Honestly I kind of spaffed my load early when it comes to what I think about the Witcher 3. I said it in our 2015 Gaming Awards but I’ll go ahead and say it again now. The Witcher 3 is not just mine and Tim’s Game of the Year for 2015, but quite honestly I do see it as being my absolute favourite game of all time and very likely the outright best made to date. It is absolutely an instant classic, damn near perfect in every way that counts and I don’t see anything knocking it from the top spot of my list for years to come. That is an exceptionally strong claim to be making right at the start of this review, but I did want to clarify that so that if I spend the next 3000+ words ranting and raving about just how damned good it is, you knew what you were getting into when you started reading after the jump.
The Witcher series follows witcher/monster-hunter extraordinaire Geralt of Rivia. Based on novels of the same name by Andrzej Sapkowski (Andy Sacagawea) and popularised in video game format by the now widely lauded and loved CD Projekt Red. My experience of the Witcher began with a rather recent playthrough of the Witcher 2 back in the Summer of 2015, right after the release of the Witcher 3 in fact, so that I would be all set up for the sequel. I also think I made it clear in my review that despite some very strong points in its favour, the Witcher 2 left me rather cold and not particularly fulfilled. So it was that I came into The Wild Hunt with my expectations really rather lower than what the reviews were suggesting it deserved.
Since then I have poured, at the time of writing, around 140 hours into just one solitary playthrough of the game (I have only now begun to contemplate my New Game Plus playthrough) and became so enamoured by the game I even started reading the novels before I’d finished it, allowing me to pick up on the occasional reference made to the books.
It should be mentioned that for the first time in ages when it comes to RPGs, I would not absolutely insist that anyone new to the series start with Witchers 1 and 2. Due to my own uncertainty regarding the Witcher 2 (and the simple fact that I haven’t even played the original) I would say that I think it entirely possible that one could jump straight into The Wild Hunt and still enjoy the hell out of it. However, as is always the case with massive RPGs with lore that spans several games, you will likely be in a better place if you have played the originals first. If only because then you will at least have some familiarity with a number of the characters you meet.
In The Wild Hunt, Geralt is now on the hunt for his daughter Ciri and must work together with old friends and enemies across an open world to find her, to the “exclusion” of all else (because while that’s the general idea, those side quests won’t do themselves now will they?).
It is difficult to really know where to begin when talking about the Witcher because I am honestly filled with basically nothing but praise for the game, so let us start with something simple.
It has occasionally been something of a complaint about open-world games in recent years that the focus on high-end graphics tends to result in smaller worlds. Well, the Witcher 3 somehow succeeds in being both one of the most beautiful games I have ever witnessed whilst also being absolutely massive.
The islands of Skellige, which presents a mix of Scottish mountains and glens with Scandinavian culture and fjords, is possibly one of the most extraordinarily beautiful locations I have witnessed in any game ever. Period. And in spite of how graphically impressive it is, it still feels absolutely massive, and there are TWO maps of equally broad size in the base game.
Even more impressive than this is that despite the vast size of the game world, it still feels dense, vibrant and alive. There can be vast fields, forests and mountains to ride through with smatterings of local wildlife out to chow down on your ankles and never once does it feel like you have discovered everything the game has to offer. There always feels like there could be more hidden treasures and caves and monsters just around the next bend.
The cities in the game are also some of the most excellently designed and built I have ever seen. After witnessing the “cities” in Skyrim, paltry things with 30 inhabitants, it is just incredible to ride into places like Oxenfurt and Novigrad, which genuinely feel and look like proper cities with thousands of inhabitants, all going about their daily life. The level of detail in these too is astounding, with people going about daily chores, doing different things at different times of day, hidden nooks and crannies which you would always miss unless going out of your way to look for.
The sheer denseness and depth of the game can be somewhat overwhelming. Following the prologue you will have a rather daunting list of side quests to be getting on with at all times, from hunting treasure, aiding the locals, undiscovered locations which could be monster nests or bandits. There are even simple witcher contracts, where Geralt is hired to do what he does best, hunting monsters. And absolutely every single one of them feels worth doing, so one can feel almost paralyzed with indecision about which way to go next.
