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Jun 15 2015

Review of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

header5 Stars

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a remarkably beautiful and human experience, taking place in a world of seemingly endless horizons that are filled with vast potential. While that expansiveness does naturally breed a few bugbears, those niggling issues pale in comparison to all the many things that The Witcher 3 does right. The characters are well fleshed out and multi-faceted, the lore is deep and well woven into the narrative, the combat is smooth and intelligent, and on the whole Wild Hunt is one of the best looking games to grace this new generation of consoles. Though a certain understanding of dark fantasy narratives and a hefty time commitment are needed to truly enjoy this game as intended, I feel like any gamer out there worth their digital salt would be remiss to not at least give The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt a chance.

While finding her may be your goal, Ciri is more than capable on her own, going on badass adventures concurrent to Geralt's.

While finding her may be your goal, Ciri is more than capable on her own, going on badass adventures concurrent to Geralt’s.

So considering the fact that the rich and deeply layered story is one of the biggest hooks of this game, why don’t we jump right into the meat of it and start off by talking about the premise. Continuing on more or less directly from the events of The Witcher 2, you’re once again put into the sabatons of Geralt of Rivia, who has finally shaken off the amnesia that has hung over him since the first game. Beginning in a small border area known as White Orchard, your initial goal has you tracking down your lost love Yennefer, as you do a few quests for the local lord in exchange for information regarding her whereabouts, all the while slowly getting a feel for the current political climate of the Northern Kingdoms. Things are tense as the monolithic Nilfgaardian Empire has recently invaded and completely dissolved the Kingdom of Temeria, which Geralt used to work for, all that’s left in the North to oppose them are the Redanian Monarchy, led by the mad King Radovid, and a loose collection of island states known as Skellige, which are populated by a people who are basically Scottish Vikings. After being eased into things at White Orchard, you finally meet up with Yennefer who brings you to Vizima, the former Temerian capital city, where she introduces you to Emhyr Var Emreis, the Emperor of Nilfgaard. It is he who provides you with your true driving motivation, to find a woman named Ciri, who is not only Emhyr’s biological daughter but also Geralt and Yennefer’s adopted daughter. She holds within her the power of the old blood, a somewhat nebulous force that allows Ciri to do any number of crazy magical things that she can barely control; as a result a cadre of deathly frost covered riders, the titular Wild Hunt, is trying to track her down so that they may complete some sort of world ending prophecy. And with that you are sent out to follow up on leads regarding Ciri’s whereabouts, trying to find her before the Wild Hunt does, and of course running into most of your old friends along the way as well as most of the major political figures in the world. It’s a strong set-up that provides a clear and defined motivation, and with how deeply entwined Geralt has become with these various political factions over the years, the general lore of the world and the fates of these nations and their peoples are well woven into that central narrative. They do a fantastic job of making these larger movements of the world feel personal but at the same time colossal and inevitable, the sorts of things that sweep up kings and serfs alike into the current of eternity. More important though is the way that they use Ciri not only as a convenient plot device to lead you all around the North, but also as another perspective viewpoint within the story. They do this by allowing you to actually play as her during flashback sequences which recount how she got into all the dire situations you’re following in the wake of; this really helps to deeply attach the player to her as a person, making Ciri feel like a true character and someone you genuinely want to find and help rather than just a simple quest objective.

People are less than tolerant of witchers, though they're more than happy to load them down with chores.

People are less than tolerant of witchers, though they’re more than happy to load them down with chores.

But for as great as that overarching story is, it’s the characters within it and the large number of sub-plots that run throughout this game like veins of gold that really make the world of the Witcher come alive. With perhaps the exception of the ethereal otherworldly riders from the Wild Hunt that are stalking Ciri, there are no truly ‘evil’ characters in this story, or ‘good’ ones for that matter, instead you get a range of incredibly layered and intricately crafted people with proper motivations and deeply human flaws. The best example of this is a character you meet fairly early on known as the Bloody Baron, a local warlord with a penchant for drink and slaughter. He’s lost his family recently but also has information on Ciri, which he’s willing to give you in exchange for tracking down his loved ones. Throughout the course of this quest line, you learn about all the horrible things he’s done and what a sack of shit he truly is, but you also learn of what drove him to such measures and how wounded and broken he is inside. He’s a man who truly loves his family but has done terrible monstrous things to them, he wants to change but does not know if he has even the slimmest shred of goodness left in him needed to do that. He comes off as tragic and sympathetic, and while the depths of his sins are clearly evident, they are coloured by his humanity. It’s an evocative and engrossing story thread, and it was only one of many such sub-plots in this game that managed to really grab me and further enamored me to the world. Even non-quest related NPCs have a certain degree of depth to them, talking back and forth to each other and offering up bits of dialogue to Geralt that really help to hammer home the tense atmosphere and sullen ennui that hangs over these war-torn realms. It’s fairly subtle too, you won’t see overwrought mothers in the street weeping over the sons they sent to war, rather you’ll hear two women sadly chatting about how one had to abandon a child in the forest because they didn’t have enough food at home to feed them and their many siblings, and in tones so casual as to denote that’s just how life is these days. For as sad as that exchange is though, it does a fantastic job of bringing you into the game’s head space, and the natural quality of the majority of the writing ends up making the game insanely immersive and really helps to connect you to the fate of these people on a personal level.

