It isn’t every day that I experience something so grand that I want to do little else with my time, so naturally, when The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was announced, I got a little too excited. I couldn’t tell you with certainty how much time I poured into its predecessor, but it was an absolutely memorable experience that was the source of many good moods. When compared to Assassin of Kings, the third installment of the franchise starts off at a rather slow pace, even if it is just to show versatility toward newcomers to the series. You aren’t flung head-first into the world like before, true, but it’s still an enjoyable introduction and like a refresher course in case you’ve had the silver wolf medallion off for too long.
Our story this time around follows Geralt as he shadows the trail left behind by his lost-love, Yennefer, and soon learns that his surrogate daughter and fellow witcher, Ciri, is in pending harm at the hands of the Wild Hunt, a group of specters said to be an omen of misfortune and death. At a glance, the main story seems to revolve around Geralt performing trivial tasks in exchange for information regarding Ciri’s whereabouts, but it’s done in a manner that hardly gets tedious and offers numerous, interesting side stories. It is a dense, captivating and addictive experience that truly parts the sea of roleplaying games and stands on a well-deserved pedestal.
It’s a completely non-linear experience that encourages you to step off the beaten path and discover what the world has to offer and in turn, giving you further aid in your journey. Depending on your decisions in The Witcher 2 (which can be recreated via dialogue early in the game if you haven’t played the last game), there will be a handful of returning characters that offer additional quests and provide more interesting stories, ranging from underground turf wars between gangs in the bigger cities, unveiling assassination plans, and opportunities to develop personal relationships and useful alliances. In addition to your standard side-quests, Geralt can take on monster-hunting contracts to help the community and earn extra coin. Monsters in these contracts can range from women murdered the day of their wedding and turned into violently angry wraiths to winged beasts that threaten the well-being of village outskirts. Taking on these contracts prove to be one of the most effective ways to earn your income in a pseudo-opportune economy.
These monster hunts not only provide a source of income, but the inspiration and encouragement to venture out of the comfort of peasant communities and big cities. In lieu of this, you’re given interesting insights into the lands being destroyed by the war between the Temerians and Nilfgaardians, as well as the politics behind it. Similar to the civil war sub-plot in Skyrim, there’s the sub-plot of the war in the world of The Witcher. Your role in the plot won’t shift the main story in an immense fashion, but even the subtlest of choices can change something noticeably. There’s no meter to determine good or evil, just cause and effect, and the decisions you make can actually change the world around you.
Character progression and equipment availability serve the ultimate purpose, of course, and the system is certainly more accessible in some ways and more intricate in other ways, when compared to the game’s predecessor. Your methods of restocking potions, oils, decoctions, etc. have been simplified down to meditation; once you dabble in alchemy and craft potions and other useful consumables, Geralt can meditate to restock them—as well as pass time and regenerate health. I found it to be incredibly well done, considering that there is no rhyme or reason to the growth of herbs or their native locations. I found it a lot easier to locate an herbalist and purchase a bushel of celandine than track down and remember what region it can be found in. There’s also a handful of more useful potions than before, which can greatly improve combat capabilities or even grant you temporary, useful properties.
Speaking of combat, it’s been improved since the last game and is more brutal, fluid and responsive. It’s easily the most enjoyable combat I’ve experienced in a game so far, to the point that I look forward to battles, even when I’m in the mood for simple exploration. In combat, you can use a combination of light and heavy attacks, parry enemy strikes with precision, cast Signs for effective assistance and even take an arm or two with the occasional bouts of gory finishing moves.
Signs have been improved as well with a wider variety of upgrades, making them completely useful and sometimes even necessary. With specific upgrades, Geralt can fight in combat entirely with the witcher signs if done correctly, which I found to be a rather surprising and fascinating ability. The new skill system provides a great deal of versatility while still being functional, useful and not over or underpowered.
