CD Projekt RED have shown time and time again that they know how to treat fans right. From cool little trinkets in the regular edition of the retail version to a lack of DRM, they just seem to ‘get’ how to publish games. This extends to their gameplay design with mature themes, brutal combat and just the right mix of humour to make sure the Witcher titles stand out from the RPG crowd. That being said, before now they had the advantage of people a relatively small developer with a cult following. The Witcher 2 took many by surprise, particularly when it was ported over to consoles. The Witcher 3 didn’t get this advantage, being shown off for years before it came out. There was hype, and anticipation. In some ways, it’s lived up to it, but inevitably there are areas where it just misses the mark.
Going against the grain of Western-RPGs, The Witcher doesn’t let you make your own character, instead you play as Geralt, a mutant warrior with keen senses and combat skills that’s feared by most and hated by nearly all. After years of playing games with huge amounts of choice, it’s hard not feel railroaded into certain situations because the game needs to establish who Geralt is. So in many situations you can choose whether to spare someone, or whether to lay the blame for something horrible at the feet of a guilty party, but then many times you find yourself beheading people in taverns or murdering entire groups even if that isn’t what you’d prefer to do. On balance, it often works in the game’s favour – the lore and plot is one of the best things about the Witcher world and without Geralt’s angry reluctance to be a hero, it wouldn’t carry the same tone. Some of the best side quests do give you a lot of choice and can have wildly different outcomes depending on how you approach problems.
Combat wise the game takes a swing at the Arkham-Asylum style brawler approach where your animations snap to whoever you’re pointing the stick towards and well-timed parries and blocks reward you with opportunities to strike. Unfortunately it’s nowhere near as fluid as the batman games and you’ll often see you sword clipping through scenery or even enemies and there’s a sluggishness that makes most fights quite messy. Thankfully as the game progresses you get access to huge numbers of potions, traps, bombs and spells (signs) which let you approach combat from a different angle. We quickly found that one sign creates a shield around you which heals you for any damage it takes. Using this we could recharge our health whenever we wanted simply by throwing the shield up and running straight at our enemies. Other signs allow you to take control of opponents, set them on fire or simply throw them about a bit. Combined with potions and oils that help you to do extra damage to the right targets, you can become quite formidable after a couple of hours and the combat gets much, much easier.
The biggest draw of the Witcher 3 (quite literally) is the game map. Rather than the somewhat linear areas offered in the first few games, this instalment features huge counties for you to roam on horse or boat, with ridiculous numbers of hidden quests, events and locations to explore. Everything looks quite natural and most of the sidequests are engaging, so you’re unlikely to experience the kind of burn out you get with recent Ubisoft games. Of course you probably shouldn’t try to do everything, particularly in the second area, or it’ll take so long you’ll forget what the story is about, but it’s nice to constantly feel like there’s a reason to travel by foot rather than abusing the fast travel system. The world looks beautiful, with rolling meadows, dense forests, misty battlegrounds and breathtaking cliffs around every bend. The weather system is dynamic too, with storms kicking up and changing the landscape dramatically as you travel.
This size is also the game’s greatest issue. We can look past the combat, the bugs and framerate drops, the occasional lack of freedom and the rare boring sidequest, but there’s constantly a feeling that there’s just too much game. Maybe we’re getting old, but whenever you want to make progress everything goes incredibly slowly, filling your time even on the main quest with busywork and conversations that take forever to say nothing. The crux of the main quest is that you’re looking for a companion who has been incredibly important to everyone who has met her, but the structure of the game revolves around you getting a lead about a person who has seen her, going to that person, them telling you they need you to do twenty things before they tell you anything, then they finally tell you. There’s never an adequately explained reason why they wouldn’t tell you straight off, there’s a clear sense of urgency thanks to the impending doom of the titular Wild Hunt, but clearly the developers wanted to make sure this wasn’t a game you could rush or be done with in less than twenty hours.
So while the constituent parts of the Witcher 3 are outstanding, bear in mind that it is a long game, and not necessarily in the best way.