PSU senior editor Adam Byrne tagged along to a Bandai Namco press event in Dublin’s Jameson’s Distillery to check out what the publisher had to offer in the gaming stakes this coming fiscal year – here’s what he thought of next year’s blockbuster, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Housed in the cobblestoned confines of one of Ireland’s more established and revered whiskey distilleries, Bandai Namco’s press event looked to mirror its makeshift homestead by proudly flaunting the exciting futures of some of the more pronounced series’ in gaming antiquity. Namco’s flagship mascot, the eternally vivacious Pac-Man, was reserved for special praise in celebration of its incredible 34-year run at the forefront of gaming consciousness, while the Tales series was lauded in equal measure for its astonishing ascension within Western culture over the last 16-or-so years. But still, the game that pinched the last gasp of air out of the dimly-lit theatre was undoubtedly The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – developer CD Projekt RED’s delectably visceral role-playing venture.
The pelt of persistent rain – typical of a dreary Monday evening in Dublin – did little to dampen the spirits elicited once a close-up image of Geralt of Rivia’s battle-weary mug populated the screen. Following a new blood-soaked trailer steeped in mythic lore and narrated by the gravel-toned suitability of Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance, we were treated to the real sustenance of proceedings: a live, exclusive variant of the nine-minute developer gameplay walkthrough shown at this year’s E3, commandeered by none other than CD Projekt RED’s own Senior Gameplay Designer, Damien Monnier, and controlled by QA Analyst, Łukasz Wnęk. For this particular demonstration, Geralt’s eyes – and broadsword – were firmly fixated on a hunt for a Griffin – the ancient winged terror who wreaks havoc across the full breadth of the Northern Kingdoms.
Beginning in the middle of a crisply-detailed forest covered in lush, dense overgrowth, our indomitable protagonist happens across a spread of suspect remains, topped by a single greyed feather. Instigating his Witcher senses – an inspection-type mode where perception is heightened – Geralt unravels a distinct trail to pursue and sets out, pushing aside the overarching branches and leaves dotted throughout his path. After a momentary spate of exploration, the Griffin’s position is sussed out – with the monster blissfully unaware that it’s being aligned in Geralt’s sight. A concise shot from Gabriel, a well-worn crossbow, follows and the now-bloodied Griffin lets out a godless shriek before thrashing its enormous wings in defiance, causing wind and dust to dissipate with distinct graphical splendour. The music gathers purpose; the pace quickens; the hunt is now on.
Such is the game’s branching narrative structure that no sooner after the Griffin hightails it out of our view, Geralt’s chase is cut momentarily short by the happening upon of a disturbance near a murky swamp where a number of menial bandits are harassing a woman who’s shacked up in a small cottage. It’s entirely a choice-driven affair: you can continue on your Griffin hunt or take up arms and rectify the commotion. The latter is chosen – lawful riotousness we say – and Geralt steps into the realm of battle with almost aloof swagger. The combat’s certainly one aspect that looks to soar highest within The Witcher 3 as Geralt’s seamless transition into battle is compounded by some startlingly brutal kills, with limbs and blood readily splashing into the murky puddles below. Once all the enemies are felled and the woman is reassured, there’s always the option to come back to the cottage in hope of receiving new quests further down the line. CD Projekt RED’s combative mixture of magic and weaponry cannot be understated as the fluidity of the blood-curdling procession really is a joy to behold; it’s not short of options either with a proverbial trove of combinations and flashy mixtures to tide gamers over for as long as the game will last.
Diversions aside, Geralt’s attention now shifts back to felling this magnificent beast, who is now proudly perched atop a small mountain, surrounded by an immaculately-conceived skyline. As we embark on the noticeably craggy ascent, the camera pans to reveal the sheer scope of exploration on offer; snow-tipped mountains and trees seemingly hundreds of miles away, all readily available for excursion should you choose to do so. It’s an overwhelming experience, we assure you, and there’s absolutely no letup in graphical fidelity, either. Luckily your mounted steed, which you can of course fight atop of, will be there to guide you along the vast chasms and walkways. Nevertheless, there’s a more pressing matter at hand; the small issue of a threatened, mythical beast who’s eyeing up the sheen on Geralt’s trusted broadsword. In a moment of near-filmic quality the Griffin – now surrounded by a flurry of birds – leaps from its peak and onto an open plain of land. The battle begins.
Taking a more calculated approach, Geralt casts a ‘Quen’ spell which gives added protection for the proceeding encounter as well as going on an all-out offensive with a flurry of ‘Igni’ fire spells; it’s a devastating barrage that causes the Griffin to slam into the earth, screeching to a halt. Following a moment of composure the beast arises, only to be met with a stunning sequence of swipes and slashes, culminating in Geralt’s blade snapping under the pressure – a testament most definitely to the ferocity on show. A pre-rendered cutscene overtakes the gameplay as the battle draws to its close, showing a fitting finale of Geralt entering a beautifully-crafted village, championing the head of the bested Griffin on the side of his horse.
For a title as robust and colossal as The Witcher 3 is ambitiously striving to be – with its world map roughly 20 percent larger than that of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – developer CD Projekt RED could perhaps be forgiven for lapsing with regards to consistent graphical lustre and sheen – thankfully that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Witcher 3’s animation and visual polish is simply a triumph, with little intricacies proving as jaw-dropping as the overall scope of the project; the draw distance, the twinkle of leaves on fire, the dispersal of dust particles when met with wind resistance and the incredible fighting mechanics are so finely-focussed it’s practically unheard of in such a vast, sprawling RPG.
Just like PSU’s very own Kyle Prahl echoed in his post-E3 thoughts last year, the narrative-driven focal point of The Witcher 3 is something that deserves special praise, too. More often than not RPG’s of near-insurmountable length seem to lack a thematic focus with their options and branched-out choices nothing more than a ruse, masked with the tagline of ‘important’. The Witcher 3’s an entirely different beast, with the sheer amount of consequential choices nearly overwhelming – providing a practically custom playthrough to cater for gamers’ specific tastes.
With the beauty of hindsight considered, The Witcher 3’s delay way back in March is looking like a blessing in disguise as the game’s certainly shaping up to be the go-to RPG for the beginning of next year. And with the competition for February’s best title already beginning to flex their muscles – the likes of Ready at Dawn’s The Order: 1886 and Dying Light are pencilled in for release within days of each other – there’s little doubt that The Witcher 3 will hold its own, providing a stunningly visceral and mature adventure that will thrill and engross in equal measure. We can’t wait.
The Witcher 3 is scheduled for release on February 24, 2015 across all next-generation consoles. Don’t forget to give us your views on CD Projekt RED’s stunning RPG below.