Review: The Witcher 3—Wild Hunt (PC)

GOAT

Wild Hunt cover

Developer: CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt RED
Genre: Action RPG
Price: $59.99
ESRB: M
I remained unphased when CD Projekt RED announced that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt would be “open world,” because I had no idea what that meant. I intentionally remained ignorant by adhering to my personal policy of locking myself out of all news pertaining to that which I already knew I would consume (movies, television shows, video games, comics books, etc.). The only bit of information concerning Witcher 3 that I allowed myself to know included the “recommended” system specs. With this information, I rebuilt my 2010 system for 2015 standards, featuring the GTX 970.
PC prepared, I recently played through The Witcher 2 for the first time and concluded that it is one of the best games I have ever played. I don’t impress easily, even when it comes to my favorite franchises. Could Witcher 3 possibly outdo one of the best WRPGs ever?

STORY

Emyr

Emhyr var Emreis
After chasing the elusive Letho, the true “assassin of kings” all around Redania, the fugitive makes himself curiously accessible at the conclusion of Witcher 2 and drops some megatons all about the noggin of our hero, Geralt of Rivea. The most significant of them included the location of Yennefer of Vengerberg, Geralt’s true soul mate and the woman spoken of in the widely-circulated fables of a witcher, a sorceress, and the Wild Hunt.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt opens with Geralt in hot pursuit of Yennifer, who has serendipitously sent him a “letter of summons” after maintaining a profane span of silence, especially when such a letter includes “I still have the unicorn.” Those with literary acumen would peg that last line as an innuendo before Geralt (by player’s discretion) chooses to translate for old Vesemir. Yet Yennifer is ever the tease, leaving her star-crossed lover a trail of clues leading to her location. Her urgent message is one that she feels can only be conveyed in person: Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, fondly known as Ciri, their foster child by Law of Surprise, is alive and must be found.
It just so happens that the Nilfgaardian emperor, Emhyr var Emreis is also invested in the whereabouts of his Ciri, his biological daughter, and sends Geralt on a mission that he can’t refuse to locate her. Of course, with the Wild Hunt on her tail, Ciri is the atop Temaria’s Most Wanted list. Geralt has not seen Ciri since she was a wee lassie under his guard and care at Kaer Morhen training as a witcher(ess). While he would like to see her for rarely-displayed sentimental reasons, the undergirding plot of Witcher 3: Wild Hunt concerns why Yennifer, Emreis, and the titular Wild Hunt are vested in the Ciri, who carries Elder Blood in her veins.

Content Warning

language

She’s working smarter not harder.
Language: Throughout Witcher 3, Geralt encounters people of all social classes from the Nilfguardian Emperor Emreis himself to a conclave of waifs; from tavern wenches to highborn maidens with dowries worth more than you could make in a lifetime. The language deployed in the game is reflective of the adventure. Prepare to experience the feeling of wanting to wash your ears with soap after every encounter with a low-ranking soldier, thug, and bandit, or learn 12th century phallic euphemisms when passing by “strumpets” on the streets of Novigrad, or cringe at the numerous scoundrels’ threats upon some damsel’s maidenhead. It’s wartime, and most pleasantries among human civilization has been suspended for enhanced effect: the snooty, uncouth, and vulgar dominate the world of Temeria to a degree which far exceeds the boorishness found in all of Witcher 2, though that may be attributed to Witcher 3 spanning over 100 hours.

Lost his mind

Thought he could beat Geralt in a fight. HE LOST…HIS MIND!!!
Violence: Gone are the blood-splashes on the screen during fights. Instead, players may be treated to a slow-motion death stroke during which Geralt may stab the heart, impale, or decapitate his human foe. Other times, he simply slices them right in two.
Torture has returned in various forms though primarily attributed to the Church of the Eternal Fire which prides itself in its cruelty. Though the torture happens off-screen, it is no less disturbing. There is one side quest in particular which features the gouging of victims’ eyes and removal of hearts after being forced to drink formaldehyde. There is also a character who treats women like Sid in Toy Story treats his playthings. 

