For two games, Geralt – the eponymous Witcher, whose voice is like the low rumbling of thunder – has been a victim of the Wild Hunt. He was stricken by amnesia before the events of the first game, but now the pasty-faced, grey-haired White Wolf has recovered his memory and begins his own hunt for Ciri, his adopted daughter, the prize the Wild Hunt is chasing.
It’s a much more personal tale than either of the previous Witcher games, exploring Geralt’s history and relationships, both romantic and platonic, but it’s still vast in scope, and a great deal of effort has also gone into developing the dark fantasy world and its denizens. Despite his urgent quest, however, he’s still able to go off gallivanting and do what he does best: killing monsters.
Now he’s doing it in a huge, mostly open world, too. That means more monsters to kill, more nooks and crannies to explore for relics, alchemical ingredients and monster dens and more quests than you could possibly keep track of without a quest log. And it stands as a lesson in how to make an open world game that’s filled with compelling content instead of inane busywork.
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There’s a common boast that the marketers of open world games make, concerned with the number of hours of content that these massive games contain. “Hundreds of hours,” they yell from the rooftops, and it seems to work, because more and more, folk have become obsessed with the idea that a £40 RPG needs to be a certain length to be worthwhile. Thus, open world games have been padded out with filler content to make them even longer.
The Witcher 3 bucks this trend, as CD Projekt Red have lavished the game with elaborate, twisting and turning quests everywhere you look. Instead of looking for collectibles or 20 bear skins, even the most mundane diversions usually involve hunting down legendary monsters and magical armour, rewarding players with an inventory full of treasures and, more importantly, some brilliant stories.
Even diversions like horse racing and Gwent, a collectible card game, respect a player’s time, offering valuable rewards without much faffing around. The horse races are some of the best ways to get saddles, blinders and saddlebags for Roach, Geralt’s loyal steed, while Gwent is an interesting time sink with a bunch of themed decks based around different armies, special cards and opponents everywhere.
The main quest sees Geralt searching for and eventually protecting his adopted daughter, Ciri, who also happens to be the subject of a prophecy and is the actual daughter of the Emperor of Nilfgaard, ruler of an expansionist, aggressive empire. He gets help from returning chums, like on again off again lover, Triss, on again off again lover, Yennefer, and just a good friend, Dandelion the bard, who narrates portions of the game.
If you’re not familiar with Geralt’s crew, not to worry. Knowledge of the previous games and the books is a boon, but detailed in-game biographies shore up any gaps, and there’s ample opportunity to get to know his old friends through major secondary quests.
The lines between different types of quests – there are main quests, secondary quests, monster contracts, treasure hunts and points of interest dotted all over the map – are thoroughly blurred, and they bleed into each other, transforming multiple quests of different tiers into a cohesive, compelling narrative. You never know when a simple monster contract is going to turn into something considerably more elaborate.
I was riding around on Roach, who has proved to be a handy companion when he’s not getting stuck or suddenly stopping and whinnying, looking for points of interest to explore. They can be found all over the world, and they can be anything from a monster nest that needs to be blown up to a bandit camp. Usually they are short diversions with a spot of combat, but sometimes they lead to tantalising treasures or the rescue of an NPC who will later become a shopkeeper with unique wares. In this instance, I’d just found a few monster dens, but my inventory was getting a bit full, so I headed to nearby village to sell some loot.
Most villages contain a signpost that allows you to fast travel to other signposts, which is convenient but also threatens to make the world a bit smaller. I rode there, because there’s always a chance of uncovering something interesting on a journey, and sometimes it’s simply nice to ride through the gorgeous landscape, admiring the striking skybox and rich, dark forests. Arriving at the village, I discovered that there was work for a Witcher.
A lot of locations host noticeboards where quests and monster contracts are pinned up, though many of them can also be embarked upon by simply overhearing a conversation. Usually the villagers don’t have a clue what the monster actually is, since they don’t know their manticores from their spirits of dead, miscarried babies (the difference is that the latter is infinitely more horrific and disturbing). Unfortunately, like all of the game’s quests, you’ll never know if it’s something you can tackle at your level until you accept it.
