The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
After god-knows how many hours of trekking around the world for clues in the story's main questline, I finally arrived in the frozen isles of Skellige--this game's interpretation of a borderline Norse/Scots warrior's land. Upon arriving, I was immediately accosted by an inlander, angered for some odd reason. rather than continue to reason with this dude, I immediately decided to whip his ass. What ensued was a quick and bloody murder, not only cutting apart this hapless native but his faithful dog companion, as well. In a matter of seconds, I thought, "shit, what have I done?" He probably wasn't really a bad guy, and neither was his buddy. It was deaths like this--deaths that took place virtually unseen on a frigid shore of shipwrecks and scuttled cargo--that would haunt me the most, mainly because they carried no immediate repercussion. You're a superhuman hunter who is respected by some and feared by most, trying your best just to find one or two of the only people on earth you give a shit about. There's no karma system to baby you or stupid little popups to tell you "YOU DID A BAD." You have to live with your decisions, which may or may not branch out into things that effect the world at large.
Another similar dilemma occurred as I agreed to help a brother-in-arms--a fellow Witcher named Lambert who was out for revenge. He wanted a certain man dead for supposedly assassinating a close friend, and after a dutiful adventure looping from one place to the next I had found my man. This person in particular told a different story: of a clumsy Witcher that had bungled a contract and went rogue, necessitating a punishment to put him down. This man was now reformed, had a family, and just wanted to put the weary threads of the past away. I was faced with the decision of whether or not to allow Lambert justice by way of the blade. I have to admit, it was the longest I have ever lingered on a single decision in any game before. I was either going to put a good man's fate in the hands of a deadly individual, or risk the friendship and camaraderie of one of Geralt's only confidantes. The result of the decision surprised me, of course--as The Witcher 3 often does with its absolutely stellar characters and writing.
I don't know shit about the Witcher series except that it's about a genetically altered monster slayer and it's apparently Poland's greatest export to the world. Witcher 3, since early previews and the "literally 200 hours of content" claims, had been steadily gaining traction in the last year or so. With many people (myself included) feeling short-changed by 2014's multiplat offerings (Nintendo gets a pass for 2014 due to overall excellence), W3 developed into a kind of "chosen one" to circumvent all the lazy crap we had experienced. Bloodborne, to an extent, was just as hyped, but for all the poor plebs that only owned an Xbox or a PC, Witcher 3 was the next best thing. Just like Dragon Age's latest foray, I intended to jump in to a third entry in a series I had never experienced before. Well, 80 hours and 2 goddamn system iterations later, I have my sufficient impressions. Short answer would be that the game is very good and very engrossing, but also very potentially taxing to play optimally. The long answer is going to be me telling you why this game is a fucking masterpiece.
Let me preface this by saying that, like Dishonored, I bought the console version of this game and hated it. Not only were the graphics a bit downsized on Day One, but the framerate...for fuck's sake, that framerate. Now, things may have probably been patched for the better since then, but on day-one with a day-one patch already in the wings, this game ran like shit. It was a jittery mess and I doubt that it was hardlocked to 30FPS; normally I'm never a stickler of framerates but this was beyond awful. When your game runs at 26fps or lower for a majority of the time, the quality of the experience suffers a lot. Shit, Shadow Of Mordor was locked in at 30FPS and never faltered once--the game looked and felt beautiful. With Witcher 3, however, the initial concessions made to put this beast on consoles were just too much for me.
Lucky for me I had recently upgraded my laptop to a dedicated entry-level gaming rig. Although it was souped up to play most recent games well, I doubted if I could even play W3--it was, after all, the "new Crysis 3." This was the new benchmark for if your machine was worth a shit. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could run W3 on mainly all high settings, and with a nice fullscreen resolution. To tell you the truth, I'm stunned; framerate is regularly 38 to 45, with very rare dips into 31-29 in a few instances. Compare this to the constant stuttering on the PS4 I had and you have my official warning that the entry to this wonderful game may be quite demanding. If you're fine with the console versions, that's cool--but for those of you who need that level of stability in visuals and motion, you might have to rethink your purchase or take a look at your hardware specs. Myself, I only had an nVidia 960m 2GB card, though backed up by an i7 with 16GB of RAM. This is, by all means, still a very entry-level laptop and I was still able to run this bad boy at a very acceptable clip. This is, of course, providing you're fine with setting at High Quality, with only shadows and water at a moderately lower texture resolution.
