The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt PC Review
It feels a long time when I first bought a shiny new PC to play The Witcher 2 back in 2011. That was the year where everyone was all loving up Skyrim, causing The Witcher 2 to be robbed of 2011’s best RPG award. A year later brought the release of the Enhanced Edition to Xbox 360 (and PC), where the developers, CD Projekt Red, added five hours of additional content to the game and some how managed to achieve wonders in bringing a great looking version to Microsoft’s old console. I could go on how The Witcher 2 became one of my favourite RPGs, due to its mature themes, gorgeous visuals, well-designed world and brilliant story and characters, but this is about the sequel, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a title that sounded incredibly on paper – a world thirty times the size of The Witcher 2 and 20% bigger than Skyrim, a new engine, 36 possible world states that lead to three main endings, new shiny graphics and some beard growth technology (just what hairy men asked for). Could the developers really deliver on what sounds like a dream wish list for a sequel, while bringing the perfect finish to the tale of Geralt of Rivia?
Players are in the shoes of the witcher Geralt once again, as the game introduces us to him, and his old mentor, Vesemir, on the trail of Yennefer, Geralt’s once lover before she vanished when he suffered from amnesia. Yennefer has sent a letter to Geralt that stated that she needs to speak urgently, as the sorceress has news on the return of Ciri, a woman who Yennefer and Geralt had treated like their own daughter before she was chased off by the game’s villains, The Wild Hunt. Yennefer is seen fleeing from a huge battle just a few days before the witchers caught up to her trail, and so the game starts with the two walking into White Orchard to catch up with Yennefer and kickstart the long journey to find the missing Ciri.
Stories in role-playing games aren’t the be-all and end-all to the genre, as gameplay needs to have solid foundations, since you spend a lot of time interacting with the game’s mechanics that they need to be good to keep you playing to the end. That said, having a captivating story can help in building characters, craft an interesting world or make the journey through the game memorable. Previous Witcher titles featured good stories, and the second game began to show that the developers could bring multifarious adult topics, such as racism, politics, violence, and rape, without cheapening the game or the content it was trying to display. CD Projekt Red’s writers have stepped up their game in not just bringing a fantastic story, but actually infusing the game with worthwhile short stories that aren’t part of the main quest. There is no denying that telling a story is one area that The Witcher 3 truly excels in.
This time around the story feels more personal to Geralt. No longer is he a bodyguard to a king or trying to bring peace, instead, he has an obsession in finding the one he cares for to protect her from harm, the one he loves like a daughter. This is while there is a war going on between the invading Nilfgaard and Redania, so while you do see the vileness that happens in conflict, the tale manages to bring a fascinating emotional trait to Geralt, one that we haven’t really seen before, since the concept of mutations that witchers go through are said to dull their emotions, but here we see care, love, regret, anger, and, of course, Geralt’s special brand of sarcasm, through his dialogue and facial expressions that demonstrate to the player that he can feel through his calm nature.
Game’s often cast their heroes as the star of the show, but in The Witcher 3, while Geralt is the main protagonist, he doesn’t feel like a hero, a Superman as you often see, but more like an experienced individual who has seen the world through the eyes of a witcher – taking on hundreds of jobs to destroy monsters and supernatural entities. He’s one of the best in his profession, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to save the world. To the rest of the population, he’s just a freak with white hair who is best to stay clear of. Hate is filled in this world against the things that people don’t understand, and being Geralt sticks him in the hazards of this disgusting behaviour first hand. It’s different than staring as a hero in other role-playing games, simply because of how the world treats Geralt like trash, harsher than any other RPG world. Playing as Geralt offers a sense like you are sitting in the shoes of an outcast, and that’s unique to come across in video games.
This would not be possible to accomplish if it wasn’t for how brilliantly built the world is. Starting with its design and land, it’s overpoweringly huge on the sensors compared to any existing Witcher game, as this title opens the doors for open world exploration for the first time in the franchise. Previous games would feature zones for each act, and while you could explore these areas, they were never humongous. In The Witcher 3, while provinces still act somewhat like zones, these are blown wide open in scale. They aren’t joking when they mention the size comparison being at least 30 times bigger than The Witcher 2. Leaving the starting area of White Orchard and arriving into Velen is when the scale truly hits you in the face. The game has teased you with a good size of land, and since your scale has been attuned to that, seeing Velen and Novigrad on the game’s map for the first time as you zoom out makes you do nothing but be amazed.
Being boisterous about size is something developers should be careful in doing, as countless games have offered large lands to explore, but usually end up sterile, lifeless and filled with NPCs that lack any stand-out characteristics, in other words, it’s a boring, meat-filled world with nothing to do. The Witcher 3 manages to mostly get rid of this problem with its setting of the Northern Kingdoms by bringing together polished attributes that contribute to a lively open world.