There’s no level scaling and while you’re expected to tackle the three main areas of Velen, Novigrad and Skellige in that order, that doesn’t mean that Velen only has low level quests. I walked around for 30 hours with a monster contract I got quite early on before I was able to actually handle it. The reason for this is that, after you’ve reached a certain point in the story, you’ll probably be jumping around between the three regions a lot, so each area has been furnished with quests and enemies that can be tackled later on. The downside of that is being stuck with loads of quests that you’ll have to wait for tens of hours to actually start.
Thankfully, the contract I picked up from this notice board was in my level range, and since I never turn down a good monster-slaying quest, I agreed to help. And because I’m a nice guy, I didn’t even make Geralt haggle for the reward.
Monster contracts tend to follow a particular formula, with Geralt first questioning people about the monster, tracking it and then killing it. The investigation usually reveals what species the monster is, and by reading the bestiary entry you can swot up on some lore and also find out its weaknesses. All monsters have to be killed with Geralt’s silver sword, while his steel sword is for the killing of humans, dwarfs, elves and animals, but beyond that they might be weak to a specific type of bomb, a magic spell (known as signs) or a particular oil that can be applied to the silver sword.
There’s a bewildering array of things to craft and upgrade, and strewn throughout the world are diagrams that unlock more craftable items. Some are tied to quests that span the entire world, sending Geralt off on a huge adventure, exploring troll-infested caves and ancient, crumbling castles.
The crafting system hits that sweet spot between convenience and complexity. Crafting materials for potions, weapons, armour, bombs and oils can be found everywhere, in fields, forests, on monsters and in shops. On the occasions where I wanted to craft something but didn’t have all the components, I’d usually discover that I actually did have what I needed, but first I had to break down items or craft the components first. In the case of bombs and potions, once you’ve crafted them, your supply can be replenished during meditation (essentially resting) at the cost of alcohol, inexplicably, which is very common. So there’s no need to hunt down those rare herbs all over again.
With my potions, bombs and oils ready, I ventured out to face the monster, and after all the preparation it proved to be an easy fight. Even the particularly hard ones can be rendered a little less exhausting with the appropriate tools, signs and some good timing, though.
There’s quite a bit of flexibility when it comes to building Geralt. Ability points are gained when you level up or discover places of power, and they can be spent on his martial ability, his signs, alchemy and passive abilities that allow him to generate stamina faster or confer more vitality points. These then inform the choices you make when it comes to his armour, since heavier gear offers more protection at the cost of stamina, which is used in casting signs. Similarly, different weapons favour sign-casting or more direct damage.
No matter how he’s built, however, Geralt’s going to be an up close and personal fighter. Combat’s a lot like The Witcher 2’s, or at least the Enhanced Edition. It’s all about moving around, dodging and rolling all over the place, trying to get behind an enemy’s defenses or away from their attacks. Parrying’s handy, too, and attacks are usually clearly signalled, giving just enough time to press but not hold the block button, which gives Geralt an opportunity to counter attack.
Throwing signs into the mix, Geralt’s able to set fire to enemies, knock them down so they can be instantly killed (if they are flying enemies, it’s better to use the crossbow and knock them out of the sky) and, my personal favourite, he can manipulate their minds temporarily and set foes against each other. Signs can also be used out of combat, to smash down walls, addle minds in dialogue and to light candles and braziers. The latter isn’t all that helpful, but I confess that I became obsessed with lighting every bloody candle in the whole game.
This hefty arsenal and big box of tricks makes Geralt perhaps a little too powerful, especially by the game’s halfway point. Enemy AI is very basic, with the only sign of intelligence being that sometimes they’ll move backwards to get out of Geralt’s way, so it’s only through sheer numbers or lots of health that they are able to pose a challenge on the normal difficulty. It’s worth increasing it once you’ve learned the basics.
With the monster dead (something that isn’t inevitable as monsters aren’t inherently bad, and you can occasionally let them go on their merry way) I headed back to the village with my trophy in tow. I expected to get paid so I could go off on another adventure, but the game had other plans in mind for me, including imprisonment, a farce of a trial, a favour owed to a powerful man and a journey into some very trippy caves with a band of warriors. I did get paid, eventually, but what had started as a very simple mission unravelled into a mystical, epic adventure.