Poor Girl

21st century lesson on human trafficking in a 13th century context. Mature theme, yes, but not one from which Christians should turn away.
Licentiousness: While it is true that CDPR recorded 16 hours of sex scene mo-cap data, they are notably more subdued than the thrusting and panting in Witcher 2. Sex in Witcher 3 is less aggressively torrid and more playful and flirtatious. The animations in these scenes employ more fore (and post)play including stripteases, messages, and massages rather than simply intercourse. To my knowledge, there is no necessary sex scene nor is there an “obligatory” one such as that with Triss in Witcher 2. Therefore, it is possible to avoid them altogether. However, it is impossible to avoid nudity completely. The main plot of the game requires Geralt to pass through bath houses, a brothel or two (which one of his good friend owns, no less), an all-female sauna, and a masquerade featuring topless women for “entertainment.” 

Looks can be deceiving

I can see that codpiece from over here. He’s clearly stuffing!
I am unaware (or unable to recall) of a LGBT spectacle such as Phillippa’s BDSM session with an apprentice in Witcher 2, though they are represented in more subtle ways: a love letter between same-sex couples here, a hunter mentioning being ostracized by his community because his deceased lover is male. An important female character has the option to say that she fancies women when asked if she finds an NPC’s brother attractive.

Pride

Saw that one coming, bro.
Alcohol/Drug Use: Booze are in no short supply in Witcher 3…well, except for the higher-level stuff such as alcohest , used to brew the strongest of potions. I did not encounter a sidequest requiring Geralt to become inebriated like in Witcher 2 (I refused to import my Witcher 2 save due to that abominable tattoo), though Triss instead gets tipsy and flirtatious on a certain quest.

Yeahhhhh

I did NOT see that one. Well played…I think?
Misc Spiritual Content: To quote myself, “Gamers should know that ‘witcher’ is derived from ‘witch.’ Thus, Geralt is a practitioner of Signs, which may or may not be associated with what Witcher 2 refers to as ‘the Power,’ or the source of the kind of magics that sorceresses like [Yennifer] are naturally born with the ability to command. The presence of magic in a RPG should not come as a surprise to anyone, but the reference to it capitalized as ‘the Power’ may receive side-eyes from those that are spiritually sensitive.” 
Note that there are actual witches in Witcher 3. They are derived from the Fates, in fact, and they are no less grotesque than any other known rendition of them.

Gameplay

lubberkin

Better than that dancing baby from the 90’s. This one glows in the dark!
We now understand that the large swaths of traversable terrain before encountering a loading screen in the previous two Witcher games were not merely imitations of the “non-linear” design of WRPGs, but  experiments. Each game tested the limits of its engine, determining how many assets—from the lushness of vegetation in forests to the density of NPCs in a town—could be included in a single stride before a loading screen was necessary. Without becoming obnoxiously boring in the details of its evolution, know that the “open world” concept in Witcher 3 has always been CDPR’s objective from day one. To borrow from another popular WRPG, VICTORY ACHIEVED!

50 hours into the game

My map 50 hours into the game. FIFTY! And I actually know what I’m doing!
As the video game editor here at GUG, I openly admit that this game poses some obstacles with formatting. Traditionally, environmental descriptions would be more appropriate for our “Presentation” sections, however the “open world” concept is as integral to gameplay as the visuals. The ability to travel from one side of a gargantuan map to the other without encountering a loading screen is something that gamers have come to expect from Rockstar games like Red Dead Redemption and GTA, and Bethesda games like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls. Yet even those games require loading when activating the cut-scenes for a mission or when leaving the main map to go underground or through a portal. There are only three ways to generate a loading screen in Witcher 3: loading up a saved game, using a fast travel marker, or agree to a character’s desire to travel to a location straight away. Of course, players can decline the instant transmission and go themselves, but the point here is that loading screens are so sparse, consequentially, they are irritating when they do appear.

