The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is CD Projekt Red’s first foray into the open-world genre, and in many ways, this is the first game in the series that will appeal to a much broader audience. It’s much easier to get into but at the same time has the same depth the series is known for. The original game was largely a niche RPG title held back by its awkward controls and while the second one was greatly improved in most areas it didn’t offer much freedom outside the story, save for a few side excursions. However, with The Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red has gone all in and improved almost every aspect while retaining the best elements of the previous games. The game is truly massive and a complete blast to play. It’s absolutely brimming with quality content and is the first RPG in many years I got completely lost into, spending several hours at a time way past bedtime. Every side story, every monster hunt, and every story quest feels like an adventure in itself. It’s a rare feat to keep a huge game like this interesting as the hours keep piling on, but CD Projekt Red has pulled it off with finesse.
For those new to the franchise, the games are based on a series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. You play as the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, a monster-slayer for hire who always ends up getting caught in events much bigger than his simple job description might suggest. It’s part Monster Hunter, part HBO’s Game Of Thrones, featuring a lone hero that’s equal parts cowboy and rock star and an all-around badass. After a not-so-brief tutorial zone – something that may take up to five hours if you tackle everything – you’re thrust into a huge open world with a ton of things to do. The main story quests are always at the forefront, but never restrict you from going off the beaten path.
The world of The Witcher 3 is an absolute joy to explore. Rolling fields, dense forests, bustling cities, quaint villages dot the gigantic maps. CDPR has created a coherent world that looks and feels like a real place rather than a collection of repeating assets. It looks utterly gorgeous thanks to consistently great art direction and a beautiful lighting system that makes every place look different depending on the time of day. The nights could have been slightly darker (damn you, Dragon’s Dogma) but it is hands down one of the best implementations of a daylight cycle, and that’s all before the truly immersive weather effects kick in.
The Witcher series has always been much more than your typical fantasy RPG. Geralt inhabits a world that is cruel and unapologetic. War is at large and even the relatively safe places are rife with dirty politics, ruthless crime lords, and religious zealots. Even a seemingly unassuming little village in a faraway corner hides something sinister. The dark setting is reflected in the writing of the quests, some of which will have you making extremely tough decisions. The consequences of these decisions may not always be immediately clear and could inadvertently cause even more harm than good.
The distinction between good and bad largely boils down to what you – the player, thinks is right. And this is what sets the Witcher series apart from most other RPGs. Sure, you’re still the lone hero out to set things right, but the game does a very good job of making you question every single decision and everything you say during conversations. It never shoehorns you into making good or evil decisions by giving you arbitrarily labelled options. There are times when you will want to step in and interfere during certain events and then there are other instances where staying neutral and letting things play out seems like the more sensible choice. However, that is not to say that The Witcher 3 is always a brooding and joyless affair. Despite the grim nature of its proceedings, the game still packs more than enough humour in its quests and dialogue. Geralt’s own sarcasm, coupled with the voice actor’s gruff delivery, is always entertaining.
A silver tongue is one thing, but the Witcher would be nothing without his trusty silver and steel swords. That brings me to the combat, which is greatly improved over the previous game and is far more forgiving on lower difficulties. Anyone who has played The Witcher 2 will remember the huge difficultly spike at the beginning of the game. While The Witcher 3’s combat is challenging at times, it has a more relaxed pace. The swordplay feels good, but not as meaty or precise as the Souls games, which is probably the closest comparison (it didn’t help that I played the game right after binging on Bloodborne).
I did have some problems with the lock-on system, which always seemed to prioritize distant enemies over nearer ones. It’s not game-breaking, but it does disrupt the flow of the battles. I found it to be a lot better without locking on. The magic system, which gives you five different signs (or spells) affects the combat in interesting ways, ranging from a personal flamethrower to a shield that explodes when stuck to temporarily being able control an opponent’s mind. Almost all abilities can be levelled up to increase their effectiveness as well as adding secondary effects. The levelling system itself puts a nice twist on the standard skill trees by allowing you to equip only a handful of skills at a time. This lets you to switch your build on-the-fly or keep specialising in specific areas.
One of the complaints I had about The Witcher 2 was the distinct lack of actual monster hunting, especially for a game that is all about playing as a master monster slayer. The Witcher 3 does not disappoint in that regard. There are plenty of Witcher contracts that allow you to investigate, prepare for and hunt down a specific monster. And there’s usually a back story associated with every hunt. On harder difficulties, it is absolutely essential to research the monster, find its weaknesses and exploit them. This involves preparing the right potions, bombs and oils for your swords, and in some cases, the right time of day to fight the monster.
I really enjoyed this aspect of the game and the contracts never got boring or tiring. The monsters themselves were always interesting to fight and some appropriately terrifying. Speaking of preparation, the game features a deep crafting system that encourages exploration. It had me genuinely excited every time I was able to craft the next gear upgrade. The idea of refilling your crafted potions every time you rest (as long as you have alcohol in the inventory) is brilliant and takes away the grind of collecting ingredients every time. The game is actually full of quality of life improvements such as these, though the lack of a permanent storage space feels like a glaring omission.
A game of this size and scale generally comes with its fair share of bugs and issues and sadly The Witcher 3 is no exception. It took me a good while to get used to the movement controls in the game. It seems like Geralt doesn’t like to stop when you want him to, instead continuing to walk long after you’ve released the analog stick. It’s mildly annoying but can get on your nerves if he decides to walk off a cliff. This also makes looting objects much more difficult than it should be as you have to approach them from a certain angle for the interaction to trigger. For a game filled with containers to loot, it quickly becomes a problem. The less I say about the underwater controls the better.
I also ran into a couple of nasty bugs where only a complete restart of the game helped – one of which had me hilariously jumping on touching any button. There was also one quest where a certain character forgot my decision during a quest and instead spoke as if I chose the other option. Still, these issues are generally a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things and I believe most of them will get patched in the coming weeks if CDPR’s track record is anything to go by.
I’ve already written a lot and there’s still more I wish I could talk about. I still haven’t mentioned Gwent – the excellent collectible card game-within-a-game, or some of the specific quests that got me thinking for a good long while. Or even Geralt’s beard that grows in real time – a feature that I demand be included in every game from now on. Minor nitpicks aside, The Witcher 3 is truly a landmark game – a gold standard for RPGs and open-world games alike. CD Projekt Red has finally given us the RPG for the current generation with a gorgeous world to explore, an amazingly well-written and well-acted story and addictive gameplay. It’s a game to judge other games by.
Test PC for this review:
- Processor: Intel Core i5 4670k 3.5 Ghz
- Motherboard: Asrock Extreme 4 Z87 Pro
- Graphics: Sapphire HD 7970 OC with Boost 3 GB
- RAM: 8 GB G.Skill Ripjaws X DDR3
- SSD: Kingston SSDNow V300 120GB
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is out now, and can be purchased digitally at G2A.com.