There are one-hundred and sixty-eight hours in a week. If you sleep for eight hours a day and work for eight hours a day, that leaves just seventy-two for bathing, travelling, eating, and Instagramming whatever you’re eating. If you were to take what’s left of that time — which is three days in total — and spend every waking minute in front of a PC or console, you still will have barely scratched the surface of what The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has to offer.
To call it large is akin to calling New York “a bit busy,” or Fox News “a bit wrong.” Witcher 3 is large in a way that’s not only new for the series, but in a way that dwarfs its contemporaries. At around 85 square miles, its world is significantly larger than those found in Skyrim, GTA V and Far Cry 4. Compared with Witcher 2, it’s over thirty times the size. What’s even more incredulous, other than the sheer amount of space available, is that almost every square inch is filled with something to see, do, explore, marvel at, fight, or escape from. Witcher 3 doesn’t offer size for the sake of it — it does so as a core part of its central narrative. Geralt, our protagonist, is a small pawn in a much grander game of bloody, miserable chess.
It’s a shame, then, that your first taste of this colossal world is one mired with troubles. In its opening hours, Witcher 3 is a game of immense frustration. It certainly doesn’t help that the UI is a hot mess. Cluttered, sprawling, obtuse, inaccessible, ludicrously illegible in places — any and all can be applied to the way Witcher 3 displays the wealth of information, statistics, unlockables, upgrades, inventory and more to the player. If you’re an RPG novice, prepare for utter bewilderment as the game throws information at you, or presents dozens of options simultaneously. Some streamlining — or a cleaner design — would have helped immensely.
There’s also the issue that, at least in its opening hours, Witcher 3 is unrelentingly punishing. If you’re not prepared to have several rage-inducing moments as enemies crush you without breaking a sweat, don’t play Witcher 3. Combat is complex, with numerous options available mid-battle. There are no less than three ways to avoid enemy blows: roll out of the way of the strike, dodge it, or block it. None are guaranteed to work successfully, depending on when and how you execute them — in particular, blocking against powerful enemies can stun Geralt, extending an open invitation to slice him up like pastrami.
As offensive techniques, Geralt wields two blades; one steel, the other silver, each better at slaying a certain type of foe. Players can utilize a fast attack for weaker blows, or a powerful, lengthy attack which deals higher damage but leaves Geralt more susceptible to counter attacks. In addition, a crossbow can be used for long-range executions, offering an auto-fire or manual aim mode, perfect for adding a bolt to the skull of a distant foe. Geralt can also master five signs, his form of magic, including blasting fire, forming a protective shield, controlling others minds to turn them against one another, forcing enemies away, or trapping them inside a ring of magic. They require stamina, which is heavily limited, so don’t think you can spam them like a mage in Dragon Age. Geralt can also make use of potions to enhance his abilities, oils to coat his blade and provide extra attack powers, and bombs to… well, bomb things.
For the first few hours, you’ll stumble through the harsh lands of Witcher 3, running from stronger enemies and sticking to the main roads. However, it doesn’t take long to grasp the ropes of Witcher’s combat system. Unlike other games, running in and hacking away at enemies will result in death. Not eating enough food to keep your health up will result in death. Getting surrounded or failing to dodge attacks successfully will result in death. Punishment is swift, but it’s not inescapable. Eventually, it all starts to click, and battles — whether small skirmishes or large, one-on-one monster encounters — become tense games of maintaining Geralt’s defenses and slowly chipping away the health of foes.
And, really, that’s when Witcher 3 starts to reveal its hidden beauty. Once you’ve picked away at the ties that bind its world, it unravels, revealing a staggeringly dense, delightfully desolate game to enjoy.
I really do mean desolate, in a way I haven’t experienced in a game for a long time. The Northern Kingdoms are rocked by war, as the Nilfgaardian empire has invaded, intent on bringing their “civilized” way of life to the Nordic peoples. As a result, the extremes of medieval poverty are easily witnessed as Geralt travels across Redania and Temeria. The world is a festering, crumbling, smouldering mess of ramshackles villages burned or ravaged by invading armies. Here, the peasantry desperately tries to continue with their lives, eking out livings on barren land, serving the needs of passing battalions, drinking themselves into ignorant stupors, or murdering one another in petty squabbles. Bodies hang from trees and makeshift gallows litter the landscape, a reminder of the swift punishment dealt to those who oppose army forces or break military laws. Battlegrounds, where neither side escaped unscathed, are filled with rotting corpses and destroyed armoury. Rape is commonplace: I listened, with more than a little unease, as a soldier told a man that if he continued to hide his daughter, he’d bring his entire squadron back to rape her.
As if that weren’t enough, the lands are filled with dozens of treacherous and deadly creatures, preying on any ill-prepared humans who wander by. Bears and wolves are perhaps the least threatening of any potential encounter. Drowners are found near water, the resurrected form of criminals whose bodies were hanged and thrown into a river or lake. Foglers confuse their victims with thick fog, before emitting a light that attracts the lost to their doom. Botchlings are the nightmarish reincarnations of stillborn infants who weren’t properly buried, feeding on the blood of pregnant women unless they are given a proper reburial. Witcher 3 contains a bestiary of creatures, both corporeal and ethereal, that will waste no time in ripping Geralt and others to shreds.
There is brief respite, found in the major towns and cities of the world. Oxenfurt, for instance, has literally kept the poverty and desperation at bay, by closing its borders to all but the elite of society. Its glistening walls and wide, clean, cobbled streets feel worlds away from the decrepit, grubby hovels that most are relegated to. For the most part, however, your time in Witcher 3 will be spent knee-deep in the dregs of society and the desolation of war.
Capturing all of this is an astoundingly realized, beautifully drawn graphics engine. Witcher 3 revels in its horrifying locales, making even the most downtrodden of settlements look glorious. With a dynamic weather system and day/night cycle, watching a glowing sunrise light a small crop of thatched residences, or witnessing rain tear through a city street, or harsh winds whip across golden fields and dense forests is nothing short of awe-inspiring. You’ll be all the more aware of the incredible depravity of Geralt’s world only because you’ll spend so much time stopping to look at it. PC, naturally, remains the best place to see Witcher 3 in its full glory, though Xbox One and PS4 are hardly lacking. The latter runs at 1080p, the former relegated to 900p. Neither can muster more than 30fps on average, however, and be prepared for some steep framerate drops in action-heavy scenes. There’s also pop-in, as the game loads its vast worlds ahead of you, but it rarely detracts from your experience as you walk or ride through the world.
Aiding this is dynamic, robust audio. Stand in the center of a village and just listen. You’ll hear children singing as they play, women gossipping outside of houses, men spitting and snorting as they walk around. The wind will rustle through leaves and grass, horses will huff and whinny, geese will honk as they scurry untamed, metalworkers will bash down with hammers and rain will splat across muddy roads. Voice acting is here in full force, too. Incidental dialogue fills the streets, as residents comment on recent goings-on, the state of war, and Geralt’s appearance (Witchers are reviled by many, so expect to hear plenty of “Freak!” comments). In cutscenes, while not quite at Elder Scrolls levels of excellence, there’s a wide variety of well-scripted and nuanced dialogue to savor. Battles, too, are heightened by the grunts, screams, blasts and cries of Geralt and his enemies. It’s raucous, but never overbearing — though the same can’t always be said of the otherwise excellent score, which is sometimes a little too eager to ramp up to ludicrous levels during even small skirmishes.
So, it looks great, sounds great, and once you’re warmed up it feels great to play. What, though, will you be doing in Witcher 3? Well, if the main storyline were all that was on offer, you’d be disappointed. It’s far from poor, but it’s not the most exciting of events either. Geralt, unlike his prior outing, is focused on a much more personal task: locating Ciri, who underwent Witcher training but not the mutations Geralt did that allow him his magical abilities. Avoiding spoilers, you’ll essentially spend a large portion of your time travelling between places and completing quests to ascertain more information on Ciri’s whereabouts. Many of these boil down to escort or fetch quests — in one instance, you’ll get both in the same quest, with Geralt tasked to find and escort back a lost goat. Seriously. Overshadowing all of this is the threat of the Wild Hunt, a ghostly army that the landed gentry believe is nothing more than the petty delusions of the populous, but in fact represents a real and present terror to everyone and everything. Geralt, it transpires, isn’t the only one looking for Ciri.