dumb horse

Sigh…around the tree, please. AROUND!!!
Because Witcher 3 is an amalgamation of several genres, there are some hitches in translation.  Enemies, characters, and their body parts sometimes behave like a basketball spiked like a football upon death, taking “ragdoll” to an extreme that is more vexatious than comical. At times, riding Geralt’s horse, Roach, can be a test in one’s patience. Often she veers in an unfavorable direction, does not respond immediately to running (occasionally triggering the Windows x5 shift key press prompt), or will stop running for some unseen reason. Combat while on transportation is the most unpolished part of the game. Fighting sirens while on a boat causes all kinds of problems with hitboxes and animations, and I was in the 75th hour of gameplay when I discovered that I could hold the mouse button to prepare a strike while on horseback rather than try to time a sword stroke with a single click as I pass by an enemy. It is just more efficient to dive underwater and use the crossbow for one hit kills rather than swing a sword, or get off Roach before an engagement. Additionally, traveling through major cities like Oxenfort or Novigrad can be can frustrating because the game disables galloping. The explanation provided is that these locations are too populated to risk a horse storming through, but running into and through people is somehow not a problem in small towns. Disabling galloping into a canter just feels like an excuse for forcing players to walk/jog/run through the towns to better absorb all the goings-on.inventory
Just like the first time I played Fallout, I found myself spending way too much time looting everything in sight, not knowing what would be useful or useless. I would raid peoples’ homes unannounced, stealing every crown, every book, every bottle of booze that I could find. Not because I was trying to be malevolent, but simply because Witcher 3 as a video game allows me to do so. It is a good thing that CDPR rebalanced inventory weight and provided ways to expand capacity with saddlebags!
A game of..biblical…proportions!

Like Miranda, right

Could be an illusion. In the books you’re a hunchback. OH YOU THOUGHT I DIDN’T KNOW? BOOYAH!!!
Sure, players will encounter an inexplicably locked door or two which creates an unnecessary restriction within the “open world,” but for all intents and purposes, the yardage in which gamers can explore before reaching the borderline where the game says to go back is unprecedented in size and detail. I can see where some would want to draw comparisons to GTAV, but I would urge them to take a closer look at the textures. The art direction in GTAV is akin to CGI imitating life while the photorealism in Witcher 3 plays not with uncanny valley, but the sublime. At times I find myself staring at Yennifer because her face messes with my head in ways that Miranda’s face did in ME2 and ME3: so real, it’s weird.

bandit

Best looking bandit across nearly three continents. 
What separates WItcher 3 from its open-world and sandbox competitors is that no quest in this game goes to waste—not even the randomly-generated quests marked with a yellow “!” on the map.  Never in my life have I played a game EVERY SINGLE QUEST contributes to something relevant to the overall plot or construction of the world. No quest ever felt like filler. No quest ever felt like a waste of time. For example, the investigation of a farmer’s missing horse leads to an encounter with some Scoia’tael, the elven guerillas fighting for the equivalent of 13th century civil rights. Examining the evidence of a thief stealing chickens from an old widow leads to a gang of displaced children orphaned due to the ongoing war. How CDPR has managed to accomplish this feat of making everything important is a feat beyond my comprehension. The synchronization of its writing team is an accomplishment without rival. I play RPGs for the story, and the excellent storytelling makes it easier to overcome Roach’s poor handling.  smarter than the average...wolf
Smarter than the average…wolf.
My favorite pastime in Witcher 3 by a wide margin is completing the witcher contracts which have their own categorization in the menus. Each one might begin with a posting on the town billboard and then a haggling with the person who will pay the witcher’s fee. Afterwards is the fun part. Similar to the forensics and crime scene reconstructions in the Batman Arkham games, with a right click, Geralt uses his “witcher senses” (think Wolverine) to track the suspect responsible for haunting houses, raiding caravans, and eating livestock. The best part is how Geralt distinguishes between different furs left behind to determine if he is dealing with anything from a werewolf to a fiend, and the Bestiary is then amended to account for the unique “supermonster” that is being tracked. I grew particularly fond of hunting noonwraiths because of the stories associated with their existence and exorcism: death had befallen some woman at the time they were beloved or betrothed and as a consequence, their twisted spirit terrorizes the area near where they perished. It is through these contracts where players learn the most concerning the monsters of the world, including that some that are sentient and can set primitive traps for humans, and others that are post-conjunction (demonic). The witcher contracts are the feature in this game which most closely require the “prep time” necessary in previous Witcher games for successful fights, allowing me to feel like the seasoned witcher that Geralt is.

