As I am getting used to writing this blog, I don’t want to fall into the trap of reviewing and recommending games. There are sites for that. What I do want, however, is to sometimes take a moment and dissect a game I am playing – especially if it is leaving an impression. This provides the dual function of expanding on any thoughts that I have during the Exclamation Mark podcast as well as giving my poor wife’s ears a break. So, after about four podcasts of gushing, it is a surprise to nobody that the first game I want to look at is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Game of the Year
I think the collective feeling about last year is that it was a shit year for videogames. Most Game of the Year awards went to Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game that I still feel is genuinely good, bordering on great. The fact that Hearthstone, a collectible card game, was even in the running (and was probably my pick for Game of the Year) is a testament to what a weak year it was. Videogames take multiple years to develop and – as delays pile up – it is very possible to end up with a year like 2014. I would argue that with game like Ori and the Blind Forest, Heroes of the Storm, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Bloodborne on the table, 2015 may have surpassed it already. With The Witcher 3, 2015 has now blown 2014 out of the water. Upcoming games like Fallout 4 have their work cut out for them.
A Sequel in Name Only
The last game I felt this passionately about was Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. That game was mature, cinematic and impactful. It was also accessible. It had a short and powerful name with no colons or dashes in it. It wasn’t a sequel and it was exquisitely streamlined for console play. When people would ask me what I was playing, I could say “The Last of Us” and they generally wanted to know more. When they hear the name “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” it sounds like I am talking about a B-movie I found in the Shoppers Drug Mart discount bin.
The harsh truth is that nobody really played the Witcher 1 and only a few more played the Witcher 2 and that was because it was on XBOX360. The games are adaptations of the work of a Polish author that – believe it or not – have not been completely translated to English. Yes, that’s right, this is a triple A game experience based on the written works of an international author. It would be like playing a game adaptation of the third part of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. How does this even happen much less get greenlit?
Passion on Display
It happens due to the passion of a game developer, in this case CD Projeckt Red. The company successfully funds itself through revenue generated by their Good Old Games (GOG) online store. They can afford to make the games that they want to play and their small team decided that they want the Witcher (disclaimer: they are also Polish so it might be like if us Canadians made that Neil Young MMO I have been suggesting – first boss: Justin Bieber). A one hundred man (and women) team may not sound big, but compared to the Ubisofts and Bethesdas, it is tiny. Compared to what they realized in the creation of the world of the Witcher, it is flabbergasting.
A World of War and Monsters
Temeria, the world of the Witcher is ridiculously shitty. It would be near the bottom of my list of “videogame worlds to live in”, right after the hellscape that is Street Cleaning Simulator. War-torn and ravaged by monsters, it is beyond saving, you can only hope to survive it and maybe make a little coin on the side. A Witcher is a human that was genetically mutated and given powers that allow it to track and kill monsters – a true monster hunter for hire. Technically, the Witchers skill set, including magical spells and dual swords (one for the humans, one for the fiends) make him more like a Jedi than any fantasy character I have seen. He even has a Jedi Mind Trick type ability!
The monsters are amazingly designed and legitimately creepy. Not to offer any spoilers but there is one encounter in particularly that I felt was even emotionally challenging. The variety of creatures is huge and does an admirable job of mixing western and Slavic folk traditions to create a bestiary of epic fiends.
A World of Size and Density
It seems that in this post-Skyrim world, open world games are chasing the square footage. From the streets of San Andreas to the mountains of Kyrat to the wilds of Ferelden, bigger is the new better. By that metric, the Witcher 3 is the best yet but square footage seldom tells the whole tale. Think of an open-world game you have played, it could be an action adventure, an RPG, a shooter. What do they have in common? Fetch quests, meaningless collect-o-thons where you repeat the same actions over and over and over again. How many rifts can you close in Dragon Age? How many towers can you climb in Far Cry? How many gangs can you hack in Watchdogs? The Witcher 3 does away with this mentality entirely. It coats every significant collectable, every quest, every Witcher contract, every event with context, quality and personality. Each piece of extra content could be favourably compared to the core story content of any similar game. What is remarkable is not only that they were successfully able to do this but that they were successfully able to do it at the size and scale that they are doing it. It takes hours of gameplay to really understand this. At one point it will just hit you that everything there is to do in this world is satisfying and enjoyable with no filler and that is when the true appreciation of the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt begins.
