Not all who wander are lost
It’s an exciting time to be into role-playing games. With the release of heavy hitters such as Dragon Age: Inquisition, Dark Souls II, Divinity: Original Sin, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Wasteland 2 in recent years, the genre has had a healthy supply of deep and involving games. But one such series, based on Polish fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, got a major foothold into the hearts of fans.
Originally released in 2007 for PC, The Witcher placed players in the shoes of Geralt, a monster hunter for hire, and became a sleeper hit for Polish developer CD Projekt Red. The studio released its follow-up in 2011 and has since become a juggernaut in the PC gaming community. Now, the company is readying for the conclusion to its wildly popular RPG series. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, its most ambitious title yet, ventures into vast open game gameplay while offering a rousing finish to the central character’s story.
Though for the last two years, we’ve only gotten plenty of trailers and other bits of media on the game. The developers have been shy with allowing anyone hands-on time, but at a recent exclusive event held for retailers and members of the press, the folks at CD Projekt Red invited Destructoid out to play The Witcher 3. During my four-hour session, I dove head first into this open-world action-RPG, and saw just how Geralt of Rivia made the transition. So relax, clear your schedule, and let me tell about my experience with one of 2015’s most anticipated titles.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PC [previewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Publisher: CD Projekt / WB Games
Release Date: May 19, 2015
It’s clear from the recent delay, and the numerous CD Projekt Red members present at the event, that they wanted the game to be at its best. Even though it’s largely finished, the studio plans to spend the next few months finding and fixing bugs and tweaking the experience.
“It’s all very exciting,” said senior environment artist Jonas Mattsson while reflecting on the development of Wild Hunt. “We’re confident in our game, but you know, it’s your baby, and we’re very curious to see how people will react to it.”
Set some time after the events of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, we find Geralt of Rivia in dire straights. With the Northern Kingdoms in conflict and a marauding demonic force known as the Wild Hunt leaving destruction in its wake, the world has seen better days. With fellow Witcher and mentor Vesemir by his side, Geralt searches for his long-lost ally Yennefer, who might know the location of Cyri, a young Witcher who may be able to stop the conflict and save the world.
Much like its predecessors, The Witcher 3 features a rich, dense plot that is backed by a considerable amount of lore. Referred to as somewhat of a realistic take on medieval fantasy by its developers, the key aspect of its approach to storytelling, which is loved by so many, is the focus on verisimilitude. Throughout his journeys, Geralt will encounter characters from different cultures and walks of life, all the while plotting his next move and earning some coin along the way.
Similar to Game of Thrones, there is a clever balance of stoicism and macabre humor, as the people living in such troubling times have to keep a straight face and endure. Geralt embodies the anti-hero archetype, and his devil-may-care personality makes for an interesting foil for his world.
“It’s been a challenge, but we like a good challenge,” Mattsson said of the open-world design. “We wanted to make sure that when we did an open-world game, it would be done our way. Not a generic open world, but a crafted open world with side quests and main quests would blend in seamlessly with natural exploration. It’s not in the sense of ‘side-quest number five is starting’ and ‘you got this amount of EXP points,’ but it’s more like this organic experience. For us, we achieved something quite unique.”
Without giving too much away, the prologue of Wild Hunt does well to get players up to speed with the gameplay and plot. During an opening tutorial set in Kaer Morhen, you’re given a quick refresher on the controls, and reintroduced to returning characters. After about twenty minutes of exposition, you’re thrust into the open world on the trail of Yennnefer. This will be appreciated by many, as the previous titles’ tutorials were often criticized for being too drawn out.
Straight away, the most impressive — and most obvious — aspect of Wild Hunt was its sharp, gorgeous visuals. Playing on a fully decked-out PC running the game on maximum settings, I got to see the title at its best. As impressive as the series’ visuals are, Wild Hunt is several leagues ahead of what was released back in 2011. Not only was the terrain lush, and the world felt lived-in and active, but the voice work and motion-capture details were also astounding. The characters conveyed an earnest understanding of the situation, while at the same time showing humanity and emotion for the moment. It’s some of the best work I’ve seen in a game in a long time.
Being able to explore such a rich world freely and without limits was exciting, and the talent behind this adventure has made good on plans to allow players to do so at their own pace. Though the exact design of an open-world game seems to vary from developer to developer, The Witcher 3 felt bit more focused in quest design, while also offering a massive playground to explore. Instead of large hub areas that connect to each other through load screens, you’ll be able to seamlessly travel from one major territory to the next.