pfft religion

Pfft, pagans! 
Once again, CDPR modifies the combat system in such a way that even Witcher veterans such as myself will find themselves getting their butts handed to them throughout the prologue region, White Orchard. After killing drowners while blindfolded in previous games, it is thoroughly humbling to get served in three or four hits by some of them at level 3. Gone are permanent passive skills that can be leveled and forgotten; now every skill must be leveled and placed in a skill slot to be activated. This is severely limiting during the early levels because only one slot opens every two levels, and there are about a dozen skills that one needs to become an unstoppable juggernaut of pirouettes, spells, and potions. Additionally, every skill tree is color-coded, and it would behoove any-would be witcher to match mutagens with skills for added bonuses.

FINISH HIM

FINISH HIM!
In Witcher 3, blocking a sword strike with a sword is now appropriately called a parry—in video games, we say “block” when such a term does not exist in the art of fencing—yet parrying everything is not recommended because Geralt can be staggered and rendered vulnerable after strong attacks from beasts or humans with large weapons such as pole arms which can break his guard.Therefore, it is better to simply dodge attacks like he does against the Striga in the Witcher 1 intro, an ability that has been added to Geralt’s in-game repertoire. I only remember rolling all over the place in the first two Witcher games. Now, the White Wolf has a legitimate “side step” style dodge in addition to a roll. The former is best used to avoid attacks while remaining within striking distance while the latter should be used to reposition entirely. (I STRONGLY recommend keyboard & mouse users such as myself to bind “roll” to “alt” and “dodge” to “spacebar”).
The spell trees of Aard, Axii, Yarden, Igni, and Quen return as does the stamina system that serves as “mana.” With the exception of Axii, the first tier of every tree has an AoE effect. Aard, the classic Jedi spell, staggers enemies to break their defense or floors them for a coup de grace opportunity. Axii charms opponents, completely dazing them as they stand in one place,  which used to be the effect of Yarden in Witcher 2. Axii is a great spell against “heavy” enemies which carry shields or polearms to open them for a “backstab” attack. Yarden creates an AoE circle decorated with runes that slows any enemy that enters its radius. It is by far my favorite spell, reducing annoyingly fast enemies like foglets to a crawl, or forcing wraiths out of their incorporeal state to that which can be struck with a silver sword. Casting Yarden is like drawing a line in the sand and challenging anyone to cross it for a pummeling.  Quen reprises its role as the traditional shield, as does Igni in its role as the fire-based damage dealer.skill tree
I used to not care about alchemy outside of the ability to brew the potions and oils that I needed and a skill that increases the harvest of alchemy components so that I would always have what was necessary to brew what I needed. However, alchemy plays more notable role in Witcher 3 because the effects of potions and oils do not last as long as they have in previous games. For example, a Swallow (healing) potion now only lasts thirty seconds as opposed to ten minutes, or Thunderbolt (damage increase) lasts only fifteen seconds. Therefore, CDPR balanced alchemy so that a single “brew” will create multiple potions (such as 3 Swallows and Thunderbolts), and they can be used during battles rather than before during a meditation session. Oils still need to be applied to swords before fights, but they are now unlimited in their usage. Additionally, it seems that once players have found the components to brew an oil, potion, or decoction (the strongest potions of all), only strong alcohols are required for Geralt to auto-refill them while meditating for an hour. This is a tremendous change from the previous games, because one used to have to own every ingredient to brew multiples of a single potion, but it was necessary change for maintaining the free flow of the game’s “open world” (the other argument is that arcane Wizards of the Sword Coast-style PCRPG pre-fight preparation does not appeal console audiences; without them, CDPR’s vision of Witcher 3 would have been impossible) without making things oversimplified. Still, players will find themselves scrambling to buy more Alchoest because it’s cheaper to buy than concoct. I just wish that Geralt’s utility belt could hold more than two potions and two bombs. Having to pause or access my inventory to use more than that ruins the immersion.

