The rise and rise of CDP has been a remarkable thing to watch. What we’re seeing is a studio spooling up to full power. The enormous ambition of The Witcher failed to really hit its mark, but the intention was clear. The even greater ambition of The Witcher 2 revealed CDP to be an RPG creator that was hitting its stride, as well as achieving its ambitions, and now the third game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, threatens to outshine an entire industry with its technical and artistic prowess. Full power, I suspect, has been reached.
There’s every reason for scepticism at this early, hype-manufacturing stage, but what we saw at Gamescom this year suggests that The Witcher 3 could be the most important mainstream game of 2014. If nothing else the rather blunt claim of “a world thirty-five times the size of The Witcher 2″ should get our attention.
What was shown to press audience at Gamescom was a 45-minute sequence played and narrated by the developers. It was as staged as all such demos are, but there was no doubt that this was the actual game (mistakes in combat revealed that, and we’ll come back to that), running as intended. Well, mostly. There was cause for CDP to joke that the horse AI was currently just donkey AI right now…
But these little glitches aside, it was breathtaking.
That’s not to say that the general visual fidelity was greatly improved over The Witcher 2 – it’s a very similar looking game, but the details are incrementally bettered. Better animation, fancier particle and filtering effects would be flourishes you’d expect, but it’s the scale of the thing: being able to peer off into vast landscapes, then leap on a horse or climb into a boat and head out into those vistas, fills me with anticipation. Nor is it an experience that is necessarily locked down by its loyalty to storytelling. While the main story will spill through the game in a certain direction, the entire game space – an archipelago of islands and a chunk of the North Kingdoms of The Witcher’s world – will be open for the first moments of the game. Explore, say CDP, and damn right, says I.
We watched as the developers rode to a distant castle, spoke with the Jarl, and then headed out into the lavish countryside to look for Geralt’s next lead in his search for The Wild Hunt – a group of demonic slavers that are raiding villages from their nightmarish floating galleons. As Geralt travelled, the men from CDP spoke about the need to create points of interest across the landscape, from villages to ruins and to more mysterious things besides. Having dealt with bandits harassing a farmer, Geralt climbed a hill towards a desolate ruin. A spectacular fight with a horned monster – half stag, half bear, half ick – ensued, and led to the creature fleeing, which could have given the player an opportunity to monster-hunt in the huge landscape. Tracking down beasts is now at the heart of the experience.
It was at this point in the presentation that I think I Tweeted "holy shit" or similar, because I could see where CDP were going with this. With Geralt now roaming an open world, it becomes necessary to pursue not just a quest, but the sort of activities that he would normally do as he lived in a world. For the illusion of freedom and openness to work, players need to not simply be engrossed in a story, but to be able to act the part of The Witcher, and that means being a monster hunter for hire. There will be dozens of monster-hunting sidequests, as well as random encounters like the creature we'd just seen. Much of our time in this new Witcher world will be spent doing what The Witcher of the books was bred to do: hunt and kill the native evil of his grim fantasy home.
To demonstrate this, the next part of the presentation took Geralt to a village he'd need to visit on the main quest. Talking to the survivor of the Wild Hunt attack, he got the open-world lead he needed: the player could head off in the direction indicated and pursue that main story. But there was something else going on here, and resolving it would take the rest of the session. Unhappy villagers revealed that people were being killed in the nearby forests by a "spirit", and indeed one of the unlucky residents had just been killed, his bloodied corpse tangled in twisted roots that seemed to have burst from the ground.
The player could have walked away at this point, of course, but the temptation is to see where it leads, which is what CDP did. Conversation revealed a fracture in the village, with the older residents wishing to placate the beast by worshiping it, and the younger thugs wanting its blood. Geralt heads off into the woods to find out more about the threat.
Here we got to see an entirely new aspect of the game: a vision mode which allows the player to pick out relevant monster clues. Initially this allows tracking to places of interest, but then it gives up more clues – claw marks on rocks, a sinister flock of crows – that reveal the nature of the beast. Geralt identifies it, and returns to the village to report. Further use of his observation mode reveals that one of the villagers is “marked” and must leave the village or risk the slain creature being reborn through them after Geralt has dealt with it. More drama in the village.
Then Geralt heads off into the woods for the confrontation. Presumably the player could have avoided returning at all, and have followed the trail of clues that would have led to the beast, but the CDP demo was clearly set up for additional drama.
Anyway, I should mention at this point some of the remarkable atmospherics that were in play on the screen during this session. There was a storm blowing, and the entire forest, every bough and blade of grass, was being battered by the bad weather. The lighting and audio, too, suggested that this was a place tainted by evil, and once the monster was inevitably slain, the oppressive feel of the forest began to lift, the storm subsiding and the sinister effects dissipating into dappled sun and falling leaves. Earlier we’d seen Geralt meditate, and watched as the sky rolled around, and the weather transformed in accelerated time. It’s hardly a surprise when big budget games look incredible, these days, but moments like that nevertheless grasped me by the eyeballs.
Once the creature’s totems were burned, the fight could kick off, and it was a surprisingly dynamic sequence. The towering skull-headed horror could teleport by way of a flock of crows, while its grisly wolf minions darted in to attack as Geralt attempted to land damage on the creature. Occasionally blasts of roots came from the ground, knocking Geralt back and seemingly doing considerable damage. There were a few wobbles from the guy controlling the action – targeting th wrong things, sending spells off in the wrong direction, but it was nevertheless a lavish scene.
On his return to the village, Geralt discovered that the woman who had been marked by the beast, herself innocent of any wrongdoing, had not been exiled, but had been murdered by the villagers. The resolution was, therefore, not a happy one. As The Witcher left to continue his quest, a voiceover revealed something even darker was to befall the village once he had departed. The Witcher 3 is going to be a deep and dark tale, said CDP, full of difficult decisions not just for Geralt, but for the other people living in his world.
All of which was encompassed in a single, optional sidequest. CDP went on to claim that sidequests such as these, in combination with the main plot, will offer around a hundred hours of game. A hundred hours. Man, I hope they give me a bit more time to get it reviewed this time. The Witcher 2 nearly killed me.
Of course a few things still hang: whether the combat really is improved from The Witcher 2 isn’t clear. It seemed very much the same. The awkwardness of the original was by no means fatal to the experience, but the rigidity of the animation and difficulty that caused in fluid play certainly seemed to give many players cause for consternation. Whether CDP can really fill that giant world and those 100 hours with the sort of quality they trotted out at Gamescom is even less clear. If they can then, well, we’ll not simply have watched a development studio coming of age, we’ll have seen them established as one of the most important studios working in games today.
And it’s not every week that I get to type that.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is due for release in 2014.