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This review-in-progress of Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is now our final review as of 12:13 p.m. Pacific. on May 14 — Ed. 

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the apex of the dark fantasy role-playing game.

This, for reasons I will go into shortly, is both a good and ultimately frustrating thing. CD Projekt RED has once again outdone itself with Wild Hunt (out May 19 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC), expanding the already impressively vast scope of the Witcher 2 into a dense behemoth of monsters and politics. Even more stunning is the eye-gouging slabs of beautiful scenery plastered throughout at a new constant clip. But size and eye-candy can only hold for so long in a game boasting over 200 hours of available content. I journeyed along with a prerelease PS4 copy to track just how complex an adventure of this size could manage to be.

What you’ll like

A dark fantasy that is actually dark

Unlike most "dark" games, Wild Hunt earns its maturity through emotional complexity and fluid morality.

Above: Unlike most “dark” games, Wild Hunt earns its maturity through emotional complexity and fluid morality.

Image Credit: CD Projekt RED

Grime and grit have become code for immaturity in these past few years, especially in video games. A first-person shooter or RPG will drop one of the “g” words to hype up their intensity, with the final release only hinting at adult topics for no other reason but the headlines and controversy. Not only is the Witcher 3 genuine in its broaching of dark subject matter, it’s largely unrivaled in its depth of approach to wavering morality and unforeseen consequence.

Witcher 3 hinges its tale on the search for the monster-slaying Geralt of Rivia’s adoptive daughter Ciri, a gifted young woman fighting off the pursuit of the ethereal — and titular – Wild Hunt. Geralt’s quest for Ciri (whom the player occasionally plays as for brief spurts) takes him across immense stretches of a continent in the war-ravaged Northern Kingdoms, diseased fiefdoms and lavish upper-class estates embroiled alike in a seismic political shift. It heaps reams of lore on the player at every major turn, which leaves newcomers to the franchise likely to drown in exposition until they dive into the in-game codex or play through the previous games. But while aggressively dense in its worst moments, the emotional and moral complexity that has come to define the Witcher series is at its most gleaming, polished best in The Wild Hunt.

Don’t expect Witcher 3 speed-runs. The story of the Wild Hunt works best as an unraveling experience, played over weeks or months with plenty of air left between main campaign missions. Not only does this make the flow of the grand machinations of macro-narrative more tolerable, it lets the more compact, mission-based stories better intermingle against the larger world. These micro-narratives are where the Witcher series has been at its best, never more so than in the Wild Hunt.

We see the class struggles and horrors of war that dot many a Mature-rated game, but here things actually feel mature. Because in the middle of the bloodied bluster and sweeping score are moments of parental abandonment, domestic abuse, and strained friendships, all written with the patience to show full emotional arcs and (frequently) not allow a purely good or purely evil method of conflict resolution. Save for its fleeting moments of juvenile approaches to sexuality, this is a role-playing game that treats the player as an adult. Even when that means not letting you win every time.

Empowering, but patient, combat

The few times you will die in the Witcher 3, it's due to a lacked of preparedness.

Above: The few times you die in the Witcher 3, it’s due to a lacked of preparedness.

Image Credit: CD Projekt RED

Wild Hunt finally found the happy medium of The Witcher’s combat ideas. For two games now, we have finagled with the complex timing needed to parry enemy blows or the drawn out brewing of potions for every encounter. You still need to practice your parrying to remain lethal, but most normal encounters no longer require five minutes of switching between menu indexes. Instead, more involved encounters are forecasted at the end of a series of missions or built up to in contracts.

In fact, the research normally left up to the player is now incorporated into the run up to these bigger fights. Hunting for footprints and blood samples drives Geralt’s research in obvious directions, and a brief stopgap exists right before you trigger the encounter, so players can drink the necessary concoctions before entering the basilisk’s lair. Highlighting the interface and direct written prompts aren’t the most environmentally savvy way of leading the player on, but it is effective.

Geralt’s magical abilities, known as signs — as opposed to the more powerful spells of sorceresses — are hands-down the most satisfying component of combat. Particularly after you have upgraded a few abilities up to their alternate forms, the variety of tactics lends itself greatly to experimentation. Core swordplay is more scolding than punishing, most enemies reminding you to keep your guard up with an almost polite stab at your health. Higher difficulties allow long-time fans to relive the more aggressive fights of earlier games, but most players will find satisfaction in mastering the standard setting.

Beauty in ugliness

Ugliness is made beautiful in The Witcher 3.

Above: Ugliness is made beautiful in The Witcher 3.

Image Credit: CD Projekt RED

You may be getting the sense that The Witcher 3 is not the happiest game on the planet. The game’s presentation reflects the bleakness and discomfort that comprise much of the Northern Kingdoms is reflected, usually in quite an unflattering light. But that doesn’t stop it from being the most technically awe-inspiring game I have ever played. The visual assault on the senses begin with your first glimpse at a snow-capped mountain range in its first five minutes, and it continues to constantly find new ways to impress. Whether it is the distinctly orange glow of the evening sun cutting through a dense crop of trees or the hanging, rotten flesh of a drowned demon, everything sparkles (and/or reeks) of detail.

This willingness to constantly couple filth with lush greenery is as commendable as it is morbid. The universally vibrant and clean worlds of fantasy games past look excessively sanitized by comparison, as if someone covered everything in a thin layer of bleach and window-washing fluid. Given the comparable time period that the Wild Hunt takes place in, the Northern Kingdoms offer a more holistic interpretation of what an unwashed world looks like a generation before the plague (and a few more before everyone agreed to stop using the upstream pond as a latrine). Monster designs reflect this more aggressive unattractiveness more than anything; long-time bestiary staples like gryphons and cockatrices look like molting monstrosities stapled together in a horror film laboratory.

