After a near three-hour jaunt through The Witcher 3, I can’t say I’m upset at the game’s most recent push-back from release. The ambitious challenger to the open-world RPG crown needs all the time in polish it can get. That’s not to say what I played was bad by any measure, those three hours should be submitted to a grand jury as evidence of torture in that I was limited to just that amount of time. It’s like someone gave me a million dollars but only let me count it, not spend it.
So first, the rough stuff.
It should be duly noted that obviously what I played was not final code. The team has some four months or so to really tighten up the game, but it does need work in a number of areas. Quest designer Philipp Weber did reveal that the game is locked to content at this stage though, meaning any and all development time moving forward is just on bug fixing, and the ensemble cast who came out from Poland to showcase the game were embracingly open to critical feedback among the journos who were doing the Geralt rounds. They even went so far as having feedback forms -- made of real paper, and requiring active penpersonship -- for areas any of us felt needed improvement. I finished my session by mentioning that the camera in tight interiors could use some work, and that combat on horseback left much to be desired. That last one, apparently, was an active bug that is on their list of things to fix, but apart from some pop-in and the aforementioned, it was all very digestible, but I do want to talk a little bit about combat and movement up front.
Assassin’s Creed is probably one of the worst perpetrators in this space, because it would make perfect sense for Ubisoft Montreal, and they have the R&D, cash and time to do it, but it’s high-time developers started truly borrowing from, and building upon, Rocksteady’s game-changing combat system. There are myriad games that would not only benefit from it, but outright do it justice, yet they all tend to stick to systems that are archaic and less intuitive (in the challenge sense).
In the case of The Witcher 3, it’s immediately clear CD Projekt RED is gearing the game towards the hardcore. They are gamers, and this is the sort of game they want to play. The monster and tracking/detective component alone speaks volumes of their intention, so it irks a little that their combat system feels so frustrating. Like the last Witcher outing, strikes, parries, blocks and more are all built around correct timing, but it’s very basic on the surface. Moreover, with Geralt’s ‘magic’ and ‘abilities’, you’re forced to interrupt the flow of combat by opening a wheel with LB (on Xbox One) which slows the conflict down, in order to choose which rune you want to use as it’s bound to a single button. In the case of the Batman: Arkham games, you have ready access to all of Batman’s gadgets and moves through various combinations of the controller’s face buttons. It’s a complicated and layered system, but one that rewards players willing to put in the time to learn how to access and use everything in their brilliant freeflow system. There’s no reason a game going for a serious challenge in combat, with a skirmish system that often sees the protagonist surrounded by multiple enemies at once, shouldn’t be looking to Rocksteady for inspiration.
All of that said, combat is still a more than playable component to the game, and CD Projekt RED’s system isn’t broken, by any measure, it just doesn’t feel in line with everything else the game is working to achieve. It’s an area I wholly believe they could be bolstering by properly layering and redefining, rather than building off their system from The Witcher 2.
My other gripe lands with Geralt’s animation tree, which is a mixed bag of good and disjointed awkwardness. Jumping, for example -- a facet we’ve never been able to enjoy freely with the series before -- doesn’t look or feel great. Geralt almost becomes weightless during his leaps, and while I fully believe a mutated and acrobatically-trained Witcher is capable of lofty jumps, it just never really feels like it’s a complete part of the rest of his movement tree. Analogue movement is less incremental as well, and I found that the difference between walking and running was too sudden and came across almost digital as a result. Movement definitely suffers most when inside buildings because the camera can get stuck or take a while to adjust to NPCs or basic architecture.
These are fixable things in my opinion, but they did stand out as issues I felt needed addressing, and it’s the sort of feedback the team was asking for.
While I mentioned horseback combat as being another known bug they’re working on, it’s important to point out that the actual horse riding here feels fantastic. It’s less like you’re riding on a cow, as it often felt like in Skyrim, and more akin to riding Epona in any of the 3D Legend of Zelda games.
Your horse’s name is Roach and like Red Dead Redemption, you can call out to him at any time in the game (except in interiors, of course) and he’ll come to you. He has a stamina bar and can be ridden hard, but will also move forward at a steady pace by just holding down the A button. If you’re on a path, he’ll also follow that path without you having to steer him. It’s part of the team’s smart horse riding system that also ensures Roach never just rides into walls or trees -- he might be a digital recreation of the real thing, but he still doesn’t want to ‘die’ or get hurt.
When danger lurks a fear bar will also crop up while you’re riding your horse, as an indicator that there are enemies or more around. It’s a great idea and the more full the bar, the more imminent the danger leaving you a choice of getting the heck out of there, or dismounting for some sword slingin’. Roach will also defend himself against attackers, and can often aggro for you, giving you some breathing room if you’re facing multiple enemies.
Philipp Weber also told me that Roach can’t actually die, which is a good thing I think.
As far as the open-world component goes, it’s easily the game’s strongest element and is riddled with things to do, see and explore. I found myself moving between mission objectives for the main questline, only to be distracted every single time by one thing or another. By the time I’d even pushed the story forward in what should have been 10-15 minutes of game time, a solid 90 minutes or so had passed and I’d uncovered the whereabouts and motives of an arson (whose grisly fate I decided), investigated the death of a merchant who it turned out was killed by his lying partner, killed numerous wolves, ghouls and bandits and even spent way too much time playing Gwent -- an ancient Dwarven card game that is far too addictive for its own good.
At one stage I checked a notice board in one of the towns I was in and my heart sunk into my chest at the sheer scale of gameplay on offer in the form of missions and monster contracts you can gain from these, alongside the emergent content that dynamically reveals itself based on how you move through, and interact with, the game’s rich and lush world -- whether it’s a densely-populated town, a small village, snowy peaks, barren grassland, swamps, decaying fortresses and castles, the high seas and much, much more, you’re always going to find something
Gameplay as part of the open-world is obviously a driving force, but it’s the natural forces at play that truly bring The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt to life. Dynamic weather and day and night are known systems, but actually stalking through a dense wood at night with gale force winds bending the brush and trees in as dramatic fashion as I’ve ever seen, is a hard moment to relay. When this escalates to a storm with thunder, and monsters start to circle and move in, the game reveals itself as a moody beast not to be taken lightly. Geralt’s world is a dark one, but this time around CD Projekt RED has gone above and beyond characters and writing to relay this -- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is wild, and in keeping with the play on words, often you’re the one being hunted, and not by a single entity, but rather by the game itself with its myriad quirks, traits and personalities.
The recent announcement of a plethora of DLC dropping for free post-launch is more good news for one of 2015’s most ambitious titles, and while I’ve spent some time here talking about areas of the game I feel could be improved, the extra development time, and the team’s impassioned request for critical feedback makes those concerns less worrying and (hopefully) presented as more of a challenge for them to get right. No game is ever perfect, but CD Projekt RED is doing the right thing by shopping their work in progress now, rather than dealing with consumer backlash at a broken or incomplete experience. If only more developers were afforded this kind of humility and freedom, the landscape as we know it today in the Triple-A space would be a very different one.
Stay tuned in the immediate future and over the next few months for more from us and CD Projekt RED on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.