This can at times make the game feel a little heavy-going I’ll admit. When you have a quest log filled with several dozen quests, each of which you genuinely want to do and investigate, then it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed. Plus it’s not exactly a light game, so it can get a bit grim, depressing and overall tends to requires some thought process. So it’s not exactly some mindless fantasy hack-n-slasher fun where you can switch off and just play. The important take-home part of that though is the “genuinely want to do” bit, because even if one can feel overwhelmed and worn down by the game, I just wanted to keep coming back again and again until I had done absolutely everything it had to offer. So much so that it’s the first massive RPG I’m definitely going to be doing a NG+ in since Mass Effect.
I’m serious! CDPR absolutely goes out of their way with stuff like this, throwing in oodles of lore and story in every which way. For example there is a series of free DLC quests to obtain “treasure” which is crafting diagrams for a set of Witcher gear. It’s basically just a quick and standard search of a few ruins. And yet, if you pay attention you also can find a few diaries and sheets of notes informing you that there is in fact A REASON these priceless diagrams are just lying around. It kinda blows my mind. I mean even the Gwent mini-game felt like it was completely worth going out of my way to do!
Incidentally, the monster-hunting Witcher contracts feel like a brilliant addition to the game. Seeing Geralt doing what he does best feels almost pedestrian. It is another day in the life of a Witcher, and helps make the world and characters feel alive. All that war and end-of-the-world stuff going on? Yes, well, our kids are being eaten by a cursed ghost. Can you deal with it pls?
Speaking of diagrams… One of the things which developers do in order to increase and maintain that all-important immersion when it comes to massive RPGs is to impose rules and aspects of a normal reality onto the world. One of the things at the top of this list, and has been for a while now, is providing some kind of carrying capacity. Things have weight, we know this, and so in order to not cause any suspension of disbelief things also have weight in game. And you can only carry so much before you collapse under the heap of junk you’ve collected. The problem with this reality is that recently it has felt like more of a burden than a benefit to any of the games I played. Inventory management has honestly been the worst aspect of both of the most recent major Bethesda RPGs and actually irritated the hell out of me in the Witcher 2 as well.
It’s because of the “just-in-case” rule of RPGs. You cannot throw away that Flower of Blooming Nothingness, because you might use it to craft some potions LATER (“later” being an indefinable time which never actually happens). Those 500 iron bars you’ve got? They’ll be useful for making weapons… Or leveling your crafting as least! Suddenly you find your inventory absolutely stuffed with junk that will ONLY be useful “one day” and so every time you pick up something new, BAM you are over-encumbered and need to go to the nearest shop to sell the few bits and pieces you don’t intend to keep (because you can’t just DROP stuff, what if you need money one day?). The Witcher 3 deals with this by more or less making ONLY the weapons and armour have any weight. You want to carry an entire apothecary’s worth of herbs and flowers? That’s fine, it weighs absolutely nothing. Those 500 bars of steel you’ll use to craft items at the end of the game? Also fine, they too weigh nothing.
Admittedly you do still have to make the occasional trip to the shops, but when you get there you know exactly what it is that’s weighing you down. It’d be the thirty, level 2, rusty iron swords you’ve picked up. You sell all of them and you’re basically weightless again! Even better, you know those swords are useless, so you CAN sell them. No need for “just-in-case” here. It’s honestly one of the best decisions I think I’ve seen in terms of small gameplay changes. The simple act of practically removing inventory management, or at least minimising it a minuscule level removes one of the biggest potential frustrations and actually lets you simply get on with the game itself. Sure you can scream “but carrying that much metal is just not realistic” but I don’t CARE about realism here, it’s what is fun that’s important. And you know what’s not fun? Fucking going to the shops after every single quest in order to sell a few items and then having to find somewhere to store all the other junk that you just can’t bear to part with!
The game’s other mechanics are all pretty close to flawless as well. While I appreciate that utilising potions BEFORE a fight ties in with the lore of the books, implementing it in a game like they did in Witcher 2 meant that you’d either need perfect clairvoyance or to reload a save in order to know which potions to use. Now that you are able to actually use them mid-combat, it feels like there are both less barriers between you and the combat and one feels more encouraged to try out the potions.
