The Witcher III: Hearts Of Stone [official site] has a simple moral: be careful what you wish for, unless it's more The Witcher III, obviously. Taking place after the main campaign, though not at all related to it, Hearts of Stone is a ten hour tale of ambition, of regret, of manipulation, cruelty and sorrow that gets to push aside fears of the incoming apocalypse in favour of focusing deep on the series' love of finding compassion in the most cynical of situations. The worst I can say is that it's 'just' more of The Witcher 3 to play, but rarely has that word more deserved its air-quotes.
Here's Wot I Think, as if you haven't already guessed.
As ever, it begins with a contract to kill a monster - one that you'll want to be Level 30 to take up, though if you don't have a suitable save, Hearts of Stone offers a custom New Game mode that switches off the main storyline quests, but boosts you to Level 32 and gives you lots of nice gear. It's not long though before the real story kicks in, that of fallen noble turned bandit Olgierd von Everec, who wished for immortality, only to discover that every deal comes with a price that is known, and a price that is not. Now, his benefactor, The Man of Glass, needs Geralt to be his debt collector, and won't take no for an answer. The brand on Geralt's face? Just a polite reminder.
It's a strong story, going straight to the heart of what makes The Witcher universe so interesting - the menace of fairy tales made flesh, a character study that uses its ten hours to consider von Everec through the eyes of those who truly love as well as hate him. Much like the Bloody Baron in the main game, he sits between monster and tragic figure; a man with his own darkness, but also one targeted and manipulated in ways that at least merit compassion. Forgiveness, though? A trickier question.
What's perhaps most surprising about Hearts of Stone is how well it justifies its own existence. Often, DLC has that element of cleaning up after the party to it, especially when the party involved the most important people in Geralt's life and the fate of multiple worlds. Hearts of Stone though is clever about it, feeling more like a new Witcher short story than just another chapter. One of its smartest moves for instance is bringing back Shani from the first game as a major player, giving Geralt an emotional connection to a story that otherwise doesn't concern him all that much. Another is using its time very carefully, with what initially seems like a lazy premise (complete, yes, three tasks for von Everec) allowing the characters and story to breathe.
The Man of Glass himself is a particularly fantastic piece of work. He's a jovial fellow, happy to banter with Geralt and share gingerbread making tips with the common folk. When the mask drops though, it's the bursting of a balloon in a quiet room - his words the stab of a knife into flesh, his smile the twisting of it. He's a fairly stock archetype in many ways - he's the manipulative genie, Rumplestiltskin, the owner of that mysterious shop that wasn't here yesterday - but a very effective one who's fully aware that knowing his deal doesn't mean he won't be able to strike one with you, even if he has to set up your complete downfall to get you to sign on the dotted line.
As with Shani on the friendly side of things, his presence and the often unspoken power behind it is a big part of the reason that Hearts of Stone feels worthy of being a standalone expansion instead of just a bolted on quest. He's not planning world domination or anything so base, but he's still a power to be reckoned with. In particular, while there's no time pressure on his quest and you can completely ignore it if you like, CD Projekt does a great job of making it clear that the only reason Geralt has that choice is because it amuses the Man of Glass to let him think he does. For now.
That's as much of the main story as I'm going to talk about - don't worry, all of that is presented very early on. What it sets up though is a great expansion where my only real complaint is that after over 50 hours, the scenery is getting a touch familiar. There's a point early on where Geralt finds himself captured by Ofrier soldiers (non white-guys, incidentally, who are dicks, but with reasons for it, and balanced out by other non-dicks from the same part of the world) and bundled onto a ship bound for their homeland, and it's hard not to feel a little bit disappointed when he escapes to continue questing around Oxenfurt. Ditto for dealing with dudes in armour instead of cool monsters.
That being said, Hearts of Stone has always been set up as the smaller of the two expansions planned, with the next, Blood and Wine, taking us somewhere brand new. Also, more importantly, the lack of dramatic new scenery absolutely doesn't mean a lack of new areas or lots of cheap set re-use in the existing map. Far from it.
As with the main game, CD Projekt treats each major story as not just a handwave for some more combat or looting, but as a chance to try a different (albeit often 'use your Witcher senses to...') spin on the action. Here, that means Geralt gathering a team to pull a heist, to explore haunted memories of better times, and most notably, to let a ghost take over his body and take Shani to a wedding. Admittedly, spending time with a possessed Geralt does drive home that, voice-wise, Doug Cockle seems to have the range of a punch-dagger. Still, the whole sequence is the stuff that great big grins are made of - the usually stoic Geralt chasing pigs, making ludicrous bets with Gwent players and delivering insulting speeches, all with the main game's wonderfully subtle facial animation to visibly show the difference between the two men.
There's just so much here, and it's all so well made. At this point I almost want CD Projekt to phone something in. Please. Anything! I'll feel better about my laziness, and the rest of the industry needs a break from being so comprehensively schooled.
