Monday 15 January 2018

Wertzone Classics: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher, a monster-hunter who defends humanity from monstrous and supernatural threats. He has also has a habit of getting involved with the affairs of kings, mages and emperors. Reeling from the recovery of his missing memories, Geralt is caught up in grand events once more when the Nilfgaardian Empire invades the Northern Kingdom for the third time. He is commissioned by the Emperor to find his missing daughter, Ciri, who was also Geralt’s ward for some years. Geralt’s trail will lead through the war-torn no-man’s land of Velen, in Temaria, to the free city of Novigrad and the southern reaches of Redania beyond. His path will also take him to the Skellige Isles, the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen and the beautiful Nilfgaardian vassal state of Toussaint, before he can save Ciri and defeat his former allies turned enemies, the spectral Wild Hunt.

The Witcher 3 is a game that wears many hats. It is the third and concluding game in a trilogy that began with 2007’s The Witcher and continued with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011), wrapping up lingering storylines and character arcs from both former games. It is a character-focused, story-heavy game which aspires to the very best of BioWare but it’s set in a vast open world that owes more than a nod to the likes of Bethesda and Rockstar. It is also a direct sequel to Andrzej Sapkowski’s five-volume Witcher novel series: the prior two games were more side-stories to that saga, with Geralt’s missing memories allowing them to stand alone, but this one directly deals with fall-out from the books and reintroduces characters from them. And on top of all of that it aspires to be a game that completely stands alone on its own two feet, with familiarity with neither the prior games nor novels required to enjoy it.

Somehow, it not only achieves those ambitions but utterly trounces them, deploying the kind of confidence, verve and ambition that you’d be forgiven had completely disappeared from modern video game design. It is, quite comfortably, one of the greatest video games of the last decade and the finest computer role-playing game since the release of Planescape: Torment last century.

Given that the previous two games in the series were both somewhat mediocre (both having a great atmosphere and some good character work undercut by awful pacing, inconsistent writing, repetitive fetch-quests and truly terrible combat), it’s quite remarkable that CD Projekt Red was able to pull this off. But they have, and with considerable style.

The Witcher 3 is a roleplaying game where you play as Geralt. Unlike other RPGs you can’t create your own character, but you can certainly guide Geralt’s development, both mechanically – you can favour a combat-heavy approach or one more based around magic or alchemy – and also in terms of personality, by getting Geralt to be more heroic or ambivalent in his response to requests for help and in the (very) frequent morally complex decisions he has to make. At any one time Geralt will have a main storyline quest to follow, related initially to the hunt for Ciri and later for the need to confront the Wild Hunt, and a large number of other objectives. These take the form of side-quests, story-rich missions which are unrelated to the Ciri situation; witcher contracts, where Geralt has to track down a monster, identify its weaknesses and dispatch it; and treasure hunts, where Geralt has to find large stashes of gold or high-value equipment based on information and maps he has found in the world. There are also a massive host of other past-times, including fight-fighting matches and horse races, and location objectives, such as liberating a village from bandits or destroying monster nests. There is never a shortage of anything to do in the game.

So far, so Skyrim. But the key difference between The Witcher 3 and Bethesda’s mega-RPG is in terms of the importance of character and narrative. These elements are usually under-developed in Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, which instead want to give you as much freedom as possible to do the things you want, which is (or so it’s always been explained) not compatible with a complex, rich narrative which gives you lots of choices on how things unfold. That was already a dubious excuse (as exemplified by what Obsidian did with Fallout: New Vegas, using Bethesda’s own engine to embarrass them with that game’s narrative richness and malleability) but The Witcher 3 sets it on fire. The Witcher 3 has the freedom of Bethesda’s finest but combines it with an incredible depth of story and character. The characters – both Sapkowski-originated or those new to the games – are all complex, multi-layered individuals. Even merchants and one-off village bumpkins who provide intel on a monster attack are usually given a memorable character tic which sets them apart from everyone else. They’re veritable fonts of information, sources of new quests but also most of them are just plain fun to talk to.

For example, the character of Dijkstra comes across initially as a boorish thug, but (even if you haven’t read the books) you’ll quickly discover him to be a quick-witted, deceptively shrewd operator who has some personal affection for Geralt which quickly vanishes the second he thinks you’re working against his interests. The Duchess of Toussaint is a pleasant and intelligent young woman who has worked with Geralt before and is flexible when it comes to matters of the heart or in dealing with isolated incidents, but the second she thinks her duchy is in danger she becomes a steely, determined ruler capable of remarkable ruthlessness. The Witcher 3 is never interested in serving up caricatures or one-note villains, there’s also a motive for what people do and there’s always multiple ways of dealing with them.

