Can or should a slice of DLC ever be a game of the year? I don’t really know, but I guess we’ll find out later this year when awards season rolls around and The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine rears its head. CD Projekt RED worked wonders last year with The Witcher 3. It’s certainly gone into the pantheon of greatest games of all time, offering one of richest, most entertaining worlds to explore we’ve ever seen. After hundreds of hours, much ploughing, and far too many drowners, would we still want more of it though? On the basis of Blood & Wine, that would be a resounding yes…
Mechanically, you’ve been here before. You have the choice of using your character you’ve used from the main game and/or Hearts of Stone, or rolling a brand new level 35 character. If you do start afresh, be warned some of the early game encounters will be quite tough. You can dish out all your points as you see fit, although this can be quite a daunting task if you haven’t played in a while. I used my old save and it took me an hour or so to get back into the swing of things.
One of the major changes to your character is a new mutation system. You’ll unlock this fairly early on your travels, and using the right combination of mutagens and skill points you can unlock powerful new abilities, as well as up to four new skill slots. Be warned these each cost multiple skill points so you will have to put some by if you want to upgrade. They're going to vary in appeal depending on your playstyle, but I opted for ones which do 25% more damage to enemies which can block, along with a frenzy mutation which boosts attack power for every successful hit in an encounter, up to a maximum of 300%.
Other than that the moment to moment action and combat is nearly identical. There’s better gear and mastercrafted armour to be found, but by now you’ve probably found your groove and seen where your strengths lie - be that sword combat, signs, alchemy, or a combination of the three. That’s the gameplay changes then, but The Witcher 3’s strength has always been in its quest design and world building, and Blood and Wine is thankfully no different.
While Hearts of Stone annexed a small new chunk of land onto Velen, Blood & Wine goes one step further, whisking Geralt away to the entirely new lands of Toussaint. An intoxicating combination of Gallic culture and fairytales by way of the Brothers Grimm, Toussaint is certainly the most varied and interesting landmass in The Witcher 3 yet. CDPR’s art direction was already accomplished, but everywhere you look there’s quaint villages and picturesque bridges stretching over trickling rivers, offset by haunted manors in dead forests and murderous scenes in a quiet vineyard. It’s a place you can’t help but want to explore, which is just as well, because much like the base game CDPR has absolutely crammed it with things to do, people to see and mysteries to solve.
The main thread of Blood and Wine should be pretty much immediately apparent from the cover art, but should you wish to go in totally spoiler free then skip this paragraph. For the rest of you, it revolves around the wine-making region of Toussaint which has been beset by an evil force which is killing nobles under mysterious circumstances. It doesn’t take long to understand there’s a deep history of vampires on the region, and before long Geralt is thrust into a twisting tale of deception, tricky choices, and more than enough variety and accomplished storytelling to justify this expansion’s existence away from the main game.
The whole story I would guess will take you in the region of 15 hours to complete, but that would be to skip the huge mass of side content which, in true Witcher form, is absolutely top tier. There’s still a few filler contracts and treasure hunts, but for the most part these are incredible bite-sized tales. One quest I did took up my entire evening’s gaming session, with multiple objectives and difficult choices to be made. By the time it had concluded I felt the same satisfaction from that single 2-hour quest as I would from a good movie.
That's without mentioning the hours which can be spent whiled away on the devil's elixir that is Gwent. CDPR take these shackles of addiction off me, you bastards. Blood & Wine somewhat confusingly introduces the new Skellige deck, and boy is that a tough faction to play against. There's a few new quests and tournaments to play around with, but most of your time will of course be spent fastidiously telling every barkeep you have no ideas in their ale or ladies of the night, you just want to buy some new Gwent cards goddammit.
Start working your way through all the side missions and Gwent collecting and you’re comfortably looking at 40 hours play here, which at $20 brand new is insanely good value for money. That’s a third the price of a brand new game and potentially lasting a lot longer too. There are few in the business which value the gamer and the gamer’s money much more than CDPR. It’s all capped off by a heartfelt message from the team at the close that really does feel like the end of an era for a great RPG series.
It really is incredible what CDPR has achieved here, and I wouldn’t be totally averse to playing something of this size and quality each and every year. This is without doubt the greatest piece of DLC I have ever played, and I think plenty of other developers and publishers should rightly be embarrassed by their efforts after seeing this. Expansion of the year? Almost surely. Game of the year? A real possibility.