Since I've wasted so much space with bullshit techtalk, I might as well talk about the visuals. Simply put, they're gorgeous; just walking around and taking in the sunsets, moonbeams, constant weather effects and windy plains is wondrous. W3 has probably some of the most impressive areas constructed in games to date, the design putting Mordor and Inquisition to shame. The sheer quality of character faces and expressions is commendable, as are the fluid motions and animations in general. It's a really, really pretty game to look at, even with the outcries of downgrades trying to stifle the wonder and awe at every location. The draw distance in particular is amazing, with distant locations and traveling NPCs visible as far as you can see. Pop-in is exceedingly rare here, espousing the holy grail of "if you can see it, you can get to it."
This is as good a place as any to segue into talking about how much there is to see and do; compared to Inquisition, there's no contest. Just for comparison, when I played Inquisition I was mainly wandering through very empty and dull spaces, trying in vain to navigate poorly-constructed mountains or hills, getting pissed off at the terrible platforming and general malaise of exploring. When you get a quest, you just go and collect a thing, or several things--those fucking shards, most likely. You collect a thing over and over for people you don't even care about. You're the Herald of Andraste, for fuck's sake; why are you collecting sheep wool?
Compare this to Witcher's system of easily moving through your surroundings, actually having a platforming aspect worth a shit, and a variety of different cities, settlements, towns, and spookhouses. Every quest matters in Witcher 3, and sometimes you'll go through a variety of steps and sequences and research before reaching the climactic end. You get supremely involved in every character's story, leading to all kinds of battles and Witcher contracts. Sure, most of them will inevitably lead to some kind of physical conflict, but the content peppered along the way has been sublime. There's a few formulas like Witcher-detective sense looking and monster research that get used often, but the locations and options for seeing things through are varied enough to keep every mission feel fresh. Some missions are humorous, some delving into Lovecraftian horrors, others dealing with domestic issues and exorcisms. It's a far cry from the "here's your mission, collect or kill a thing, and you get points" system in Inquisition, which got boring, impersonal, and bland. Quests are especially important in W3 since they're also the only real source of experience points, too. Some of the best items are received through off-track missions, as well--and I rarely ventured off the path to a sum of zero. Exploring in this game actually rewards you with so much, whether it's a new checkpoint, rare treasures, new NPCs to see, or elite fights. That I was in the 2nd and 3rd areas at 30 hours and barely completed 20% of this area--in a game with likely 5 or 6 more huge areas to explore--is very impressive. Equally impressive is how the story never really punishes you for expressing an opinion or a decision. In Inquisition, every fucking choice was met with a slew of "Dorian agrees, Solas disagrees, Fartface agrees" dragging across the bottom of the screen. You were told immediately if something you did or said was conducive or detrimental to your standing with others. There is no Conversation Wheel in Witcher 3; there are no set values to your dialogue or action choices. You do what you want, and the world changes--for better or worse.
So you've got all these missions and storylines, but how's the actual play? Well, one way I'd describe it would be "high-octane Dark Souls in miniature, deluxe." By that I mean the combat is methodical, requires precision, and can decimate you quickly. It's standard lite/heavy attack/parry fare with your various sign magic thrown in, as well as crossbow or bombs for good measure. However, your fights will vary in deadliness depending on how often you consult your bestiary and see what each creature's weakness is. Doing a bit of reading can change the game for you, so being prepped with the right magic or potion is a must for some of the bigger bosses offered up. My experiences with these mechanics have been mixed, but mainly on the positive side. Playing on the Hard difficulty (Blood and Broken Bones) was taxing at the start but rewarding when I got into a good groove. It's the kind of combat where 3 enemies is tough, 4 is a chore, and anything above this on the same plain will be hellish for you (at least until you begin to vastly outlevel your opponents late in the game).
Enemies don't take turns; this isn't Arkham City. Early in the game, you'll get fucked up if you charge into engagements like a moron, and rightly so. Luckily, you have a decent arsenal of support magic available--melting armor, blanking brains, or creating a shield to absorb a hit will serve you well, especially when you start leveling these magics up to do a variety of different effects. You might want your fire spell to focus on melting armor, or you might utilize a spell tree wherein it becomes a constant flamethrower. The skill tree thus far is varied enough to offer some neat playstyles, but how many you can equip depends on your level. And boy, does leveling take a while. Overall, after 60 hours or so getting used to the combat, I'm satisfied with it. It takes some brainpower to make use of your skills in the best way possible, and you're given ample options to customize what your modus operandi is for tackling enemies. Almost every spell or skill will come in use for a certain breed of beast, so it's up to you to strategize which upgrades benefit your playstyle. It's not the most complex fighting system in existence, but it's not the worst. It's definitely better than the MMO-style flailing you could fall into with Dragon Age.
