So I’ve been lucky enough to really spend some quality time with the Witcher III now. Gone is the initial rush of attraction for its beauty. I’ve got to know the real game underneath, its obsessions and its neuroses. Even now, though, I’m far from having reached the end.
In fact, I’m merely in the opening scenes of the second main chapter. After having explored the war-torn countryside of Velen with its dismal swamps and ancient forests, I’m moving now into a more urban setting for the next major chunk. So make of that what you will. This is still an incomplete look at a game so huge it tries to do a bit of everything, and mostly succeeds.
One thing to note. For a roleplaying game, very little time is spent exploring underground dungeons and caves. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, of course, but with a surface world so damn easy on the eyes, it’d be a shame to spend too long among the stalactites and tombs that we’ve seen so many times in other games. When you’re riding quietly along a forest track, and the treeline breaks to show you the fens stretching ahead with the pink and blue of a radiant sunset above, clouds of blackbirds twirling in the skies above your head… it’s hard to not believe in the world. So pretty, you could almost ignore the hanged corpses dangling from the trees. Or that pack of drowners gnawing on your horse.
Lots of whining has happened recently about the graphics not being up to the standards of the earlier demos, and to those who continue to whine, I say this: If you’re thinking of buying an open-world RPG that will keep you engaged and entertained for three figures’ worth of hours, and you’re worrying about the number of tessellating vertexes in a rose bush, you need to re-evaluate. Development is development, and marketing is marketing. The Witcher III isn’t a game that needs to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes to make sales.
How’s this for a selling point? There have been scenes of heart-wrenching tragedy that had me close to tears. Other scenes that filled me with moral repugnance and judgmental outrage. Still others where I felt an aching sympathy. But get this – all of these scenes related to a single ultimately unimportant quest-giver whose sole purpose in the scheme of things is to point you to the next part of the story arc.
This wasn’t an isolated case. (I’m afraid this next paragraph might be very slightly spoilery). After a heady night of romance and fine wine, I found myself used and cast aside by the object of my affections. Slowly replaying the conversations and actions that had led me to this point, I couldn’t believe what I fool I’d been, how obviously I’d let my base drives blind me to what was coming – and how many opportunities I’d had to avoid this outcome. This feeling of having been ‘honey trapped’ through my own naiveté was a new one for me in a videogame.
One thing that’s hard to pull off in an open-world game is pacing. You may be told that something’s urgent and needs investigating straight away, but if the player just kind of wanders off gathering herbs and entering horse racing competitions, there’s little the game can do to force narrative pace without robbing the player of the initiative that defines open-world play. There are points where you find yourself in a closed environment for the sake of keeping the game moving, and these are perhaps the weakest moments. One such section had me travelling underground in order to retrieve a maguffin of some kind, and was topped off with one of the dullest boss battles I think I’ve ever played in any game.
But when you make a choice that just feels wrong somehow, but is better than the alternatives, and the results of that decision come around and you find yourself staring at the grisly indirect fruits of that decision… that’s the kind of place where the Witcher III shines. Sure, it’s also fun running off and trying to find the monsters that make up your sideline witcher contracts (all of which have twists, and are as interesting as any sub-plots I can think of), or playing the surprisingly in-depth collectible card game that seems to have swept through the witcher’s world. This open world is mostly believable and filled with depth; the ability to spot a lie or ease someone’s suspicion is as useful a skill as that of swordplay. Well, OK, perhaps not quite that useful, but still worthwhile.
Using Geralt’s witcher sense, clues can be easily seen, which allow for numerous detective-style plots. I mentioned in my pre-review review that sometimes you can feel like a Ghostbuster, and it’s true. Working out what exactly is going on is as rewarding – more so, perhaps – than finally defeating the monster you’re hunting, be it a tormented werewolf with family issues or… no, there are too many things that need exploring on your own. Giving them away would be cruel.
Combat is, for the most part, fun, although it can occasionally devolve into a random clickfest. Certainly, swordplay has been made fairer than in the Witcher 2, and with oils, potions, decoctions and signs there are plenty of ways to approach any foe. While the old, tired time-slowdown returns, it’s mostly used to make sense of options that would otherwise be too unwieldy to be useful – fighting from horseback, for example.
There are all the things you’re used to seeing: fancy levelling of skills, buying and crafting new weapons and magic items, and so on – but it’s all just kind of done right. Like CDPR are capable of learning from the rest of the industry. Too rarely do these things go right.
Ultimately, after all of this stuff though – the graphics, the crafting, the combat – what really comes through is the story, and its emphasis on strong, complex characters and ambiguous outcomes. The things you do and the things you say really do matter later on – in fact, I spent a couple of hours exploring a whole storyline that was only possible due to my actions in the Witcher 2, which I recalled and communicated to a character early on in this game. Again, that was another storyline where my naiveté led to a less-than-perfect outcome.
Are there perfect outcomes? In a war-torn world where bigotry and warfare are facts of life and greed and corruption drive society, there’s no way to bring light and harmony to everyone. While it’s possible to make a difference in the lives of individuals perhaps, there’s not a lot of fantasy wish-fulfillment in the Witcher. Click to chat to a passing guardsman, and you’re more than likely to be insulted to your face or spat on. Wandering through a village on your way to the blacksmith you’ll hear the cries of hungry babies or bereaved widows. Fear and suspicion pervades the land in a way many other games would struggle to convey. They say “don’t tell – show”, and the Witcher III does exactly that.
I’m still far from the end. I will check in with further thoughts as I progress, but at this point I can unhesitatingly recommend the Witcher III as yet another on the crammed top shelf of excellent RPGs we’ve seen in the past 18 months. Buy it, buy it, buy it.