AU ABROAD

VideAU Games Review: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PlayStation 4, 2015)

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is finally here. Years of waiting, delays and many, many trailers with glimpses of what Geralt of Rivia’s next adventure would look like have built fan hype to fever pitch. The question everyone seems to be asking now is: can CD Projekt Red deliver a game that achieves its lofty ambitions and satisfies fans? Hit the jump. We have a lot to talk about.

I’m going to touch on the game’s plot very briefly here at the top of the review so we can move on. I’ll try to stick to generalities for the rest of the review so as not to spoil anything, but if you’re a lore player looking to avoid spoilers altogether then go ahead and skip the next few paragraphs. I’ll tell you when it’s okay to look again.

SPOILERS

We rejoin Geralt of Rivia some time after the events of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. The Empire of Nilfgaard has invaded the Northern Kingdoms and is wreaking its own special brand of havoc in the region. Bickering amongst themselves, Temeria is been caught unawares by another, new invasion force - the Wild Hunt, an otherworldly army of black armoured warriors who sail in spectral ships, towing frost and death in their wake.

What the squabbling armies don’t realise is that the Wild Hunt want only one person, Ciri, a young and talented woman trained by Geralt and his friends, the closest thing the witcher has to family. With the Wild Hunt tearing the entire nation apart looking for her, Geralt begins an investigation of his own, tracking Ciri’s last known movements in an effort to find her before the Hunt does and shut them down. The main quest is great fun and continually delivers neat character moments and surprise appearances from fan favourite characters like Triss and Letho. It’s a solid story, but you can’t just plow through it the way you can in other RPG’s. The difficulty of the core quest missions increases substantially as it goes which often necessitates your getting out in the world and levelling up a bit before you can properly progress.

SPOILERS END

Hey, welcome back, spoiler-free people.

The Witcher 3 drops you into a world map that dwarfs those present in the last two games by a considerable margin. Taken as a whole, the complete map is a truly massive world, filled with hundreds of locations, pockets of civilisation both large and small to explore and loot. The map itself is broken down into a number of separate areas, each with their distinct look and feel - Velen with its swamps and marshes, early in the game, sets the tone with some of the best examples of the game’s rolling, organically designed landscapes. Novigrad is a colossal, bustling city filled with intrigue and Skellige is a series of craggy, windswept islands that are home to some very rough and tumble Nordic types. There’s character pouring out of every location you visit from the biggest cities to the most pokey, run-down wooden cabin in the middle of the woods. Every area feels as though it’s all-of-a-piece and it makes the world feel lived-in, truly inhabited and, in this, The Witcher 3 takes its cues from Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, which accomplished a similar feat. Riding from one side of a map to the other is never boring. The environment undulates and changes so gracefully and so naturally that even the longest ride feels worth the trip.

The locations aren’t the only things that set The Witcher 3’s game world apart though. CD Projekt Red have worked very hard to create a world that looks and feels fantastic but behaves in a realistic manner. Of particular note are the game’s incredibly advanced weather effects. When I first loaded up Far Cry 3, I thought “this is a beautiful looking island but … there’s no wind? It’s surrounded on all sides by wide open sea and none of the trees are moving?” It was eerily still and it continually broke the illusion of that setting. CD Projekt Red obviously had strong feelings regarding video game wind too because here trees and shrubs are all constantly blowing in the breeze - and the wind changes! Sometimes it’s a light breeze, sometimes it’s really gusty and every piece of foliage in sight gets tossed around. Similarly, clouds roll across the sky and the weather changes organically as the days wear on.

CD Projekt Red are doing things with the weather here that I’ve never seen in a game before - watching a massive soot-black stormfront roll in over the tiny island I was on was both visually striking and genuinely intimidating. It doubles down on your sense of immersion and brings a sensation of life to your surroundings. Birds flock realistically in the distance as you ride over plains, and the light of the sun or moon changes based on the time of day and weather conditions as well. I’m yet to run across a sunset in the game that wasn’t screenshot worthy. It’s glorious, achingly beautiful work by the environment teams and I want to shake every one of their hands for a job well done.

Similar beauty can be found all over The Witcher 3’s game world. Unwilling to shy away from using colour, CD Projekt Red have filled their world with bright colours - buildings, clothing and foliage all bathed in more than just the usual “shades of brown” palette we’ve come to expect from titles that are going for realism. Yes, this is a grimy and often unseemly world but people are still trying to make these places home and so little flourishes like painted flowers on a wall or a lush garden in the centre of a swamp-bound fort adds colour and further character to the world. Add to this the game’s gorgeous orchestral soundtrack and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

Even the character models are beautiful in their ugliness. Temeria is a harsh land and that harshness is carved into the face of every person you meet. Ruddy complexions, missing teeth, cuts, scars, sagging skin, all are par for the course, but it’s how expressive each character is that is truly striking. A combination of motion capture and keyframe animation has been used to create some genuinely lifelike characters - I had one particularly memorable exchange with a godling in a swamp who had lost his voice. The level of expression in his face when the little guy was trying to communicate with me blew my hair back.

