At Gamescom 2013 we didn’t get to play The Witcher 3 but we did get an extended look behind the scenes with one of the devs playing a full side quest from the game. We also got a chance to sit down with the lead level designer about CD Projekt Red’s vision for the game moving forwards.
The gameplay we got to see opened with Geralt in a huge open world. Gone are the instanced-off areas of the Witcher 2, replaced with a world 36 times as large. We were promised that every time you seen an incredible vista, you can go anywhere you see. The world looked beautiful, mostly in line with The Witcher 2 (which is no slouch at 1080p even by next-gen’s standards) but with a huge new raft of graphical effects such as the grass blowing when a storm picks up and all of the trees moving realistically. Water too looked much more impressive (which appears to be a theme with next-gen games) and sailing is one of the new transportation options, with Geralt simply hopping in a boat and carrying on his merry way during the demo (oddly no-one seemed to notice he’d taken it). Meditation is back and now as you sit there time passes quickly in front of your eyes, with the hours ticking by and daylight giving way to sunset and nighttime in an incredibly realistic and dramatic cycle that showed off the capabilities of the new graphics engine.
For the gameplay demo Geralt first of all was wandering across hills on an island he’d been sent to for a main quest. Hearing some shouts at a nearby house he wandered over to see a group of brigands banging on the door of a house. Geralt chose not to ignore this and dispatched the thugs before checking that the occupants were alright, they said they were but there was a hint of hesitation implying that they would be back to punish the villagers for defying them and within the full game you’ll be able to go back weeks later to see what becomes of them.
The fighting system is much quicker than in the previous games, but with a similar sense of weight and finesse. CD Projekt Red have worked on making it more fluid and improving the animations so that combat really flows, particularly when you’re attacking more than one enemy. As Geralt attacked a monstrous beast that would have looked at home in an early part of a Monster Hunter game, he combined magic with his sword attacks until eventually it fled, leaving behind a trail that could be followed to hunt it down. Enemy AI, even for the monsters isn’t just ‘goto player; attack;’ it is instead more nuanced with fear being present in everything, Geralt is a scary guy after all.
After these brief distractions we came across a village where an argument was going on. The village felt truly alive with villagers coming and going on their daily business, the level designer told us that this a key focus of The Witcher 3, to make the world feel as though it is going on without you. Every citizen has their own needs and schedules for different days, and you can interfere with that routine through your own actions. Suppose one character goes to play dice with a friend on a Monday, what happens if you dispatch that friend? As the dev team put it:
“What’s the point in a living and breathing world if you can’t stop that living and breathing?”
The argument in the village was about a forest spirit that was killing off the residents. Turned out this hamlet had a long history with the spirit, training up warriors to appease and fend off the spirit. A new younger group of men were sick of this and the elder’s chat, wanting Geralt to eliminate the beast once and for all, the elders wanted Geralt to consider how important the spirit was to the village, and simply walk away or protect it even. Geralt sided with the younger group and quickly went about investigating what type of creature he was facing. Using the glossary of the beasts in his journal, he worked out that it was some kind of giant antler-bearing, skull-faced, deer-man that summoned crows wherever it went and couldn’t be killed while it had a connection with a member of the village, who would be unaware. Upon reporting this to the new would-be leader of the village, he immediately suspected the elders and demanded no mercy in their treatment. Gerald however used his witcher sense to discover who the true link was, the young man’s love interest. Upon reporting it to the poor man Geralt as always had a number of dialogue options to try and soften the blow or not, the man took it in his stride and demanded the death of the girl in order to be rid of the beast, Geralt walked off into the forest to hunt the beast while the villagers slaughtered the girl.
In combat against the monster Geralt first had to take down three totems marked by murders of crows while battling wolves in a lush but storm-ravaged forest. Eventually the beast itself appeared and was just barely fought off by geralt, using fire magic which came with a spectacular embers effect to burn it alive. On returning to the village more had been slaughtered by the new leaders who paid Geralt and quickly showed him the exit. Immediately after the quest was complete a flashback came up showing what happened to the village afterwards. Due to the beast being gone
The village no longer trained up hunters and was destroyed by a neighbouring town less than three months later
Showing that Geralt’s actions aren’t simply moral or immoral, they appear to be a matter of weighing up potential consequences too.
The gameplay demo was impressive all in all, with The Witcher 2 being one of the greatest RPGs of all time and The Witcher 3 looking to top that with the inclusion of the massive open world, dynamic weather and random events. The fact that there is an established main character strengthens the narrative and allows the developers to work hard on his story and characterisation while allowing the player a great deal of freedom in his actions and responses. Open world games like Skyrim can sometimes lead to your character lacking any real identity because they have to allow for so many variables, here the world and your protagonist are defined, but what they do is up to you.
Discussing the game after the demo, the developers told us they were happy with the next-gen consoles but weren’t ready to talk about specifics regarding framerates or resolutions quite yet. What we were being shown was on the PC and that is of course the lead platform for the game.
We’re very excited for the eventual release of The Witcher 3, but that’s still some time away yet, with what we were being shown apparently a pre-alpha version (although it seemed incredibly polished for that). We’ll be keeping you up to date on all the news and information over the next year!