jokes

Witcher’s work necessitates a certain kind of charm and wit. 
The multifaceted nature of combat in Witcher 3 nuances renders combat as more tactical than technical—fighting is now more about finding strategies which work universally rather than specifically. The trade off, then, is depth. Witcher 1 and 2 were more old school, telegraphing the big boss fight and giving you time to prepare as is the modeus opperandai of a witcher to always be prepared. In the past, a contract requiring Geralt to enter a nekker hive in a cave would call for a meditation session where Geralt should quaff Cat, Swallow, and perhaps Rook (damage increase) potions which would last 15-20 minutes in real time before descending into the depths for a fight. Alternatively, Witcher 3 is about flow. Players do not always have the opportunity to prepare; therefore, the potions are more plentiful yet their durations are shorter—unless one skills up Alchemy. It is better to skill in several trees than create an exclusive build. Like Diablo III, Witcher 3 encourages experimentation; I hardly leveled anything in Alchemy in the previous two games. This one makes it somewhat necessary to level up a bit of every tree.
No matter what level Geralt is, if he finds himself surrounded by even three enemies in a triangle formation, it could be a lethal encounter. Attacks in the backside do major damage, and the AI behaves unlike bad guys in TV shows and movies where they “wait their turn” as the hero defeats a small army one-by-one. While parrying one enemy, another will try to swing for major damage, or another might shoot an arrow as Geralt is fighting in a melee. There is no “fair fight” in this game, and players will need to use the entirety of their arsenal to survive. Alternatively, players who wack through an opponent’s parries will find themselves with sword degradation more often than those who patiently wait for openings to strike flesh rather than steel. The only exception to this are Ciri scenarios.

Ciri

#AllTheSingleLadies
The completion of a series of main quest objectives awards players with sequences where Ciri is a playable character. Much like the chat options during the main parts of the game, Ciri’s responses shape the character and events in such a way that will be difficult to determine until tens (yes, TENS) of hours later. She is OP, healing on her own, being able to attack incessantly without being staggered, and can “dash teleport” like Shinobi on PS2, after-images and all. I do not want to discuss her too much, because the anomalies and mysteries pertaining to her character are critical plot points. 

LOL

HE MAD! 
Generally, not a good idea to make him so.
All of this is available to Witcher 3 players and I have yet to say a word on the fistfighting or horse riding side quests, let alone Gwent, the new meta-game that has replaced dice poker. For my first playthrough, I decided that I would skip Gwent because I know that it is a time sink. Besides, I am admittedly bad at it, unlike dice poker. While there are no true fetch-quests in Witcher 3, collecting all the Gwent cards, which is optional, is the closest that the game offers.

Presentation

DEATH

 The tree of lif—er, nevermind.
Witcher 3 is CDPR’s magnum opus, and it shows. Traveling from one place to the other, players might pass a farm that has been recently seeded or one with crops as tall as Geralt sitting on Roach. The roads may cut through a battlefield lousy with corpses still rotting among the vultures and corpse-eating ghouls and then turn through a tranquil ruin where naught but deer and rabbits dwell. Major cities are speckled with markets, seaports, taverns, ***** houses, and theaters on one side and estates, temples, manors, and burlesque houses on the other. Satellite towns and villages dot around the points of major civilization, and within, one may find: women scrubbing clothes, plucking chickens, soliciting Johns, or painting; children playing swords and soldiers, tag or following Geralt around; men tilling the fields, hammering swords, or wandering aimlessly while drunk; cats and dogs roaming, pigs scavenging and cattle foraging. Sometimes, NPCs are just lounging around or chatting idly about the aftermath of Geralt slaying a monster that terrorized the area, or something which pertains to local or regional political landscape.

