tough decision I had to make in order to have my true love interest for Geralt. I would say that Witcher III has more story and character interaction than a Persona game, which is honestly quite hard to rationalize, but it's true. There are so many quests that I had to finish just to see the outcome of the various citizens of the world.
In addition to being a very solid and well performing game, CD Projekt Red also offer a series of free DLC available for the game. While this could have easily been baked into the game, it could also have been sold for a dollar each like in various other titles. It's nice that there is something each week to look forward to and cool new additions to the game, from contracts to costumes.
To avoid taking more of your time ranting about the great things in the game, here is a quick list of awesome components:
- Everything is voice acted, from bumping into random NPCs, and it's reactive - find loot in a cave and an NPC might have different dialog. Advance the quest and everyone starts talking about new events.
- The world is alive and merchants are interactive, from having desire for specific items from specific locations to limited gold to trade with.
- Gear is everywhere and hunting for loot is fun. You're never without some method of getting an upgrade as you advance.
- The skill / mutagen system is wonderful and makes leveling up easy, but the choices hard.
Finally, the game is fully modable and if you mod your single player game, CDPR isn't going to just care, they're going to encourage. Witcher II came with a series of mod tools and lots of encouragement and Witcher III follows up. Mods are flowing in changing everything from small system settings to entire graphics overhauls and more are sure to come in the future.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - Average or Neutral Marks
Unlike Fallout, where the endings are rather obvious, there isn't much to breadcrumb you to important choices. You can easily lock yourself away from content, endings, and more by choosing some simple choices in a few dialog option. This isn't a good or bad thing, but something to be aware of. Consider the game to be less brutal than Fallout, where you can easily end up killing a sidequest NPC, but far less forgiving than most other RPGs on what your choices will do and what you can and can't complete.
The game launched with bugs - the ones that affected me have been patched. The game performance requires a newer PC in order to run correctly, if your PC isn't somewhat modern then the game isn't going to run correctly for you.
Geralt looks like Geralt and his beard will always grow back. There is no costume option, yet, so Geralt will look like whatever he's wearing and once you've outgrown the DLC armor stats, you'll be forced to dress in the various period clown clothes from the era that The Witcher emulates.
Although science fiction is spoken about, you never really touch anything beyond high fantasy.
Character customization is good, but not nearly as deep as Fallout, but much more forgiving.
Interestingly enough, I find the lack of dungeons (ala Skyrim) to be neither here nor there. There isn't a lot of dungeon diving, there is some, but not a ton. Most of the game is in the open world or within the city of Novigrad. There is some interior sections, but there isn't a lot of actual dungeon crawling.
Grinding can be difficult, depending on difficulty. XP and gold are hard to come by. These are design decisions and are often updated by CDPR, in addition, as a complete single player game these values can be altered by the player through modding.
Lots of mature content. You either like that or you don't. It never bothered me in one direction or another.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt - Below Average or Negative Marks
Geralt drives like a Sherman tank and he won't, for any reason, turn around without wanting to either jump off a cliff to his death or circle around a flower bush like a plane waiting for the runway to be deiced in order to land. The controls involved with his movement aren't different than most of the ones used for a plethora of games, like Batman's Arkham series, but he requires finesse to move to specific objectives that are very small and require precession, which Geralt can't for any reason control. Attempting to get on ladders, pickup items, grab flowers, or any other task results in frustration at times as he just will not for ANY reason decide to get in the proper position. This rant would include his love of pyromania as he would light every candle in the area but wouldn't pick-up an item or use fast travel instead, but that was patched.
Where combat is fun, exciting, and works well, the detective parts of the game can get long, buggy, and tiresome. The tools the player have are never really explored beyond follow this trial, read this book, flip these switches, and the such. There isn't an in-depth use of the Witcher Sense, which is a shame because you use it so much. Parts of the game that require you to hunt glowing red objects become tiresome and can even ruin the immersion, but that's not to say there aren't some very interesting scenes where it's an excuse to move the story along.
The game isn't a sandbox, although it plays like one. The main story is very linear, while you can complete some parts of it in different orders, the level, money, and even the path to the various out of order options make it difficult to play it out of order. So while you can travel in the open world and do whatever missions you want, many of them will fail at specific checkpoints if you don't address them when they are available. This is done on purpose to keep the flow of the story moving and have the "living world" be a reality, but it also hampers your ability to play the game like it feels like it should be played. In Fallout, you fail a quest when you kill the quest giver, but in Witcher you fail a series of quests are various checkpoints. This can make the game frustrating because you have to consume as much content as possible before you can advance the story - some players want to play the story and address sidequests later.
To expand on this, if a quest is going to fail at a specific checkpoint, it should be an optional component of a main quest line. It should have something to let you know that this is a limited time ordeal. You shouldn't find out when you advance from one act to another. The game plays like a sandbox, but at its heart it's a linear journey. This is alright, but I think that if you're not going to go full sandbox, then at least offer some notice that this is a limited time offer to do this quest, like attaching them as optional quests to the main breadcrumb quest (so when that completes and the act is over, you know for a fact those quests are gone).
Underwater areas are terrible and Geralt doesn't help anything with his tank like treads for legs. It's difficult to play through, but thankfully the game never forces you into the water much. I don't really know of many games that did handle water correctly, except perhaps Assassin's Creed that just drowns you when you fall into water, forever removing the pain of ever having to go into it and attempting to move not only along four axis, but the fifth z-axis as well.
Cutscenes are long and you can't skip the entire set, just the current dialog. If you don't want the voice acting, you can easily move past most cutscenes as fast as you can read, but you're not going to get through the cutscene with any speed.
There is nothing in the game that is game breaking. White Orchard is very slow to start and the final act is rather long to end (when it is mostly just closing up the various plotlines started and seeing how everything played out). The game does a good job of holding your hand, but it also does a poor job of optimizing your time, often making some quests take too long and others lasting for far too short. While there is a good mix of quests that literally take a few minutes to complete and others that are full of travel and adventure, there is still a lot of quests that just slow. These are, all ultimately nitpicks, for what is a gorgous and wonderful game.
Conclusion and Final Score
The Witcher III is worth the full retail value and you will get well over 40 hours of gameplay out of it if you set the game to the lowest difficulty and only grind away at the main quest, however, there is well over 80 hours of content in the base game (more if you up the difficulty) and with the DLC missions, contracts, and the purchasable DLC expansions to the game there is so much more coming. The Witcher III is very similar to Red Dead Redemption, in terms of story and size, and choice finally truly has consequence - there is rarely someone who you will deal with where your actions don't impact their future and possibly yours.
It demands a beefy PC to run and did launch with bugs, but CDPR is working non-stop to patch the holes up and provide support for the game - a game that I downright love. It's not something that you could say is going to reinvent the industry, but it's definitely the next generation of RPGs and has set the bar rather high for games like Fallout 4, who will need to take some deep lessons from what CDPR has done with The Witcher III to be able to meet and exceed the work that is here.
There are some rough edges and the game is long, requiring large amounts of time to grind through, but at the end of the day if you love RPGs, then you will love The Witcher III. I would gladly hand the game a 100 and call it game of the forever, but slow plot movement, a quest where Geralt walked over an edge to his death, and a variety of other nitpicks and time sinks makes me have to say that this game isn't anywhere to perfect - legendary, in its own right, memorable, but it's not perfect.