I’m now over 80 hours (EDIT: actually 120 hours now!) into The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and, at a guess, maybe half way through although I’m not sure. When I started my ‘Witcher Month’ over June and July I honestly thought that it would be long enough to complete the game, but I was wrong. Dead wrong. This videogame is seriously *massive*. I mean, if I concentrated 100% on the main story and sacrificed the side-quests and ancillary activities then I probably could’ve finished it by now, but that would be to miss the point of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. It’s a game that has been labelled one of the greatest RPGs ever made but with a relatively weak central storyline watered down by the wealth of additional content – where as I would argue that these supposed “side-quests” are as legitimate as the core narrative itself and where the real heart of the game lies. Rather than wait until I’ve completely finished it to offer my opinion, I thought I would split the review into two parts, so that I can better cover this humongous videogame. So, presented here are my thoughts of the game so far, to be followed up by a second short blog post giving my impressions of the latter half of the game once I’ve finished it.
Firstly, it can’t be said enough about how *gorgeous* this game is. I’m not one to put graphics ahead of other elements like game design, gameplay, narrative, etc. but The Witcher III: Wild Hunt has taken my breath away consistently since I began playing it, and several times I’ve had to just stop and take it all in with my jaw scraping against the floor. The fidelity of the graphics is obviously top-notch; it’s a true current-gen game that makes good use of geometry and shaders to render a beautiful open-world environment. However, it’s the incidental detail and the world-building that continues to impress me after all these hours. Unlike a lot of open-world games that sort of feel “generated” in some way, here the world seems to have been meticulously built by hand, and in every nook and cranny you can find bubbling brooks, overturned carts, little shrines, and so on. It’s very hard to explain in words, but pretty much the whole expansive map appears like a real lived in world. Add to all this the way that trees dance and bend in the wind, the dynamic weather, the breath-taking sunrises or sunsets, and you have a world that captivates me like nothing else since the first time I played The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion all those years back. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt might just be the most impressive and well-constructed open-world I’ve ever seen.
Alongside the impressive environmental graphics are the fantastic characters that inhabit this world, and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is full of interesting and distinctive people, many of whom feature prominently in the books but have been absent from the games until now. Yennefer is a good example of this, as she is complex female character, who seems to rub some players up the wrong way (causing them to romance Triss instead early on in the game) due to her strong personality and volatile temperament. Her dialogue, animation and expression captured in her detailed character model gives her real personality and this is a common trait throughout all of the characters in the game. Of course the protagonist Geralt, who you will be playing as throughout the bulk of the adventure, is given the most amount of screen time and he is a fantastically deep person to play as – ostensibly neutral in the affairs of the world, you are free to choose to become involved or abstain throughout most major events in the game world. In this regard, playing The Witcher III: Wild Hunt comes across as a mix between The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption; the former for its vast open world role-playing fantasy world, and the latter for its character-driven story and strong central character. The other more minor characters in the game are still well animated and acted, although you will notice some repeating models after a hundred hours of play, although this seems more than acceptable considering the breadth of content here.
The narrative of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt mirrors the structure of the novels somewhat in that it is a frantic rush to find the missing girl Ciri (who you will occasionally assume the role of during flashback sequences), who is being mercilessly pursued by the titular Wild Hunt. A common complaint regarding this is that, while the storyline would have you rushing against a clock to find the girl before the Hunt do, you’re obviously free to whittle away the hours completing sidequests and other extraneous activities, which dilutes the pacing somewhat. Of course, this is true and unavoidable to an extent in an open-world RPG such as this, but to be honest the sidequests presented throughout the course of the game often feel as poignant and narratively rich as the main storyline, sometimes more so. A good example is how decisions you make and quests that you complete come back to affect the core narrative or the events of the game world. This is something that has been done to death in modern videogames, in series such as Mass Effect or the Telltale games, but here it feels more natural and not as “gamey”. For instance, you don’t get any indication that you’ve just made an importance choice (there is no ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’ option), all decisions seems equal with no obvious good or bad result, and often it’s hours later that you realise the full ramifications of your actions. It’s not hyperbole to state that often embarking on a sidequest will take hours to complete, feature a full and complex narrative, and have an impact twenty hours later that you simply couldn’t foresee.
The gameplay of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt largely involves navigating the *vast* open world (probably the largest created), picking up quests and contracts, which are monster killing missions for coin, partaking in gambling such as cards, horse racing or fist fighting, and of course fighting monsters; largely inhuman but sometimes the lawless outcasts that roam the wilds. The combat system takes a little getting used to at first, because you have a light and heavy attack , a couple of different rolls/dodges, and a parry/riposte, but it all works much differently to sometime like Dark Souls. In order for your attacks to be effective, or your dodge to help avoid damage, you’ll need to invest character points in the necessary skills, which you get from either levelling up naturally or finding “places of power” within the open game world. Once you’ve put some points into combat and learnt to riposte humans but dodge monsters it all becomes a lot more natural and easy to handle. Also making combat easier to swallow are potions, decoctions and liberal use of signs and bombs. Potions and decoctions are created by gathering supplies throughout your playthrough, or buying them from herbalists, and using the deeply complex alchemy crafting system to create healing potions, stamina increases, elixirs to see in the dark, breathe underwater, etc. You only have to create them once and then keep a steady supply of alcohol in your inventory to automatically top potions up when resting. It’s a similar situation with bombs, as they are created through crafting and topped up with alcohol, and there is one for almost every occasion should you need to blind an opponent or blow them into tiny pieces. The crafting system can also be used to create oils, which when applied to your steel or silver blades act as a damage boost against monsters vulnerable to the specific brew; often this can be a deciding factor in whether you win or lose a fight and selecting the right oil is an important part of your pre-fight preparation.
Signs are like a limited form of magic, used to repel enemies or set them on fire, but which can also often be used outside of combat in order to perform Jedi-like mind-tricks on people in order to avoid paying bribes, or getting into unnecessary fights with town guards. Both signs and alchemy also have their own skills trees in which to place your character points and level-up your abilities, and during a single playthrough you’ll not be able to see it all, or even a quarter of the different character builds you could create with Geralt. Indeed, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt encourages a lot of replayability simply because it is unlikely you will be able to do absolutely everything in a single playthrough. The game world, as I’ve already mentioned, is *massive* and full of question marks denoting hidden quests, locations, buried treasure, abandoned towns, etc. At some point I basically decided to move on from an area, rather than exhausting everything there is to do, there could even be too much stuff to do if you’re obsessive-compulsive about these sorts of things.
It’s taken me so long to write this blog post, and I can’t stop playing this *fantastic* game, that I’m actually now over 120 hours into my adventure with The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. Everything that I’ve written about above still stands, and this videogame is certainly now a contender for my ‘Game of the Year”, and once of the very best I’ve played so far in 2015. I’ve been through the isles of Skellige (although I still need to go back and finish some contracts there) and to the Witcher’s keep of Kaer Morhen and have been consistently blown away by the world and the absolutely beautiful music in some of these locations; the song “The Fields of Ard Skellige” deserves special mention for being a hauntingly beautiful version of ‘Fear a' Bhàta’. Something else I would wholeheartedly recommend is playing the game with Polish audio and English subtitles! The Polish voice actors are all absolutely brilliant, and it feels very authentic to the setting and the spirit of the novels, which I’ve also been reading whilst playing and overall this has certainly added to what has been one of the best videogames experiences I’ve ever had… and am still having!! I’ve not completed the game yet, and thus might change the score if there’s a massive misstep towards the end or something but in the hours-and-hours I’ve put in thus far The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is a solid classic for me.