The Witcher 3 is a sprawling, gorgeous, nigh-endless game with something that many games of its ilk lack: vision.
From the geographical coherence of its stupefyingly large world to the way societal conventions change or hold true across its landscape; from Geralt’s impressive (not invincible) swordsmanship to the myriad things he can’t do; from the things peasants talk about and lords wax poetic over to the precise behavior of every monster encountered. CD Projekt RED presents an unerring vision of a world beset by war and evil magic, towns and hamlets struggling with poverty on the fringes of starvation, society’s well-to-do living opulently in places beyond the reach of peasantfolk, women battered as much by the death of their children as the hands of their drunk, boorish husbands. Death. Griffins. Specter Oil. Miscarriage. Runestones. Starvation. Blacksmith. Wraiths. Sex.
All of these, and many thousands more, comprise a fiction so convincingly portrayed through its world, characters, and gameplay that it’s easy to count The Witcher 3 among the greatest games ever made on this merit alone. But beyond its landmark achievement in world-building, The Witcher 3 is, simply, incredible fun to play.
Take combat, as just a start. Geralt dances between humans and monsters alike with a fluidity and grace that’s visually impressive and easy to get the hang of, but extremely difficult to master. The game’s soft target-lock is generally smart enough to follow your movements toward exactly the desired foe, but Geralt carries enough weight and momentum that missed strikes leave crucial openings for counter-attacks. Enemies will absolutely seize on these and just about every other opportunity to strike, making the balance between a careful defense and unrelenting offense a question constantly asked. Signs, your pseudo-magic spells, are diminutive and a bit unimpressive to start, but this makes small upgrades more significant. The game’s glacial leveling pace, a turn-off from the start, gives you time to appreciate each and every one of your new abilities as you climb the RPG ranks over dozens or hundreds of hours.
The leveling systems gives options aplenty but also limits Geralt in meaningful ways. There are somewhere around 70 distinct abilities across four categories (Combat, Signs, Alchemy, and an all-purpose section). You can invest multiple points into many of these abilities, taking (for example) your bonus Critical Hit damage when wearing light armor from 15% to 20%, or making Axii, the mind-control Sign, stop foes running toward you. However, perhaps as confirmation that Geralt still has physical and mental limitations, you can only “activate” a handful of these abilities at a time (and amplify them further by equipping color-coded mutagens). I like the way this system fights any notion of Geralt as a godlike force of nature. Instead, we’re asked to buy into the idea that each of Geralt’s abilities requires a great deal of concentration and mindshare to keep in his repertoire; hence, there’s only so many techniques a witcher can utilize effectively at one time. At any time, you can swap out your activated abilities for others you’ve unlocked. In this way, the abilities you equip represent a “style,” and it’s entirely conceivable that Geralt would switch styles from time to time.
Additionally, this makes every investment in Geralt as a character a meaningful decision. This is especially true in the game’s early hours, when leveling is at its slowest and every ability point earned is one step up from nothing. To some degree, you’re forced to commit to a character build, as there are far more places to invest than actual points to earn. This is another way in which CD Projekt RED’s vision comes through. The Witcher 3, true to its predecessors and a long lineage of European RPGs before it, makes few compromises in its pursuit of true role-playing. You’re brewing your own potions and sword oils, and they’re necessary to survive. You’re dealing with encumbrance, with some merchants paying a higher price for certain goods than others, and with a litany of lootable items (smoking pipe? thread? coal?) that may or may not have any useful purpose before all is said and done. Geralt has no crafting ability of his own, so you’re hunting down blacksmiths and armorers when the time comes–and no, they’re not the same thing, and not every town has both or even one. Weapons and armor degrade and have a habit of breaking when you’re far from civilization. You can (and will) miss some side quests, or they will become incompletable due to other happenings in the world.
It’s staggering to think that in a game of this size, one in which you might spend 80 or 100 or 150 hours without having seen the game’s ending, it’s almost guaranteed you won’t be able to complete everything in one playthrough. But that’s emblematic of just how big The Witcher 3 is. It’s difficult to put this size into perspective, because it truly must be seen to be completely believed and appreciated. It’s a world several times larger than even the biggest video game worlds to come before it, packed to incredible density with points of interest, secrets, people, and stories. Every pixel hand-crafted, no forest, creek, mountain, or harbor designed without purpose–true or not, that’s how it feels.
I trek off into the unknown, only to stumble across a bandit raid, or a town overrun by ghouls, or an elven tomb, or a ruined lighthouse, or the diary of a peasant who buried a treasure nearby. The smallest diversion tumbles into a quest that takes me across the world. I trek through new towns on the way, meet new people, accept new pleas for help or monster contracts. I move vaguely toward my original destination, beset by new ideas and interests, collecting ingredients for potions or following a treasure map left by witchers before me. I look at my phone–an entire day has passed, and I’m no closer to advancing the main story, nor even the side quest that first sent me into uncharted territory.
