Right, you’ve waited long enough: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is great. So great in fact, that if any game between now and December challenges it for my Game of the Year choice I will eat my Wolf medallion, unless of course Batman: Arkham Knight cheats and tickles my comic book nerd sensibilities. Nevertheless, if you like RPGs there is absolutely no reason you should be missing out on CD Projekt’s magnum opus. Right, now we’ve got the Verdict out the way early I can start on the actual review.
It’s not a long time after the events of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and the world is in chaos. After the death of King Foltest in the last game the kingdom of Temeria has fallen into ruin and the Northern Kingdoms have again been invaded by the Empire of Nilfgaard. Into this mess rides the Witcher Geralt of Rivia, now with his memories fully intact, searching not only for his lost love Yennefer but also for his adopted daughter Ciri. It won’t be easy however, as Ciri’s prophesied power has many parties seeking her, not least the monstrous spectral forces of the terrifying mythical Wild Hunt.
The story in The Witcher games have always been good, but it’s the world and all the side stories within it that always prove much more compelling. The same is true of The Witcher 3. The central story involving Geralt’s search for Ciri takes many interesting turns, usually involving a familiar character from previous games or even the books, and it’s definitely told with more conviction and drama than every other open-world RPG you can name, although at the end of the day the plot’s still just a means to an end - to get the player around the world and meet all the characters.
But what a world and characters they are. CD Projekt have always revelled in their recreation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s excellent fantasy novels and have done a wonderful job in portraying them. The foppish bard with a heart of gold, Dandelion. Gruff, loyal and an avid card collector, dwarf Zoltan. Sorceress, possible lover and leader of a new underground revolution, Triss. New characters to the games from the books include Geralt’s lost love Yennefer, all-grown-up hunter-that’s-hunted Ciri, and the Emperor Emhyr of Nilfgaard. They’re all great here, but it’s Geralt of Rivia who should draw the accolades for being so damn subtle. Seeming to the uninitiated like yet another gruff-voiced male gaming protagonist, for someone supposedly dead to emotions Geralt’s straight man act is full of emotion. He’s also hugely funny, like when he’s being forced to act in a bad play or being stunned by a man who walks out of the room to get his sister and comes back in wearing a dress and bad make-up. Things can get pretty dark in the world of The Witcher, but there’s always genuinely funny moments to balance things out.
I could populate this entire review with pictures of Geralt looking awesome if I wanted
What The Witcher games have always done way better than other RPGs, with the possible exception of Obsidian’s recent Pillars of Eternity (which certainly comes close), is the player’s ability to reshape the story based on their decisions. The Witcher 3 is no exception, although I’m going to hold my hands up and say without a second playthrough I can’t judge whether things change as cataclysmically as they did in The Witcher 2, where the entire second half of the game completely changed based on whether Geralt went left or right. I will say though that ten hours after insulting a priest, armed guards ambushed and tried to kill me on his orders. Or how I got a village full of orphaned children I’d just played hide-and-seek with killed because I didn’t trust a tree. Or how a woman I saved in the first few hours of the game was rather ungrateful and accused me of murder 20 hours of gameplay later. These are all minor examples, and they’re everywhere in The Witcher 3. You really feel like you’re the one calling the shots in the story, and even a mistake can be satisfying just because you know it was your fault. It’s like a Telltale game on a far grander, open-world scale… except that CD Projekt were doing this sort of thing five years before The Walking Dead, so there.
Not a time to lose one's head. He'll never get ahead in life. He'll never be the head of major corporation. Etc.
The heart of why The Witcher 3 is so good though is three-pronged. The choice/consequence system is one. The second is the large open-world, which is truly satisfying to explore. Whether sticking to roads or heading out into the wilderness there’s always something to catch your interest, whether it be a nest of Ghouls, a bystander in peril, a bandit camp or a new quest. It’s just as wonderful when you get to the city of Novigrad, which feels like a real dirty city, and you realise you can spend tens of hours just doing quests there. It’s like the whole of The Witcher 1 has just been casually inserted into the game. It’s not perfect admittedly - unlike Skyrim you can reach the edge of the world and be forced to turn back, and you can’t just hop in a boat and sail to the Skellige Isles, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever stop exploring the world and loving it.
The third, which I’ve mentioned twice already in the last paragraph, is the quests. This is something that many RPGs get wrong. Let me focus on Dragon Age: Inquisition. I love that game, but far too many of the quests in it are dull or don’t tell a good story. For example, let me compare goat-tracking quests. In DAI you run about an area searching for a goat, lure it or chase it back to its owner, then get money and XP. That’s it, the quest is completed. In Witcher 3, Geralt uses his Witcher senses to hunt the goat through a wood, gets attacked by a bear and has to defend the goat, then lures it back to the owner. This questline then expands to involve ghosts, rituals, swamp monsters and patricide. And it’s a hell of a lot more interesting. In Dragon Age: Inquisition and most other RPGs quests can feel like grinds, but in Witcher 3 nearly every mission is a huge epic adventure where things never turn out the way you’d expect. You’ll want to do them all. I did, for sure.
