The Witcher III: Wild Hunt Review
Three years since the release of The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings and CD Projekt Red are back again with their most expansive and polished version of the Witcher series yet – The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. The latest title promises to take advantage of the full power of the new consoles by building on the series’ solid gameplay foundations, taking the game’s presentation to another level and setting the new adventure in motion within a massive, open world. So how does Geralt’s latest adventure stack up against the might of Dragon Age: Inquisition and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor in the race for the current-gen fantasy crown?
Following the events of the previous games, Geralt, the titular Witcher sets out to find his ward and adopted daughter, Ciri who is being pursued by the ghostly warriors of the Wild Hunt and has vanished without a trace. Geralt’s journey takes him across the breadth of the northlands as he tracks down clues, gleans knowledge from others, meets up with old friends and encounters numerous types of fearsome monsters all whilst trying to stay one step ahead of the Wild Hunt.
Although it follows on from the original titles and maintains the same general gamplay and environmental vibes, The Witcher III has undergone quite a few changes from its predecessors. First and foremost is that it has transitioned from a world consisting of numerous small areas with limited potential for exploration into a full blown open world title with one of the largest and most intricate game worlds ever crafted. The game world is enormous and is broken down into five instanced zones, with three featuring large open world areas with the other two constituting the obligatory castle/fortress areas that the genre and source material demands.
Wild Hunt’s combat feels like a bit of a refinement from the Witcher II. Rather than the slow, tricky combat that required stopping and preparing between each encounter, The Witcher III’s combat system, whilst still challenging (at least to begin with) is now much more fast-paced and streamlined to bring it into line with the open world gameplay. Geralt uses a pair of swords – steel for humans, silver for monsters, can now utilise a crossbow to assist in range attacks and bringing down flying targets and has access to signs – which are essentially a small arsenal of magic spells ranging from a fire attack, to a Jedi Force Push style telekinesis power, to mind control, a magical shield and even a sexy magic-based proximity trap. There are plenty of ways to approach combat in the Witcher III and experimentation with the abilities on offer is both fun and rewarding.
Potions, the other major staple of the Witcher series’ gameplay also makes an appearance. Players are able to gather reagents and find recipes to concoct a wide range of different potions which can be used to assist Geralt both in and out of combat. There are numerous potions on offer with a wide ranging assortment of effects that can to mention but a few: allow breathing in poisoned areas, to regenerating health and increasing damage output. Whilst potions still play a large role on dulling the frustration of the game on the higher difficulties, the aforementioned changes to combat means the game is more forgiving, which makes them less of a necessity when compared to earlier titles.
As per the status quo with most RPG titles, the Witcher III rewards players with experience points (XP) for completing campaign sequences and side-quests. As Geralt earns enough XP he’ll level up, and earn himself a skill point. These skill points can then be used to enhance Geralt’s abilities by investing it in one of four different skill trees. Skill trees cover the three main sections of Wild Hunt’s game play with options to enhance or unlock new melee/ranged combat abilities, increase magic sign intensity or unlock alternate uses and more efficient potion effects. In addition there is also a general skill tree that provides some general perks such as increased health to further add to the character building options on offer.
Whilst Wild Hunt retains many of the core segments of gameplay that the series is known for, it’s now open world setting has enabled the developers to include a range of new features. The game incorporates the use of Geralt’s Witcher Sense, which acts like Batman: Arkham’s detective mode that highlights points of interest in the environment and helps Geralt gather relevant information about the quests he is currently undertaking and enables him to track down targets or monsters. Due to the scale of the world, walking anywhere is going to take a long time, as such Geralt is able to ride his trusty horse, Roach and can also pilot sailboats which can be used to traverse the game’s many rivers, lakes and, of course the expansive sea around the Skellige Islands area. Fortunately, players can also find and unlock fast travel signposts that when revisited, allow players to teleport to any previously uncovered fast travel points.
Whilst there is plenty of story content, there are numerous other diversions to keep you occupied with The Witcher III for a long, long time. There are numerous side-quests that can be undertaken by speaking with people in need, or by picking up notices from one of the game’s many notice boards. There are scores of narrative driven side-quests, many of which are just as long and involved as quests in the main story line and then there are the entertaining Witcher Contracts that encourage players to use their Witcher mode to investigate disturbances before tracking down and fighting a range of mythological beasties.
In addition to the meatier content mentioned, the game continues to offer more! Geralt can also play the in-game strategic card game Gwent, allowing players to challenge innkeepers, merchants and other NPCs of interest whilst attempting to collect all of the cards on offer and constructing the strongest deck available. There is also an array of other generic open-world objectives to engage in with Geralt encouraged to find and clear out bandit camps and monster nests, clean up abandoned sites to allow rebuilding of settlements and compete in horse races to name but a few.
One of the more interesting attributes of the game is that between certain story quests, the game allows players to play through Ciri’s story in short, but entertaining flashback sequences. Ciri has a range of different abilities to Geralt, so her gameplay style is somewhat different, keeping it entertaining and providing a nice break from the game’s lengthy story missions.
The other major element that makes Witcher games great is the inclusion of choice and consequences. The game forces Geralt to make choices in a number of places that will ultimately affect the rest of the immediate situation related to said decision as well as occasionally having far-reaching consequences for the storyline and its characters later down the line. This divergent story telling means that depending on your decisions, no two games will play out in exactly the same way. The game itself has 30 different endings which are awarded upon various actions taken in-game. This makes it literally impossible to experience all of the game’s content in a single playthrough, encouraging a great deal of replayability.
As per the other titles in the series to date, the Witcher III’s production values are top notch. The visuals are spectacular and the quality environments range from farmlands, to snowy islands, to bustling city streets without missing a beat and the game’s draw distances are extremely impressive considering the sheer amount of detail that the developers have managed to cram into every inch of the enormous medieval playground. The character models are excellent, with photorealistic faces and the enemies are suitably vile and detailed, whilst the world and its inhabitants all sport a range of top shelf animation.
The game’s audio is also well done, with some fantastic voice acting from a large supporting cast that includes Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister, Game of Thrones fans!). Geralt’s raspy, emotionless dialogue is also handled quite well and to be expected in-line with the world’s lore. The music that plays throughout the title is melodramatic and usually complements the vibe of what is being experienced in game at the time and the sound effects are about what you would expect from a game with a fantasy setting.
Unfortunately Wild Hunt is not a perfect game. There are quite a few minor issues that occasionally mar the experience. There is an inordinate amount of time spent using Geralt’s Witcher Sense, which is really cool the first few tries but gets old quite fast. I found the slow texture load in jarring in some places and amusing in others – heck, during one quest it is possible for Geralt to go for a roll in the hay with a particularly attractive lady. After the screen blacked out and the story jumped forward a bit, there they were standing together in a large room filled with people and she was completely naked for 10-15 seconds before her clothes loaded. Funny, yes but also immersion breaking at the same time. There are other minor issues including the occasional drops in framerate, and NPC-related problems with characters getting stuck in objects or floating off the ground. Having said all that, in my more than 120 hours with the title, these issues were very few and far between and can no doubt be attributed to the scale of the world.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is a fantastic game. Whilst it has the occasional visual and NPC-related hiccup, that cannot detract from the amazing experience that the title provides. The game may not be perfect but it does one thing incredibly well, creates an amazing atmosphere and this incredible sense of adventure that you simply must experience. Not since Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn have I been so immediately drawn into an RPG and so fully invested in the world and its characters. Wild Hunt’s allusion to consequences, its epic scope, entertaining combat and top tier storytelling sets a very high benchmark for developers planning to follow. A must buy for RPG fans.
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