In a generation full of open-world-ness, Witcher 3 may have the most open-world-ness. I’d bet a gwent card on it, actually. The fatigue associated with the genre climbs and falls depending upon which digital avenue you travel down, but it is at the point where changes to tested formulas have had to happen. You have to stir the pot every now and then with new ingredients. Otherwise, your fans will find heartier meals elsewhere.
On the wave of yearly releases, semi-pointless open worlds, and a lot of landscapes feeling similar, everything seemed to push against The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt finding anything but the standard level of success. CD Projekt Red was taking on territory Bethesda’s Skyrim had dominated for two console generations. This is the kind of task that bankrupted studios and buried quality games to cult classics only. No one seemed to be able to take on the massive balance of systems and scale found in a then-4-year-old game.
Not unlike the protagonist of the Witcher series Geralt of Rivia, the answer ended up being more about the preparation, slowly crafting and broiling until this elite monster of the royal highlands could be shopped down to size. As a result, Witcher 3 is a brew of oils, wards, and silver strong enough to take down an empire.
Far and away the strongest quality is the writing and quests. Having a renowned source material from a popular series of novels certainly doesn’t hurt, but for CD to take so many quests and give them not only lore but weight comes as a masterwork. Geralt is as comedic with deadpan delivery as he is serious with a certain growl from the belly of the White Wolf. Triss is stressed with the peril of her people, Yennifer is borderline arrogant in her skills and won’t allow for dallying; the writing conveys character in every verse to where you can play with the TV off and still accurately describe everyone.
That seems like such a rarity in gaming. So very often is a character boiled down to a single trait, or none at all, to carry them ahead, or their flair (or bewbs) are their sole trait. It’s a dry well at this point to have an RPG party filled with the wide-eyed optimist and the gruff father-figure, or a horror game with a quippy gruff-voiced hero. The inherent idea is that these are starting points that evolve the as the character interacts with the craziness of their worlds, but with so few actually arcing, what’s the point of even giving them names? Clones don’t need names (is that clonist?).
Not only are the characters of The Witcher 3 deep enough to have arcs, you can practically draw them from the dialogue alone. Geralt can be heard to be wasting his time with an impatient look, Yennifer can be heard dropping her guard to a softer look. I know I’m going on about this a lot, but the characterization webs so far and is so ingrained that it becomes a one-of-a-kind world – a full and real-feeling RPG experience.
Just about any quest can be picked out of a hat and presented as either a main quest or at least worth the time and effort. You’ll hunt a pan for an old lady or fetch something every now and then, sure, but you’ll also see a corrupt baron evolve into a man of honor or a woman wrest her freedom from one of the many monsters of the land. There are a lot of them too with easily 250 hours of content to dig through now that the full experience is out and available.
Cutting to the femur of the story, Geralt is completing his journey back to fullness after regaining his memory, reconnecting with both Yennifer and his daughter-of-a-sorts Ciri. What I will knock against the Witcher 3 here is not the quality so much as the pacing thanks to at least a 30 hour commitment to just get out of act one. This is the bloat of Red Dead Redemption’s second act right out of the gate – again, not necessarily because of the content. You will just be jolted from one mission to another without really gaining anything but bread crumbs for an insane amount of time that makes the introduction in Kingdom Hearts 2 look miniscule.
Fans of the series will see many returning faces from previous games to both help and be helped or ignored. You will have plenty of choices to make along the road, each with unknown consequences that could have you making Geralt an extreme loner when he needs help most or even bring resentment from those that love you most. It’s one of the more risky choice systems I’ve seen in a modern game with a huge swathe of possible endings awaiting like the bottom of a plinko board.
Witcher 3 is my first Witcher game, so I took a lot of risks and went down a lot of paths that I thought Geralt would get out of with a renege option. I didn’t respect the choices I was making on my first playthrough at all, and come the end, I saw the consequences. Geralt felt them, and the world seemed lessened for it. My subsequent playthrough brought a better result that felt more in line with all the characters involved and came off far more satisfying.
Gameplay is where I have some nitpicky soil surrounding a single bulb of dislike. Geralt has a two-sword arsenal that deals with humans and monsters, whirling crazily with magic keeping any eager to die in line. During combat, he swirls and churns gracefully and purpose. While just walking around, he’s a complete spaz. He always walks or runs like he has two invisible fences on either side of him that he has to go around, making tight-quarters movement far more of a binding experience than it should be. Whether following a bloodtrail with his heightened sense or just robing some blind fool, he just never controls as smoothly as he should.
Among the nitpicks is Roach, your main mode of horsing around town. He’s a demon. He’ll haunt your dreams with his teleportation and hovering horrors. He’ll be on Ghost Adventures one day to eat Zak’s head like an apple. Worse still, he is a disobedient demon that sometimes just simply cannot. Like Geralt, he’s not much of a problem when he’s moving, it’s just getting him to obey in tight spaces is an absolute nightmare. Fast travel, which is convenient enough to slice out a lot of this pain, is the only real means of travel for me.
The world is split into several provinces and continents, amassing a huge environment that is filled with loot, monsters, contracts, and, of course, gwent cards to be won. Most exciting to me were the larger-beast contracts and the hunts for Witcher gear – masterworked armor and weapons to bring Geralt to another level of deadliness. The griffins and wyverns don’t quite have the free-range approach as a Skyrim, but there’s still a certain feeling to them that never gets old. Everything is moving and demanding your precision to a less punishing extent than Dark Souls, which fits wonderfully on such a big stage.
Witcher 3 has plenty of glitches, both hilarious and inconvenient. Even years on, I’m not over them and never will be. There is an imaginary line that makes them feel acceptable when below and unacceptable when passed. Witcher 3 passes way over that line with infinite loads, clipping, world-fails and far more. If this were Family Double Dare, Geralt and crew would be the reigning champs of slime.
The phenomenon of gwent is tough to ignore as well. For me, the game is a wonderful time sink with so much strategy it’s no surprise how quickly it became a stand-alone game. I wish there were more opportunities to gather missed cards as I have a hunch that it takes two playthroughs to get all of them, which is a pretty large ask. The mechanics of the game itself though are original and eternally playable for a quick round.
For all the holes you can poke into The Witcher 3’s design, it still stands as an absolute paragon of writing and character design. What is written off by so very many as extra shows a single-player experience can rule the roost with attention to the details in the written arena. CD Projekt Red changed the game for the industry by slaying a dragon before it ever even arrived on the battlefield. That’s pretty legendary.
The Witcher 3 Score: