Geralt of Rivia finds himself in the war-torn Northern Kingdoms, searching for his surrogate daughter in a world filled with wild beasts, dangerous monsters and men who seek power at any cost. Is this the White Wolf’s ultimate adventure or will the Wild Hunt break his long run of success?
The Witcher series is a strange old bird… Geralt appeared in his first adventure back in 2007, bringing a unique feel to the RPG genre. The games mimicked the likes of Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights, the games that would lead on to Dragon Age and it’s successors, yet CD Projekt Red managed to bring Andrzej Sapkowski’s wonderfully dark world of fantasy, mystery and adult humour into the arena of gaming in a hugely original way.
Both the first installment and it’s sequel, Assassins of Kings, slowly built a fan base due to it’s ever-changing structure from a classic 2000’s ‘mouse and keyboard’ RPG into a slightly linear and more action oriented sequel that played more like a complicated third person action adventure. Now with The Witcher 3, the developers felt that this evolution of gameplay should stretch into the open-world genre. Despite the changes to format, CDPR have managed to expand the previously compact tales of Geralt and make them fit perfectly into a huge world without making it feel as though the story has been spread thin.
Speaking of the plot, The Witcher 3 sets Geralt off on a personal mission, following the trail of his surrogate daughter and witcher in training, Cirilla (Ciri for short). The trail takes him down a path that leads to meeting old friends and new faces alike, spinning a tale of a young woman running from a malicious, supernatural power… Namely, the Wild Hunt, who sweep through the land, stealing young ‘uns from their beds and leaving a trail of misery in their wake. The story is weaved expertly by taking part in the main missions of the game and following the breadcrumbs that Ciri leaves behind.
Usually, in this type of game, that would be where your tale begins and ends, but the developers have managed to fill the sprawling world with side quests that can have a direct effect on the outcomes of the main story, possibly introducing characters that might end up helping or hindering your search for Ciri. Even the mini-missions you occasionally come across while wandering can impact on your journey, such is the way that CDPR have managed to sew everything together like a master artisan.
Introducing plot into almost everything makes The Witcher 3 feel like everything you do is important. It also makes your playtime flow, taking a break from the main quest, which almost never seems to make you rush or feel that you’re on a time limit, to take on a contract to get rid of a local haunting or monster nest just feels like part of the whole rather than a tagged on distraction to fill the game.
See, the Ciri story is not the ‘be all and end all’ of the plotline. There’s a war brewing between the Nilfgaardian Empire, Redania and old Temeria, with alliances, power grabs and political intrigue featured. The villages, towns and cities in the Northern Kingdoms show signs of the effects of war depending on what’s going on in the vicinity, sometimes to the point of total devastation. Small settlements in Velen for instance will have been ravaged by passing troops, with burned huts, men hung out as warnings and the women… Well, war tends to make monsters of men.
Luckily, Geralt hunts monsters, both the actual and metaphorical. You can choose to avenge widows or take no part in the ‘politics’ of war. Helping out, however, may have consequences. For instance, early on, you’ll come across a small borough that seems to be in fear of the local Baron’s men and rightly so. Going so far as to threaten Geralt himself at an inn, you can either calm the mood to save the locals a bit of immediate trouble or wade in, steel sword swinging…
I chose to buy the men a drink and spare the innkeeper some possible punishment. A good choice you might think, the choice of a man with morals. That was until I was about to leave the pub and overheard one of the thugs recounting a tale of rape on a farmer’s child. I stood there for a moment or so weighing up my options, finally drawing my sword and lopping the vile bastard’s head from his shoulders in a spray or claret and starting a full-on rammy with his friends. Soon after, the village was littered with the Baron’s men’s corpses from my bout of red-eyed vengeance.
I went on my way as normal, heading off to clear up a few abandoned settlements and hunt for hidden treasures on the way to Crow’s Perch. At the gates, I was refused entry and warned off due to the guards hearing of my exploits in the village earlier, making me hunt for another way into the town to confront the Baron as part of the main quest-line. Had I kept my blade in its sheath earlier and left the vulnerable of the village to their own fates, I would have been given free rein to ride through and go straight to my destination… If I could have lived with my choice, that is.
Clearing monster nests, completing contracts, getting rid of local bandits all have an impact though. These mini missions that are scattered as question marks throughout the map when you pick up notes from the local community boards, offer short ways to make some money or grab decent loot. They would normally be deemed as filler in other games of this ilk, but like the story, they can change the world too. Come back to Velen later in the game if you cleared the area of beasts and a community of crying widows will now be out picking flowers and milking cows now that they have a semblance of peace to get on with life.
These little things go hand in hand with the bigger changes, as Geralt makes his mark in the Northern Kingdoms and it’s this that makes playing The Witcher 3 one of the most involved and addictive RPG experiences to date. You will start thinking about your decisions before you make them and question ones you have already made when you later see the outcomes. You’ll sympathise with the victims and feel venom for the criminals, soldiers and people who have duped you into believing their tales of tragedy when really, they’re the perpetrators of a crime.
