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Confession: I didn’t finish The Witcher 2. I certainly wanted to. The action-role-playing franchise based on the Polish fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapokowski ticks just about all of the marks on my list of desired game features . But clunky combat and an ever-present feeling of being lost on the storyline held me back. I just couldn’t get into it.
But I had no problem spending over three hours playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt at a press event last week. Really, with the setting there — a nice display, a comfortable couch, and some good snacks — I could have played all day, and probably into the next. Here’s why the final chapter of this story is doing it for me.
An open world
Everything is open-world these days. Everyone wants some of that The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim action. BioWare’s Dragon Age went all Skyrim with its latest, Inquisition. I’m still playing it. And now, Polish developer CD Projekt Red takes The Witcher to the same place.
Protagonist Geralt of Rivia belongs in an open world. He is one of those characters that makes an ideal explorer. His reputation proceeds him as a powerful hunter that doesn’t mess around. And even if he isn’t known by some, being a Witcher — a mutated human with magic powers — adds to his mystery. It feels like you can do just about anything as Geralt. This feels especially good in a world with no linear limitations.
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My three or so hours of play took me through a rich, highly detailed world that cried out for exploration. I’m sure I only saw a tiny sliver, but even it was packed with material prime for completely losing yourself. Every NPC has something to say. Everyone is up to something. You can always find problem that needs solving. Monsters? They’re everywhere you look, but they don’t scale with player level, so beware.
It really works. I can’t wait to see more of it.
An open invitation
After a dark and powerfully voiced cinematic prologue — one that depicts villages laid siege, downtrodden citizens moping, and a crow that flies directly through a soldier’s skull — it lightens up a bit. A lot, actually.
The Witcher 3 opens like a movie. It has a helping of humor, a bath scene, some flirting between lovers, and even some bare buttocks. They go with the whole “it was just a dream” thing, too. For a player that has only the vaguest idea of who these two characters are, this seemed to be an ideal way to ease me into the world. Again, like a movie. Maybe you didn’t see the first two, but that’s OK— this sequel is good enough on its own.
A slow ramp-up follows, laying out some of the background on Ciri, a pivotal character in this final chapter. A woman who would be known as a human weapon in the future is only a girl here in this flashback dream. Geralt’s training missions with her at home serve as a gameplay systems tutorial. CD Projekt Red did a great job in weaving training into the early story so that they don’t feel like forced tutorials.
Then, you meet some friends. You ride your horse in the wilderness. You do some sightseeing. It’s really nice.
The overall story will get heavy eventually. Geralt’s initial mission to track down a lost love, Yennefer, will transition to working to find Ciri, the child of prophecy, the only person that can save the world. But that all comes much later. For now, just enjoy.
CD Projekt Red says that the world of The Witcher will be sufficiently explained for new players and that series fans will have no problem picking up. But The Witcher 3 also works as a standalone story, so no worries for new players.
A relaxed pace
What good is a fantasy world if you can’t explore it at your own pace? That’s the true joy of an open-world game, and CD Projekt Red embraces the opportunity in The Witcher 3.
I also embraced the opportunity. From the very moment I was set free to explore, I went off riding into the sunset on my horse, named Roach, looking for interesting sights.
CD Projekt Red says that it spent a great deal of development on hand-crafting the world, which means that you’ll find no repeating areas or tiled assets. They took this to extremes: One member of the team explained how he and others spent hours watching how sparrows disperse in flight in an effort to have the very best re-creation of this in their game. Another talked about how they hand-sculpted every hill. The whole world is like this. It really shows. It’s stunning on the Xbox One, and it looks even better on the PC.
I got lost more than once wandering around. I found a body of water that looked inviting, so I pulled my horse alongside the shore and dismounted to explore the area. Two unseen attackers jumped me right then and I barely made it out alive. I crawled away and took a swim in that lake and found some sunken treasure. Then I scurried off to a nearby town to talk to villagers to get my bearings. But I got distracted and probably spent too much time playing the Witcher’s in-game card game, Gwent, in a pub. Before I knew it, I was off on my own self-guided adventure.