Traps and bombs still feel a bit superfluous, but the fact that they are there probably works well for min-maxers. Meanwhile the magic spells now actually feel easy to use. I said in my review for the Witcher 2 that the names for the signs meant that it was pretty incomprehensible knowing what each one was and it took trial and error to figure out what did what. I can’t say whether it is my previous experience or the fact that the signs can be accessed via a pause wheel, but for whatever reason they simply feel more accessible now than they did previously.
Incidentally it helps immeasurably that the early portion of the game in White Orchard is simply several long hours of tutorial which not only helps present everything you need to know about the game and how to play, but presents it intelligently too.
The combat is fantastic as well. While perhaps not as challenging as some fantasy staples I could mention, at harder difficulties parrying and dodging are absolute necessities, as is trying to mix up light and heavy attacks. It feels tactical and challenging, but also does not feel frustrating or impossible. The combat has also vastly improved from the Witcher 2. While Geralt is still perhaps primarily strongest against single opponents, he is now so manoeuvrable that large groups of enemies present little problem as you can just dance around them swinging your sword flashily. In fact, the fact that the combat now hinges on Geralt’s speed and agility makes me draw the comparison to the Arkham games. And picturing Geralt as the Batman of the fantasy world is honestly not the most inaccurate of comparisons.
Amusingly, speaking of Arkham, Geralt has a bit of Arkham Knight syndrome in that he will occasionally, for no apparent reason, switch targets mid-fight and dash off to smack someone else mid-flow. It’s frustrating and happens often enough that it’s worth mentioning, but it’s nothing that really interrupts how good the combat is.
A few other mechanics: crafting is now straightforward as hell and its worth at the higher levels is immediately obvious, hence why it feels so imperative and smart to have streamlined the inventory the way they did. The system of using Geralt’s “Witcher senses” in tracking and quests is expertly implemented to make Geralt really seem simply like his senses are stronger than that of a normal human.
Levelling up also makes more sense, in one respect. The system of levelling talents with skill points earned ever you time you level up is familiar enough. Mutagens now, however, make much more sense than in the Witcher 2. While you get even less of them than before, now activating, using and upgrading them provides tangible benefits as opposed to “oh trusts us, that extra 0.1% damage buff is REALLY good”. On the other hand, it is a little odd that you can only ever have a specific number of these talents “active” at any one time. It means that once you hit level 30 you’ll have maxed out the talents you can use and so all the skill points you keep earning are now pointless.
A side-note to this is that if you, like me, do everything available to you in the game, you will very quickly become vastly overlevelled for the next story mission. While this would normally constitute a fairly major design flaw, in this case it does actually feel somewhat intentional. Playing on Blood and Broken Bones (the game’s “Hard” difficulty setting) was actually initially very challenging but was quickly made a lot easier as my levels accelerated past the requirement for each quest, but even then it never dipped into trivial. Thus I can imagine that the idea behind the obvious overlevelling is that it would be absolutely essential on the highest difficulty if you didn’t want to spend the entire time being knocked into the dirt. That said I can also imagine that on the “Easy” and “Normal” settings this WOULD make it increasingly effortless, but presumably that’s also part of the point of those particularly difficulty settings?
My one and only MAJOR mechanical gripe is in horse-riding. Utilising Roach to travel is obviously important given the scale of the map (and that you have to visit areas to unlock the fast travel points), to speak nothing of horse races, quests involving travelling about and even just going for one of the explores the game encourages. However, first, fighting from horse-back is frustrating at best and utterly infuriating at worst with Geralt constantly getting in a muddle about which side to swing his sword on. Roach as well will often happily gallop headfirst into a TINY obstacle for a minute straight, refusing to go around it, and then will sometimes pull up into a dead stop OR WON’T (depending on his mood, how much sleep the game has been getting and the phase of the moon) at minor adjustments to the course.
Exploration is a slightly more contentious point, I feel. On one hand I can understand why some might see the game as being almost like an MMO in that if you go too far from the point you are supposed to be in-game, then you will start running into enemies which are way too high level for you to fight, forcing the game to be slightly more linear despite its insistence that it is an open-world sandbox.
