The main plotline is largely a chase around the world, with Geralt on the trail of his effective-daughter Ciri – now a badass Witcher type in her own right and, in occasional vignettes, a player-character with a nice line in time and space-bending abilities. You’re probably wondering how many big quests result in “Hi, I’m looking for Ciri.” “I’ll help you for a favour.” “I’ve done that favour.” “Cool, well, she just left, but I know a guy who might know where-” The answer, shockingly, is “A Lot”. A princess hasn’t turned out to be in another sodding castle quite this often since Super Mario Bros…
As with so much though, CD Projekt doesn’t simply settle for this as an excuse plot. Lots of cutaways to her adventures help keep her a presence throughout, and she gets a much more central role in the story once the long search is completed and the titular Wild Hunt stop phoning their agents to ask when the hell they actually get to be in the game. She’s also an excellent character in her own right – fun, layered, and not simply a prize or something for Geralt to protect, but a grown woman who only needs help because she’s facing a threat that even the most powerful people in her world are afraid to take on as a team. If you’ve read the books then she’ll be a familiar face already. If not though, you know her by the time the story revs up and it’s time to stop dicking around the world.
(On this note by the way, I’d add that she’s only one of many terrific female characters in the game, from sorceresses to fighters to cod-Viking princesses and just regular women living their lives, who get to be just as interesting, powerful, flawed and variable as any of the men. There’s still piles of fan-service on top of that, not least that after two games of waiting to see Yennifer in the flesh, you see all of her during the intro, but even then it tends to be playful when given centre stage and appropriate to the characters when not, a few gratuitously booby-centric outfits and strumpets-as-props aside.)
If you’ve not played the games or read the books, expect something of a tough opening to this one – to CD Projekt, going blind into a Witcher game is very visibly the equivalent of playing a Star Wars game without knowing who Darth Vader is. It’s a much smoother introduction to the world than either of the previous games though, kicking off with a tutorial where a young Ciri is shown the ropes and then being careful to introduce characters instead of just dropping them in. It helps that while The Witcher 2 was entirely focused on politics, this one is more about being a travelling monster hunter against a background of warring nations. There’s also a fantastic in-game guide to every single character and quest written by your friend Dandelion, which fills in any remaining blanks.
The Witcher 3 is hands down one of my favourite games in years, never mind RPGs. In over fifty hours of play, I was never bored, never lost interest, only got frustrated with the length because I had a review to write. I didn’t even have the time to check out Gwent, the complete in-game card-game that replaces the boring Dice Poker of old with a full-on Magic: The Gathering type affair named after a Welsh town for some reason. There are great swathes of the maps that I never even went near, particularly in the final big zone, the Skellige Islands, where finally the writers couldn’t hold themselves back and did the arrow to the knee joke I think everyone was waiting for.
I could talk for hours about all the great bits I found. Geralt’s awful sense of humour, where every joke falls flat until he meets Yennifer and the two end up having a pun-war about werewolves. The many weird and wonderful characters, important and throwaway. The Bloody Baron storyline that takes on some savagely heavy themes with surprising skill, not forgiving the unforgivable, but still finding a degree of sympathy. The way that the combat, while seemingly simple and clumsy at the start, grows with you over the game to become something of a ballet by the end, as well as the options to approach things more tactically by gathering various oils and potions in advance – though to be honest, I came to wish that this was more core to the game, rather than it always offering the out of just earning a few more levels and button-mashing away. You shouldn’t be able to out-level something like a werewolf or an ancient god, and being able to feels like a betrayal.
But problems? Sure. It’s got them, and some of them are very annoying. Here, I’ll name a few. The inventory screen sucks, the swimming sucks so hard that whoever implemented it should be ashamed. It’s quite crash-prone. Some of the checkpointing is beyond terrible. The use of an MMO-like levelling system is disappointing, especially when it leads to Geralt being beaten up by a couple of bandits – such a violation of who he is that it probably counts as a plot hole. The upgrade system isn’t very generous, levelling up rarely feels notable, and gear breaks too quickly. At no point is there a horse-racing bit that isn’t hilariously awful. This guy’s hair is dreadful. In the Witcher senses clue-hunting mode (bound to right-click by default – you’ll use it a lot) you’re often squinting to find the one flashing red pixel in a sea of nothingness, and never have to deduce anything yourself because Geralt just tells you what you found and what it means. When you team up with someone, they generally do no damage to enemies just to stop you casually sitting back…
…oh, and the one the annoyed me by far the most – every time you touch a key or a gamepad button, this poxy message pops up to tell you the control system has changed, screwing up my screenshots. You can turn off damn near every UI element if you want to, but that one? Nggh!
But here’s the important thing about that list: I don’t care.
Not a single one of those things, nor all of them put together in one great big failblob manages to tarnish what a wonderful time I had with The Witcher 3. None of it stopped it being one of the most exciting, varied, warmest, funniest RPGs that I’ve ever played, where I wanted to do every mission that came along just to see what it wanted. None of them, nor even the fact that by the end I was getting desperate to finish the damn thing, stopped me being sad when it was over and thrilled to know that there are two big expansions coming. I absolutely adored The Witcher 3. I wish I could wipe my memory and play it again from the start with more time, and no memory of what was coming. But maybe a Post-It note to say ‘increase the difficulty a bit, you wuss.’
To finish, a random thought. I think it was about 20 hours in that it really started to hit me how unlikely all this was, and just how much there is to be grateful for. Really, how did we get here, from a first game released in such a terrible state that it took a whole new re-release to salvage it, to one that shows up much of the RPG industry and makes it look so damn easy? I wonder if, in another world, separated from ours only by a thin sliver of dimensional fabric and probably some zeppelins in the sky, there’s a pleasantly surprised review waxing lyrical about the revolutionary FPS genius of Daikatana 3…
I kinda hope so. That’d be wonderful for all concerned.
But even so, I think we got the better deal.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is out now.