The latest generation of games consoles (eighth for those counting) have had a troubled and often disappointing start with gamers craving a title that truly defines a next generation experience and 2015 has long been pencilled in as the year that these consoles would finally live up to expectations.
Many would argue that Bloodborne was the title of 2015 that kick-started the generation for them and whilst it was a masterpiece, Bloodborne never really felt like a true generation defining experience, perhaps due to its limitations of being a Playstation 4 exclusive. Enter The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
The third title in a trilogy of games made by Polish developers CD Projekt Red, The Witcher 3 will stand the test of time as the game that marked the point at which this generation truly started for many gamers, providing the first truly next generation gaming experience.
The Witcher games (based on the novels of Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski) cast players in the role of Geralt of Rivia, a charming and likeable monster slayer in a fictional dark fantasy world that is roughly based on medieval Europe. For those concerned about this being the third in a trilogy and it being their first Witcher game, you need not worry. The Witcher 3 does an excellent job of getting new players up to speed on past events and the game itself has its own self-contained story that requires no knowledge of the previous games or books.
In this vividly realised universe, a cataclysmic event happened that brought forth all manner of monsters and magic into the world. In order to defend against these monsters, mankind created Witchers an order of warriors taken in as orphans and trained in the art of monster slaying, having been exposed to various mutations giving them almost superhuman powers.
Geralt of Rivia is recognised as the greatest of all these Witchers, his skill at monster slaying is known across the land. The long and short of the story is that Geralt is searching for the estranged love of his life the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg and together they are both searching for their adopted daughter the magical Ciri. The three of them are collectively being pursued by a supernatural hunting party known as The Wild Hunt, skeletal riders who appear in this world as an omen of death of sorts.
Suffice to say this is an extremely abbreviated summary of the plot and Geralt’s adventure sees him travel both far and wide, meeting many interesting characters old and new.
The strength of The Witcher 3’s story often comes through its excellent selection of side quests, what would often be mindless fetch quests in other open world games, here take on a far more significant role. I would not wish to spoil anything for those of you that have not played yet, so I shall not go into any detail but many of the secondary quests tell their own brilliantly dark spin on old fairytales and folk legends, with each quest tasking the player with a difficult moral decision.
The world of The Witcher 3 is not as black and white as it may initially seem and the game operates mostly within a moral grey area, asking the player to make tough decisions where there is no right or wrong answer, decisions where the consequences may not be revealed until much later in the game.
The world of The Witcher 3 is often not what it initially appears to be, what at first might seem like a bloodthirsty monster might actually be a peaceful, sentient being just trying to make a life for itself, and you might discover humans are the worst monsters of all.
The writing throughout is excellent, and it is in these side quests where the writing really stands out. The game packs a staggering amount of lore and history into its quests, with each monster receiving their own lengthy entry in Geralt’s bestiary for the player to discover new information about this world and its human and nonhuman inhabitants.
The Witcher 3’s gameplay at its core is that of an open world Western role-playing game. A Witcher has two swords, a steel one for killing humans and a silver one for killing monsters. As well as his swords, Geralt has access to all manner of potions, bombs, alchemy and his five magical signs (spells) that range from Igni (a blast of flames), to Axii a sort of mind-control spell that can be used in dialogue as well as during combat.
The Witcher 3 shines on its higher difficulty levels, where enemies are more fearsome and Geralt is more susceptible to death. You see, Witchers might be more capable than the average human but they are not invincible, they survive by being well armed and well prepared. The higher difficulties force the player to think and act like a Witcher or face certain death. Make no mistake about it, this is a difficult game, one that is punishingly difficult in the beginning and has a steep learning curve. Persevere though and the game reveals itself to be an extremely rewarding experience, this is a game where the player’s skills grow alongside Geralt’s.
The game encourages players to be equal parts detective and monster slayer. Often when starting a new quest the player will be required to search for clues as to their next lead, using Geralt’s Witcher senses that work much like detective vision does in the Batman Arkham series. After this, Geralt will have a decent idea about which type of monster he is facing and the player is expected to read the monster’s bestiary entry to learn its weaknesses, apply the correct oil to Geralt’s swords for damage boosts and discover which signs the monster is weak to, beginner’s tip; fire is pretty effective on them all.
