When I attended E3 last year and saw CD Projekt’s presentation of The Witcher 3, I shook senior gameplay designer Damien Monnier’s hand and told him that their game was the best thing I had seen at E3 so far, and that was not a statement made lightly. Besides looking absolutely incredible, The Witcher 3 was promised to have an open world of biblical proportions, and incredible soundtrack and an expertly crafted combat system, among other things. Close to a year later, I approached The Witcher 3, finally released after months of delays, with slight hesitation. Would I be eating the words I spoke to Monnier a year ago after discovering that The Witcher 3 would be yet another triple A letdown from E3, or would CD Projekt solidify their reputation as one of the most reliable and trustworthy developers in the industry with yet another incredible release?
The Witcher 3 serves as the third and final part of the story of Geralt of Rivia, everyone’s favorite monster slaying anti-hero, as he finally embarks on an endeavor that he had been itching to resolve ever since the very first Witcher game: to find his long lost lover Yennefer, and deal with the marauding spectral army known as the Wild Hunt. Although this is the third part of a very lengthy trilogy, newcomers to the series shouldn’t have too many problems getting to grips with the essence of the story, which is communicated through flawless voice acting and other storytelling techniques. It would help immensely, however, to familiarize oneself with the series’ lore, particularly concerning the conflict between Nilfgaard and Temeria, by either reading up literature online or, more preferably, playing the other two Witcher games.
It is in the storytelling department that The Witcher 3 triumphs the most. Without spoiling too much, the world of The Witcher is one that is unique in how morally gray it is. Many videogames of late like to boast about how their stories and characters blur the lines between good and evil, but I would argue that The Witcher, particularly this third entry, is perhaps the only game series that truly owns that characteristic. In The Witcher 3, just about every single character can be good or bad, given the right circumstances. One moment, you would be making love to a beautiful woman who helped you through a nightmarish quest and then took you out to dinner, and the next moment you would discover that the entire thing was a well-planned scheme to manipulate you to her ends. One moment, you’d be sympathizing with the common villagers who lament their poverty and the oppression they face from their oppressive Nilfgaardian overlords, and the next you’d discover that these villagers are a bunch of racist, xenophobic, smelly and violent lunatics while the Nilfgaardians are doing a good job at maintaining order and preventing violence between them.
In such a defiantly morally ambiguous world, the only sensible thing for players to do is to not place too much sympathy in the plights of the game’s characters, but to stay consistent with the kind of man they feel Geralt is; is he a strictly professional witcher who does the task assigned to him to the letter? Is he a more compassionate individual who is willing to adapt his thinking to the varying problems of those he encounters? Or is he a mixture of both? This is perhaps the only criteria players should use when faced with the game’s many moral decisions, and with a mammoth story filled with so many of these moments, The Witcher 3 has all the storytelling makings of fine literature in ways only a videogame can accomplish. Despite the bevy of controversial topics it throws at you, it is not a game that forces any particular agenda on you; it is one that presents a story and allows you to make your own judgments without ever making you feel like you’ve made the ‘wrong’ decision.
Of course, none of this would mean anything if the game wasn’t fun to play, and The Witcher 3 succeeds by spades, although like any game of its size and scope, it isn’t without its faults. Besides conversing with characters and peeling back its many narrative layers, The Witcher 3 has loads of combat and exploration for players to partake in.
Combat is no trifling matter, as evidenced by the fact that I was twice killed during the very first sword fight in the entire game. Despite having overcome a similarly difficult game, Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, right before jumping into The Witcher 3, I found myself feeling like an amateur playing the game on the Blood and Broken Bones difficulty, the game’s second hardest difficulty out of four. Everything moves incredibly quickly, and it is entirely possible, in fact probable, that unskilled players will be slaughtered in just a couple of short seconds. The Witcher 3, more so than any other RPG with melee combat, is a game about dodging attacks as much as attacking. There are, in fact, two kinds of dodge: a simple sidestep or a combat roll. Knowing when to use either one is crucial, as is understanding each enemy’s attack patterns.
Sometimes, though, combat in The Witcher 3 can be unfair, especially when fast enemies swarm you in large numbers. One misjudged attack can and often does subject you to unreasonable amounts of damage, and, enemies can hit you even while you’re in the middle of a dodge or roll, so on occasion fighting multiple opponents can feel like trial and error.
Thankfully, you have no shortage of tools to fight back with. Geralt’s classic weapons, his two swords, signs, and potions make returns, along with the addition of a crossbow, and all of them will require use. Combat has a sort of rock-paper-scissors dynamic, with certain enemies being vulnerable to fire and others being invincible to mind tricks for example, and like a true witcher, Geralt must read up on each and every enemy before doing battle with them.
Certain elements of the series have been streamlined in The Witcher 3, particularly with regards to alchemy. Instead of having to collect ingredients for each individual potion and meditate to consume them one at a time, The Witcher 3 allows players to concoct potions just once and then refill them indefinitely using just alcohol. They can also be consumed at any time, even during battle, and as a result there’s more of an incentive to use them compared to previous Witcher games, in which the tedium of having to meditate and then very slowly consume one potion after the other sometimes had the effect of ruining the pace. On the other hand, this does hurt the immersion a bit, as the feeling of carefully and methodically preparing for a tough battle is dulled by the improbability of consuming potions in the heat of battle.
