Oh, I do so love a good disclaimer. Why, I think I see one galloping over the hill right now! Look at it go, diving in to interject just as I was about to say something ill-conceived/stupid. So: I largely think The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt looks excellent. I got to watch (though not play, sadly) a new 45 minute demo of it during E3, and it encouraged me to peel off another layer from my carapace of hardened skepticism. There were bustling towns, bizarre characters, and beardly moments of derring do. In the spirit of SENSATIONALIST FEAR, however, I did notice a few cracks in the game's lovingly rusted witcher armor. These are they.
The Witcher 3's combat looks alright - action-y but with a hint of strategy in the form of weapon switches (including a new crossbow for taking out airborne baddies), spells, and Geralt's trademark mutagen potions - but it struck me as relatively simple. Hack, slash, twirl, dodge, rinse, repeat. The encounters we saw didn't have much to them. A werewolf required a specific potion and well-timed magic shield deployments for brief stuns, but otherwise he was basically a big, furry shishkebab for Geralt's silver blade. Afterward, an admirably bizarre evil spirit - some sort of grotesque cave-dwelling tree heart - was easily dispatched as well, requiring a quick clearing out of a few other enemies it summoned and then a swift stab while its guard was down.
So essentially, two very basic action game boss patterns. Nothing particularly inventive or, er, wild. Granted, they could've been simplified or sped up for the purposes of the demo. Again, I am just voicing worries based on what I saw - not making definitive statements about the quality of the game. Combat wasn't Witcher 2's strongest suit, though, especially in regard to controls. I really would've liked the chance to try it for myself, but many of CD Projekt's developers are bigger than me and well-versed in the art of witching. If I tried to snag the controller, I could've been witched. Instead I just ate a sandwich in their booth and everyone was happy.
Moreover, at this stage everything felt just the teensiest bit awkward. The camera, especially, hitched from time-to-time and ended up in very poor positions. Disorienting at best, deadly at worst.
I love gigantic open worlds more than the next guy (who doesn't know shit about open worlds, tbh), but they do have their drawbacks. For instance, how do you fill such a massive place - in this case, one 50 times the size of The Witcher 2 - with interesting stuff to do? Some of it is bound to be cookie cutter, right?
It sort of felt that way in our demo as Geralt bounced from "I'll help you, but only if you do me this favor" fetch quest to fetch quest. Each character's motivation made sense in the context of the story, but it began to feel a little tedious as we inched ever closer to our actual objective: a tiny sliver of information on the "ashen-haired girl" who seems to be responsible for the titular Wild Hunt, which Geralt aims to stop. Like, yes, I understand, everybody wants something, but can we get to the point?
That said, the quest chain had some wickedly interesting (and downright wicked) characters, including a childlike "godling" whose internal monologue never stayed internal for long ("Defecating into the sunrise, my favorite part of the day" was one of many choice lines) and beautiful Lady spirits who were... not what they seemed.
The other upside here? CD Projekt is apparently trying extremely hard to avoid the sorts of "kill X number of whatever" quests that pop up in, say, Skyrim. Apparently every quest will have some kind of story.
"We call [those Skyrim quests] 'FedEx Quests,' and we never want to have them in the game," game director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz told RPS. "We've created a bunch of encounters you can find while wandering the world, and every one of these encounters has its own small storyline. We want to create the feeling that characters really live in this world."
"We've got a lot of more traditional quests, and also we created the plan B of monster hunting, which is how Witchers make money. So you have to gather information about the monster you're preparing to take down, you've got to collect special ingredients for alchemy and potions - those kinds of things for each unique monster. We don't want to make generic quests where you do the same stuff repeatedly. It's better to just leave the area with the wandering monsters and the same quests behind. We want to give you a feeling like you're in a real world. If you change a part of that world permanently, hooray! There will be other stuff for you to do [elsewhere]."