One area that stood out to me is the design of the land and how well it presents the setting it is trying to portray. It’s instantly noticeable from the get go when exploring the forests of White Orchard. Wondering into these forests genuinely feels like you are in the wilderness, with trees clumped together towering above the player, bending and rustling when the wind picks up. It’s subtle, but it brings the immersion that is often lacking in open world RPGs. Weather adds to this dimension, with wonderful looking sunsets and bitter storms adding believability to the world, while also making for some wonderful screenshot moments. Every location here is done well, be it the lifeless trees mixed with pools of sludge water and weeds in the swamps of Crookback Bog, the siren infested, stormy cliff-sides of the damp, isolated island of Skellige that requires sailing on a boat to get there, or the blustering city of Novigrad with hundreds of citizens going about their daily actions, no matter where you are, it never feels disjointed or copied and pasted for artificial extension, and for me, it was one of the best worlds explored in an RPG. The only issue is that it’s a shame the developers couldn’t connect the entire map together, but I understand their focus in bringing captivating places rather than just lands of mud roads to connect everything together.
The inhabitants of the Northern Kingdoms are the icing that finishes off the world’s personality, and the game neatly shows these amazing characters through its main tale and some of its huge side content, which I should add offers adventures more memorable than most of the campaign. That is not to say the campaign is bland in anyway shape or form, but it’s a testament to how much work went into fleshing out worthwhile optional content through great characters and narration. A strong feature of The Witcher 2‘s was how it was pushing for morality in a story, and while it didn’t feature that many deciding points, it did show how a decision can change a future outcome. It also managed to do it while not falling into the trap of being good or bad, a problem that plagues a lot of video games. In reality, it’s never as simple as that, and games should attempt to capture this without falling back on simple choices that make you the good or bad guy.
A great example of this is one of the early major quest lines called The Bloody Baron. The set-up is that Geralt needs to gather information on Ciri and the last tidbit he was given was that she stayed at Crow’s Perch under the company of the Bloody Baron. Like any ruler, the Baron won’t give up information on Ciri until you do a task for him, which is to find where his wife and daughter have gone – the Baron tells us that he thinks someone has kidnapped them. The truth is later discovered and is a lot more complicated that what was led to believe. This quest leads into some others that require completion, which then loop back into the Baron’s story. It’s a choice here that led to a shocking conclusion and one of the two endings that can happen with the quest, but it was a choice that I made on my own without knowing the consequences. There was no clear good or bad option when involved in this action, rather, I went on what I felt was the right thing given the situation and the knowledge I knew of the people involved, which brought on a surprising outcome, which it should do. Morality decisions should not always be clear. There is no fun in knowing what will become of your actions if you know what it causes, as you are going to aim to do the one that fits your agenda, rather than living the moment and seeing what the unknown will bring.
In fact, The Bloody Baron quest encapsulates all that is brilliant about the game’s writing (he also has a very good quote “Can’t speak for the world you witchers inhabit, but in ours, nothing is ever black and white” which is utterly true about the people you come into contact with). I’ll keep talking about The Bloody Baron, because it keeps the rest of the game out of spoiler territory, so if you don’t want any details spoilt about this quest, then skip ahead to the next paragraph. Any decision made in the quest is down to what you know, and you learn a lot through exceptional character development that covers a lot of tough topics, such as domestic violence, abortion, alcoholism – the tales of broken families run deep with the Baron. Initially, he comes off like a piece of trash that loves been on a power trip, but as you spend more time around him and his village, the Baron, and his associates, have tales to tell about his relationship with his family. The pain his wife endured through drunken beatings, the pain he brought on himself in causing a miscarriage during a family dispute, the things his wife did to take revenge, his hateful daughter, his emotional breakdown through the things he has to do during the quest. It’s true that this is a horrible man standing before you, but it’s a man who has seen war and had to resort to drink to blank it out. He’s a man who loves and shows affection when sober, but he chooses to drink knowing all well what happens when he does. This whole arc is jammed with dark shades of grey, and it was rather hard to not feel for what was happening to him, even Geralt, who is hard on him on first greetings, can feel the heavy weight and sadness from this family tale. It is an engrossing story to see to the end, no matter what outcome you end up with, and a shining example of what can be accomplished in video game story telling.
Let’s move away from the big quests and on to a lighter note. The map is jammed with smaller optional content, such as taking on contracts to hunt monsters (griffins, wraiths and werewolves), racing horses, solving murder mysterious and hunting treasure, which can often involve similar gameplay among them. For example, taking part in contract hunts, which involve a different beast each time, will mostly begin with Geralt’s witcher sense to find evidence of the monster and track it to its hiding spot. These can become a drag if you repeat them constantly, so mixing them up with in-depth side quests and story is advisable to stop it becoming monotonous.
A shout-out is required for Gwent, The Witcher 3‘s card game that is a harmless addictive drug backed up with a few challenging quests. I haven’t felt as compassionate about a mini game since Triple Triad from Final Fantasy VIII (I got all the cards). It’s designed in a such a way that while having a full game involving real players wouldn’t work well because of balancing issues, playing against the random NPCs makes it exciting and unpredictable. Anyone who enjoys card games should get a kick out of Gwent. On the topic of side content, participating in these many optional side quests does more than offer new gear and experience. In fact, it’s one of the few games where taking part in these side activates gives snippets of the lore and history of the world that Geralt inhabits without having to read all those books (which you can do if you want even more details). For participating in activities, you passively understand the world’s supernatural entities, folktales and traditions. It’s a smart world builder that you take for granted. Noticeably, and its a fault with any game with a large population, less important quest givers and civilians do suffer from copy face syndrome, which can take you out of the mood after seeing the same lady in a flashback appear in an unrelated area. I found it just about tolerable that it didn’t kill the immersion for me.
