Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Microreview [video game]: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Following the Path



The Witcher 3 is great, and you should play it immediately.

The Witcher 3 follows closely after the events of The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. Geralt is a witcher (not a witch, or witch-hunter), a human transformed by mutagens and trained to kill monsters that prey on common people. He has recovered his lost memory and is on the search for his love, the sorceress Yennefer. He finds Yennefer in the service of Emhyr var Emreis, the emperor of Nilfgaard. Emreis has a mission for them: to find his daughter (and Geralt's adopted daughter) Ciri. Ciri has been missing for a long time, but Emreis's intelligence has spotted her in the conflicted lands of Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige. Ciri is thought to be pursued by the Wild Hunt, a mythical group of spectral riders that bring death everywhere they go. Geralt goes out in search of Ciri and the hunt begins.

If you've never played a Witcher game, the most obvious comparison is to a third-person Skyrim. It's a huge, third-person action RPG with a single character focus. You're not an avatar of yourself, but Geralt. Geralt has a voice, and history, but his conduct is largely up to the player. Dialog options aren't restricted to "saint" or "asshole" but several shades in between. Sometimes you can use witcher magic to manipulate conversations, but (in contrast to previous games) this sometimes backfires. Geralt can freely summon a horse, and fast travel is available at semi-regular intervals throughout the world. The main quest is not time-limited, so you're free to pursue side quests, witcher contracts (monster hunts), and play mini-games. Areas are not auto-leveled to provide a particular challenge and it's not difficult to wander into a fight you're not ready for, which gives exploration an appealing degree of danger. The quests in the game are helpfully labeled with a suggested player level, which I found to be mostly accurate to the degree of challenge I expected.

If you played The Witcher 2 (and you should, it's amazing), then you're likely pretty familiar with how to play The Witcher 3. It still has two swords, heavy and light attacks, potions, throwables, and magical signs. It has, however, been thoroughly tweaked to make the gameplay a little smoother. Melee attacks are not as easily interrupted. Potions are brewed once (after recipe and ingredients have been found) and then they stay in limited quantities in your inventory and auto-refill with every rest period. Potions don't last as long as they used to, so they're more freely chugged during combat. There are no knives to throw, but they've been replaced with a crossbow and bombs auto-refill like the potions do. The axii sign (mind control) actually works outside of dialog in The Witcher 3 to stun enemies, and yrden (magical trap) is less of an instant stun and more of an area-of-effect debuff zone. The availability of traps is far, far lower in The Witcher 3, which is great news if you're still having nightmares about that trap-filled jungle outside of Flotsam. You can freely dodge, block, and parry without worrying about a stamina meter. Signs require a recharge time per casting, but it can be sped up with character development. Overall, some of the rough corners of The Witcher 2's main combat loop have been smoothed over in positive ways.

Beyond the mechanics of the gameplay, this is very much an evolution of The Witcher games of the past. No easy choices, and very few of them shake out entirely from the start. You find out hours later how your choices have affected the world. It doesn't only affect characters either, as the actual world of The Witcher 3 changes. Not in huge ways, but little details such as seeing more soldiers in the streets, or different background conversations as the game progresses.

Quest design is incredible. The main story has a few interesting turns, but some of the side quests almost overshadow it. It felt like the designers got to where most video games would end a quest line, and decided to continue it for a few more beats. Of all the many, many quests I completed, I only ran into one that got stuck on a bug, and even that quest could be completed in another way due to its design. Even beyond quests, the landscape is littered with stuff to do, like destroy monster nests, find hidden treasures, and liberate areas from bandits. There's a CCG-ish mini game called Gwent that some people are huge fans of. I'm not one of them, but I appreciate it for doing something other than simple dice poker. Secondary quests include Gwent, fist fighting tournaments (like those in The Witcher 2), and horse racing. The amount of stuff to do in the game easily rivals or surpasses the largest RPGs.

There is also a huge amount of little details that The Witcher 3 gets right, where most games do not. There is no unspoken dialog. Every conversation is voiced. Even though the world is absolutely enormous, the parts of it all seem unique and different. Where most games this big might feel like they've been cut and paste together, the world of The Witcher 3 feels crafted. Every piece of equipment changes Geralt's look with very few palette swaps. Cutscenes are all rendered in-game, so every Geralt looks like your Geralt. If you're riding your horse, you can hold down the run button and the horse will (mostly intelligently) follow the trail you're on. It's all of these little touches that add up to The Witcher 3 being an amazingly immersive experience. There's very little in the game that pulls you out of its world.

If I had to make one complaint about the game, it's that the crafted narrative experience comes at the expense of having a character that represents the player. Playing the whole game as Geralt simply isn't going to appeal to every single person, and it doesn't have to, but it limits the audience. Your Geralt probably differs from mine in many ways, but we're both still playing as Geralt, not some representation of ourselves. It's a downside to the improved narrative you get from playing a single character. When you're playing a character, you can't play as yourself. Compared its modern RPG contemporaries, such as Pillars of Eternity, Dragon Age, or Skyrim, this makes The Witcher 3 rather limited in choice of player representation.

But if you're into Geralt, this is the best Witcher game yet. It's an enormous open world that is fun to explore and live in for the many, many hours you'll spend in it. It's an extremely immersive game that sends The Witcher series out on a very high note.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 10/10

Bonuses: It's an amazing video game.

Penalties: -1 unless you're not into playing as Geralt. Then it's an excellent game that might not be for everyone.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 (very high quality/standout in its category)

***

BONUS MICRO-MICROREVIEWS

The Witcher 3 Free DLC

In the time since release, CD Projekt RED have released 10 pieces of free DLC, two pieces every two weeks since release. These pieces of DLC are truly DLC sized additions consisting of three quests, two sets of armor, two alternate costumes, an alternate set of art for Gwent cards, alternate hair and beard styles, and a new crossbow set. They are mostly minor additions, but the quests add more time and are of a quality consistent with the rest of the game. One of the new quests alone (a scavenger hunt) added another two hours to my time.

The new stuff, however, blends in so well with the rest of the game that it might be hard to locate new quests or items without some directions. Contrary to Elder Scrolls fashion, the new items are not accompanied by quests or mysteriously delivered notes, and the quests must be stumbled upon like any other quest. If you're just trying to check out the new stuff, it would behoove you to find a wiki page or forum post from someone who can tell you where to find the new stuff so you're not sifting through a sea of stuff you already know about.

They're nice bonuses that will give me a reason to fire the game up again when the rest are released. I am very much looking forward to the more substantial expansions that are planned for the game. 


The World of the Witcher [book]

I'm a sucker for video game art books. The World of the Witcher is, specifically, an art book for the video game series and not necessarily the book series. It's heavy on finished art and lore, but doesn't pull back the curtain much on concepts or designs, and the lore won't tell you much that you won't already know from playing the games. It's weighty and well-built, but not mindblowing.

***

POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: CD Projekt RED. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt [CD Projekt RED, 2015]
Reference: CD Projekt RED. The World of the Witcher [Dark Horse Books, 2015]

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