In this sense The Witcher 3 encourages players to role-play. For example, Geralt has multiple romantic options in the game but the two primary ones are Yennefer and Triss. For those who’ve read the books, they know that Yennefer is the love of Geralt’s life and it makes sense for them to end up together. For those that haven’t but have played the video games, they will be far more familiar with Triss and may prefer to see Geralt end up with the character they’ve come to know quite well over two previous games spanning 70-odd hours. However, there’s also the fact that Triss did take advantage of Geralt’s amnesia to seduce him and kept him unaware of his prior feelings for Yennefer. This is something that you can make into either a big problem – Triss manipulated Geralt for her own ends – or accept as an unfortunate consequence of an emotionally difficult situation.

This element of choice pervades every moment of the game. Every now and then the game will pause and explain how Geralt’s actions from hours earlier have led to a significant shift in the game’s storyline or status quo, with everything from the destiny of characters to the fate of entire nations hinging on Geralt’s decisions. The game doesn’t judge things, though. As long as Geralt and Ciri are still breathing, the game will continue and events will unfold as they will, even if Geralt makes mistakes and catastrophe results.

Mechanically, the game is a vast improvement over its predecessors. Combat is much-improved, being reactive, intelligent and reasonably fair (although those easily frustrated are directed towards the easier difficulty levels). Intelligent use of swordplay, magic, potions, oils and bombs will see most foes dispatched. It’s worthwhile reading the in-game bestiary to get more information on particular creatures’ weaknesses and also using your “Witcher Senses” to pick up environmental clues to the nature of the creature, as well as tracking enemies across distances. As you level up, you can improve your magical skills which has applications both in and out of combat (such as using your mental manipulation Sign to positively impact on conversations). Later on, you can also gain mutations which dramatically improve your character’s powers, as well as glyphs and wards to further improve your weapons. The game keeps Geralt in a constantly escalating spiral of getting better weapons and armour, although you can also pursue treasure hunt side-quests to get even stronger gear.

The story and character depth, which can see even minor quests evolve into lengthy, epic, multi-hour stories packed with incident, sharp dialogue and dark humour, is certainly the main appeal of the game, whilst the mechanical competence of the gameplay certainly keeps things ticking over. The freedom of the world and the quality of its presentation is another key factor. Unlike say Skyrim, The Witcher 3 isn’t one massive open world. Instead, it’s divided into four distinct, large maps (White Orchard, Velen/Novigrad, Skellige and Toussaint), each with its own character and atmosphere.

Combined, the world space of the game is about twice that of Skyrim, and far denser in terms of quests, points of interests and optional activities. Graphically, the game is stunning. There’s some amazing lighting effects with, easily, the best sunsets and sunrises ever seen in a game. The environments are remarkable, with Novigrad and Beauclair (the main city in Toussaint) fighting for the title of the finest, most convincing fantasy city ever seen in a video game. The dungeons vary from small caves to sprawling, multi-level complexes, whilst massive castles, underwater environments and even quest-specific sojourns to a fairyland and the surface of another planet are included. The Witcher 3 is a visually rich and inventive game which never loses the ability to surprise the player with the diversity of its locations. Even more pleasing, exploring the world is never once slowed by a loading screen (apart from a brief pop-up as you move between the four maps) as you seamlessly pass from exteriors into interiors to subterranean caverns without slowing down. Bethesda’s Creation Engine is left looking especially decrepit at this point by comparison.

The game also has a plethora of monsters to fight, ranging from poison-spewing plants to incorporeal spectres, enormous royal wyverns, sentient killer trees and various giant arachnids. The game’s bestiary ends up being huge, with it never seeming to run out of new creatures to throw into a fight. Character graphics can be a little bit more hit and miss, with major NPCs looking fantastic and minor ones being far less detailed.

Other weaknesses in the game are notable only for their slightness. Geralt isn’t the most nimble-footed character and finely adjusting his position on a ledge can be quite clunky, although this is very rarely an issue. The Skellige Isles map is also slightly underwhelming in its scale. The massive, snow-capped mountains feel like they’re 1:5000 scale models, with what appears to be a massive, towering peak in the distance turning out to be moderate hill about thirty feet away that you can run up in five seconds flat. The other maps are all brilliant, but the illusion that CDPR is trying to sell you in Skellige is too easy to see through. Another weakness is that the war story, the conflict between Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms, feels somewhat underdeveloped and the resolutions are, for the most part, superficial and not entirely logical.

The other issue is one that really will vary by player: the game may be too much for some people. It took me 88 hours to complete the main storyline and that for both expansions (Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, both included with the Game of the Year Edition), all of the Witcher Contracts and Treasure Hunts and most of the side-quests. But the maps are still plastered in “points of interest”, monster nests, occupied towns and unexplored caves. A thorough, exhaustive play-through could easily take two to three times as long. Conversely, those less concerned with not seeing everything the game can offer could get through it in maybe 50 hours if they focused on the main storyline and a few important, character-focused side-quests. These side-quests are particularly important as they allow you to assemble a crack team of badasses who will come to your aid in a major battle towards the end of the game. The more people you help out, the likelier you will survive and get the best possible outcome. This mechanic is not even spelled out in the game, unlike say Mass Effect 2’s comparable “loyalty missions” idea. It just develops naturally as events unfold. But there’s a huge amount of characters, moving parts and storylines to keep track of during this game.