One of the more interesting – and daunting – diversions within the experience is a card game called Gwent. It is essentially a deck-building game that is a quest in itself and certainly the most difficult. The concept of the game is simple: build a strong deck of cards and defeat your opponent by strategically placing cards to have the highest strength rating. The difficult concept is tracking down the cards to build a strong collection, especially considering that some of the most useful cards are easily missable. Of course, you can start the game over from the beginning if you do, or save the collecting for your second playthrough.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt stands as an experience with an aim for quality and quantity; with a wonderfully overwhelming amount of quests, both critical to the narrative and secondary, I never once tired of the game. Since launch, I found myself unable to put the controller down and thoroughly enjoyed every moment. Even after seeing the narrative to the end, the world of Wild Hunt really keeps a hold on you, inspiring you to return and see what else the experience is offering. Depending on your play style, you might end up doing a majority of the side quests and exploration long before reaching the second act of the story. Conversely, you might finish the game without playing a single round of Gwent or completing a treasure hunt. But that’s where the lovely, non-linear aspects come into play; the only restrictions come by way of ability, so don’t expect to take on a significant enemy at rank level four or wear the best armor in the game at level five—but that is literally the only restriction. You can essentially go anywhere at any time and there’s multiple ways of getting there.
In terms of visual representation, I found The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt to be on the next level of graphical excellence for this generation and truly highlight what should be expected. While it hasn’t exactly reached the same level of cinematic realism that put The Last of Us (and soon, Until Dawn) on a pedestal, one needs to take a step back and appreciate what CD Projekt Red have managed to accomplish in a game with such an overwhelmingly large world. It’s understandable to have CGI-relative graphics when there isn’t an open world waiting for your arrival at any time without a preliminary loading screen. In other words, while Wild Hunt doesn’t look like The Last of Us, there’s a lot more to it and still manages to have such brilliant visuals. The amount of detail in Wild Hunt has produced a truly magnificent sight to behold. Characters look stunning and the environments look captivating and react to the dynamic weather in a phenomenal way. Foliage dances with the heavy winds, sandy shorelines look damp and muddy during a storm and swamplands truly look muggy, humid and uncomfortable.
Voice acting is truly diverse and believable, never really feeling out of place. Peasants in the village outskirts speak in the typical slang and uncouth dialect, while more privileged townsfolk of Oxenfurt and Novigrad speak with more charm and elegance. I never once found the script or acting to feel forced, which really highlights immersive factors within the lore and setting. Geralt himself has moments in which he sounds almost robotic, which he coincidentally explains to another character that the witcher mutations stripped him of emotion, but has enough personality and character to not feel dull or tired.
To be honest, I found it hard to find anything so wrong with the game, it needed mentioning. Like with any open-world experience, especially roleplaying games, there are a handful of bugs to be worked out and the development team have been hard at work since launch, addressing the issues and distributing patches to rectify them. I, personally, haven't experienced anything game-breaking. For me, the one downside – which is come to be a forgivable occurrence – is the abundance of repetitive “go here, do this” side quests in order to enlist someone’s help. Like Commander Shepard once said, “Just once I'd like to ask someone for help and hear them say, 'Sure. Let's go. Right now. No strings attached.’” It comes with the territory though and while they are sometimes tedious, they never really feel cumbersome. The alleviating aspect is Geralt’s commentary, in which even he feels annoyed by the slightly trivial tasks of escorting someone’s esteemed goat just to get some information that didn’t seem worth the hassle.
Overall, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt truly delivers a brilliant experience that goes above and beyond in terms of quality, a rarity in an industry where the standard is the bare minimum. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt comes from a developer that refuses to conform and still believes in giving back to the fans, which is why new copies come with a thank you note, a real game manual (a huge, pleasant surprise there), a quaint companion guide, a copy of the soundtrack, a map of the game's lands and stickers. In addition, CD Projekt Red have sixteen (16) free DLC items being distributed weekly. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt isn’t just a great installment in the series, but as a fantastic standalone RPG for gamers outside of the series’ fan base. It also sets an example in the gaming industry by giving back to the gamers, without whom, the industry wouldn't even exist.