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
Nowhere is CDP's commitment more notable than in the quests. Mechanically, they're usually pretty simple - a straight list of 'go here, do this, now do that', and if you created a drinking game around the words "Using your Witcher senses-", I guarantee you'd be paralytic by the end of the prologue. But! At no point are they ever phoned in, with the stories and characters full of twists and decision points, cool moments, quiet relationship-building sections and imaginative premises - particularly the ones that play off myth and fairy tales, like the twisted version of the Graeae living in a dark bog.
In fact, looking back I can't think of another game of this scope so committed to not wasting my time. There's no 'go get me five bear asses' stuff. Quests to kill monsters usually involve a complex mix of investigation and preparation to show off why people need a witcher instead of just a random guy with a sword. You're constantly dealing with emperors and powerful sorceresses, digging into the sadistic family lives of aristocrats or removing the curses from haunted houses, always making choices and meeting great characters and watching scenes that burst with incidental detail, jokes and bursts of genuine humanity in the darkest stories and most unlikely places.
Straight-up monster bashing is typically limited to minor distraction on the way to interesting places, with nests and guarded treasures awaiting you if you can be bothered and easily ignored if not. By the time I finished the game, there were great swathes of the map I'd not even visited, and even just doing the main missions you'll level up just fine. As with The Witcher 2, the combat difficulty starts off hard and then gets pretty easy, since once you've got the knack of its dodge/parry core, there's not a lot most enemy types can do to raise the stakes except hit a bit harder.
One disappointment here is that, while this is fine for the regular trash enemies, the bosses and bigger enemies rarely do anything more interesting. Geralt is primarily a swordsman, but he does have other tools constantly available, like his magic Signs, a crossbow and a few handy items. They almost never come into play during a fight though, with enemies generally limited to hitting the ground in front of them for a shockwave, charging or teleporting around, or calling in a few friends. This makes bosses more challenges of attrition and occasional cheap-shots than tricksy foes with clever patterns and arenas to use for their advantages. For the most part their tactics are just to try and drag the fight out until you make too many mistakes, running out of Swallow potion and healthfood, rather than being varied challenges. This won't be too bad if you're coming to it from other action RPGs, but as said, it's sure as hell no Dark Souls. Not even Dark Souls II.
More specifically annoying given the concept is that you can't really prepare for most battles in advance, simply because you have no idea what you'll be fighting until it happens. I'd love to play a Witcher 3 where CD Projekt had the faith in players to make going up against a werewolf without the right oil on your sword into a suicidal affair, at least for the Monster Contracts (optional boss fights, essentially) - to have the element of research, then figuring out how to make whatever potions and oils you need and only challenging it once you're sure.
As it is, the benefits are things like '10% bonus damage to this monster type' rather than anything particularly worth searching for. You can also go the entire game without even mixing, never mind taking a see-in-dark Cat potion, never mind anything cool like "Enhanced Black Blood". This way is obviously friendlier and less frustrating for mainstream players, but it does render much of what makes a Witcher an entirely optional extra primarily aimed at hardcore completionists. In the event that there's a big patch, I'd quite like to see a Witcher mode that makes this side more important, without boosting the regular guards and trash that Geralt absolutely should be cutting down without a thought.
Still, the wrapping of all this remains spectacular - visually, the stories told (which are always better than just 'there's a big thing in the woods, go kill'), and how well it grounds the stories and gives them weight. If you were to pretend to be a prisoner to sneak into a witch hunter lair in, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition, it'd probably be a jolly little adventure. Here, you're likely to have your fingernails pulled out with pliers while your friend watches, having to maintain their cover.
In fact, Inquisition came to mind many times, not just for its far less successful mix of open-world and narrative. A big issue I had with that game is that it's very light, not least for how little resistance there is to the Inquisition itself. Sure, a few people talk about it as being problematic or dodgy, but that's completely undercut by every other damn NPC either wanting to join it or just plain signing up, and the nations of Thedas being oddly calm about the potential threat you pose.
Here, things aren't so cuddly. Decisions are important, often made without full information, and whatever you decide, someone usually suffers. Just trying to save people in trouble often leads to the verbal equivalent of a clip round the ear and the question "Right, and what do you think those thugs you just humiliated are going to do after you've gone?" Even when you've helped, you're rarely thanked, and just because you think you've done a good thing doesn't mean it'll work out in the long run. Every opportunity has a dark side, up front or otherwise.
Rarely too has a fantasy world had such a feel of history. That's obviously helped by the books, but is far from guaranteed by them - being able, for instance, to present two sides of a mythological punch-up where both sides are inhuman and sinister is no easy matter. Nor is having the maturity to play with the expected outcomes of events, and not just to cheaply spit in your face for the fun of it. For example, there's a point when you meet the family of someone you might have killed in the previous game, and while one of them is understandably hostile, the other is just "Wow, you've got balls coming here. Anyhoo, fancy a day at the races?" It's not a trap. He just wants company.
It doesn't hurt that while most RPGs of this kind have you visit a place, make a moral choice, and then never think about it again, the Witcher 3's winding story regularly involves revisiting places and seeing the effects of decisions instead of having to wait for "And later..." cards during the ending. The changes might not always be severe or change the course of the game, but they work together to build an astoundingly reactive world, where the tiniest decision can cast unexpected ripples.
(And by god, is this a long story. You know how games like Final Fantasy VII will pretend you're about to finish the game, even though you can see you're only on Disc 1? This is the reverse. At the point I was convinced it was about to end, all the areas resolved and it even told me I was making a point of no return save, it transpired there was a whole act and about ten more hours left to go...)
On page 3: Plot and problems - and triumph
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.