On the easier difficulties, the game can be played as a simple button masher but I feel this would be doing it a disservice. Where The Witcher 3 excels is in offering the player the chance to truly role-play as Geralt and think and act as though they themselves were a Witcher.
The first time you take down a formidable monster of a much higher level than you because you were adequately informed and prepared for the fight, is an incredibly rewarding experience, one that is all too rare in modern big budget gaming.
The Witcher 3 is a breathtakingly beautiful game, a game whose looks are often more than the sum of their parts.
The Witcher 3 is one of those rare games like Red Dead Redemption where its graphical marvels are more than technical accomplishments. Games like this transcend their visual limitations by being a tour de force of artistic achievement that offers the player a gorgeously varied landscape to explore.
At one point you might be exploring an empty fort on a rugged shoreline, almost able to feel the bracing wind in your face, the next quest might see you visiting a murky swamp where the dawn’s light is creeping through the tree branches.
The Witcher 3 is such a visual feast due to the painstaking amount of detail and care put into crafting its world, this is an open world that feels alive and tangible, CD Projekt Red have reached Grand Theft Auto V levels of developer insanity here. Nothing feels copy-pasted and as such the player is constantly rewarded for their curiosity. The Witcher 3 represents the antithesis of the stale, cardboard open world design of recent memory.
The game is not without fault though. Although there are no load times once the player is in the game, there are load times after every death when the player will need to load a previous game state. The load times can be excruciatingly long and often require the player to sit through the same short cut scene again and again. Expect to spend 20-30 seconds staring at a loading screen after every death and in a game that can be as difficult as this, it can become a serious frustration.
I reviewed the game on Playstation 4 where it does achieve 1080p resolution and runs at a capped 30 frames per second and for the most part, it is a stable experience. The frames can drop noticeably at times, especially during cut scenes or particularly busy environments. In my experience, it was never game breaking but during some of the late game areas, it was definitely a distraction.
During my time with the game (over 80 hours) I did not suffer too many issues, the game crashed twice during rounds of the addictive card game Gwent but that has not happened since the patch 1.03 was released.
The frame rate issues are an annoyance and in 2015, these things should not still be such an issue on such recently released consoles but these criticisms need to be kept in perspective, they did not ever ruin my enjoyment of the game, it was more a case of them being minor speed bumps, rather than massive roadblocks.
For a game like this, that features such a massive amount of dialogue, for it to be not only so expertly delivered but also so consistently well written, is a remarkable achievement. Geralt is undoubtedly the star of the show here, at one moment charmingly sarcastic but also equally able to express genuine emotions such as his fatherly concern for Ciri’s safety, or his genuine love for Yennefer, despite ploughing his way through half of the sorceresses he encounters.
Geralt feels like a real albeit flawed human being, one placed into extraordinary circumstances, even during player chosen dialogue options Geralt retains an identity, with both options feeling like decisions that are true to his character. Gamers rarely get the opportunity to play as such a strong well defined character, in an age of gruff-voiced cookie cutter protagonists, Geralt stands out all the more.
The game’s score is at times hauntingly memorable, its ambient, dynamic music stays with you long after the game is finished, thankfully CD Projekt Red have seen it fit to include the CD soundtrack in every copy of the game, along with other physical treats (like instruction manuals) that I had feared long dead in this age of the economic squeeze on gaming’s bottom line.
At times the use of this score can be heavy handed and overbearing, not giving the sound of the game world time to breathe before the stirring music kicks in again as you one-shot a pack of level 5 wolves without breaking a sweat. Sometimes I felt as though I needed a break from the music, to appreciate the clash of swords or the howl of a werewolf.
No matter how heavy handed its implementation, the soundtrack is still brilliant, the ethereal tracks played during exploration on the islands of Skellige are a particular highlight.
The Witcher 3 is the game we have been waiting for; few games offer such quality and at the same time offer such a massive amount of content.
As a piece of art, this is a once in a gaming generation open world experience, as a value for money prospect, I do not see how any other game is going to beat it, the front runner for Game of the Year at the moment just narrowly beating Bloodborne. I can confidently write that at the end of this console generation, The Witcher 3 will be remembered as one of the defining games of this era.
Undoubtedly a ‘Must Buy’ title, despite its technical issues. If you have even a passing interest in role playing games or open world games you owe it to yourself to experience it. The Witcher 3 has set the bar for open world RPGs for this generation much like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion did last generation.
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