Combat returns improved over the previous game, including more strategic implementations and smoother animations. It still rather straight forward in execution, with Geralt keeping his trademark silver (for monsters) and steel swords (for humans) that can be slashed in quick or heavy strikes. Additional options are used to keep the action from becoming mindless. Geralt has access to five magical signs, and can use various items from his ever growing backpack. Humans are weak against Igni, a fire-based sign, while wraiths can only take real damage when trapped in an Yrden magical trap.
If you are expecting Souls-like combat from this RPG, then just stop, because it’s not nearly as finely tuned as the Japanese hit, but, there’s a lot here that is required from the player. For example, special potions need to be crafted and applied to blades to deal effective damage on monsters. It builds on the concept of tracking and hunting a monster, finding out what the beast is and creating the best method to take it down. When you are fighting monsters or large groups of humans around your level, the buffs, signs (mind control is a great one) and learning how to parry are vital in keeping you alive in battle. Interestingly, combat does not offer much experience, as most is offered as rewards for completing quests, giving the game a focus on beating tasks above grinding in combat. If you do jump ahead in the story and then return to areas later at a higher level, then the combat does become more button-mashy, as there are no level scaling enemies featured in the game. The automatic lock on, the one where the game will lock to an enemy to make it easier to hit them (think Batman: Arkham titles) can cause Geralt to miss attacks, as unlike Batman, the game doesn’t drag Geralt closer to the enemy to hit. This means it can cause an issue when you accidentally move the camera away from an enemy, causing the game to calculate a new target. Best thing to do is use the target lock-on, which stops this issue, or don’t mash attack.
There are times in the plot where you will take control of Ciri, who is a vital character in the overall arc, but she must get a mention for other reasons, because Ciri is a fantastic character, and with this game supposedly being last in the tale of Geralt, any future Witcher titles would make me a happy chappy if Ciri became the protagonist. The Last of Us made us love having Ellie around, and while The Witcher 3 doesn’t keep Ciri around in the same vein as Naughty Dog’s masterpiece, she has more time to be developed, giving players insight to what is going on with her struggling life – seeing the strong will and commitment to finishing her task. She doesn’t feel like a character for Geralt to hunt down for reward, but is genuinely given life and personality, even when she is no longer a quest focus. Her playable sections are brief, but stupidly fun, as Ciri has incredible power from her special blood. She might not have the depth of Geralt in combat, but her three powers means she can dash, dodge and even teleport around enemies into vicious combos with her masterful swordplay, making her come across as a total badass. It’s great to see the world of The Witcher from another perspective, and it’s done throughout the game until the very end.
Downgrade allegations were in high gear when the final release was shown. Sure, the original reveal was visually superior, and it’s a shame that it couldn’t live up to that, but on PC, The Witcher 3 is a gorgeous game that comes with plenty of visual treats for people who can run them. I have already mentioned the world is jammed with personality through its visuals, detailed textures and lovely touches to make it alive. Models look good, but the lack of mo-cap means animations can be stiff, but their facial animations are solid and emotion comes across through their expression and outstanding voice over work. The music is great too. It’s one that focuses on ambient and background sounds, so you can easily miss the impact to fully appreciate, but just keep your ears perked and listen to the sounds in Novigrad coming from the street singers mixed with the chatter of the civilians to understand how a soundtrack can set the mood.
Running on an Intel i7-5930k with SLI Titan X setup running at 2560×1440 offered performance above 60fps (hanging around 75-100fps depending on the scene) on highest settings and Nvidia’s HairWorks switched on – a hair technique that tries to create a realistic simulation of hair on monsters and Geralt, but at the cost of frame rate. Reducing to one Titan X would offer framerate in the 40-60s with the same settings. It’s a demanding game, but turning off HairWorks and reducing a few ultra-settings can produce 60fps on less expensive cards, like the 290x or GTX 970, and still look better than the console version that is running at half the frame rate. That’s not the say it’s perfect. Random glitches have happened, such as Geralt’s horse, Roach, riding on two legs instead of all fours, a couple of crashes to desktop (recently patched) and I fell through the world once when I was showing off in front of Vernon Roche by rolling over his bed and getting stuck between the bed and wall forcing the game push me into the pit of bottomlessness.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is more than just an incredible game that successfully brings lush visuals, tactical combat and a captivating world untainted with the issues that games of similar nature have when building such huge open spaces. It is also a respectful closure for Geralt, the series and its fans. Not only is the world a phenomenal character, but the narrative, the fleshed out side content and the character building weaved into this adventure are all purely excellent. With the consequences of morality playing a big part in the outcome of Geralt’s adventure, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt sets a new bar for video game writing, and will have players sharing tales of their adventure – in one of the best role-playing games released – for many months to come.