Ground and architectural textures do blur up close and some animation transitions tend to jerk, but the Wild Hunt maintains an impressive clarity outside of nature vistas and landscapes seen from horseback. Cloth and skin in particular look remarkable, with tiny facets like stitching and blotches consistently drawing the eye. Sending Geralt sprinting across a wheat field in the early morning is never an unsatisfying visual treat. But CD Projekt RED’s devotion to ugliness is what defines, and ultimately elevates, The Witcher’s visuals beyond anything we’ve seen before.

What you won’t like

Activity exhaustion

It often feels like everyone in world has an errand for you to run in Wild Hunt.

Above: It often feels like everyone in world has an errand for you to run in Wild Hunt.

Image Credit: CD Projekt RED

The world we explore in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is too big. It’s all too excessive in scope, stretched overlong and dotted with too many repetitive micro-objectives to justify its obesity. In the Northern Kingdoms, you have hundreds of opportunities to do one of handful of activities, usually resulting in one of three methods of execution.

At the best of times, a contract on one of the notice boards in a town will lead to a satisfying hunt of a devastatingly powerful creature. You will haggle your price on a hunt, use Geralt’s enhanced Witcher sense to follow a trail of bloody footprints leading to a cave, prepare yourself for battle with potions and blade oils, and take on a powerful spirit with devastating sword swipe combos. In reality, most of the time you will do one of those things for 25 seconds, get a useless amount of coin and/or experience, and repeat the process in a slightly different fashion two minutes later.

These mini-objectives are completely optional, but highly marketed. The Wild Hunt’s campaign length and total time sink was a frequent boasting point for developers at CD Projekt RED, and it is disheartening to see over 75 percent of timeline come from the most banal kind of fluff. These side quests play a sad mind game on you as well, dotting your map with a hundred contrastingly white question marks with story missions taking place at opposite ends of the world to give you every opportunity to waste more time.

Even main objectives struggle under the old anvils of the RPG genre. The script is forever interrupting nuanced conversations and bending in on itself to justify sending Geralt 200 miles to his next objective. The game’s fourth and final act in particular refuses to end without another dozen story cul-de-sacs. And when he gets there, he follows a character whose walking speed is set aggravatingly slower than his and then uses his witcher sense in an insultingly small area to highlight the only obvious item before he can examine it, then talks to someone, or finally kills someone. It all feels so obligated, included as a mandatory appeasement to the days when the target audience could only afford a single game for three months. In this new hardware generation, we have officially run out of excuses for this kind of futzing about.

The digital stretch marks of a bloated game world

You'll be burned out on Witcher 3's micro-objectives before you get halfway through the first hundred of them.

Above: You’ll be burned out on Witcher 3’s micro-objectives before you get halfway through the first hundred of them.

Image Credit: CD Projekt RED

Tedious micro-objectives wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t take you long to flit between them. If you want to cross large breadths of the Wild Hunt’s map, you must first locate designated sign posts around towns or points of interest, and then only travel between said signposts. Problem is, often times your objective is just far enough way to make waiting through the loading screens redundant, but still far enough to make for a boring trek through the same urban underside for the 20th time.

The Witcher 3 is awash in design conceits and compensations made in order to justify its size. Some activities have merit, but the leg work between you and the next satisfying moment of play is too demanding (or unrewarding) to make it worthwhile for all but the most thorough players. Nowhere is this more sadly embodied than in Wild Hunt’s in-world card game, Gwent. On its own, Gwent is an intoxicating and deep game of simulated warfare and competing card values. Every tavern owner will happily play you, and special cards are hidden throughout the world. But nothing ties the game or the pursuit of cards to the mainline thrust of the story, aside from a few achievements after 10 hours of hunting and playing. The amount of time spent deck-building and collecting just isn’t reinforced in the gameplay, likely leaving a vast majority of players turned off by the irrelevancy of it all.

I played in a pre-release state, with promises from CD Projekt RED of a Day Zero patch to on a build they were still tweaking when I received my disc. If previous games in the franchise are any indication, the studio will fix most of the more recurring minor issues (and the singular occurring major headaches). What is unlikely to change are obviously repeated building layouts and re-dressed character models.

At least let’s hope they can fix it so that Geralt’s hair isn’t constantly fluttering about in the non-existent breeze of a fisherman’s shack. The monster slayer looks like he’s in an ’80s music video a couple centuries too early.

Conclusion

The best characters in the Witcher 3 often come from unexpected places.

Above: The best characters in the Witcher 3 often come from unexpected places.

Image Credit: CD Projekt RED

Toward the latter half of the game’s second act, King Radovid of Redania (one of the Northern Kingdoms) describes the true value of chess to Geralt. Rather than limit oneself to the minor squabbles of pawns, he suggests, royalty can take in the grander battlefield of troop movements and long-term strategy.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the most beautiful chess field I’ve ever played. The continent you explore feels alive when a storm riles up the waves around your ramshackle boat, just as the hunt for Ciri encapsulates the struggles of armies and kingdoms across hundreds of miles. But this grand scale came at a price, one of nagging drudgery and stale design crutches. But for all of its big wonders, Geralt’s final story is made of a hundred smaller ones. We see CD Projekt RED’s storytelling at its most layered and mature in the movement of the pawns, and at that level, we can best marvel at all of the engrossing ugliness that makes the Northern Kingdoms come alive.

Playing The Witcher 3 with an eye for grand strategy can be both a densely engrossing and mechanically frustrating, overlong adventure. When played one move at a time, however, Wild Hunt is the supreme alchemical distillation of the role-playing experience. It’s a bleakly human play at the heart of a dark fantasy.

Verdict: 88/100

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt releases May 19 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. The publisher gave GamesBeat a prerelease PS4 disc copy of the game for the purposes of this review.

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