There is no question in my mind that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has been worth the wait. It’s sheer scale and absolution in content, alongside its surprisingly strong narrative -- both in the main quest lines, and the peripheral ones around them -- is delivered with a maturity rarely ever seen in games of this scope.
There’s Triple-A gaming, and then there’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Watch my full video review for the game embedded above
It’s impossible not to have to draw comparison to Skyrim, but it shouldn’t be the only yardstick by which CD Projekt RED’s magnum opus is compared. This is open-world gaming at its finest. It’s largely free and unbound by your own adventurous noseying, and you’re really only fenced in by the progression at which you’re on at any given time. The game-world doesn’t wholly scale, and you’re rewarded much more for questing than grinding. It's also a hugely and intimidatingly open space with multiple regions, and while the removal of scaling is important, it also means no one area is home to the elite of elites, meaning you'll be revisiting early provinces to tackle difficult, higher level enemies, regardless of where you’ve wound up in the story.
There’s structure here, too, albeit with a sandbox built around it. It’s through this structured gameplay, however, that the hope for emergent gameplay falls just shy of Bethesda’s much-loved open-world design. The reasons for this come down to early checklist-styled adventuring, where the game's map and it's heavily keyed points-of-interest tend to remove some sense of discovery. It’s all part of a system that can be customised, of course, so hardcore players can actually turn it off and just roam the world hoping to trip up on their next hint of adventure if they choose to, and the later into the game you get the more quests tend to find you, rather than you finding them. But for mine it happens just a bit too late for it to feel truly player-dynamic, at least from the outset.
This doesn’t negate the experience though, and is in place because there’s simply too much to come across early on, given how quickly the game opens up for you. In fact it’s an intimidating space when you start to use the map system properly -- the first time I came across a boat and set sail with no real destination in mind was a liberating moment, and one I continued at any given chance throughout my traversal of the game-world. The oceans and waterways proved far more dangerous than they first appeared, too. And so while there’s less quest discovery in exploration than Bethesda’s beast, the world’s rich monster lore and its gorgeous, gorgeous absolutely gorgeous visuals create an almost solely personal -- and emergent -- unscripted and unintentional quest for eye-candy discovery.
So this world -- arguably the most intricate and detailed ever created in the history of videogames, is also a joy to move through. In fact I spent more time on foot than using any other means to get around when I wasn’t faced with bodies of water. On PS4, running natively at 1080p and without the day-one patch it rarely ever dipped in performance and just always impressed. Beyond just looking good though, there’s a real sense of animation and nature to it all, despite the game’s setting being one of a land torn by war with death all around. Alleged no-goodnicks hang from trees and posts with hessian bags over their heads; identities shielded from the rest of the land’s denizens to prove that anyone can become a decorative deterrent where the forced law of conflict is concerned.
It’s a story worthy of a place in the more accepted subculture of dark fantasy ruled across media by Game of Thrones. First-timers will easily love this facet but may also be surprised to learn that this series, and the books it’s based upon, have been the at the fore of adult and mature storytelling for a long time. Wild Hunt is both at times brutal and sexy, with a juxtaposition of hard-edged steel (or silver), blood and death being met with soft, naked skin; passion, lust and even love.
There are no punches pulled in how this is all told, either. It’s also measured with aplomb. Small, seemingly insignificant quests can hold deeper truths about the larger story at-hand, if you’re willing to take them on. You’ll even oddly gain relics, artifacts and materials many other games would consider indispensable quest items, that can be sold or dismantled at your leisure or peril. There’s an odd underlying sense of player-driven decision-making built, likely, off the idea that, unlike say, Skyrim, you’re playing an important and known character here. The infamous White Wolf: a monster slayer, an alchemist, a notorious womaniser, the pony-tailed ashen-haired mutant, Geralt of Rivia -- a point the game will remind you of often.
What stems from this is a skillset that does away with the jack of all trades approach so many other games in realms like this have adopted, leaving you to seek out skilled professionals throughout the land to help you (each with their own level of ability). You can pick up items that help you along the way, and as a Witcher Geralt is an alchemist by trade, so potions, oils and the like are constructable by the player-character, but the requirement to build out your character through other game-world characters is a unique and important toolset in how Wild Hunt takes you from village to village, town to town, city to city, and swamp to swamp.
Of course even an established character such as Geralt is going to grow in the heavy wake of the Wild Hunt tasks before him, and the game’s crafting, item-management and player-progression system is one of its strongest components. Newcomers might find it a little intimidating as CD Projekt RED wasn’t afraid to adopt a UI that feels like it would be better placed on PC than TVs, but it doesn’t take too long to wrap your head around it. In many ways this is also a treatment of the maturity the game’s design carries with it and this is furthered by the challenge applied to both combat and combat preparation.
While I alluded earlier that you will be unable to face certain monsters, or even safely venture into certain areas, much of the challenge comes in the different aspects of monster conflict The Witcher series has always prided itself on. Certain monsters need to be attacked with a silver sword, for example, but they can also be damaged more with the inclusion of a specific oil applied to the blade edge of that sword. You can also build out weapons and armour with enchantments that help your own magic, or Signs as they’re called in this universe.
Signs are basic magic abilities like Igni which creates a short burst of flame to apply fire damage on your opponents. Like many other attributes, these can also be bolstered with ability points gained either by leveling up, or finding special stones littered throughout the game-world called “places of power”. They also provide temporary buffs, so each stone can be used again and again, but you only gain the one ability point when they’re first discovered. Thankfully, while your ability point accrual may be limited, or difficult to harvest, your ability tree is a dynamic one that can be changed as you go, and with the addition of mutagens -- ability harmony boosters that are colour-coded, you can craft a truly unique character that can be changed to help deal with any task at-hand.
And that’s the perfect closing segue, because it is in monster hunting (or “Witcher Contracts”) that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt separates itself from any of the games mentioned in comparison. From a checklist point-of-view it has all the hallmarks an open-world game requires: ungated regions, points-of-interest, loot, fast travel, multiple ways to traverse, crafting, dungeons, ever-evolving and engaging main and side-quests along with a cool, calm and collected character capable of kicking ass and getting a haircut (you can get haircuts). His tracking abilities and his measurement of the environment around him, however, empower players to embody a different type of character than one they might have created on their own. He has a history -- one known throughout the land, and his ilk is both despised and adored for their profession.
It’s that very profession that ties him and the player to the land in Wild Hunt though, despite the larger-than-life story that finishes out CD Projekt RED’s epic run with the White Wolf, and, as cold as they might be, it’s the monsters and the would-be monsters that lurk that keep Geralt of Rivia on the trail -- tracking, listening, watching and slaying.
What we liked
The most stunning open-world ever created
Monsters and humans, alike fill a dangerous land with indifferent and interesting character
Geralt is awesome, as always
A mature romp in every way adult gamers could hope (not just sex, either)
What we didn't like
Takes a slightly more structured approach to quest discovery
Some Geralt movement, like jumping and climbing can be problematic
Ciri missions could have used a bit more expansive play