It’s dramatic and well-crafted, but — much like its Elder Scrolls rival — the main campaign is vastly overshadowed by the 200-plus hours of side missions and exploration on offer. Yes, it’s here that you’ll find Witcher’s main hook, including some of the best RPG action I’ve played. Money, which is a core part of a surprisingly fluid in-game economy, can be earned by completing quests, which in turn will allow for the repair, upgrading or augmenting of weapons and armor, or the replenishing of supplies. Contracts are a Witcher’s bread and butter, tasks offered by individuals or locations harassed by some form of creature that Geralt must slay. These are often punishing experiences, with a wide variety available as you level up, and include taking down Griffins that are terrorizing farmstock and people, banishing an evil spirit from a well, or tracking down a lost relative.
Outside of these, the citizens of the North require your help for anything and everything, from burning bodies on battlefields, to saving them from bandits, helping locate missing items, or destroying beasts that seek to ravage their livelihood. Quests litter the landscape, none required but all rewarding — especially to gain valuable Experience, which in turn allows Geralt to level up his abilities. There’s a full card game, Gwent, in Witcher which can be played with dozens of characters across the world — you could theoretically ignore the main game entirely and instead work towards amassing the perfect deck of cards, but I’d question your sanity if you do so. What’s more, you can engage in arena fights, race horses, secure transit passes, and murder many, many more beasts and creatures.
On top of that, there’s a staggering number of things to see, explore and find. Gather ingredients and make the best potions and oils to aid you in battle. Seek out materials to craft stronger armor and weapons. Hunt for lost treasures. Explore cave systems and ruins for their hidden bounty. Take a ship and sail through the gorgeous, turquoise waters. Raid chests, loot peoples’ houses, murder bandits and rummage through their pockets for goods and money. The game’s developers have stated that to see and do everything in the game, you’ll need to spend eight full days playing it, non-stop. If you’re looking for something that’ll give you your money’s worth, this is it.
Even so, the scale can be daunting. There’s fast travel and your trusty steed, Roach, but Geralt almost always feels outsized by the tasks before him. Not only is that because he’s more vulnerable, less God-like than protagonists in other games, but it’s also because the world is one that is deliberately trying to kill him at every turn. Still, even with its grand scale and merciless desire to end Geralt’s life, Witcher 3 manages to ensnare with countless moments of raw emotion.
There’s humor, whether in the banter between main characters or in many of the situations of the population, but it never feels out of place — indeed, more often than not it seems a coping mechanism for their dire lives. Naturally, there’s also a plethora anger, heartbreak, and extreme sorrow on display. Geralt himself is far from robotic and can be manipulated by the player to conform to their world view. After finishing a contract for a farmer, he offered his daughter’s dowry in payment. The girl lay in bed, sick, dehydrated, shivering in their small, wooden shack. I couldn’t in good conscience take the money, so I refused.
That small moment is one of many that Witcher 3 offers — and perhaps most intriguingly of all, many of these decisions will ultimately impact Geralt’s world, though often in easily missable ways. Early in the game, you’ll be offered the chance to solve the arson attack on White Orchard’s blacksmith and his home. I successfully learned who was responsible and refused the man’s bribe to cover up his crime. What I wasn’t expecting was for the local military unit to instantly cart the man off to be hanged. It was an eye-opening introduction to the ways of the world, but its impact ran deep. When I returned, much later, to the village, I stopped in at the blacksmith. Now, blamed for the death of the man, his business was failing. The locals were walking to the next town, even though its blacksmith was inferior, to have their goods repaired.
I’ve invested dozens of hours into Geralt and the people of the Northern Kingdoms. That it can still continue to surprise me, to horrify me, to excite me, or — more often than I’d care to admit — to crush me in combat is testament to the breadth and depth of what it has to offer. If you loathe RPGs, there is nothing on offer for you here. Witcher 3 is unashamedly a role-playing game. It wants you to become invested in Geralt, to make him more capable, to expand his abilities. It wants you to venture out into its big, beautiful, battered world and make it better — even if, in the grand scale of things, Geralt is merely filling minute cracks in a ginormous, crumbling facade.
Playing Witcher 3 is draining, requiring a level of concentration beyond holding down one button and mindlessly aiming at a foe until they drop. It’s brutal, it’s unrelenting, it’s treacherous and it’s tiring. But it’s also rewarding, vastly so, in both bounty and beauty. As a slice of fantasy-tinged medieval tragedy, it’s nothing short of pornographic in the way it depicts the squalor and deprivation of its inhabitants, but that only makes it all the more engrossing. Witcher 3 is a colossal, consuming experience — and it’s one you absolutely have to play.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is available on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.
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