Electronic Entertainment Expo [E3] 2013 Preview

The Witcher 3 E3 preview: Geralt’s final journey is my Game of Show

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was the very last game I saw at E3 last week.

In a week full of surprises, where each day put a new game at the top of my list for "Best of Show," a 60-minute developer demo was all it took to sell me on The Witcher 3’s lovingly handcrafted fantasy world and the rich gameplay unleashed within. The Witcher 3 is absolutely, unequivocally my game of show and the next-gen RPG to beat.

At first glance, it’s easy to draw parallels with Skyrim–open world, 100 hours of gameplay, mature themes and branching storylines–but The Witcher 3 is actually more like a next-gen Morrowind. Like that PC classic, every inch of this world–35 times larger than The Witcher 2 and 20 percent bigger than Skyrim–is built from scratch to complement narrative and gameplay with geography and realism. Dynamic weather sends gale force winds crashing through a forest; branches and entire trees twist and buckle under pressure. Ancient beasts of myth terrorize towns and stir up conflict between factions over legends and interpretations. As Geralt of Rivia, the titular witcher, you could sail across the ocean to a port with better fish prices (they’re in greater abundance across the sea, obviously) and battle torrential rains while dodging enormous whales that crash up for air off the starboard bow. Across the sea, adventure awaits. Caves, ruins, villages, and immense fantasy cities play host to side quests that exist for a reason.

I make this distinction because one of Skyrim’s biggest selling points–randomly generated quests for a never-ending stream of content–actually became its biggest weakness over time. Your optional tasks were vapid, devoid of any personality. Finish all the GOOD stuff, the actual storylines with interesting dialogue and meaningful choices, and you’re left with mindless fetch quests thrown at you too rapidly and in poor fashion. The Witcher 3 is the exact, merciful opposite: a world of intrigue, deceit, and magical lore where every event, every character, and every single line of dialogue is painstakingly crafted to achieve the vision of a world wrought with real problems and real consequence.

CD Projekt RED’s astounding attention to next-gen detail is evident in the live gameplay section shown at E3. What starts as Geralt visiting a castle in the Nordic-inspired Skellige archipelago becomes a wandering journey over land and sea to eventually reach a village with a problem. People have been showing up dead, and the rebellious younger townspeople blame the slow-to-action elders for allowing the mysterious deaths to happen. But the elders are patient for good reason–they suspect that ancient, long-revered gods of the neighboring forest are responsible. Geralt treks into the trees for answers, but not without the promise of coin–and with no guarantee that he’ll bother saving the town when the culprit is revealed.

See, that’s another part of what makes The Witcher 3 special. Like the engrossing narrative and branching side quests that impress with purposeful detail, Geralt himself is an abrasive counter to the silent, customizable protagonists of other open-world RPGs. Seething with world-weary cynicism and battling demons of his past, Geralt’s brooding personality is nothing short of badass, interesting, and (hopefully) a whole lot more. You’ll get plenty of dialogue choices throughout the game, and almost as many opportunities to drastically change the world and narrative, but every bit is delivered in the kind of careful, cinematic way that structured gameplay systems allow.

World-changing consequence can even happen off the beaten path, like during the aforementioned village conflict. Once Geralt uses his Witcher Sense (think Arkham’s Detective Mode, with the added benefit of filling out an extensive "Wikipedia of monsters") to identify the creature killing villagers, the player has the choice of informing either the reckless youth movement or the wise elders that a female sacrifice is necessary to kill the beast utterly. The side quest branches radically from here. The CD Projekt RED demonstrator opted to side with the younger faction, who are quick to blame the elders’ inaction but hesitant to kill off one of their own. The resulting path–including a boss fight against the monster and life-changing, permanent consequences for the village–was likely a far cry from the alternative, where the traditional elders might’ve sacrificed one or more community members to avoid confronting the forest gods they’ve revered for centuries.

The combat-oriented approach gave CD Projekt a chance to demonstrate The Witcher 3’s improved battle system, which emphasizes the graceful, brutal swordsmanship that defines Geralt. Entirely real-time, 100 percent visceral, combat in The Witcher 3 is an elegant dance of sword stances, magical Signs, and adaptive AI that reacts to everything from Geralt’s fearsome dominance (which can make enemies flee) to the presence of allies. Sidestep wolves to slash as they lunge before following up with a blast of Igni fire to their rear. Dive beneath a giant’s club and cast Quen to shield yourself before launching a furious frenzy of sword strikes. Stun pillagers with a 360-degree shockwave, opening a window to exploit elemental weaknesses. Parry stri–you get the idea. I didn’t go hands-on with the system myself, but CD Projekt has listened to feedback from The Witcher 2 (which had similar, though frustratingly difficult, mechanics) to craft a system that’s more accessible and intuitive without losing its old-school PC depth.

Still, it wasn’t the combat that sold me on The Witcher 3, nor the rich world or promises of a layered, mature narrative. It was the graphics.

I’m not ashamed to say it. The Witcher 3’s visuals are the first to slap me in the face and make me say, ‘Holy shit. THIS is next-gen.’

I could go on for pages with the PR spiel about location ambience, real-time weather generation, REDengine 3, and all its trappings, but you’ve seen the screenshots, and a single, capstone moment captures my feelings much better. As Geralt cast the Igni Sign against the village-munching Leshen, subtle tongues of flame streaked and arced through the air with breathtaking detail. Then, I noticed something even more astounding. The jet of flame had set dozens of floating leaves ablaze. I watched, mouth hanging open, as each leaf burned away to mid-air ashes and the tiny airborne flames died out.

Was it a visual trick meant to look like real-time leaf-burning? Maybe. Do I care? Not a bit. I haven’t been this excited for an RPG in years.

The Witcher 3 is coming to PlayStation 4 in 2014.

Kyle Prahl’s opinion of The Witcher 3 has nothing to do with the Polish beer provided by CD Projekt RED at the private screening. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook for PS4 news, opinions, and ravings.