Goodness, is that the time? And, more importantly, the date? Well, yes. In my defence, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt [official site] isn’t the kind of game you can rush, in any way whatsoever. It’s the RPG that CD Projekt has been working on for ten years now – the first two games in retrospect simply being necessary baby-steps steps on the road to this, the Witcher game of their dreams. It’s a flawed masterpiece, but make no mistake, it absolutely is a masterpiece – one of the best RPGs ever created, and a true tribute to Sapkowski’s stories. Here’s Wot (Else) I Think.
Looking back, The Witcher 3’s greatest strength and weakness is how easy it makes everything look. There are games that jump up and down, waving and screaming, desperate for you to notice how clever and brilliant they are, and then there’s The Witcher 3, as casual about it as its hero Geralt after killing some unstoppable monster. An open world with the narrative depth and fidelity of a linear game? Well, yes, it muses, sloping off to the pub. That is indeed quite a thing. A map that, while full of little icons and collectibles, never feels like Dragon Age Inquisition’s awkward offline MMO or Assassin’s Creed’s pointless filler? Yes, yes, it yawns, reaching for a pint. ‘Aint no biggie, but thanks for noticing. Anyway, don’t you have the fate of entire kingdoms to reshape or something?
Time and time again I just had to stop and – in a good way – remind myself of just how good what I was playing actually is. Wild Hunt is so grounded, so good at world building, so subtle in its cleverness that after a while, it simply is. Never before, for instance, has there been an RPG so reactive, yet so content to hide the mechanics. There’re no icons next to dialogue options to tell you what’ll happen, no “Clementine will remember that” flag. Quests and character interactions simply flow naturally, with an off-handed comment or decision from hours earlier having equally natural effects – a guard who remembers you massacring your way into his boss’ HQ for instance, or some heavies showing up in the street to get revenge for a priest you insulted. Characters will remember former lies told even if you don’t. One of my favourite little touches is that you have a spell that lets you pull a Jedi Mind Trick on characters, but if you do it to a guy while his friends are there, they’re just going to start going “Wait, what the shit? Kill this guy, he’s brainwashing Dave!”
Honestly, it’s an almost irrational level of detail, to the point I’m convinced that CD Projekt’s definition of Quality Assurance is a team of guys with spiked whips. “You! Is there a reason Yennefer doesn’t comment on the current state of Geralt’s beard in this scene?” “It’s… not important?” WACHAK!
The catch is that being surrounded by so much great stuff makes the dodgier moments all the more noticeable – often unfairly. Sure, the open world is so well engineered that you can ride seamlessly through forests and multiple villages and end up in the clustered streets of Novigrad, a rare RPG city with a triple-figure population. But pffft, check out that wonky rock texture there! Shameful! What’s that? Well, yes, it is a beautifully told story full of amazing characters, humour and moments of warmth that constantly reinforce that while this is a cruel, harsh world, it’s also one with love and lifelong friendships forged in blood and iron. But have you seen that wonky swordplay? 6/10!
To be sure, there are real issues. The swordplay for instance is better than it first seems, fitting Geralt as a character and bolstered with alchemy and dodging that do let you fight above your weight class… but yeah, it’s indisputably wonky, with a bad camera and some very annoying elements. An early story mission called Wandering in the Dark verges on torture, with too many bosses, running long enough to guarantee you break all your equipment, and featuring a section where you have to fight in a small protective dome that Geralt just will not stop rolling out of into death.
Still, perspective! The swordplay isn’t Dark Souls, but it’s not crap either. At its worst, it’s still fine 90% or so of the time. It’s just that it’s ‘fine’ in a game that does such a great job at excelling.
I guess at this point we have to address the graphics, and the ‘downgrade’. Look, another time, another game, I might agree, but if you look at The Witcher 3 and you see anything other than an amazing-looking game, get your eyes checked. Could it have looked better if all development had been focused on the PC? Sure, but to dismiss its graphics because of a few wall textures and fire shaders is – well, you’re that guy on TripAdvisor who gives the Taj Mahal 2 stars because there isn’t a convenient McDonalds nearby. The game still makes great use of the PC and offers plenty to crank up and outshine the consoles, to say nothing of mods like ENB and supporting 4K. This game looks great. Let nobody tell you otherwise, and certainly not with a casual scribble of ‘no atmosphere’ on a screenshot. Bullshit does this game have no atmosphere, even if it is sunnier than expected.
As elsewhere though, the real achievements are understated – a big one being the character animation. It doesn’t necessarily come across in a quick video or pic, but the facial animation during conversations, the choreography during both the biggest and the smallest scenes, the incidental details… they all add up. It’s not that CD Projekt is doing anything that other RPG developers couldn’t with all this, just that it almost never misses an opportunity to actually do it. Whether that’s bothering to update a character’s model after an injury, or splashing a little unique decoration into a location to separate it from the often admittedly samey-buildings, it’s done, again to the point that it’s only the occasional stumbles like a character drinking from an invisible cup that end up standing out.
On page 2: Quests and monster-bashing