I’ve never been happier to be wrong about a game than I was about The Witcher 3 pre-release. From being a project that I feared might be reaching for the stars and grasping nothing but air, it’s become one of my favourite games - a vast, thoughtful and beautiful RPG that I reckon I could play for a lifetime.
Also Gwent. The game within the game that manages to distract some people from the hundreds of quests in their backlog as they scour the world for new cards, challenging every innkeeper and merchant to a quick hand or fifty. My expectations for a standalone version ran from a full singleplayer card collecting journey across the Northern Kingdoms to a bare basics competitive multiplayer game that did little to expand on the version in The Witcher 3 itself.
After half an hour playing the game today, along with a presentation showing the still-in-development solo mode, I’m completely won over. Gwent has a fantastic new interface that manages to display all of the necessary information cleanly and legibly, gorgeous card art, well-balanced decks, and fully voiced and animated singleplayer campaigns. The first of the campaigns isn’t ready for public consumption yet but a peek at the tutorial showed an isometric open world in which the player character gathers companions, collects objects and treks around completing quests. All of the elements, those characters and objects, become cards in your deck, and when battle commences, the game of Gwent becomes a depiction of that battle.
And so a card game that actually exists in the world of The Witcher is used as an abstract representation of combat in that same world. If I’d have been put on the spot and asked to predict how a solo campaign might work, I’d have guessed that it’d be the story of a master Gwent player, travelling from town to town. It’s smart of CD Projekt Red not to go with that idea since lots of people have already played that game - it’s called The Witcher 3 and Geralt is the master Gwent player in question.
The plan is to make multiple campaigns, which makes me happy for several reasons. First of all, the news that the game would be free worried me - a competitive multiplayer game with elements of deckbuilding could be completely undone if the more powerful cards had to be purchased. Instead, it’ll almost certainly be the campaigns that cost money, along with new factions (entire decks of cards) that might be added over time. The current plan, which might change depending on how successful the game is, involves a steady stream of new decks and campaigns post-release.
There’s another reason I’m pleased about the possibility of new campaigns though and it’s a simple one: I want more Witcher stories from CDPR. While the section we saw featured Geralt - though as a companion rather than the party leader - he’s not likely to be in every Gwent story. CDPR want to explore different periods of history and different parts of the world, either through the eyes of characters we know but haven’t spent a great deal of time with, or through newcomers with major characters on the periphery of their adventures. Don’t expect anything anywhere near the level of The Wild Hunt in terms of depth or decision-making, but as a means of delivering fresh stories with a familiar tone, Gwent is a perfect delivery vehicle.
And it’s a vehicle that has been given a fresh paintjob and complete tune-up. The highest compliment I can pay to the fantastic new interface and artwork is to say that going back to the plainer version of the game in The Witcher 3 will make me feel a little glum. Every piece of information, whether it’s a modifier on a row of cards or a buff on a particular character, pops, colourful and clear. When a card is played, its effect on the battlefield or other cards is made obvious through animations that are delightful to watch but, more importantly, communicate the changes taking place tidily.
As a game, Gwent is as good as ever. Better than I gave it credit for when I first encountered it, in fact. Playing against a human opponent - and online multiplayer will be the focus of the upcoming beta - makes the bluffing and deception of the game’s rounds much more enjoyable. I played against someone seated directly across from me so could actually read his reactions, but even the hesitation between plays gives you an insight into the tension and concern spent while picking a card.
Also, unless my mind was playing tricks on me, you can see your opponent’s cursor, a ball of light, flickering between cards, giving you an on-screen indication of where their eyes are trained. Perhaps you’ll read too much into their close study of your rank and file soldiers - are they double-checking a possible weakness that literally plays into their hand? - and perhaps it’ll be possible to create misdirection by suggestively perusing your opponent’s graveyard even if you have no means of drawing from it.
There are currently four decks (Monsters, Northern Realms, Scoia’tael and Skellige, with Nilfgaard to come later) and new cards have been added while old ones are being rebalanced. One minor change of note is that the text quotes on cards are gone in the current build; possibly to remove language that might have required an age rating - I didn't see Poor Fucking Infantry either. I’m not enough of a Gwent expert to analyse the rebalancing, and it’ll be ongoing as the game moves through beta anyway, but the combinations of decks make for excellent and varied competition. The Monsters ability to exploit weather cards often counters my careful Northern plans while the tricksy complexities of Scoia’tael always fizzle for me but were lethally effective for my opponent yesterday.
My Gwent strategies tend to involve throwing the first round after luring my opponent into some heavy expenditure. I love medics, able to retrieve cards that have been removed from the field, and there are some new twists to that tactic in the standalone game. Having had a brief taste yesterday, I woke up this morning thinking of ways to modify my methods and craving a few rounds against a human opponent to test my mettle. I’m not one of the people who spent more time Gwenting than questing in The Witcher 3, but I’m going to be spending a lot of time with the standalone version.
That cuts to the heart of what CDPR are doing here. They could have released a standalone version to satisfy the people who wanted an easy way to play without loading up The Witcher and hunting for opponents, but instead they’ve reworked the interface beautifully, rebalanced and replenished the decks, and found a way to tell more singleplayer stories through the medium of Gwent. It’s almost enough to make the White Wolf raise a smile.
You can sign up for Gwent now, ahead of a closed beta launch in September.