Blatherings of the Bard

The time has come, my friends, for a rare peek behind the curtain.

I knew we were going to have problems with the Witcher III: Wild Hunt when word came out that it was going to take more than seventeen human lifetimes to complete. Now for the average gamer this is terrific news. A meaty RPG to really get your teeth into is a thing of beauty. But when you’re reviewing a top-end AAA title, there’s a mad rush to get copy to print. So everyone plays the game as much as they possibly can as fast as they can to just get to the point where they understand it enough to write a review. Sure, some dedicated and ethical journalists insist on playing every game to completion before putting pen to paper but we don’t get review copies until shortly before release. So for a game this length, there’s always the agonizing decision.

Do you sprint through the whole game, sticking mostly to the main plot (but just dipping into the sub-plots for the bare minimum of time so you can say you’ve done it), legging it through the world like you’re hopped up on +2 Mountain Dew of Speed, and blurting out your first thoughts in the race to print? In other words, do you rush it, and just slap a 10/10 on it because it looks pretty and that’s what people want to see?

Or do you play it like it deserves to be played? Ambling through the woods, listening to the birds and watching the world go by, exploring all of the sub-games and side quests, taking the time to understand the world and the story?

So this time, we’re cheating. But we think it’s a cheat that means that everybody wins. We’ve been following the Witcher’s development for two years now, since the announcement in early 2013. It seems silly to just spend a couple of days playing it and write a review. Like a love affair, in the early days it’s hard to see beyond the beauty. It takes time to settle into a proper opinion. That’s why we don’t just want to throw a great mark at it with no context – because we know that purchasing a full-price game like this deserves consideration.

Enough, already. Skip to the review.

OK, so I’ve had a couple of days with the Witcher III, enough to get through the opening chapter (which is more of a preview), level up a few times and move on to the main event.

The first thing that strikes me is that it’s beautiful. Imaginative and beautiful. Games are progressing all the time, and the Wild Hunt is certainly a step forward from Skyrim in terms of eye-candy. Sure, it judders along a little on my machine, but I’ve turned it down a couple of notches and still have most things on medium, and it’s just a very believable world. Squat villages cower in coastal vales and hillsides, weathering the rigours of wartime. Inns are dark and threatening, not at all like the sanctuaries they represent in most RPGs. Forests actually feel like forests, not just plains with a high number of trees. Everything is worn and decrepit. There is a lot of atmosphere here.

While there is an opening sequence to help establish some of what’s going on, the first three or four hours are all geared to setting the scene. Geralt and his Witcher chum Vesemir are on the trail of an old friend, and need to fulfil a monster-hunting contract for the occupying army. This quest, and several of the optional sub-quests available in the area, highlight one of the important things the set the Witcher apart from other RPG heroes – he’s kind of like a medieval Ghostbuster. Your mission might be to kill a Griffin, but that doesn’t just mean go to its location and smack it with a pointy bit of metal. Geralt has a head full of monster-hunting lore, and you’ll spend more time collecting herbs and intelligence to concoct a trap for the beast than you will actually fighting it. In another quest, the ghost of a wronged woman needs to be freed from her curse before the spirit she has become can be slain. There’s always more to it than just killing stuff. Even in the more mundane side-missions, there’s usually a twist. Nobody’s quite what they seem.

Skills and levelling are handled in an oddly-complicated way, not too dissimilar to how they were done in the Witcher 2. Levelling up nets you a skill point to spend, then the skill you’ve levelled needs to be socketed into a weird tree thing where it can be grouped with a mutagen. It’s possible to level more skills than you have sockets for, so that skill needs to sit on the shelf, waiting for the time when you reshuffle everything. I had difficulty with what this was supposed to represent – how can you suddenly forget that you’re a great swordsman in order to suddenly remember that you can cast better spells? The whole thing felt unnecessarily convoluted.

Controls were always a sticking point in the earlier Witcher games, and there’s still no real smoothness to the process. Geralt can sometimes feel a little clumsy, particularly when trying to navigate indoor locations. Dodging in combat isn’t exactly straightforward, although rolling out of range usually works pretty well. There’s certainly the feel of a console game shoehorned into the mouse-and-keyboard method, and it should be more straightforward than it is. Felix switched from controlling The Witcher 3 gameplay via mouse and keyboard over to the trusty Xbox controller, so that should give you something to think about when giving this a go. Although he is getting on a bit and his ageing fingers arent as dexterous as they once were.  

Later, the story moves to a more civilised setting, and laying traps for monsters is replaced with learning how to bend a knee to royalty (and then deciding whether or not you actually WILL bow in such a setting). I can honestly say that I had as much fun with these courtly scenes as I did exploring the wilderness, and although the transition from open-world exploration and what is essentially a thirty-odd minute long cutscene with dialogue options is a little unexpected, you never feel like you’re not influencing the story. The storytelling in the Witcher III certainly seems to be up to what I came to expect after the previous game – a tale of love, betrayal and politics as much as it is a tale of monsters and battle.

I found a few annoying moments. One mission called on me to cleanse pits of bodies and I used a fire spell near to the pit, which inadvertently delivered enough fire damage to kill myself from my own spell. There was an autosave in the middle there somewhere, so reloading just meant watching myself unavoidably burning to death again. Fortunately there was another save point not too far back, though.

After my first five hours with the game it’s what I’d expect from an open-world successor to the incredible Witcher 2. They’ve wisely stuck with some of the old faces to make things recognisable to the returning player, and all of the series’ hallmarks are there – taking jobs from the notice boards in villages, a gambling subgame (this time it’s a collectible card game) and lots of alchemy and crafting to develop your stuff. Plus a storyline deep enough to draw you in and capture the imagination.

Next time, I’ll report in on how the Witcher III feels after a week’s solid play. I’m aiming for the 25-hour mark at the very least, before I say any more.

So far, it’s a beautiful, expertly-crafted RPG which I am enjoying immensely, despite a few control and mechanical issues.