Review: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (Xbox One)
The game is over, yet I can still hear Geralt in my head. His gravelly responses, his narration of the current situation and things he sees around him are so prevalent, so central to the game that I can feel my inner voice narrating random events and observations of things around me, all in Geralt’s voice. It is the same feeling I have at the end of a really good book. You are faced with several conflicting emotions, joy and sadness from finishing it, unsure what to do to fill the void now that it is gone. I guess, at least, my sleeping pattern can return to a semblance of normalcy and I think my wife will be happy to have me back.
I include the following because hell, it was interesting. Also, in case anyone was worried I was going sane. (Also because I am a real pain in Dawid’s side when it comes to finishing games before writing a review.) Guess what I have been doing since Thursday?
That is the time it took to do over 110 quests. To reach level 33 and beat the game. Get ready to spend time with royalty, spies, powerful magic, underground crime bosses, peasants and celebrating vikings. It was a long journey, made a bit longer by Llewellyn cursing my electricity and causing it to die (I’m scared of his powers).
White Wolf and grey morality
The game’s signature ‘choose the lesser evil’ approach to morality is still there, with your choices having immediate and sometimes long term consequences. The game doesn’t organise conversation options in the ‘good options on top, bad options on the bottom’ system that so many Western RPGs opt for. Sometimes you are forced to make a decision with only a few seconds to spare before the game chooses an option for you. It makes for some tense moments as you decide something on the spur of the moment, rather than deliberating and trying to work out the potential consequences of the various choices. It makes for some impulse decisions, or panicked thinking, which is what I think the game was aiming for. This is also, thankfully, the closest the game gets to QTEs. From fisticuffs outside a tavern to the fights against towering monsters, there are no QTEs to be found. Every fight you win is done with swords and Signs, with bombs and oils. There is no cheap avoidance of boss fights, like several open world games have used, rather poorly, in recent history. The people around you are racist, sexist, elitist, untrusting and range from superstitious to outright fanatics. There is a lot of muck for you to wade through.
There is so much to do and see in Witcher 3 that it sits somewhere between daunting and unbelievable. There are so many people who need help, so many monsters and vile men that it is seems like there is more than a single person could ever achieve. The game reminds you of this when it, for example, it shows you the fate of a village you helped, a village doomed to die in a few months’ time, despite your aid. You cannot save everyone and kill everything and even if you are trying your best to be the hero, be prepared to have this sentiment toyed with and pressed. The world areas are massive. Once you finish the first questing zone, which in itself has around 6 hours of content, you realize that the game actually had you in a small area, almost a tutorial zone, to keep your mind from boggling. Even with fast travel and your horse there are well over a hundred points of interest in each zone and I think there are still a whole bunch I have yet to discover. The city of Novigrad feels like an actual city, rather than a few streets related to quests. Fish markets and dock areas with no quests exist, where life carries on and peasants battle through their day.
Even when you get fast travel points, I often go on horseback, looking for quests and events and monsters that I might have missed my first time through an area. Stopping to scan the horizon, I look for ruins and caves to explore, which often leads to new quests and dangerous monsters that are either guarding powerful loot, or their corpses themselves are the prize, their bodies containing rare components for alchemy or crafting. Sailing across the sea is not the bawdy, relaxing experience of Assassin’s Creed. You are alone in a tiny boat, often beset by drowners and sirens. There is something awe inspiring and humbling about trying to traverse the Skelligan islands where you end up with no land visible in any direction. Then you hear the flapping of wings and you realise that your tiny boat is about to be ripped apart unless you react quickly.