Not every quest will lead to some grandiose Argonautica-style adventure, but they are blessed with an interconnectedness, rarely existing in a vacuum. Sometimes that just means that a character rescued in one quest will be a quest giver in another, but they often lead to much more interesting consequences.
Interesting, but also very grim. The Northern Kingdoms, where the entirety of the game takes place, is a thoroughly tragic place. There’s the big stuff, like the war, the persecution of mages and non-humans, dodgy religions, but it’s the smaller, personal tragedies that cut the deepest. It sometimes seems like everyone is suffering somehow, and there’s no easy fix.
Geralt isn’t your typical legendary hero because, despite the huge events he’s been involved with and the impact he’s had on the world, he often finds himself unable to really solve people’s problems. As a monster hunter, for instance, he’s more often than not being paid to get revenge, killing a beast that’s already taken victims. And, unfortunately, the death of the monster doesn’t fix everyone’s troubles. People are still dead, the living are still victims of war and poverty, and the world remains a predatory place where the vulnerable have short, painful lives.
The desperate state of the world is greater emphasised by complex moral quandaries that both Geralt and the people he assists and hunts make. There are times when, in an attempt to help, Geralt only leaves places worse off than when he first arrived, and it’s rarely clear what the cost of a decision will be, or who it will affect. Over the last week, I’ve found myself eyeing up previous saves several times, because I couldn’t stand what my actions resulted in. It’s hard to accept that killing monsters and saving lives doesn’t always end in a happily ever after moment.
Although he’s a drifter, Geralt gets to know a lot of people intimately – and I’m not talking about the very awkward shagging – as he travels the world. He listens to their woes, their fears and their prejudices, and a great deal of time during quests is given over to developing what can often be, in the grand scheme of things, rather minor characters. It’s a great part of why I’ve found myself becoming so attached to the miserable world. After peering into windows of so many lives and eventually becoming entangled in them, I can’t help but feel responsible for what happens to these people.
While the main plot and side stories are excellent, full of surprises and bubbling with emotion and intensity, the dialogue can be, because it is fantasy, a wee bit silly. It’s still produced countless memorable characters – though the writing perhaps relies on fantasy stereotypes, like buxom sorceresses, a bit too much – and is elevated by a great voice cast who manage to sound sincere even when they are yammering nonsensical curses and made-up words or pretending to be extremely drunk. And there are moments when, even though an oppressive fog of misery hangs over everything, it’s actually funny. Geralt, despite being a stoic chap, is fond of very bad jokes, and gosh do I love them.
It’s a good thing that the dialogue is competent, sometimes great, because you’ll be hearing a lot of it. I’m still marvelling at the fact that, despite the countless secondary quests and monster hunts I went on, I was still listening to unique conversations with characters that had personality and at least a bit of a backstory right up until the end. Never was I faced with someone just telling me to kill something – there were always new stories and characters. And given that I’ve put in around 90 hours, it’s impressive that CD Projekt Red didn’t run out of steam.
As is tradition, when it comes to open world games, The Witcher 3 is lamentably lousy with bugs. NPCs get stuck, monsters stop fighting, the occasional quest breaks and the game seems to be prone to crashing for myriad reasons. I managed to solve my own crash issues by switching the FPS from 60 to unlimited in the graphics options, but after the 1.03 patch, it started to crash again.
Despite the crashes, which for me occur only once every 5 hours, but happen a lot more frequently for others, The Witcher 3 runs as expected. With my Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 970, Windows 7, playing at 1080p, I get 50-60fps with ultra settings if I turn off Nvidia’s fancy HairWorks, which isn’t really worth the 10 frames I lose when I turn it on.
It’s a stunning game, even though it doesn’t look as impressive as the in-engine trailer shown off at VGX a couple of years ago. Even after all these hours, I still delight in merely riding through forests, quaint villages and the massive city of Novigrad, all of which bustle with life. It’s a world in motion, with people going about their business, animals hunting and the wind making the trees dance. I’ve spent hours just aimlessly enjoying the eye candy. I could do without all the water, though. It’s eerily still, even at sea, and it looks like ink. It’s horrible to swim through, too, thanks to imprecise, sluggish controls and the level of murkiness.
There seems to have been some concessions made due to the fact that it’s a multiplatform game. The UI feels like a strange hybrid between a PC UI and a console UI, but ultimately there are still plenty of PC features like menu shortcuts, a customisable HUD and a “sort” button for the inventory. If only there was a quick way to hide the HUD entirely.