Moving onto the gameplay, this is easily the most accessible the Witcher has ever been and it manages to be that way without losing any depth, though there are a few odd sticking points that do come with that. It retains the Action-RPG bent that was started in The Witcher 2, with the combat having a flow similar to that of the Arkham games, as Geralt is able to move deftly between enemies, delivering punishing strikes before gracefully dodging out of the way. Augmenting this smooth and enjoyable base combat is Geralt’s extensive repertoire of Witcher tricks, which allow you to cast a number of magic signs, toss out various flavours of bombs, poison your sword with enemy specific oils, and quaff a rainbow of potions and decoctions that provide you with all sorts of buffs and bonuses. The big change they’ve made to these systems though is in how you implement them, in most cases streamlining the processes involved and allowing Geralt to do things on the fly. As an example, alchemy is now done quickly through the inventory screen and the resulting potions and bombs need only be made once, after that they’ll automatically be restored using your supply of alcohol every time you meditate. Similarly, the drinking of potions can now be done on the fly and even during combat, allowing you to tailor your strategy to the moment rather than having to anticipate what may be lying around any given corner. They’ve even given Geralt a small hand crossbow, which adds an element of ranged combat to the game, though it’s mainly used to bring down flying enemies and draw foes in from a distance, making it a fantastic tool for battlefield control. As far as I can tell the only thing missing from previous Witcher games is snares, but frankly the Yrden sign fills that role well enough. The one facet of the sheer technical side of the gameplay that puts me off at all is the way Geralt moves outside of combat; he’s a little bit slow, taking his time to pick up speed, and he has a very wide turning radius which can make sharper turns something of an issue. It’s not too much of a problem and you do get used to Geralt’s unique gait over time, but there is certainly a pronounced lack of fidelity in the general movement that remains uncomfortable and I found myself butting up against it on multiple occasions.

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Finishing blows will often lead to Geralt lithely chopping off limbs and heads, which happens seamlessly within combat.

What makes those minor movement issues eminently bearable though is all the stuff that surrounds that generally solid base gameplay, specifically the organic and really well fleshed out quest structure. At no point during The Witcher 3 will Geralt ever be sent off to collect five wolf hides, or kill ten drowners, or any other MMO nonsense; instead every side-quest you come across has actual narrative weight to it and generally asks you to do specific things. Sometimes you will be asked to track down and exterminate a specific monster for a besieged village, which will test your detective skills and pit you against tougher foes who often carry powerful gear. Sometimes your goal will be to lift a curse on someone’s house or to help an old friend through some matter of crisis, deepening the lore and your ties to the world. And sometimes it’ll be incredibly simple stuff, such as helping out a random peasant on the road or dueling with a wandering knight, and these can often spiral off into recurring quest strands. In fact many of the quests can end up having far-reaching consequences as time goes on, with characters from one thread approaching things differently in another depending on how the first was resolved. It gives the game a fantastic sense of inter-connectivity and provides a much appreciated and realistic feeling weight to your actions. Even more curious is how you accrue most of these side-quests and sub-plots; some you’ll simply stumble across in the environment, but many you’ll pick up from notes on village bulletin boards or from maps acquired from random merchants which you’ll come across as you go about other quests. It’s a very passive process but at the same time it requires you to be actively looking for them, it allows the game to dole out content at a steady rate without all the NPCs feeling like they’re just waiting around for you to arrive and solve all of their problems for them. It very much fits the character of both Geralt and the world of the Northern Kingdoms, only adding to the game’s immersive quality and providing it with a very natural progression that easily allows The Witcher 3 to get its hooks into you. If there’s any sort of slight I could throw at the quest structure of this game, it’s that many of the main-line story quests seem to go on for a little bit longer than necessary and tend to drag in their latter halves, but thankfully there are 280 different side-quests out there for you to break up that monotony with.