Exploring the world of Temeria is an absolute joy; a considerable accomplishment considering that this is CD Projekt’s first foray into truly open world design. The Witcher 3’s open world isn’t as vibrant and alive as those of Bethesda’s, who are arguably the masters of open world game design, because instead of one seamless, connected world, the game is split into several large regions. Venturing to the edges of each of these regions will greet you with a message telling you to “turn back,” so it’s a rather disappointing aspect of the game, considering that at last year’s E3, CD Projekt kept emphasizing that “if you can see it, you can go there.”
Nevertheless, it is a game world that holds one’s attention and contains intriguing stories behind every corpse-strewn battlefield, bustling village, and mysterious shack deep in the woods. It’s also nice that there are no loading screens when transitioning between indoor and outdoor areas, something that plagued previous entries to the series.
There is, of course, plenty of danger to be found when you stray off the beaten path, but the game is very helpful at letting you know what level any enemy you encounter is. This way, it avoids a common RPG pitfall in which players unwittingly challenge a foe that is miles beyond their abilities.
Getting around is also easy thanks to the presence of Geralt’s horse, Roach, another new addition the series. A helpful sidekick that is always a whistle call away, Roach allows Geralt to traverse vast expanses of land quickly, and very importantly also allows him to engage in mounted combat. This aspect of the game is an absolute blast and is perhaps one of the finest examples of mounted combat in recent memory. Time automatically slows down when you raise your weapon in preparation for a strike against an enemy, and a successful blow often results in gruesome dismemberment. Enemies can have their heads and limbs lopped off, and in some cases entire torsos can be cleaved in half. It’s not all fun and games, though, as players have to be careful that Roach doesn’t get spooked, something that will result in the trusty steed hurling Geralt to the ground.
Of course, it helps with exploration that the world of The Witcher 3 is beautiful and runs well on a reasonably robust PC. Of particular note is the more nuanced facial and body animations of characters during dialogue and cut scenes; they don’t feel as canned and lifeless as previous Witcher games, and as a result the story and setting feel more alive and worth paying attention to. Aside from its requisite next-gen visuals, The Witcher 3 has so many graphical details that culminate in a game in which time spent just looking around and appreciating the visuals is time well spent. Trees and grass flutter in the wind, clothes glisten and drip with water on rainy days, and even Geralt’s beard grows with the passage of time.
My rig consists of an i7-4790K, GTX 780 Ti, 16 GB RAM, and Windows 7. With these specs, I was able to run The Witcher 3 at a steady 60 FPS on near-maximum settings. Certain graphical settings had to be turned down to achieve this, namely Hairworks, antialiasing, motion blur and depth of field, which I can’t stand anyway, and foliage draw distance, which had to be turned down to High. Otherwise, everything else was cranked up to Ultra. I also ran a SweetFX preset to improve contrast and tone down the game’s oversaturated look, and as a result The Witcher 3 is one of the best looking games of recent memory, even in its downgraded state.
While we’re on the topic of the PC, it’s worth going into what is perhaps The Witcher 3’s biggest flaw: janky mouse and keyboard controls. This is clearly a game that was designed to be played on a controller, largely because of the way Geralt moves. On a controller, the analog stick controls the speed with which he moves. Depending on how much you push the stick, Geralt either walks or jogs. On a keyboard, however, you have to switch between the two speeds with a button press, and if you have the jog button toggled on, Geralt talks a few slow steps forward before picking up speed. So compared to The Witcher 2, in which pressing any of the WSAD keys would cause Geralt to immediately run in those directions, there is a brief delay in The Witcher 3 between the moment you hit these keys and the moment Geralt actually starts moving in those directions in earnest. I can’t even begin to describe how clunky the simple act of moving around feels as a result of this, and it’s a stunning oversight by CD Projekt, a developer that is supposed to pride itself on developing for the PC.
With these things in mind, The Witcher 3 still triumphs as one of the greatest RPGs ever made, largely on the strength of its complex characters and first rate storytelling. There is no shortage of narratives to uncover and activities to partake in that all feel unique and lack the canned, recycled feel that has plagued other open world games like Watch_Dogs, Far Cry 4 and Dying Light. Despite some technical shortcomings with regards to its controls and lack of a seamless open world, every element of The Witcher 3 feels like it was made with a lot of craft and a lot of love. It is an absolutely massive game, but lacks a lot of the hot air that other open world RPGs pad themselves with, and will take its rightful place as the standard with which all future open-world RPGs will be measured against.
+Epic story with defiantly morally ambiguous characters
+Fast paced and difficult combat
+Excellent visuals and voice acting
+Plenty of quests, treasure hunts and Witcher contracts
-Open world is separated into regions
-Janky keyboard controls