But the game is so good that none of the criticisms feel relevant. It’s often very funny. The tone of the game can shift from bleak, grimdark nihilism (say during the ending of the harrowing, emotionally raw Bloody Baron storyline) to outright comedy (such as Geralt having to guide a randy ghost through one last party without letting anyone else know what’s going on) to genuine romance on the spin of a dime. It’s a game that knows when to engage in bleakness and when to let the wine and good times flow. There’s a strong sense of compassion, friendship and family to the game which few other video games have ever genuinely engaged with (probably the closest is the Mass Effect trilogy, but even that falls short of the genuine warmth that permeates The Witcher 3’s character relations). The somewhat pervy nature of Geralt’s relationship with women in the first game – which allowed you to collect cards of your sexual conquests – has been replaced by something more egalitarian in this game and more rooted in genuine romantic relationships (Geralt’s face when a woman treats him the way he treated women in the first game is particularly amusing). Attempts to try to play the field and bed every woman in the game can still be made, but this time around there’s consequences. This isn’t to say that the franchise has completely escaped its pervy roots – almost every female character has a plunging neckline, bare midriff or both, occasionally lampshaded in dialogue – but it’s certainly pushed back on it, even allowing you to control the (arguably) more powerful and capable character of Ciri in short but numerous sequences as you learn more about what she’s been up to.

Reviewing The Witcher 3 is a bit like trying to review a 30-book fantasy series in one go: there’s so much in this game that it’s frankly impossible. After 2,400 words I still haven’t mentioned the absolutely outstanding voice acting (apart from the actress who plays Ciri, who doesn’t quite nail it); the Crones, three of the creepiest villains ever seen in video games; the vast numbers of homages to other properties (everything from Game of Thrones to Skyrim to Police Squad!); the elaborate tourney sequence; Roach, your teleporting demon horse; your dilapidated house which you can rebuild slowly; and the full scope of the immense supporting cast, such as your genteel vampire who is overly fond of exposition to a minor demigod named “Johnny” to a dwarven bank manager to a persecuted shapeshifter called Dudu (which for some reason nobody brings up as being hilarious). There is so much here that the game will have you coming back for months, if not years, to try to track down that last missing quest or find that last monster lair.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (*****) is monstrously ambitious, epic on a scale none of its rivals (not even Dragon Age: Inquisition or Skyrim) can match and packed with genuinely well-written, witty and morally complex storylines. It is the foremost gaming achievement of this generation and it throws down a gauntlet to its rivals that I will be shocked if anyone can match it. It also raises the bar very, very high for CDPR’s own successor game in a totally different genre, Cyberpunk 2077. But after playing this game I am much more confident they can pull it off. The Witcher 3 is available (with its brilliant expansions) now for PC (Steam, GoG), X-Box One (UK, USA) and PlayStation 4 (UK, USA). 


Funksoul123 said...

It really is an incredible game, there is some repetition but most of the time what has been put into the game to entertain you is so good that you won't care.

The game is also too big, I played the main quest to completion and found the best armor for my sword style and did a fair few of the side quests and could only play about 3/4 of the way through hearts of stone before needing to play something else.

It's still head and shoulders above Skyrim however.

Ghost said...

Knew you'll love it. Wild Hunt is easily one of the best games in the past 10 years and a high bar for anyone to clear. My personal favorite scene came near the end of Blood & Wine when Geralt and Regis drank together at a campfire in a cemetery. It was a quiet scene that captures the game so well it just stayed with me. Brilliant!

the_corbie said...

I've been playing this for months now (I only have time to play a few hours each week). Nearly done with it, although my obsessive completist self is having to deal with not finishing every question mark on the map. Which brings me to one nitpick: the Skellige map is simply dotted with millions of smuggler's caches. Sail out, shoot harpies, collect barrels, repeat. Literally dozens of them, it appears. Whose idea was that? It's not even entertaining after the third or fourth. Some more imagination on that map would have been welcome.

I'm also curious if you did the Gwent quests. I avoided those at first on the basis that the entire concept of playing a collectible card game in a quasi-medieval setting is beyond stupid. Eventually I played a bit, and it was a fun enough mini-game, but I've more or less lost interest again because it's a time-sink and adds little to the main game. Two of my three failed quests so far are Gwent card-collecting and even as a completist, I find I just don't care.

But the character work and writing in the game is great. No doubt that it has set a bar for others to reach.