Completing this package is a fantastic presentation, that despite being the topic of some debate, shows a remarkable degree of craft, both artistic and technical. The game takes you through three main environments: Velen, a muddy Eastern European back country sort of area; Novigrad, a bustling early renaissance city with lots of Spanish and French influences; and the archipelago of Skellige, which consists of a snowy slew of well forested Scandinavian looking islands. Each area feels very distinct but at the same time connected, with certain traits and shapes finding their way across all three regions, which gives the game a cohesive feel. The dour muddy farms and peat laden bogs of Velen, the winding roads and red tile roofs of Novigrad, and the dark forests and crisp meadows of Skellige all positively ooze with ambiance and have an almost painterly feel at times that brings to mind the works of Monet. Especially fascinating to me was how alive the world feels. The water will lap at the shore of lakes and beaches and Geralt will leave rough boot prints as he walks through Velen’s muddy wastes. Even the trees and bushes all sway and bend with the wind, which is in itself controlled by a deep in-game weather system. It’s a world that feels like it keeps on going even when you’re not there. Of course the things that inhabit this environment look great as well. All of the characters are really well modeled and have faces that are very expressive and detailed, with lots of little touches like chipped brown teeth, slight scars, and smatterings of freckles that help define them. I will say that there is certainly a lot of reuse in this department though as the NPCs not related to the story share a slim total of perhaps six or so general face types between them. Much of the equipment feels the same, there are lots of fantastically well designed models for all of the swords and the armors in the game, but also a lot of repetition, with certain assets showing up over and over again. Frankly though that feels like a minor issue and for a game as vast as The Witcher 3, it’s completely understandable in my mind for them to need to cut some small corners in less then integral areas such as those. If there was anywhere I might have a slight gripe when it comes to the general presentation, it’s in the sound design, specifically the soundtrack. It’s just a bit scant at times, especially in Novigrad where the same damn bard song seems be constantly playing everywhere, it’s a decent enough song mind you, but some more variety would have been nice. At the very least though the voice acting is right on point, with the majority of the performances fitting the characters perfectly. Even many of the minor NPCs have a good bit of charm to them, adding much enjoyed bits of colour and humor to a plot that can get a bit overly grim and political at times.

Monsters have a wonderfully mottled and mangy look to them.

Monsters have a wonderfully mottled and mangy look to them.

But after 2400 words of more or less pure praise, we do need to discuss a serious issue that this game suffers from: Glitches. The Witcher 3 (the PS4 version at least) is remarkably buggy at times, and while they have been putting out patches steadily since launch, it’s still suffering from some significant issues. For the most part they’re graphical bugs such as textures not fading in fast enough, cloth and hair clipping wildly through people as they move, and pieces of people’s bodies completely disappearing (which is how Rayman of Rivia came about). These bugs are often funnier than they are destructive, but they do ruin the mood somewhat and it is disconcerting to watch a moving speech by a mourning Jarl, only to be constantly distracted by the terrifying fuzzy dead-eyed guard standing beside him. These issues seem to mostly stem from the way the game loads in textures based on Geralt’s distance from the object they cover, this is especially evident with hair as people with unique and dynamically tussled mops can awkwardly slip from those gorgeous locks to ugly helmets of square textures when you get more than a few feet away from them. As I said though, these bugs are often funnier than they are distressing and with a game as large as this you come to expect a certain degree of jank. Sadly though there are some non-visual bugs I encountered as well which were less enjoyable. On two occasions the game completely locked up on me, once it full on crashed back to the XMB, and as I played I noticed that I seemed to encounter more visual errors if I was playing for an especially long period, which makes me think that there may possibly be a slight memory leak issue as well. Of course I’m only guessing on that last point and it is worth noting once more that these are my impressions of just the PS4 version, the PC and Xbox One versions may not carry these problems. All that said though, the graphical ticks and cases of instability are but small warts on the face of an absolutely amazing game and CD Projekt Red has been patching the game steadily since release (and adding tons of free content to boot) so I imagine those issues will be excised soon.

As should clearly be evident at this point, I liked The Witcher 3 a lot and it has my full recommendation. The combat is fun and requires intelligence, the quests treat you like a human being and not a robot with a pelt obsession, the world is somberly beautiful and stretches in every direction, and the story is very human and raw in a way that really ended up connecting with me personally. While I’m not going to sit here and say that it will necessarily fit everyone’s sensibilities, it is a damn good story that is very well told and most assuredly worth experiencing. CD Projekt RED has done an amazing job at once again bringing the Butcher of Blaviken to life and as such I’m giving The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt a 5 out 5 stars and my full recommendation, if you’re looking for a complex and intelligent RPG that will truly grab you then you need to buy this game.

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