Words Can Never Hurt Me
This is a small one - something indicative of how solid Witcher 3 is looking overall - but some of the writing was a little wonky. The godling child spoke in, like, four or five different overwritten fantasy dialects, and all the Game-of-Thrones-style lingo intermingling with (admittedly charming) humor and low-level Shakespeare got distracting after a little while. It just seemed like a little too much, or rather like Witcher's writers needed to pick one thing and stick with it.
Meanwhile, Geralt's dialogue was wooden, and he couldn't maintain a consistent tone. One moment he was grim as all get-out, and then in a conversation with a guy he barely knew mere moments later, he was cracking awkwardly timed jokes about the tiny ramshackle swamp town they were in.
I don't know how much of the dialogue is up for possible rewriting, but the game's still a ways out. CDP isn't afraid to write and rewrite too, as the game's director told me, so I'm hopeful.
Walk This Way
Another small one, another thing that can be fixed with more time for polish. But still, it bears mentioning: The Witcher 3 is a gorgeous game, but its character animations sometimes didn't quite stack up to the hyper-realistic graphics on display. Conversations saw Geralt and co cycle through a couple sort of awkwardly stiff poses and facial expressions, something that only took me out of the experience ever-so-slightly, but it was noticeable. Quit being so uptight, Geralt! Don't you know you're in a super sweet videogame world that revolves entirely around you? Jeez, this guy, right?
Bonus Section: Details That Really Surprised Me
So yes, I'm a little worried about a few elements of The Witcher 3, but largely it remains one of my most anticipated games in ages. During the E3 demo I managed to find even more reasons to stand in awe of its mucky, grease-stained radiance. For instance:
- Cities feel amazingly alive - You thought Skyrim's "Radiant" AI was impressive? Or if not impressive then at least a cut above the mindless mobs that tend to populate videogame worlds? Well, Witcher 3's variation on the theme looked magnificently natural. Children shouted and played tag, adults walked and chatted, fires crackled, water wheels churned, etc, etc, etc. It was so palpably alive. Our presenter noted that NPCs react the all sorts of things, too: the time of day, weather, Geralt punching them - every valid and rational human concern. Afterward, I went to a demo of Dragon Age Inquisition, and the difference was night and day. DA's denizens were stuck in their tracks like they were born and raised in a vat of quicksand. No sudden movements. Really just no... movements in general, actually.
- Geralt can climb stuff now - Cliffs and hillsides getting in your way? No problem. Like a sprightly assassin or Notch's envisioning of a horse, Geralt's got enough spring in his step to vault up/over whatever pitiful rock formation might stand in his way. He doesn't animate quite as well as, say, the main character of Assassin's Creed Unity, but it's a useful skill nonetheless.
- The draw distance is absurd - Our presenter stood at the top of a cliff after vanquishing its harpy residents, and from there he pointed to a tree on a mountain seemingly miles away. "You can go explore that," he said.
- Environmental interaction is apparently a big focus - CD Projekt claims that it always wants to offer you some sort of environmental option in most encounters to add extra oomph to your combat arsenal. During the demo, I saw bee hives you could knock from trees and explosive objects you could tickle into combustive laughter with a few light sparks from Geralt's fire spell. However, there was then a bit where the presenter tried to burn away some path-blocking roots with said fire spell and it didn't work, which didn't even make sense to him. So these things aren't entirely consistent yet.
- Day/night doesn't just affect townsfolk - It changes monsters too. Quick word of advice: maybe don't plunge into Clearly Demonic Forest when the sun's down. Just a hunch, is all.
- People react to your accomplishments - After our presenter slew a werewolf, entered a cave, and came back out, villagers had gathered around the werewolf's body. Makes sense: it was causing them no end of trouble, and I imagine they were quite happy to see it go.
- There are still plenty of brothels - Ah, The Witcher's balancing act between a desire for "mature" depictions of sex and an almost juvenile fixation on it continues.
- If spooky Ladies trapped in a painting want someone's still-bleeding ear on a stone, they are probably evil - In retrospect, I really should've seen that one coming.
Keep your eyes peeled for tons more Witcher 3 info in the coming days. I somehow managed to spend nearly an entire day of E3 at CD Projekt's booth, so yeah. This is only the beginning.