Though Skyrim is often seen as the standard for open-world gameplay, Wild Hunt feels unique in its approach and visual look, and blends a lot of different environments together. With wildlife to hunt, plants and other roots to collect for your alchemy (which allows you to craft potions and tonics), and many other dangerous foes and creatures populating the swamps, forests, dungeons, and many other locales, the world of Wild Hunt is one that keeps things interesting for players. With fast-travel available — which can only be done when standing near sign posts — and along with Geralt’s trusty stead Roach, you’ll be able to freely explore the bounds of the world with ease.
Of course, with the world in chaos, Geralt must always keep himself several steps ahead of foes. Advancing upon the free-form combat from The Witcher 2, Wild Hunt refines the system to make it feel more dynamic and fluid. With his knowledge, combat prowess, and cunning as his greatest weapons, Geralt’s arsenal of abilities can be freely used on the fly. For instance, your stamina bar, which controls sprinting outside of combat, allows for Geralt to use magic, such as blasts of fire and telekinetic energy, along with hypnosis and trap magic. He also makes use of bombs and other gadgets to take down foes at a distance. The crossbow in particular is useful for flying foes, and can even be used when fighting creatures underwater.
There’s a lot of respect and trust given to the players, and the developers were keen on letting them go at their own pace. In the starting territory of White Orchard, Geralt found word that the local garrison commander knew the location of Yennefer, but would only reveal it if Geralt and Vesemir could eliminate a large griffon terrorizing the country side. Of course, this is for the main story. If you choose to stray from the path and mingle with the locals, like I did, you’ll discover side-quests and other oddities that could use your attention.
As you perform quests and slay monsters, you’ll acquire crowns and experience points. Crowns purchase supplies and other tools for Geralt, which he’ll need for his adventures. With every level gained, you acquire skill points which can be spent on buffs for the Witcher. Unlike past games, you can allocate points and set skills without the need for Meditation, which is still used to restore health and move the passage of time. With every skill and buff acquired, you can place them in slots that make them become active on Geralt. Though you’ll acquire more slots as you level, you cannot have every skill or buff active at once, so you have to build him out to your preferences.
Beyond this customization, there’s an increased number of weapons and armor types to find. Though previous games largely had you use a small pool of equipment that could be upgraded over time, Wild Hunt takes things further. With well over 100 unique types of gear ranging from swords, crossbows, and pieces of armor, you’ll find Geralt quick to change his look. Moreover, there are varying types of gear, such as rare and legendary types that are found from exploration, questing, and advancing the main story. Though you are totally free to venture off to areas unknown, you might find that even Geralt will be unprepared for what he faces.
“We have a unique version of the open world in our game,” said Mattsson. “We don’t want to restrict players to certain areas for the long term, but with that said there are many areas that can be completely deadly, because monsters do not scale. They will not level up with you. If you wander off to the wrong neighborhood, then you’re going to get yourself killed. It’s open world, completely, but you really have to be careful.”
There were many distractions and other events to uncover during my session. For instance, you can visit the notice board for side jobs to earn some extra coin, or you can visit the tavern to mingle with the commoners, some of whom will challenge Geralt to a game of Gwent. In this new mini-game, similar to Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, players will use a deck of cards to battle the other player in a game of wits and strategy. It’s a pretty addictive game, and the developers even plan on releasing a real-life version of Gwent for collector’s edition purchasers.
While exploring a small village, I came across a man in need of protection for his young daughter. Knowing she had a curse placed upon her by a wraith, he asks you to venture to an abandoned village nearby and exorcise the vengeful spirit. Once at the village, Geralt uses his skills for deduction and tracking to discover the source of the disturbance.
I was expecting a simple track-and-kill-the-monster quest, but I ended taking part in a Sherlock-esque investigation with some exploration of the underground caverns underneath the village. It culminated in a battle with a Noonwraith, a spectral demon that summoned multiple phantoms for assistance. This totally caught me by surprise. Not only was this an entirely optional quest, but it was still very early during my session.
“There are several points of interest scattered throughout the game,” said Mattsson. “Whether they be a tower in the distance, some ruins, or even a house in the woods, there these areas throughout the game you’ll see as you’re questing or just exploring. If you explore the points of interest, you can be swept up in a unique side-quest. Of course, this is something we don’t force upon you, if you’re not interested then you can continue on your way. We have a fifty-hour main story, and another fifty hours of side-quests, in addition to time spent exploring the landscape, it’s just crazy how much content is there.”