At no point does anything in Hearts of Stone seem to have been treated as 'just' DLC, or any way less important than anything on the main Witcher 3 questline. Let me give a quick example that won't be too spoilery - there's a point where Geralt goes to an auction house, just to meet someone. Once inside though there are about five characters to talk to, several with a micro-quest to accomplish. You get to play through the actual auction, including bidding for items and spawning at least one mini-quest depending on how you did earlier. The whole thing is wrapped in ambient dialogue. And then, when the objects are being presented by the auctioneer... if I've just missed the object re-use from the main game here, then I apologise, but I can think of several things just like this that I could drop in its place... you find that someone on the art team has bothered to model the Maltese Falcon. Purely as a quick sight gag!
The amount of love in this game is ridiculous. I can't wait for Cyberpunk 2077.
The whole sequence at the wedding is probably my favourite. Again, it's a mix of what CD Projekt does better than anyone at the moment - that fusion of character study and RPG mechanics. It's such a tight piece of design, with Geralt, the ghost and Shani all sharing the spotlight, and their relationship and respect for each other slowly evolving as you complete mini-games or simply react to events. Shani herself makes a surprising impact given the nature of some of the other players in the story, being essentially an antidote to what many people mistakenly consider The Witcher's sins - a very strong character whose life doesn't revolve around Geralt, and definitely not Geralt's penis. Everything about their relationship here works beautifully, up to what it means if the two of them do sleep together, and The Witcher's acceptance that their limits are every bit as much because of her professional calling as Geralt's Path.
But the whole expansion is about as good. Nothing outstays its welcome, nothing feels like it's been cut-down to size. The heist mission for instance could easily have been "Go speak to the best people and recruit them", but no, Geralt gets to choose. There are big choices to make which affect fights. The new bosses added are a genuine challenge, particularly a rat-bastard hard fellow called The Caretaker who can heal himself with one good swing of his weapon, either at you or the ghosts he summons. Most notably of all though, every moment of the game feels like a collaboration between everyone on the team, whether it's the programmers whipping up a natural media shader for a sequence, or the art team drawing up Wanted posters to decorate a back wall, or the writers taking a moment to sprinkle in a little extra ambient dialogue here and there to bring the newly added bits of the game into the wider world.
The only two quests that I did find a little underwhelming were one of the optional ones near the start, where Geralt investigates a murder that just leads into an irritating group fight that doesn't contribute anything to the plot and feels like it should be possible to complete without actually throwing down, and the very last bit, which I won't describe because Spoilers, but takes what should be a tense stand-off and makes it distinctly 'Urgh'. Disappointingly, it's also the only bit set somewhere brand new. Careful what you wish for, even if it is more Witcher 3, I guess. But only a bit. A tiny, tiny bit. And it's only because of the quality of the rest that either even raises a flicker of irritation.
As far as mechanical changes go, don't expect much. There's a new merchant who can upgrade your equipment with runes, such as keeping the enhancements from grind-stones permanently or treating all armour equally, though at this point in the game there's not much most enemies are realistically going to do to you except splash blood on your new shoes. I was hoping for something a bit more dramatic here, or at least a more interesting quest than just giving him a big bag of money to get started. As in the main game, the only challenge there is finding enough merchants to buy your mountains of accumulated crap, before watching Geralt gravely demand the equivalent of pennies for his services. Starting at Level 30-ish, it's just too late in the game for this stuff to matter. That said, if you're playing New Game Plus or for the first time, it will offer some handy mid-game upgrades for getting past the occasional hell levels.
There aren't that many new monsters either, but that's fine. All the best stuff takes place in social areas rather than out in the wilderness, so guards and the remnants of the Order of the Flaming Rose tend to show up a lot. I will however gripe about one thing - and CD Projekt, please, come close. Over here. Yes, that's right. A word.
Ahem. CD Projekt? You decided to add giant spiders to The Witcher 3... now?
Sigh. And I thought we were friends.
This savage betrayal of trust aside, I have nothing but good things to say about this expansion. It's not just more of The Witcher 3, but confirmation that more of The Witcher 3 is a good thing. Sure, you've probably got about a hundred more hours of content you've never even seen in the base game... I know I have... but having a solid chunk of it like this, with a satisfying plot arc, room to breathe, and another ending in sight to work towards really does make for a different proposition than just riding out in search of something cool (especially since if you've finished the game, very little that came before will offer any challenge, or even much reward except their stories.)
The really bizarre thing though is that this DLC, which honestly shows just about every other company how it's done, is only CD Projekt's idea of a taster, with the next one planned to be double the size, as well as offering a whole new world to explore. It's not due out until 2016, but I can't wait. Honestly, after finishing The Witcher 3 back on release, especially under the pressure of having a deadline, I was a bit worried at having burned out on the damn thing, and that the DLC would be a bit underwhelming.
Far from it. Hearts of Stone reminded me exactly what I loved about it the first time around, and all I could think when the credits rolled was how much I look forward to firing this game up in a few more months and concluding both Geralt's final adventure, and one of the PC's finest RPGs. Give or take a few giant bloody spiders. Grr.
The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone expansion is out October 13th.