Playing as Geralt, a sarcastic yet somewhat altruistic and honorable white-haired dude, is pretty fun. The story beyond all the infinite sidequests concerns him trying to find an old protege--and a lot of missions concern themselves with finding or tracking down missing persons. SO far, it's been leading to some colorful places and characters, so I have no complaints. The writing thus far has been great, and many shades better than the "good or bad!?" choice wheel in other RPGs. As I've mentioned before, one of the reasons I love W3 so far is that there are no cut and dried good/evil options. You do as you please and deal with the consequences. After I accidentally instigated a murderous barroom brawl, I realized one of the drunk patrons was the missing brother I was supposed to find from an old sidequest. I had killed him, failing that mission. Hours and hours later, this was brought up again in a distant city, as a pub patron decried me as a murderer who had a penchant for instigating fatal fights. Other paths you take may shut out characters or events, so the world is constantly changing with your choices. You can work for free or haggle for monies when you come to collect. You can change sides midway through a contract or fulfill your original bargains.
My nitpicks about W3 are mainly concerning difficulty and inventory management. As I've said before, the fights can be a bit brutal at high difficulty early on, and so many battles will require sustenance to maintain your HP. On higher levels of the game, some enemies can just becomes sponges to damage, turning into unfun slogs if you don't have the proper equipment. Additionally, taking down powerful groups of enemies will sometimes devolve the combat into a game of endless dodges and roll, sometimes giving the monsters a combination of speed and unblockable attacks that basically demands you just dodge/roll around at all times to have any hope of survival. It's a small blight on combat in general but one that lessens the fun of it. The inventory was initially a fucking mess, just like in every action RPG--full to the brim with questionable potion ingredients and trash heap junk. It's a dumb menu with even dumber, smaller text, but not a dealbreaker. It's best to ignore your alchemy stock unless you really want to sell off plants for 1gold each. Myself, I'm lucky to have divined even the basic health potion mechanics; everything else is a crapshoot. Good luck finding the right plants in the wild; you won't, and will just likely have to run back to an herbalist for everything anyway. As of this writing, though, the developers have long since patched the game with not only a variety of storage spaces in the overworld, but a greater degree of item filters and separation. Hats off to CDProjekt Red for taking the initiative to fix that.
It's been 60+ hours. I have no idea if I'm closer to the endgame or not, but I'm currently at a spot where I'm required to gather people for a kind of epic showdown. Part of me assumes this is drawing to the "endgame," and yet I'm barely level 20; there are so many missions that suggest an even higher level. There are tons of hidden gear sets, ridiculous stories to uncover in the world, and mysteries to solve. To continue to offer and dangle interesting material after 60 hours in a game like this is comparable to the 50+ hours I spent with Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, which has to be some kind of record. That CDProjektRed has graciously put out small DLC packs for cards, side missions, and shiny new armor sets is even cooler--a company that has been supporting the game with tons of patchworks and great content since the first week in release.
I'd strongly recommend Witcher 3, especially if you're coming out of Inquisition, tired and fatigued by badcombat and even shittier mission structure. The story was there, but the bullshit fetch quests abound didn't enthuse me to finish the game. Witcher 3 is definitely worth the time and effort to play, especially if you yearned for something more than BioWare has put out as of late. I've been obsessed with it since first booting it up. Is it really all we were lead to believe? First impressions and official game reviews seem to suggest yes. Witcher 3 is a viable GOTY candidate due to how incredibly massive it is with interesting content, characters, and places to go. I've thought about it often, certain experiences and decisions following me to the bitter end, always making me question if it was worth it to become altruistic in moments of strife, or to strike down others in a sound fury to prevent more suffering. You're not the chosen one, you're not a herald, and you're not a king--this is simply the collection of stories bound to a mercenary hunter. The mercy, vengeance, glory, and failure is yours to own and no one else's--you inherit the world's state without being bound by a realm of karma and definable reward.
At the cusp of completeing the main storyline, I'd even go as far as to suggest W3 deserves a place in my all-time greats list, as well. It's just one of the best in its class, and a masterpiece in the action RPG genre.
By definition, an RPG should strive to do more than offer numbers and inventory slots and abilities to equip--it should offer you a role. Seeing the world as Geralt and shaping the structure of his twilight adventure has been an utmost pleasure; a triumph of RPG design, writing, and technical attention.
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Amazing and topical!