Perhaps the crowning jewel of all this diversity, all this breadth and depth of content, is how interesting, well-written, and distinct most of it is. Sure, you’ve got your requisite bandit camps to be cleared and monster nests to be destroyed, but so many–countless many–quests are legitimate stories with characters, rich dialogue, and some new layer of intrigue to peel back. Some are funny and quirky. Others are sad, sobering looks at the difficulties of living in this war-torn world. In every nook and cranny, there is rich, thorough, lovingly crafted storytelling. Within and without, you have choice and consequence. Resolve the qualms of a wraith holding her curse over an island, or battle her. Hunt down a pass to gain access to a major city, or swim across the lake and enter through the harbor. People and communities live, die, or change by your actions, and it’s all so vast that seeing the video game-y seams of how it all fits together is practically impossible.
You won’t find many seams in the rich visual tapestry of The Witcher 3, either. In its sheer technical achievement, the game is unmatched. A world this large, dense, and constantly surprising shouldn’t look this good. Look out over valleys and mountains as the weather changes. See every visible tree–hundreds, at times–bend and sway individually in stormy winds. Watch as the rising sun practically bakes meadows and villages, as a villager picks cotton and flicks it into the wind to join a cloud of other bolls. Marvel at the game’s interiors–I can count on just two hands the number of immovable doors I’ve encountered, and even similar-looking houses have distinctions within. I feel guilty of nitpicking for pointing to minor flaws: an occasional framerate dip, a flickering shadow here, a slightly visible line between arm and shoulder there. CD Projekt RED’s cohesive vision strikes again: no stone of visual authenticity is left unturned. In every corner of this world, there is beauty, purpose, and striking attention to detail.
I’ve neglected to mention the main story until now because it’s ancillary to the fun most people will have with The Witcher 3. There’s a whole world out there just begging to be explored, and much of the time I found myself entranced by secondary quests and my own pursuits, momentarily forgetting what narrative impetus brought me to the area to begin with. Thankfully, the main story is a worthy tale in its own right. It’s also considerably more human in its themes and dialogue than the previous games. It’s a nice change, for the most part, to be rid of political machinations, and to be grounded instead in affection and human relationships.
In the wake of the invasion of the Northern Kingdoms by Nilfgaard at the end of The Witcher 2, the Nilfgaardian emperor calls upon Geralt to find a young, white-haired woman named Ciri. Geralt and Ciri are like father and daughter, as Ciri was trained by Geralt in the witcher arts and effectively raised from toddlerhood. Geralt hasn’t seen Ciri in years, and now she’s being pursued by the Wild Hunt, a spectral force of dark riders on dark horses whose evil motivation is also unclear. What follows is a sweeping tale with surprising twists and a consistently human core. The first half repeats its shtick a bit too much, with Geralt frequently riding into new territory and accepting some task in exchange for information about Ciri’s whereabouts, but the storytelling diversifies from there. Perfunctory moments where we play as Ciri help round out her character and gave me a linear diversion with a different combat feel to Geralt’s adventuring.
If there’s one significant flaw that could be leveraged against The Witcher 3’s masterpiece of dark fantasy and open-world role-playing, it would be inventory management. With a console control scheme that generally makes sense and feels good, to suddenly have to sort through a laggy grid of rows and rows of every item you’ve ever picked up is a serious hitch. Item icons are small. Books and letters look distressingly similar, and you’ll have many dozens before all is said and done. With no alphabetical sorting, or even ordering by relevance, you’ll have to scroll through dozens of rows to reach important gameplay items like potions and food.
Other design choices confound me. Why, when I enter a shop window, does my cursor start to the far left of my goods, requiring perhaps dozens of button presses before I’m finally hovering over the merchant goods I intended to buy? When the crafting window tells me how much of each component I still need, why must I then scroll back through menus and carefully examine the blacksmith’s window to see if he just so happens to sell that component? A simple “Merchant carries X of this,” or the ability to buy those goods right from the crafting window, would go such a long way. This segmentation of functions hurts even more when you’re dealing with laggy menu movement and a one- or two-second delay before item icons load. In a game otherwise so thoughtfully designed, this feels like a major oversight and something that could have benefitted greatly from touchpad integration.
The Witcher 3 is a stupendous game and a landmark achievement in the RPG genre. It’s vast, affecting, determined, and diverse. It’s epic and intimate in equal measure, a grand design and vision tempered by emotion, humor, and drama on a micro scale. It exudes personality in a time when open-world games are hemorrhaging it. In almost everything it attempts, it succeeds in great measure. In doing so, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt stakes its claim as one of the definitive video games of our time.