Help Witcher, I will pay you
Missions to hunt down monsters feel like an episode of Supernatural or X-Files. Information is collected from locals, as Geralt tries to work out what he will be facing before getting into a fight. Using Geralt’s superhuman senses you can examine houses or areas around corpses for footprints, signs of a scuffle, odd scents to be followed and all sorts of extra information that helps paint a picture of what happened. Then it is time to draw the beast out, or to delve into its lair. Monsters are not afraid to make use of their territorial advantage and you can prepare your own edge, thanks to Geralt having his memories back. Weaknesses of creatures are listed in the bestiary, allowing you to equip yourself beforehand with an advantage. Even after a dozen hours, simple enemies like drowners can ambush and surround you if you are not careful, making a lot of the combat a proper fight to the death. While the oils and correct bombs aren’t exactly necessary they help make your quarry that slight bit more manageable. Geralt is much easier to control in combat than before, allowing you to get those attacks against exposed flanks and undefended backs more often. Mobility is crucial to combat as most monsters are far too strong to attempt to parry their attacks. A quick side step or a well-timed roll will take you out of harms way and give you a chance to use signs or retreat. If you aren’t the best at dodging attacks, you might want to invest in good heavy armour and improving your Quen Sign. Side quests are extremely well written, with all manner of beasts in your way. What sounds like a simple drowner contract might end up involving a rare necrophage instead, or be the work of a small cult of humans instead. In a downtrodden world, oppressed and occupied people on the losing side of a war, there are monstrous people just as often as there are dens of Nekkers. A lot of games could do well to pay attention to what well written and well thought out, meaningful questlines and objectives are. Collect all the shards? Pfft, not in this game!
The new alchemy system encourages you to use items, rather than making you weigh up the advantages of using them versus the effort of replenishing your stores. All alchemy items, once crafted, are replenished when you meditate, meaning that once you initially find the correct reagents, replenishing your armaments is hassle-free. As a chronic item hoarder this approach was great as I could make use of items without fear of not having them later when I needed them most. Thankfully your horse, Roach, can have large saddlebags equipped to carry your prodigious amount of junk around.
Not without its flaws
I should take some time to mention the things about the game that bothered me. They range from minor issues to pretty annoying, but none are game breaking. Some of these might be related to the platform I reviewed on, obviously.
Physics. From the Witcher medallion bobbing around your neck like a jack in the box to the awkward winds that causes hair and tassels to sway or lift up haphazardly are distracting. Corpses and dismembered body parts fly around the screen in a near comical fashion.
Wardrobe. Someone in the team has a bare sternum fetish, or something. Many of the female characters in the game, and almost every sorceress, has the need to show cleavage and sternum, ranging from functional clothing to outfits that whose necklines almost show off the navel. This in itself isn’t an issue as people can show off what they want with their dress. It just looks really uncomfortable and the amount of breast jiggle, even when clad in a supportive leather outfit, is ludicrous. I get that one of the game’s themes is titillation and sex but when so many other facets of the game are handled in a mature, realistic fashion, this one stands out. Why does almost every spellcasting woman in the game show more flesh than the strumpets in the red light district of Novigrad?
Loading. While the game is seamless while you explore, some story sequences are abruptly halted by loading screens as the game changes camera angles from one shot to the next. It works a lot better than having a scene unfold while textures slowly pop in, but it can break immersion and pacing something fierce during pivotal story moments.
Looting. If you stand too close to an object the loot/interact option disappears, making you walk away from objects and approach them again. The inventory is also not the best system, thanks to the sheer variety and volume of items you are carrying. The five categories that your inventory is split up into are really broad, tossing books and notes in the same group as potions and food. There is no easy way to see what is the heaviest item or the most valuable item without going through every item one by one. At one point I realised I had close to 40 pounds of wolf and beast pelts in my bags. Wow the stench, I thought this man had a sharp nose?
Despite these issues, the game is polished beyond belief. In 50 hours I saw one floating horse, a ghost crossbow bolt and had a drowner attacking me from above my head. With some games you will see more bugs in the opening minutes. I’m impressed by this game and the CD Projekt team has tackled something so much bigger than previous titles and pulled it off amazingly. Often when I finish a review game I am all too happy to consign it to a pile of games that I might play in a few years’ time. This game? I can’t wait to restart it on PC and try to do everything and see if I get a different ending.