Witcher 3 The Wild Hunt released worldwide May 19th 2015 to substantial critical acclaim. It was praised to be the end all RPG in a fantasy setting to end all other RPGs. For many gaming and role-playing enthusiasts (including myself) it succeeded. In this review I will examine why the Witcher 3 fairly matches such high praise.
The Polish Witcher fantasy novel series provided the development studio CD Projekt Red a fruitful starting point to develop this very narrative driven RPG. In the gaming sphere, the term RPG is used to encompass many games. Broadly speaking it means a role-playing game, a game in which you play any role that you choose to play. However the modern day games like the Witcher, Fallout, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Mass Effect are all lumped in as equals in their role-playing elements. Playing the Witcher 3 from beginning to end in its entirety (Main Quest, Acclaimed Expansions, Engaging Side Quests) it is evident this is simply not true, as the game truly does exemplify what an RPG is supposed to be. I realize this is a weighty statement, and will try to justify it in my examination and review of the game’s core elements.
I also hope to help my good friend Strongmachine understand "why people went crazy over this".
Narrative, Characters, Immersion, Choices Matter
The Witcher 3 is a Narrative Open World RPG, the narrative is single most important factor of this game as a whole in driving its open game world.
I will first contrast this narrative focus with another well regarded, albeit a very different role-playing game, Skyrim. In the Witcher 3, the narrative takes a center stage. Skyrim, in contrast is an open world sandbox RPG. There's a very different degree of freedom and player agency employed by both these games. In Skyrim, if you want to play as a thief that breaks into every house and steals everything, you can do that. But, the worst that will happen to you is being attacked by couple of a guards, after which they will forget the whole crime the next time they see you. In comparison to the Witcher 3, if you try to engage in similar acts there will be a lasting impact: ruining future dialogue options, and botching future quests. A result of a small moral choice can have an everlasting impact throughout the game's progression and endings. Some people may think this ruins the fun in the game, because there are many instances of lasting consequences for your actions that have significant impact even 30 hours after you made "a mistake". Examples of this include the Bloody Baron Quest choices that ultimately decide the fate of the Baron’s family, choices in raising Ciri that will ultimately affect her end outcome, and the choices you make regarding revenge and love uniquely affecting the fate of many significant characters in the Blood and Wine Expansion. Contrast this with Skyrim, where after massacring a whole town the worst that will come to your character is a light jail sentence, in which you escape and face no further lasting impactful consequences to your crime, e.g. no effect on quests, interaction, and perceptions of your character. You do not have worry about "ruining" your play-through based on your decisions in Skyrim. Opposite to this, The Witcher 3 is not an open world sandbox do whatever you want game, it takes its world and narrative seriously. If you try to play the Witcher 3 like Skyrim or Fallout 4, running around doing whatever you want to do without a thought to long term consequences to the game world, you will have bad time. If however you truly try to immerse yourself in the world CD Projekt Red has meticulously crafted you will have what I perceive to be a once in lifetime gaming experience.
The Witcher's 3 meticulously crafted world contends that you take your time with it, it is not game to be rushed in one day, a week, or a month. This game exemplifies that the journey is much more important than the destination. In terms of narrative experiences in video games, more often than not, the main quest acts as the prime driver of game’s story and progression, whereas side content acts as filler to pad game hours. However, focusing just on the main quest of the Witcher 3 would be a grave miscalculation. CD Projekt Red went against norm in creating a large amount side content that has many different layers of meaningful narrative containing careful exposition exploring character motivations and backgrounds. Further, the effects of choices made in a side quest may not be felt until many hours in, affecting your overall journey throughout the game. Amazingly all these “side” quests link together well enough to give players a better understanding of the political climate, the relationship between characters, and motivations of various inhabitants throughout the world. An example of this is talking to soldiers in devastated battlefields who would tell you stories of their loved ones who had been killed or running across a young girl searching for her lover in the battlefield who ultimately dies in her pursuit with “dignity or falls to madness” depending on your choices (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3AY_lBu9Sg).
The main quest of Witcher 3 is not mind-bogglingly deep or creative, it's the typical video game fare where you are given the task to look for someone of special importance who is in trouble and who you must save. Nevertheless, the magic of the Witcher 3 is that CD Projekt Red does not try to make that the main focus of the narrative. You play the witcher Geralt existing in this very detailed world who is trying to save his adopted daughter Ciri from the Wild Hunt, but in this quest you are paired with these very different multi-dimensional characters who ultimately tell this over-arching story about the world and in the end ultimately are responsible for making the narrative memorable. The game does not try to throw in big plot twists to engage you, instead lets the various unique characters take the reins and let them signify what's going on. This character driven approach in the end acts as a strong driver in keeping player’s attention and investment to the game’s narrative, as similarly showcased by a recent Game of Throne episode, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (https://i.imgur.com/p3muYc2.jpg).