Even Geralt’s character model has quirks of its own, my favourite being the game’s inclusion of dynamic hair and beard growth. That’s right, the longer you stay out on the road, the shaggier Geralt becomes. Amazing. A fortnight on the road, galavanting around Velen chasing down various sidequests and Geralt was hidden behind a full beard and a shoulder-length mane of white hair. After wandering into a city on another side quest, I happened to pass a barber and got him a cut and a shave. Within a few days, you could already see Geralt’s hair beginning to defeat the barber’s hard work.

With all this visual fidelity on display, it’s remarkable that CD Projekt Red were able to optimise the game as well as they have. The whole thing scoots along at a mostly-solid 30 frames per second at 1080p (on my PS4 review copy at least. Xbox One owners have a variable resolution of between 900p and 1080p as the game requires). There are some occasional frame rate drops where the game is asked to do a lot under the hood at once, or to transition from one ludicrously gorgeous render to another. It’s in those moments the game will momentarily become very stuttery indeed, which the graphics snobs of the world may find a bit annoying. It’s fleeting though and CD Projekt Red have gotten it so completely right in all other visual respects that the odd bit of stutter feels like a very small price to pay indeed. Personally, I think it’s a serious feather in the developer’s cap that there isn’t a lot more of it.

Alright, you get it. This is an extremely pretty game with an insane eye for detail. Let’s move on to how it actually plays. Right from the jump CD Projekt Red wants to show you that they have learned from their mistakes on The Witcher 2. The overhauled tutorial is a quantum leap from the previous game’s muddled drop in the deep end. It takes its time to show you the basics before moving on and simply instructs you on various new features and concepts as you encounter them in the world rather than throwing everything at you at once. It’s a much smarter, smoother approach and it makes the start of the game far more appealing.

There’s still a pretty steep learning curve, though. It feels much easier to get to grips with the combat in The Witcher 3 than it did in The Witcher 2 but it’s still very easy for fights to get completely out of control. Aggro too many enemies or fail to block at the right time and there’s every chance you’ll be authoritatively ganked on the spot. Having said that, when you get it right and bisect a bandit from shoulder to hip with your sword, watching his buddies back up a second and re-evaluate their life choices is pretty satisfying.

Geralt has his twin swords, one steel and one silver, with which to complete his wet work. He is also armed with any number of extra goodies like powerful spells, bombs and poisons of his own manufacture and a crossbow that can stun enemies in their tracks long enough for him to reposition himself on the battlefield. He also has his Witcher Sense which allows him to enter a state of heightened awareness when he needs to track his quarry or investigate a crime scene. All of Geralt’s abilities can be upgraded as you level up from a pleasantly simple, multi-tiered skill tree, and it’s up to you to play to your strengths there. You can’t use all of your skills right away, of course - as you level up, you’ll unlock slots to plug these upgrades into and it’s these that will affect your base stats. By the time I hit level 10, I had a few slots available and was slowly turning Geralt into a machine of bandit annihilation.

The occasional ganking does tie into one of The Witcher 3’s biggest problems - its load times. They go on for what feels like forever, some up to a couple of minutes, before plonking you back into the action. True, the game’s very forgiving autosave feature comes to your rescue more often than not and puts you, if not right back where you were, then pretty close to it. However, if you’re in an especially tough battle and you die a few times, it’s easy to get frustrated with all the waiting you have to do between reloads. The long loads serve a similar purpose to Grand Theft Auto V’s massive upfront load time - it mostly removes the necessity of loading screens during the game, which makes for a more cohesive experience. You’ll still catch little examples of hidden loading here and there though - doors that take just a second too long to swing open and an occasional blurring during cutscenes as specific lines of dialogue that match your previous choices are inserted.