Finesse and Function
In the past I have felt like open-world games in general and RPGs in particular, have used their size and scope and sense of exploration to excuse subpar gameplay. Skyrim and Fallout offer somewhat mediocre first person shooter-type experiences. Dragon Age: Inquisition is essentially MMO-combat with hot keys and skills refreshing all the time. The Witcher offers full action, a system that offers a variety of ways of tackling a fight but makes you think before every move. We just saw For Honor revealed at E3 by Ubisoft, a game devoted entirely to melee combat, and as soon as I saw it, I remember thinking that the Witcher 3 was already offering a similar experience. Quality gameplay in a rich fantasy world. It seems like those two things should have been paired together a long time ago yet, here we are. This is the standard that future games will have to meet. They will no longer be able to coast on the size of their worlds.
A Few Issues
As much as I would like it to be so, the Witcher 3 is not a perfect game. What it does well, it does so magnificently well that it often overshadows the failings… but there are failings. In the end, it is not a game for everyone. You are playing a character with a pre-established personality in Geralt of Rivia. While you can make choices that impact both the world and the type of personality that Geralt exhibits, he is still who you are playing. In a way, it reminded me of Mass Effect games although here – despite some sections where you play as his ward Ciri – you are mostly limited to playing a white man with a gruff personality. I would say it is a bit akin to Red Dead Redemption: Fantasy Version.
Another sizable issue surrounds inventory management which, while improved over the previous two games, is still overly complicated and cumbersome, making it scary and inaccessible to many console players. It is an evolution of the game’s PC roots but could perhaps have been done more elegantly.
I am playing on PS4 and while there isn’t much loading (no loading screens in-game), there is a sizable load when you die. This can lead to frustrating situations when fighting a giant monster that seemingly has your number.
Tip #1: Play it Right You Noob!
Now I am sure you want to stop reading and run out and buy the game right now and while that is definitely a good idea, I would leave you with some tips. I am about a third of the way through which I realize doesn’t sound far but it will make more sense when you actually start playing the game. Here are a few recommendations that I would make for new players to get full enjoyment out of the game:
Skip Witcher 1 and 2! I really wish someone had told me this earlier as I was reluctant to buy the game having not completed either of Geralt’s previous two quests. The third game is so much better that I wouldn’t let not having played the first two limit you. If anything, they may put you off playing this one.
Watch a YouTube video first! While the story of Wild Hunt is fairly self-contained, you would get a better appreciation of the world, the books and the characters if you just watch a five minute YouTube video. There are a couple of decent ones out there. This is particularly helpful if this is your first Witcher game.
Play on a Hard Difficulty! I am playing on the second highest difficulty. To do any less, for a game like this, is to do yourself a disservice. There are game mechanics, namely identifying monsters’ weaknesses and preparing for them, that are much more relevant when the game is harder. You will still generally feel like a badass, but you have to gauge risk a lot more. Definitely worth playing on a harder level.
Don’t Quit on White Orchard! You begin the game in the village of White Orchard and, while a microcosm for the gameplay you will experience, it doesn’t give you an effective sense of scale or adventure. I could see people dropping before they even really get going.
More to Come
I have a lot left to experience in the Witcher and there are supposedly expansions packs (remember those?) coming later this year. Those expansions have now become my most anticipated games of 2015. CD Projeckt Red’s next game bears a title associated with one of my favourite genres of fiction: Cyberpunk 2077. Imagining the density and quality of narrative and gameplay of the Witcher 3 married to a new world set in my favourite genre is very exciting and I can’t wait to know more about that one.
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