A narrative being well communicated on both the small and large scale is so incredibly rare in so many mediums, it's usually not expected, especially in the video game medium. The narrative alone has made me say that the Witcher 3 has ruined gaming for me because the standard has been set so high, nobody seems have been able to meet it since. I am definitely not alone in this sentiment as evidenced by the plethora of stories shared on the internet (https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2015/06/02/the-witcher-3-may-have-ruined-other-rpgs-from-here-on-out/). It makes you wonder if anyone else is really even trying. It’s not that the stories and characters of the Witcher 3 are mind-blowingly creative, it’s the whole delivery that sets it worlds apart.
The best way to summarize the main quest, side quest, and characters of the Witcher 3 is honesty. Why honesty? The writers did not try hard to make the game a creative mind-blowing narrative experience, they instead illustrated characters that are sympathetic, that also have charisma and wit. They are put in this incredibly fantastical world, and followed through it with the player. Regardless of this high fantasy setting, it's believable and honest. There's no narrative focus to get plot twists in order to get attention, rather the writers just remained true to the characters to what they would be like in the real world. In my 200+ hour play-through I never encountered a situation in the game where I said to myself that character's actions seemed unrealistic or unreasonable. For a game of this scale and ambition that's an incredible achievement.
No game has yet to make me feel completely immersed. I know people use that word a lot, but I absolutely believe it is appropriate here, it was complete escape playing the Witcher 3. It was a game I looked forward to playing as soon as I got home from work every day. I still grin thinking on the moment when all the Witchers got drunkenly smashed before the Wild Hunt descended on them next morning. I will always fondly remember key signature moments throughout the game, including bringing Ciri home to Kaer Morhen, the Crones being revealed as what they actually are, the Imlerith fight, when you slash Olgierds neck and he starts clapping, beating Gaunter O'Dimm at his own devilish games, lastly sitting and reminiscing with Regis after completing the Blood and Wine expansion finally and sadly ending my journey in the world.
In conclusion, with its character driven approach, strong narrative, relevant side content, and the hard choices that will need to be made, Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt is the best “delivered” story in the open world RPG genre till this day.
There are many instances in the Witcher 3 where in organically exploring the game world your curiosity will draw in experiences out the ether. One example of this is at the very beginning of the game where you come across a swerved arm on the road. If you are not paying attention to what’s around you, you can completely miss this peculiar object as you collect items to slay the Griffin in White Orchard. But, if you investigate the surroundings around the arm you will notice the blood of the arm leading to a village devastated by ghouls. Killing the ghouls you liberate the town, causing new inhabitants to move in. You will also find that the developers kept true to detail when you find the original body of the arm (sleeve of the arm matching the torso) on opposite end of this village with a note explaining what had happened to the town at the brink of war and the villager’s last wishes. In summary, you discover the fate of an inhabitant of the world, liberate a village, and kill a bunch of ghouls all from discovering a swerved arm on the road. This was not set or marked as a side quest, it’s completely skippable event that completely relies on environmental story telling. This is just one example of many where deep involvement in the world of the Witcher 3 awards players for their attention and curiosity.
CD Projekt Red paid attention to little details in bringing the world alive, it’s not necessary to the overarching game, but ultimately it is what makes the game world feel alive and engaging. Villages and communities live in their own world of culture and problems, they have their own look and feel. They are not copycatted across the world as seen in other open world games. Each city is dauntingly big, you are simply treated as another visitor. Novigrad, modelled after Gdańsk Poland, has its own day and night cycle, there’s merchants and economy during the day, at night there’s dancers and parties. Each NPC in these villages and cities have their own written and carefully thought-out dialogue, you will rarely hear similarly said voiced dialogue from one NPC to the next. All this amounts for players seeking immersion being able to suspend their disbelief as they explore the World.
At the beginning of my critique I stated many games in the modern video game space are lumped into the RPG genre. I tend to have a higher standard for RPGs. I require the ability to actually have a moral choice to be made and to have these choices having a lasting impact to the world around my character. Simply having stat trees, and buffs is not enough to be classified to be a full Role Playing Gaming experience. For example, Fallout 4 does not provide the full RPG experience because you don’t have the ability or freedom to make impactful choices, you have the ability to say yes/no to npcs in 4 different ways, https://image.noelshack.com/fichiers/2017/28/2/1499756305-01.jpg . One of the inherent difficulties in having dialogue choices with voiced protagonists in video games is that you will have a dialogue choice on screen, in which you click on, then have a character delivering a line that did not match your intention at all (as shown in many critiques of Fallout 4). In Witcher 3, in my 200+ hour experience I never came across mis-matched intentions with the given dialogue options. Furthermore, the dialogue options are meaningful and have impact in your interactions with the characters of the world. Choosing between dialogue options of chasing after Ciri or yelling at Ciri to stop will have meaningful impact on her end outcome. You constantly have to be weighing the consequences of your dialogue choices.