The Northern Kingdoms themselves are huge. From your beginnings in Kaer Morhen, the base of the wolf school witchers all the way to the Scandinavian/Celtic styled islands of Skellige, each area has its own flora, fauna and personality. Velen is full of dirty outposts, ragged villages and foggy swampland, while Novigrad and it’s surroundings are a mix of rich farmland, hilly vistas and the huge city itself, complete with villas, slums, sewers and merchant districts.
The cities are full of rich merchants, filthy beggars, strumpets and pirates alike and all from different races. The humans live alongside non-humans, mostly in disgust but still they continue in their everyday lives. Most can be seen working during the daylight hours while at night, the more salubrious come out to peddle their dodgy wares. Muggings, witch burnings, ship-building and card playing all go on while you go on your own way. Sometimes it’s just fun to walk through and listen to the conversations, especially the rude or funny ones, and do a bit of people watching.
While the people are interesting, Geralt is first and foremost a monster hunter and there are an absolute menagerie of them to sharpen your skills on in the Witcher 3. Packs of wolves nip at your heels as you ride through the countryside. The amphibian drowners launch themselves out of the water at you as you traipse your way through dank swamps and harpies make vicious dives at your face in the more mountainous regions. There are huge, winged griffins, hill giants, trolls and wraiths. All have their own fighting mechanics and ways to beat them down.
Each have their own place in the world, some are not native to an area and some are. They have their own strengths and weaknesses, delivered to you in a handy bestiary that unlocks as you beat foes or find books, detailing their origins and how to kill them with ease. Geralt has access, once you find recipes and schematics, to a wide range of bombs, traps, potions and oils that help dispose of the creatures. If you take time to wander off the beaten path of the main quest, you’ll find these helpful gadgets without having to hunt down merchants who sell them.
Another amazing thing about the Witcher series, is that everything is useful in some way. Pick the flowers and herbs you find scattered amongst the weeds in the wild for brewing potions. Save those monster parts you sliced off the owners for the same reason. There will be junk too, but junk can be broken down into components for use in armour and weapon crafting or to create runes to enhance them. Yes, there’s even special, upgradeable armour that have their own level of visual and statistical changes as you find the instructions for assembly through some very in-depth quests.
Nothing in the Witcher 3 feels like it’s just crammed in to keep the player busy or give them a bit of pointless distraction from getting bored with the story. So many games get it wrong and The Wild Hunt is the first that’s managed to link everything together in one big flavoursome pot of adventure RPG. While Dragon Age: Inquisition was a good game, the side missions and distractions never felt organic as part of the plot or world, just time fillers that quickly got repetitive and boring.
The same went for Skyrim, although probably my (now second) favourite open-world RPG, most of the scenery and monsters were too similar throughout the journey to keep it fresh. I absolutely hated going into a cave or barrow, just to be confronted with the same stonework and draugr warriors that I was chopping to death 200 hours beforehand. Luckily, the mods saved it. In The Witcher III, every cave manages to have its own atmosphere and sometimes puzzle mechanic. There’s story littered around in the form of letters, books and notes that tell you why there’s blood spattered up a wall and who’s blood it was and why the hell they were in that cave in the first place, sometimes even going to the extent of why the schematic for a pair of boots is awaiting for you at the end of the cavern is truly outstanding.
Along with all this, there’s a new card game called Gwent. This is my only personal hate of The Witcher 3 and will probably be happily received by most. I just can’t get into a more complicated version of Top Trumps and have failed to bother with the likes of Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone in my lifetime. It is another mini-game for the obsessed though and offers another way to get more involved with the world. You can collect cards by buying, completing missions, playing Gwenters both amateur and professional and you can also find rare cards that have special abilities. It sounds fun in theory to me but I just can’t bring myself to get into it. That will be up to you completely.
Since The Wild Hunt is so massive, there’s the option to scoot across large areas by means of Roach, your magnificent beast of a horse. Riding Roach feels a lot like horse-riding in Red Dead Redemption, using the x and y-axis controls to trot slowly, while holding the x button (on console) lets you start into a canter. While on a road, Roach will automatically follow the curve of the path, letting you relax a bit until you need to make a choice at a fork. Double tapping will set your steed into a full on gallop, rushing you through areas with speed that can get you from one outpost to another in a matter of seconds. If you don’t hit a fence or rock or invisible something on the way, that is.
Roach can have a few problems and is another minor niggle in The Witcher 3, especially when you’re in the middle of one of the racing quests and end up stuck for no reason, losing you money or having to load up a previous save so you don’t lose face. These racing quests are nice too, netting you better horse equipment. Saddle-bags that allow you to carry more in your inventory, saddles that raise Roach’s stamina for longer journeys and blinders to make him a bit less of a pussy cat when it comes to monsters, can all be won. They can also be bought, but you won’t find any of the rarer pieces outside of the races.