When I turned in the quest, I was given the choice of taking a reward from the man or allowing him to keep it for his family. Though Witchers are required to take payment of some sort for their services, there are several points where you have to a make a moral choice. Sometimes there will be consequences for taking or refusing a reward, and many decisions will come back to haunt you.
After the end of the side-quest, I went back to the main story and followed the trail of the griffon. In order to prepare for his battle with the beast, Geralt had to acquire intel from local hunters to find its nest, in addition gathering some bait. Once those tasks were finished, I was ready to take it down. In the meeting spot with Vesemir, we readied our trap to force the griffon to the ground. It was one of the tougher battles during this stage of the story, and I had to utilize my parrying and dodge skills to withstand his massive strikes.
Eventually he reacquired use of his wings and flew off. I jumped on my horse and gave chase, using my special sight (which can be used to find clues and collectibles) to keep track of his bloody trail. Keep in mind this was all within the open world, and I rode past several monsters while trying to keep up with the griffon. Soon after, I tracked the beast down and dealt a final blow, severing its head and delivering it for my reward. It was a tense moment, and very satisfying, particularly taken as part of the open world and not in an instanced location that would soon be forgotten.
“Bigger doesn’t always mean better. For us, bigger meant we had to be more ambitious about [designing the open world],” said the CD Projekt Red artist. “For us, The Wild Hunt made it a natural step for us to scale the world to suit the needs of narrative. If we tried to make it smaller [than its predecessors], then it wouldn’t make sense. If we make it too big, it would be too empty. We wanted to give it the space it deserves, and we didn’t want to compromise our vision.”
At this point, the developers let me move ahead several hours in the plot. We then found Geralt on the Skellige Isles to the west, where he is caught up in a murder-mystery plot following the most bizarre assassination attempt I’ve ever seen in a game. Suffice it to say, you’ll never look at bears the same way again. The Skellige Isles were a totally different area compared to White Orchard.
In similar style and geography to the Scottish Highlands, Geralt’s adventures took him to an entirely new region with its own culture and rich history. I barely even scratched the surface of White Orchard, and I was already trying to acclimate myself to this locale. And I mean that in the best way. This area felt altogether different from the previous territory, and though I knew I had some unfinished business in White Orchard, the pull of the Skellige Isles was too strong.
Though exploring the world of The Witcher 3 was gripping, there were several issues I had with the experience. In my several hours with the title, I could see why the developers wanted to hang on to it further fine tuning. The folks at CD Projekt Red were adamant that we report any issue to them, and this press event also doubled as a QA testing period for those who were largely unattached to the game. I found myself caught in a lot odd bugs, some of which were humorous, like a man floating beside a horse, but others were nasty. Some folk at the event experienced game crashes, and I sometimes got stuck on terrain and had to revert to earlier saves to get out. Moreover, the new swimming gameplay, which was a great addition to the adventure, felt sloppy in execution as the controls were not so accurate and a bit touchy.
With that said, I came away largely impressed. From what I played thus far, which was a small portion of a hundred-hour game, Geralt of Rivia has transitioned into the open world beautifully. It truly felt like I was on an adventure in a world that not only had variety, but a sense of a danger and possibility. While I was bummed that I couldn’t see what the gameplay for Ciri would be like, I can understand that they’d like to keep that as a surprise. The recently announced PC specs might scare some people off, but with simultaneous releases on multiple platforms, there’s plenty of opportunity to experience it in the coming months.
And did I mention how massive this game world was? Just one territory seems larger than most games in the open-world genre, and the seamless design here is nothing short of extraordinary. With its release set for May, CD Projekt Red seems to playing it safe here in its last few months, which is smart. As ambitious and massive this game is, it’s also the one title you don’t want to see these developers screw up. If they manage to fix the major bugs, and hopefully tighten up the controls, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt could go down as one of the boldest and most satisfying titles the genre has seen in a very long time.
[Disclosure Notice: The Witcher 3 was demonstrated at an event hosted by CD Projekt Red in San Francisco. The event took place at The Alchemist Bar & Lounge, where they offered us a nice spread of Italian cheeses and meat, along with a swag bag filled with The Witcher 3 apparel. It was a fun event, and was a nice opportunity to mingle with the developers of the game and other members of the press.]