The mysterious Wild Hunt! Well, one of them
If there is one area though where your enjoyment of the game will live or die it’s the combat. I don’t want to use the hoary old chestnut of “love it or hate it” but I have seen players on both sides. It’s mostly the same as The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition’s combat with a few further tweaks. There’s Geralt’s Steel and Silver swords, Fast and Strong Attacks, Parry, Roll, and a new Dodge button, items including potions, bombs and a crossbow, and Geralt’s Signs (or, magic powers – Push, Trap, Influence, Fire, and Shield basically). All of these need to be used effectively and practiced constantly to survive, and it can be a little frustrating if you push Dodge instead of Roll and end up squashed by a bear or set on fire by an Ifrit.
In general the combat is pretty satisfying, especially with the frequent decapitations and cuttings-in-halves, or the cool Parry system, and it’s utterly wonderful to shoot a flying enemy like a Harpy or a Griffin with a crossbow just as they’re swooping down and watch as they crash to the ground. That said, the range of moves and abilities do make things rather difficult to play on PC with mouse and keyboard. On a gamepad moves are combined, like the Interact button turning into the Roll button during combat, but on keyboard they’re all separate and it makes things rather confusing. Consequently after ten hours with mouse & keyboard I gave my Xbox 360 pad a go and haven’t looked back. The Witcher 3 is a game that’s clearly been intended for a gamepad, or at least the combat has. You can play with keys, but it’s a lot more fiddly. Nevertheless I’m still grateful for the Quicksave and Map keys, mouse use on the Inventory screen, and that CD Projekt allow players to flawlessly move between keyboard and gamepad at will.
Well, as always I picked Triss. Will you?
While we’re mentioning problems, should I bother talking about graphics? Most of the internet seems to be jumping down CD Projekt’s throat regarding the downgrade “controversy”, but I will not be doing any jumping as I don’t see anything less than gorgeous about the graphics. I’m only playing on High graphics admittedly. My specs are an Intel i5-4670 CPU @ 3.40GHz (4 CPUs), 8Gb RAM, and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 with 4Gb RAM, so not bad but not thrillingly advanced, but it still looks insanely lovely and I don’t have any framerate problems at all. Take that Ubisoft. Personally though I’m happier with the much-improved voice acting (Charles Dance! Charles Dance!) than I am with the graphics. Although those sunsets do look beautiful…
So, barring the slightly annoying keyboard controls, are there any problems of note with The Witcher 3? A few, but they’re literally minor grievances that I’ll list and be done with. Yes there are still a few bugs here in there for a start even after a few big patches, but I only encountered ones of the funny Youtube-fodder variety. The levelling system is a little too simplistic and I definitely prefer the multi-path one from The Witcher 2. The map is much improved but doesn’t show all the useful icons you need to remember, or what merchants sell what, but most importantly it only tracks the quest you’re on - you could be standing right next to a secondary objective and you wouldn’t know it unless you go to the Quests page and track it manually.
My last annoyance is kind of a deeper problem with open-world games: The Witcher 3 gives you every quest at once, rather than the scaling difficulty of Skyrim or the way Dragon Age withholds quests until you’re high enough in level to accomplish them. Consequently when I was level 4 I had a Level 33 Witcher Contract on my Quests page, which is just ridiculous. Personally I prefer the method of only getting the quests when I can actually attempt them instead of cluttering my Quests page up with impossible tasks, and it’s a little annoying riding through the countryside encountering seemingly basic enemies that are actually invincible because of some red skull over their heads rather than how they look. If I go after a Dragon or a Giant in Dragon Age: Inquisition I know I’ll be in for a challenge, but in The Witcher 3 I can get the same from a few grubby bandits.
THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT VERDICT
Those niggles aside, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an absolute triumph and the best open-world RPG around, maybe even the best altogether. The main story stays interesting, the side-stories are better than the main plots from most entire games, the characters and writing are wonderful, and the acting is massively improved from the last two games. Then we start talking about the open world, the graphics, the deep and involving quests, how Geralt’s beard grows over time, Charles Dance, all the delightful nudity… I could list great things about this game for hours and I haven’t even mentioned playing Ciri and the awesome moveset she has, or the crafting, or the better-than-Hearthstone Gwent, or… etc, etc.
Yes the combat feels more at home on a gamepad, the map’s still not perfect, and you’ll get some quests a hundred gameplay hours before you’ll even be able to attempt them, but these are the worst things about The Witcher 3 and they’re minor irritants at best. I said it at the beginning and I’ll say it again: if you’re an RPG fan you cannot miss out on this game, and unless Batman: Arkham Knight blows me away or that swine Nick Horth chooses it first it’ll be my Game of the Year come year’s end. Let me put it simply: if you don’t buy The Witcher 3 you’re a Muire D’yaeblen. So there.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The 30-200 hours between the opening credits and the closing credits are pretty good. Also the play.
The writing, the characters, the acting, the music, the graphics, the optimisation...
...the quests, the open world, the design, the combat, the riding, the vast amount of things to do...
...the Gwent card game, the nudity, Geralt's beard, Charles Dance, want me to go on?
Combat a bit more gamepad-focused, the map could be better at pinpointing quests and useful locations, and wish quests were organised a bit tidier. That's it. Buy the damn thing.