Perhaps The Witcher 3 could have done with another month or so of extra development to work out the kinks, but even without the extra time it’s an enormously impressive game that proves, in case there was any doubt, that gargantuan games don’t need to be stuffed with forgettable filler guff. Any worries that, by making the game open world, CD Projekt Red were just following popular trends should be set aside, because The Witcher 3 dances to its own tune. There isn’t an RPG like it out there, not even its predecessors, and its uniqueness should be treasured.
Check ourwhere the Witcher ranks in our list of thetop PC RPGs.
The next three pages are from last week’s review in progress.
Review in progress: Questing and morality
The Northern Kingdoms, the beautiful but war-ravaged setting of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, is a big place. I’ve been wandering through its striking forests and smelly marshes, riding through its ramshackle villages, and slaughtering its grotesque monsters since Sunday, and I’ve barely scraped the surface.
For this reason, we decided that a review in progress was called for, rather than making all of you lovely folk wait for the finished review next week. I’ll be adding to this throughout the week, detailing its combat, quests, the world itself and its technical ability, so keep an eye out for the updates.
The Witcher has never been bound by the binary morality that dominates the realms of the RPG. It’s a series thick with moral ambiguity, but it’s in The Witcher 3 that this uncertainty reaches zenith. In moments of weakness, I almost wish for the more clear cut morality systems of its peers, because navigating these murky moral quandaries is infinitely harder than killing a griffin.
No good deed goes unpunished is the maxim of The Witcher 3, just without the good bit. And trying to predict the outcome of an action is a challenge when so many quests are connected. Make a decision in one, and see its consequences spread out, affecting other story threads, other characters.
I’ve wanted to take back so many dialogue choices, so many actions. I never do, of course. But, damn, they’ve made me feel terrible. The dramatic kind of terrible where you run out into the rain and yell, “What have I done!?” until the neighbours start to get a bit worried.
Geralt is notorious for being a man who doesn’t look like he cares. He’s got a stonier face than Ben Grimm and manages to seem pragmatic even when he’s doing something that one might consider idealistic. But the game chips away at that, and CD Projekt Red has littered the Northern Kingdoms with complex characters who, even some of those could be characterised as a bit monstrous, evoke sympathy.
There are plenty of traditional monster-slaying quests, called contracts, which I wrote about yesterday, and they are great, but it’s the many, many secondary and main quests that give huge amounts of attention to the denizens of the world which I’ve enjoyed losing myself in the most.
Characters aren’t wasted in The Witcher 3. A character met in one quest will often be the source of others, and quest chains are long and frequently filled with time given to not just fleshing these people out, but building a relationship between them and Geralt. This is established reasonably early on in a quest chain that, at this point, where I’m somewhere around the halfway mark, is still one of the best in the game.
Geralt becomes embroiled in a quest in exchange for information about his adoptive daughter, the whole reason he’s on this adventure. What starts conventionally slowly unravels into this elaborate tale of curses and ancient powers, and within that, a very intimate look into the man Geralt’s working for. It’s an almost voyeuristic quest that rips open a character, leaving his flaws and fears and self-loathing out there in the open. It’s awful, uncomfortable and, because of decisions I made, it ended in tragedy. But through it, Geralt became this sounding board and confidant, allowing what in another game could have been a colourful but otherwise throwaway character a chance to leave a significant mark.
In one of the fist fight competitions that are dotted around the world, Geralt is introduced as “the drifter,” and it’s a rather fitting name. He’s a perfect example of the drifter archetype, blowing into town, becoming embroiled in the lives of the townsfolk, getting into trouble even though he’s trying to avoid it. His stoicism makes him a man of few, mostly sarcastic, words, which leaves a lot more room for the development of his friends, foes and the hapless peasants that so often need his help.
He’s a lethal dose of gamma radiation away from being The Hulk.
Review in progress: Combat
As a monster hunter, Geralt seeks out contracts on monsters – because Witchers aren’t meant to work for free – so he can strike out into the wilderness and put his sword in them. But he doesn’t really need to look for trouble; it has a way of finding him.