war is hell

War is hell.
The settings in Witcher 3 are rife with life! I am only reminded that this is a game when I choose to abandon a mission midway through. For example, Yennifer awaits patiently in the grove in the image above until I complete a few tasks necessary for advancing the plot. Should I abandon this area for side quests and witcher contracts, she will still stand there until I finish the specific mission that necessitates her presence. The ability to pick and choose when to complete missions without a sense of urgency is essential to nonlinear gameplay, but this also negatively affects the immersion. ‘Tis a limitation in video games and not something anyone should expect CDPR to solve, but it is worth noting.

Liar liar

Liar, liar! Loins on fire!
The desire to complete all of these scintillating missions can be directly attributed to the immaculate writing, which has consistently evolved alongside every other aspect of the Witcher series. I would not peg our hero Geralt as brazen, but rather, wise and sagacious. When someone is trying to pull the wool over his eyes, Geralt responds with a “Mhm” and a quip demonstrating that he is no fool…well, except when it comes to Yennifer, who is his foil. Tris had been Geralt’s sole (canonical) love interest up until now, so Yen’s appearance required some rhetorical finagling so that there would not be an upheaval among fans. Everything in this game has its place and purpose. Nothing is wasted; that includes the screenshots that I have sprinkled about this review.

that guy

Oh, my bad. THIS GUY is the one with the incendiary crotch.
I have covered a few of the ambient sounds such as NPC chatter; the quality of the voice acting goes without saying. Though I am ashamed to admit I did not know that Geralt’s taciturn demeanor can be attributed to his mutations as he points this out in a dialogue, I was shocked to hear delight in his voice when speaking with his lovers, or gentleness when interacting with children. The supporting cast of NPCs are equally effective with their lines, and I would have to write another thousand words to address them individually.  

reflection

Not all great shots are in daylight. Night looks great, too. Almost romantic.
No number paltry lines can do justice to the music in the game, which is excellent. Welcome is the return of the original theme song for the title screen, though with more oomph. The music is dynamic depending on Geralt’s location, from White Orchid to Skellige. I would post several resplendent examples, but the OST is not widely available, and several tracks can be cryptic spoilers. 

Conclusion

satisfied

Geralt is pleased with Witcher 3, as am I.
I consider Witcher 2 to be one of the greatest WRPGs ever made. Witcher 3 on the other hand, is one of the greatest games that I have ever played. The list of characters rivals that seen in a series of novels. The bestiary brings shame upon games which feature a mere handful of enemy types. The story is rich and gratifying for the effort exerted to experience as much of it as possible. And even if those things are boring, one can always explore the splendid landscapes, taking in the world as it is, not as a witcher would have it. After playing Witcher 3, I am unsure if I will ever be able to tolerate games requiring me to grind gold and experience, or complete perfunctory missions that artificially inflate the length of the game (fetch quests).
There is a new standard in the WRPG, and it is Witcher 3.
Oh, and there’s an expansion coming by the way. 
Shut up and take my orens
Bring it!
*Light Witcher 2 SPOILERS*
For my fellow Witcher fans out there, let the record show that I “took the lethal option with LaValette (I did not know this was a major decision but I stand by it),” “sided with Iorveth,” “saved Triss,” “stood and watched” and decided it was best to challenge Mr. -of Gulet to nothing more than an affable bout of thumb war.

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The Bottom Line

Why are you reading this review instead of playing this masterpiece ? Tsk, at this rate, you'll never beat it! Witcher 3 is the kind of game that we will be speaking of fondly alongside the likes of FFVII, FFT, and Baldur's Gate 2.

 

9.7

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Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

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