Just because I can understand doesn’t mean I agree though…
Personally, I loved the exploration. I loved that even after so many hours spent in game I feel like I could round some corner I’ve went round a dozen times and find something new. I love that some of the enemies you encounter ARE decidedly higher level. It encourages not only exploration, because hey, you might find an unguarded chest somewhere, but also encourages the feeling that it is a real world filled with ACTUAL monsters. It’s no Skyrim where every single encounter is your level, no. If you wander into that stone ring with that golem, and you’re vastly underlevelled, you’re gonna have a bad time.
On this topic, the monsters themselves are actually predominantly really awesome as well. It reminds me of how by late-game Skyrim, every time a dragon comes out of the skies to attack you it can feel like just a nuisance to have to slaughter another one of them. In the Witcher, seeing a gryphon or manticore always feels special. Plus, one gets the feeling they are actually a more integral part of the world. They are not something which just appears out of the blue sky, they have nests and hunting grounds and it feels more like you can just stumble on them out in the wilds rather than the other way around.
A final aspect I NEED to praise is the story of the game, which is honestly absolutely flawless. There are heartbreaking moments, heroic moments, hilarious moments, other moments with adjectives beginning with “h”. It proved itself to be every bit as capable of producing deep and poignant emotions and moments as it did at just having a laugh. Every single character is memorable and every single thing you do with and for them is too. Honestly, in a 100+ hour game it just blows my mind how even the side quest characters can feel interesting.
Some characters and arcs are, of course, better than others, and I think I’ll say hands down that the quest chain with the Bloody Baron in Velen may well be one the single best quests I have ever done in any game ever. But even if some don’t quite live up to that exceptional standard, they are still excellent in their own right.
I suppose I do need to make the minor complaint that the romance system of the game is a bit of a pain. There are two major love interests for Geralt: Triss and Yennefer, and it utilises a system similar to that of Bioware games where there is a point of no-return where you “lock-in” with their romance.
Irritatingly though, one reaches the point of locking in with Triss before you even actually properly get a chance to interact with Yen. This is especially difficult because Triss is very-much THE love interest of the games. While Yen is categorically Geralt’s “true love” from the books, she does not even appear in previous Witcher games. So if one goes into the Witcher 3 blind then you’ll meet Yen, who acts like a complete bitch, and then you have to go through the whole story with Triss before you really meet her again. It’s almost like the game wanted to make it difficult to choose Yen over Triss. Of course it helps that even after having chosen Yen I still think Triss is best grill and Yen IS just a bitch.
A final note of irritation here is that Geralt does continue to be a bit of a Mary Sue. Not only does he bang the hottest chicks but he’s also the bestest fighter, brawler, card-player, and fucking anything else you like really. While I can deal with most of the above, it can be a bit frustrating at times that he also feels like the most sensible and moral character in the game. Practically everyone else (except his closest companions) is, in SOME way, at least a bit of a cunt. Admittedly it’s a very Game of Thrones way of looking at things, but it’s also just a tad too cynical for me.
Also, for fucks sake, seeing as Geralt IS so fucking good at everything, why do people in-game continue to hate him? They have literally no reason to.
Oh wait… Humans…
Right… Okay, carry on.
At this stage, this may be one of the longest reviews I have ever written, but I feel like I have only just scratched the surface of what a great game this is. I feel like I could legitimately just keep on talking about individual aspects/sections/characters until I’m blue in the face.
Practically flawless from start to finish, if you dislike it you are FACTUALLY wrong and need to be purged like the Heretic you are. I honestly think everyone and their cat should play it.
Rating: 95/100 (P = 1 x10-100)
|· Visually stunning, enough to make even the least impressionable members of the PC master race coo with delight
· God-tier writing, characters and dialogue with extremely few predictable moments, constantly keeps you engrossed and on your toes
· Massive open world does not hinder how utterly immersive and FULL it feels
· Solid and polished combat, some room for improvement but mostly excellent
· Everything from the most minor of side quests to primary story missions feel important and memorable
· Inventory is actually NOT a pain to manage
|· Fucking Roach and his inexplicable moods
· Timing of romance in the story prevents comparing choices
· Arguments that Geralt is a Mary Sue have some merit
· Smugglers caches… Nuff said…
· Has ruined literally every other game for me… Nothing else feels quite as good any more…