There’s a rhythm to the combat in The Witcher 3 that you have to key into early. It may appear on the surface like getting stuck into a bandit camp and wailing on everything in sight is a viable option, but (as mentioned above) when the odds start to slide the other way and things start looking a bit ganky, you best bet is to pull right back and take your time. Develop a strategy, pick your targets and slowly wear them down. Fights, especially when faced with tougher bosses, can start to drag on for a really, really long time (which is when the dying and sitting through the long load times becomes truly infuriating). Most of the time, the fights remain interesting and very tactical affairs that require you to stay on your toes. You need to watch your positioning so as to take full advantage of any attack opportunities. However, when battles go on this long, it can start to become a bit fatiguing and you’ll catch yourself making sloppy mistakes when your attention slips or you start to get too comfortable. In this sense, there’s a period of adjustment when playing The Witcher 3. It offers you a massive world filled with hundreds of hours of content, but it also wants you to take your time and savour every minute.

Fights and squabbles and new quests are everywhere. Riding across the game’s various areas on your horse Roach leads to a level of sidetracking and personal investigation usually reserved for Elder Scrolls games. I’d be on my way to a particular objective marker, only to notice something on my minimap and veer off the beaten path to check it out. Other times, I would run into a robbery or someone asking for help in the road and stop to see what they wanted. The main quest is pretty juicy and invites you to sink your teeth into it but there’s so much to do outside of that quest line - most of it interesting and fun - that you can’t really go wrong (unless you decide to tackle a mission way beyond your current level - if you’re doing that, yeah, okay, you’re probably doing it wrong).

The only issues I really ran into while questing concerned the map - first, the map really only comes in two flavours, the tiny window at the top of your HUD or the whole thing on the map screen. It feels like there should be some sort of inbetween, even if you were only able to expand the mini-map window on the main screen to get a better look at what’s around you without going all the way into the map screen. The second was that fast travelling is only done through signposts in each town - it’s not as simple as deciding you’d rather be somewhere else and then teleporting there through the menus. You go to a sign post, choose your fast travel location and then you can teleport to another sign post. Problem is, almost every time I wanted to fast travel I’d find myself in the middle of goddamned nowhere with the nearest signpost a ten-minute ride away, even after I’d gone out of my way to uncover as many sign posts as I could. A bit annoying, but not a deal breaker. The third, and most irritating, was the line on the mini map that leads you to your next quest. Sometimes the line is fine and gets you where you need to go. At all other times the line is an evil joker and will lead you into grave danger before arbitrarily changing its mind and telling you to go a different way entirely. There’s no way to know which is which until it’s too late. This seems to be a result of there being a staggering amount of roads both large and small in game world and the game constantly trying to find you the fastest route. An irritating, but forgivable quirk that makes you feel like you’re taking your life in your hands every time you get on your horse.

Even when you pick up a quest that isn’t so interesting, Geralt - in a moment of extreme, welcome meta - suddenly starts roleplaying you. When tasked with retrieving a goat that had wandered away from its owner by using a bell and leading it home, Geralt spent most of the quest grumbling under his breath about the ridiculousness of the situation in much the same way I was. It’s refreshing to see a developer finding a new way to make even the most unappealing of quests amusing.

And if you’re not questing? Turns out there’s just as much to do in Temeria when you have no objective in mind. Beyond the now traditional elements of armour, weapons and alchemy crafting, there’s gambling events like horse races or fighting tournaments to enter, and even a deck-building card game called Gwent that works a bit like Magic: The Gathering. Call it hyperbole if you want but Gwent might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s so incredibly difficult to win at. Seriously, to be any good at it I had to become a complete Gwent fiend, pestering everyone I came across for a game until I got the hang of it and hounding every merchant for rare cards. It’s punishingly difficult but, like Magic, strangely addictive.

You’ll need to be careful with your in-game money, though. Don’t go wasting it all at once because the fact is that, even by RPG standards, everything costs a fortune and selling it earns you peanuts. Focusing on the crafting aspect of the game yields better results over a far longer period of time, unless you don’t mind standing in a field for a few hours farming (heh) cows for their valuable hides.

I could easily rattle on for another five or six pages about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. There really is that much to talk about here - I mean, I haven’t gotten to boats, meditation, trophies or horse mods in this review yet. In The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, CD Projekt Red have created their masterpiece. Every facet of this game is an achievement in its own right, from visuals to world-building, from character interaction to map design. When I met key members of the team back in January for a quick hands on with game’s prologue section, every one of them expressed their unified desire to get this game right. They had the look of people who were exhausted by the enormity of their task, but were refusing to rest until it was the best game they could possibly make. You did it, boys and girls. You did it. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the best game of the year so far, and I can already see it scooping up GOTY awards left and right come December. This is an instant, modern classic and you owe it to yourself to play it.

Review Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Incredible visuals; engrossing story; so much to do!
Lowlights: Steep learning curve may be offputting for some
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Publisher: Bandai Namco Australia
Released: May 19, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4