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First Impressions: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Ideally, you'd be looking at the review right now. Unfortunately, due to code not showing up til Sunday and then problems getting it to run, I'm only just digging into The Witcher 3 [official site] myself. The full verdict will be with you as soon as possible, though it's a big game and I don't want to do it or you the disservice of rushing through it just to throw words at the screen. However, here's a few thoughts from my first few hours of witching, on the opening hours, on the controversial graphics, and my displeasure that it features hair technology that hasn't been named "TrissFX." Such a wasted opportunity.

So far, my experiences have been pretty positive. It feels like what I wanted it to be, which is to say a hybrid of the first two games in a new open-world style. From the original, you get the experience of being a Witcher rather than a fugitive and convenient super-soldier, which to my mind detracted a little from the sequel. From the sequel, you get the graphical fidelity, the combat style (following the refinements of the Enhanced Edition rather than the janky absolute original), and an intro featuring a pretty lady's buttocks. She has two of them. They are beige. More details as they happen.

Not everything is great though. I quickly gave up on using the mouse and keyboard, as while it worked, the combat feels far more natural with my old Xbox 360 controller. I've also had more crashes than I'd like, which is to say I've had several crashes. This is with Nvidia's new driver.

In terms of performance, I'm running it on an an i7 960 3.20Ghz with 8GB of RAM and a GeForce GTX 970. That's enough to play pretty comfortably with all the options switched on, at around 35-45FPS. I quickly went in and did some twiddling though, mostly turning off the fancy hair. This boosted my FPS to a more or less consistent 45-55 so far and I don't really feel I've lost anything. Having it on is okay, though the hair looks oddly silky, and I doubt I'll notice its absence for long.

As for talk of a visual downgrade... well, yes. Even with all the options on, it doesn't look as nice as the early screenshots. That's a shame, especially if the talk of things being stepped down for the sake of cross-platform development is true. However, and here's what I think matters, it still looks great. A touch flat at times in terms of lighting, but beautifully detailed and lushly decorated with blowing leaves in trees, plants quivering in the rain, peasants going about their business with incidental animations like sharpening a sword and hurling it high into the air to show off. Just looking at the horizon, I can't wait to explore and see what awaits. Speaking of which, when evening rolls round, the blood-red skies are amazing. Basic skybox tech, sure, but still great art.

But let's talk specifics. If you want to tweak beyond the presets - Low, Medium, High and Ultra - there are plenty of options. You can set a max FPS along with resolution, plus from the graphics menu, switch NVIDIA HairWorks - which really should have been called TrissFX (marks off list) - on and off, and change the number of background peasants, shadow quality, terrain quality, water quality, grass density, texture quality, foliage visibility range and detail level.

Of course, no hair technology is going to make this guy look good. Gah!

In Post-Processing specifically, you also get toggles for motion blur, regular blur, antialiasing, bloom, sharpening, ambient occlusion (SSAO or HBAO - screen and horizon based, offering increasingly better quality in exchange for performance), depth of field, chromatic aberration, vignetting and light-shafts, which I'm sorry are no longer universally called God Rays. Much better name.

Playing around, the game looks surprisingly good on all of the defaults, including Low - the difference coming more in the details than in great sweeping things like all the textures being replaced with moulded plastic dummies. You'll get a lot more pop-in graphics. The textures won't have the same definition. The world will be a bit quieter, not as bursting with life and movement. Overall though, the difference isn't particularly startling. That said, we are dealing with a game with some hefty system requirements, so it doesn't really have much excuse to look ugly on anything that can run it.

Probably my favourite thing about the game so far though is that it actually feels like the Witcher experience rather than just an RPG - both in Geralt's refusal to sort out a griffin plaguing the small starting village until someone stumps up to put a contract out on it, and the general displeasure of just about everyone he sees - something he often makes worse for himself with exactly the wrong smartass comment to exactly the wrong person. Hunting isn't simply about going after a beast with a sword, but doing the prep-work - finding herbs and doing research and treating a monster as a threat that needs a plan and specialist skills, rather than just a tough guy with a sword. The world has plenty of those, but it doesn't have many Witchers. Even as Geralt's continuing quest gives him more reason to question his place in the changing social landscape, that's something to hold onto.

It's going to be a long journey, finding his daughter-figure Ciri and lady-love Yennifer and sorting out the spectral Wild Hunt and power-hungry kings already at work in the world, but it's a journey I'm greatly looking forward to. Full verdict of course coming as soon as possible.

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