I’d not long started the game when I rode into a village whose name I’ve forgotten. It probably had one, but maybe not, because it was nothing but a couple of huts and the burned husks of buildings ravaged by war. It was a miserable place made even more horrible by the presence of ravenous wolves, who had just that moment decided to pounce on a pair of poor peasants, killing them.
There was no quest to kill the wolves, but they were there, causing a ruckus, so I thought it best to deal with them lest people start talking about how lazy Witchers are. Somehow, one of the wolves had gotten inside a house, where a child was hiding, now an orphan, for the murdered peasants were his parents.
I set the wolves on fire with my Igni spell, and then danced around the house, inside and out, like a master duelist. A master duelist dueling wolves. When they attacked, I dodged; when they tried to circle me, I rolled; and when they were all lying dead at my feet, I just stood there, looking self-satisfied.
My reward from the orphan I had just sort of saved? An insult and expletive. I might be walking in the big boots of Geralt of Rivia, but I’m still being bullied by children. The Northern Kingdoms is a very harsh place.
There’s an ecosystem at work here, where the oppressively miserable world is not expressed purely through quests, but through the everyday threats that each unprotected village endures. And that means lots of fighting. Wild animals, monsters, bandits, soldiers and deserters prowl the wilderness, almost always in large packs, and they are all itching for a scrap.
Combat is a more refined version of the fighting from The Witcher 2, mostly based on the Enhanced Edition. Geralt fights with two swords (though one of them can be swapped out for another secondary weapon), one for regular beasties and people, and the other for monsters. While his swords are big, two-handers, there’s a grace to the battles, more evocative of duelling than you’d expect given the heft of the weapons.
Strong attacks for big, slow-moving opponents, fast attacks for spry ones – it seems simple enough. It grows in complexity, however, when you throw in dodging, rolling, blocking, parrying and magic, bombs, potions and the crossbow, a new weapon in The Witcher’s arsenal.
It’s all a big puzzle, I think. The key to victory, at least in the higher levels of difficulty, is assessing an opponent and finding the right tools for the job. An enemy with a big shield can deflect even strong attacks, stunning Geralt as a result, so you have to figure out how to get rid of his shield. I tried setting these fellows on fire, at first, which wasn’t all that effective until I upgraded my Igni spells so that I could channel an outpouring of fire instead of a weak wave. Once the blokes with shields were on fire, they had a tendency to drop them. But it turned out that Agni, a telekinetic blast, was much better at getting rid of that pesky shield.
That The Witcher 3’s combat is more about solving conundrums than whacking stuff with swords is even more obvious when facing the toughest monsters. When taking on monster contracts, you’ve got to do your research. Do you think the creature harassing the village is a werewolf? Then check the bestiary and find out what its weaknesses are. With that done, you’ll need to find the ingredients for the potions, sword oils and bombs that will help put the monster in the ground.
Fights become these climaxes, meaningful conflicts that are the result of much preparation and investigation. Unfortunately, enemies aren’t quite as clever as these puzzles. Mid-battle, they’ll sometimes just wander off and stand there, waiting to be attacked, and they have a tendency to get stuck between trees and any obstacle, really, but mostly trees because there are so damn many of them.
When they are on form, however, they can be deadly. Unlike, say, Assassin’s Creed, packs of foes won’t just take Geralt on one on one. Sure, sometimes a few of them will hang back and circle him, but if there are five enemies, chances are that at least three of them will be attacking him at the same time.
Getting stuck seems to be a bit of an issue for everyone in the Northern Kingdoms, and not just the monsters. Most of the time, NPCs just get on with their business, chatting, working, taking a piss by the side of a house, but if something gets in the way of that routine, then they just don’t know what to do. I spent a good long time just laughing at a Nilfgaardian patrol who could not for the life of them figure out how to walk around a horse. Two of them just stopped moving, while the other persisted in walking into the horse’s flank. “Hey now,” he’d cry each time he smacked his face into my horse’s side.
The aforementioned horse, whose name is Roach, has similar problems. He’s great, I should say before I get into this. He’s fast, you can fight pretty well on top of things, and he’s the one who carries all of your loot, because how else do you think you’re able to carry around a spare suit of armour and five candelabras? But he does get stuck a lot. Trees and fences confuse him, and on rare occasions he spawns partially inside buildings and won’t move. Luckily, moving away and then whistling for him solves all of these problems.