I won’t mince words here, the combat in the Witcher 3 leaves a lot to be desired and is probably the weakest part of the game. Geralt’s movements during combat lack weight. Having a weight to character is something very hard to pull off, I do not envy the game designers and animators responsible in handling the weight of a heavy character like Geralt throughout the massive open world. In contrast, I compare the handling of Geralt’s physique with Kratos in the latest installment of God of War, where each axe swing, catch, and spartan punch really gave a satisfying feedback to the player. Lastly, I do not agree with the leveled enemy mechanic used in throughout game, even though it is quite common in many RPGs. Geralt is a 7 feet tall genetically engineered monster killing machine. Geralt should not have trouble with bandits regardless of their level. Counter to this, I would suspect Geralt having a lot of trouble with a Leshen regardless of its level. The way leveled gear ends up handling player progression can thus be seen as immersion breaking. Nevertheless, I think it would be disingenuous to say that combat is any way close to horrible or average, it is leaps and bounds better than many other highly held open world RPGs. Skyrim’s mindless swinging immediately coming to mind. Still, it’s common complaint I hear and something that should not be ignored in a potential next installment to the franchise.
Regardless of its apparent issues, I still very much enjoyed the combat for what it was, especially coming in from the Witcher 2. The combat mechanics can be quite enjoyable if you immerse yourself in learning useful combos from the various schools (particularly Cat && Bear), learning alchemy recipes for various potions and decoctions, situational applying oils, and crafting weapons and armors. There were a number of moments throughout my play through where I appreciated the crispness of the battle animations and finishers, e.g. https://giant.gfycat.com/AnguishedPersonalBetafish.webm .
Fun fact, the combat animations are based on real life sword choreography by a specialist named Maciej Kwiatkowski. Techniques in the game are actually used by sword masters in worldwide competition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYi3xYoT8rs . The HEMAs fighting style was blended in with the Witcher whirly fighting style from the books. Another example of the finer details CD Projekt Red focused on to deliver a polished gaming experience that sets the studio apart from the competition.
Presentation (music, graphics)
Graphics do not make a game, but they certainly do not hurt it! The Witcher 3’s original release date was 4 years ago. Normally, with such large timespan a game’s graphics can be considered dated. However, the in-game visual presentation of the Witcher 3 even today is jaw dropping. A picture is worth a 1000 words: https://i.imgur.com/w2GMmzU.jpg , https://i.imgur.com/BEmJlqf.jpg , https://i.imgur.com/PDZC0AH.jpg . The assets and style pays homage to the Witcher books, making it feel as though you are in the universe. The placement of props really bring you into the game as you see the world as it is rather than a pale reflection.
I absolutely loved the soundtrack of the Witcher 3. It’s vast and has various unique number of tracks. The soundtrack plays a crucial role in keeping your adventures around the world fresh, light, and interesting. Many of these songs became familiar in my long play through, but never got annoying, instead they added extra thrill through many moments of the game. Hearing the “Another Round” when starting a game of gwent was always a joy. The folk and tradition polish sounds make the in-game music one of the most worthwhile and fun video game soundtracks in recent memory.
CD Projekt Red’s philosophy of going the extra mile even when it’s not necessary extends to Witcher 3’s DLC. In the Witcher’s 3 height in popularity the developers released 16 free pieces of dlc, this included weapons, armors, skins, skills, and additional side quests. This type of DLC would normally be created by developers such as Ubisoft, Bethesda, and publishers like EA to typically nickel and dime fans. Certainly CD Projekt Red could have charged for this content, and I certainly would have been happy to pay for it as I am clearly such big fan of the game and supporter of the studio, but instead they choose to release all this content for free. CD Projekt Red only charged for Hearts of Stone, and the Blood && Wine Expansions. Both expansions add tens of hours of quality game content, content of which sometimes surpassed the base game. These expansions, especially the 2016 RPG of the year Blood and Wine, can be classified as their own games in and of themselves. Needless to say that this attitude towards DLC is a breath of fresh air and abnormal in the modern gaming industry, further is a strong reason the fan base is so devoted to CD Projekt Red.
Without a doubt, the Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt is the most impactful game I ever played. It has changed and shaped the way I view gaming as a whole, and sets the gold standard for many games moving forward. I honestly view this game as the standard bearer for quality and excellence in the gaming industry. In a world of EA shenanigans, it is very easy to become discouraged in the care that goes into games nowadays. In the modern industry, gamers are saddled with horse armor like dlc, various meaningless skins, and essential locked content to get a full experience. The industry engages in this because they know there is easy profit in exploiting the emotional attachment gamers have for their beloved franchises, e.g. Star Wars, Fallout. What CD Projekt Red did with the Wild Hunt in staying true to Witcher lore and the fanbase, in creating many memorable experiences throughout, and paying an enormous high attention to detail and polish is bucking the cynical trend I see in the industry today.
TL;DR Yeah it’s that good.