If you’re a bit lazy and can’t be bothered walking, running or riding through the gorgeous world, there’s always fast travel. Once you’ve entered an area with a fast travel signpost, you can quickly move to another if it’s unlocked. You can’t do this from anywhere however, making you travel to a green post on the map before you can use the mechanic. For me, I tend to use Roach as I’m still in wonder at the geography of the game.
Okay, so you can probably tell that I’m absolutely in love with the game already and I haven’t even covered the combat. With a combination of melee combat with both steel swords for human and beast and a silver one for monsters, you swing both with light and heavy attacks that can be upgraded with the levelling system. It feels good too. Using dodges, rolls and parries, you can easily weave a dance of death around a retinue of ruddy-faced soldiers… If the camera doesn’t bugger it up.
In tighter areas, you may be pushed up against a wall or find a tree to your back that totally puts you off your choreography of murder, sometimes leading to unfair deaths. It gets really tough when there’s five guys surrounding you in a small cavern and it feels like you have nowhere to move. Otherwise, once you get used to the myriad of attack and defence options, the combat feels wonderful. Geralt has instant access to all five of his Witcher spells from the start of the game, allowing you an advantage over large groups by setting them on fire with Igni or turning them against one another with Axii (particularly fun to watch).
Spells can be used outside of combat for completing puzzles, lighting fires so you can see in darker areas or jedi-mind-tricking idiot guards into letting you into blocked off areas, without having to slip him some coin or get into a ruckus on the busy streets. Sometimes this can fail with hilarious results though.
Characters are all played fantastically too. Geralt is as gruff and dryly amusing as ever and continues to be one of my favourite protagonists in RPG gaming. His retinue of friends each have a personality of their own and offer some interesting, funny and relevant dialogue that’s wasted little. Dandelion, the flouncy bard returns as annoying and self-absorbed as ever (in a good way). Triss and Yennefer, both love interests to Geralt in the past appear and arouse the passions of the White Wolf and being as bloody confusing as possible. Best Scottish actor in a video game award goes to Zoltan Chivay, full of friendly insults, actual slang and an accent that isn’t prohibited by devs that force their Scots to sound posh or stilted so people can understand them.
NPCs all deliver lines like pros too. Accents are spot on with a huge range of vocal talent from the voice acting department. Among the usual RP accents for the upper class are Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Geordie and Liverpudlian accents. Mancunian, Welsh, Cockney, Scots and Irish, both Northern and Republic. A smattering of American for most of the main cast and a little eastern European, French, Scandinavian and German for others.
Most teams stick with a few well used voices and run with it. CD Projekt Red have not been scared to dive into the pool of human sound in the real world and use it to such a point that the Northern Kingdoms feel a bit more real than most.
The soundtrack is quite familiar, using the typical Witcher theme and tracks that convey the atmosphere of the area or the occurrences you are experiencing at the time. Bawdy battle dirges thrum along as you slice your way through bandits, Celtic arias drift on the air as you trot through the lands of Skellige, peaceful and foreboding at the same time. By switching between classical backing for journeying and folky themes when visiting cities and towns, the music always feels as organic as everything else. Occasionally there’s a bit of singing too… Stirring poetry sung by siren-voiced bards all the way to songs with dirty lyrics, bawled out by a drunk, stumbling his way home from the Golden Sturgeon.
Finally, come the bugs. There’s a few still in the game but none seem to be massively game-breaking so far. Weapon-smiths don’t appear on my map, nor in-game, unless I meditate for an hour in their vicinity. It’s made me have to memorise their position and is a pain in the arse when I get a new sword schematic but again, there’s a workaround. One particular smith in Blackbough won’t even talk to me, no matter what and is more worry and hopefully not one of the master smiths I’ll probably need to have available at a later stage in the game.
There’s a spot of clipping, some weird issues with NPC’s ending up in the air and pop in of textures while the GPU is trying to keep up with the game. Apparently there are some fugly rocks being complained about, but that’s just nitpicking to be honest. Despite these few nasty blighters, it has not ruined more than a second of gameplay throughout and I’m still, after 110+ hours, working my way happily through the huge amount of content and intend to return again once finished to try it all over again. As a reviewer, we’re always saying that some game or another has set a bar high for competitors to reach… In my opinion, CD Projeckt Red have pulled the bar from its stand, added jet propulsion to its frame and launched it into space. RPG gamers, if they choose to dip their toe, will be sucked in from start to finish and quite happily drown in the beautiful world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
If I could marry a game, it would be The Witcher 3. Seriously. Even if I had to cook, clean and iron while it lazed it’s backside on the sofa, farting, eating pizza and drinking cheap beer. Buy it now and bow down to (just about) perfection.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, supplied by Bandai Namco.