Geralt isn’t so hindered. He can jump! It’s very exciting. And he’s an avid climber. That lad gets around, and it’s never a faff. The only time exploration becomes a pain in the arse is when it takes place underwater. So far every time I’ve taken a dip, it’s been a horrible chore. Unresponsive, unwieldy controls, the murkiness and a camera that delights on getting stuck behind stairs and walls and beams and basically every part of a sunken ship all contribute to making these sections pretty awful.
Of course, Geralt does look particularly sexy when he slowly walks out of the water, scowling and wet.
Review in progress: PC options
Tested on a Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 970, Windows 7.
The Witcher 3 is an undeniably gorgeous game. Maybe not quite as stunning as the in-engine footage that was first teased so long ago, but it’s still one of the most visually impressive games on PC. It’s so rich in eye-candy and atmosphere that it pains me every time I decide to use fast travel.
It’s also powerfully hideous at times. Dirty, cursing bandits; mass graves and body-littered battlefields; dank caves full of bones and meat – there’s as much ugliness as there is beauty, but both are elevated by the game’s fidelity.
As Geralt treks through the miserable Northern Kingdoms, it’s hard not to believe it’s a living world. It’s a noisy place, full of shouting people and the wind rushing through trees, and it never sits still, even the skies are in motion, with shifting clouds and flocks of birds.
On all settings, it’s able to impress, and even if you’re restricted to the medium graphics settings because of your rig, you’ll still be treated to impressive vistas, detailed monsters and flashy fights. Indeed, there’s not a huge gulf between medium and the maximum setting, ultra.
There are a decent array of options waiting to be tweaked, though by no means a complete list. Four presets, low to ultra, can be selected, or you can get into the nitty gritty and change the individual sliders. The ambient occlusion, the number of background NPCs, the quality of the shadows, terrain, details, water and textures, grass visibility and foliage visibility range can all be changed. Some options can only be toggled on or off, unfortunately, and don’t have different scales. These include post-processing features like anti-aliasing, depth of field and light shafts.
It’s a detailed list, certainly, and there’s a lot of room for fine-tuning, but more options for anti-aliasing and the intensity of things like light shafts would have been welcome. That said, you can play around with the rendering.ini file and mess around with significantly more detailed options, including anti-aliasing.
With the ultra preset (with post processing set to high, the maximum) I get around 40-50fps, but switching off HairWorks, Nvidia’s fancy hair tech, increases it it by 5-10 frames. While 40-50fps is perfectly fine for anything outside of a FPS or a fighter, I don’t think HairWorks is worth the sacrifice. It’s not all that noticeable on NPCs or Geralt, and while it does improve the particularly hairy monsters, in the heat of combat there’s not much time to admire it.
The high preset reduces HairWorks to Geralt alone, and the frame rate tends to remain around 55-60fps, even with the maximum post-processing preset, dropping a bit in busy towns. Switching HairWorks off allowed me to get a steady 60fps. The difference between high and ultra, particularly in screenshots, is negligible.
Using both the medium post-processing and graphics presets, the difference is a bit more noticeable, but the game still looks impressive. I got a consistent frame rate of 60 everywhere when I was testing it, and even when I turned on HairWorks, it averaged at 57fps.
Even dropping things down to low, the quality of the world doesn’t suffer as much as you’d expect. At least not when you’re standing still. Start moving, though, and you’ll notice a lot of texture and foliage pop-in, which is a bit of an eyesore.
Close-ups reveal the differences in the quality of textures and post-processing very well. Here’s a Dwarf blacksmith, first in ultra:
And now in low:
UI customisation is lavish, with over 20 elements able to be tweaked, as well as size and scale options. The lack of a UI off button is a major oversight, however. I’ve been taking a lot of screenshots, and I like to hide the UI when I’m sightseeing, which necessitates that I manually turn every element off. It’s a pain in the bum.
Geralt can be controlled with either the mouse and keyboard or a gamepad, and The Witcher 3 has Xbox 360 controller support. Unfortunately, while you can rebind keys and tweak the mouse controls, there is no option to change the gamepad controls. That’s a shame, because they aren’t all that intuitive. Given the many, many menus you’ll be navigating, I suggest mouse and keyboard.