The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review

Short info:

Developed by CD Project RED

Genre: Fantasy/Action role-playing

Released: 19 May 2015

Platforms: Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One

No spoilers to be found here!

In 2007 a strange game from a unknown studio was released. It was met with mostly positive reviews, praising it for it’s story and character but criticizing it for it’s technical aspect as well as gameplay. Five years later the studio released a second game in this now somewhat known series. This game was met with high praise and more people got interested in it. However, the series never really got in the attention of the mainstream as the games simple where a bit to obscure for the general public. Three years after that, in 2015, the studio released the third game in this franchise. This time things where different, a lot more people were talking about it, people who maybe didn’t play the earlier titles. The game was met some of the highest praise ever for a video game and the developers won many awards for their creation. The studio is of course CD Project RED and the series is The Witcher. After spending more than 230 hours in the game, I feel qualified to tell you why The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a masterpiece.

Before I can talk about the actual story of the game, I will need to introduce you to the universe of The Witcher, firstly a collection of books and now boasting a full on gaming trilogy. It all takes place in The Northern Kingdoms, a set of medieval-like countries. This is a world where man is the dominant race, dwarfs, elves and halflings are treated as second-rate inhabitants. More than a thousand years before the games are set, an event occurred that transferred a lot of monsters and magic into the world. This is when magic wielders as well as witchers were created. Witchers are genetically manipulated men, trained from a young age, giving them great strength and enhanced senses. These witchers travel from town to town, killing monsters for pay. In short, they are monster-slayers.

Witcher Geralt of Rivia, reunited with his long-lost love of his life, Yennefer, are summoned to the emperor of Nilfgaard. Upon meeting the emperor, he is told that Ciri, Geralt’s one-time-ward and his and Yennefer’s adopted daughter, has returned to the Northern Kingdoms. The emperor has his own reasons for wanting Ciri back and orders Geralt and Yennefer to track her down. Geralt then has to travel the different lands of the Northern Kingdoms in order to find his lost daughter. Along the way he will encounter many of his old friends, dangerous beasts and many great side-stories.

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Does this fancy picture get you interested in the game? I hope so, since this is quite a long review (nexusmods.com)

As is the case with a lot of RPG:s, story and character are essential, especially in the games by CD Project RED. Their previous entries into this franchise all had great stories and even better characters and The Witcher 3 is no exception. However, if you have never played a Witcher game before, you should know this. It isn’t required, as the games a fairly stand alone, with a great character-glossary to catch up on all characters. However, I still implore you to go out and play the previous entries before playing this one, as it will give you the best possible experience.

If you felt that The Witcher 2:s political storyline was hard to follow, you will be very glad that the plot of The Witcher 3 is both easier to understand and get into, but at the same time the most intriguing and heartfelt of them all. This is a great story, with a lot of different chapters that feel distinct, filled with interesting characters and creative set pieces.

Geralt is on the search for Ciri, which is a simple and enticing start to this adventure. His search takes him from the No-mans-land of Velen, to the free city of Novigrad and the isles of Skellige. But this is a very long game and you would be right if you are expecting a long story to go along with it. I wont get into it to much, but the story changes and expands the further you get into the game. The story is divided into multiple acts with clear tonal differences. As you start out looking for Ciri, you are alone and explore the world. But as you get into the later stages of the game you start gain more and more allies that follow you, not unlike Mass Effect 2. I remember each act individually since they differ from each other, creating an amazing feeling of progression. This is one of my favorite stories from a video game, the different acts and moments combined with the excellent roster of characters and twists makes this an experience you don’t want to miss. As I look back on it, I feel like I was on an amazing adventure with some of my best friends. There were some ups and downs but I was always Geralt with a smile on my face.

The Witcher 3 of course features Geralt of Rivia as our main protagonist. Geralt has always been a man of few words, not much liking people at all and mostly wants to keep to himself. He may seem cold on the outside, but he cares deeply for his friends and loved ones. He also lays with almost any women he stumbles upon and frequents whores. Well, that is the Geralt of Rivia before Witcher 3. In this game, Geralt seems to have matured somewhat, as he is now looking for his adopted daughter with the love of his life. He seems to want to settle down and live out a calm and quiet life with people who means something to him. He is a very interesting protagonist and I really gravitate towards him. I have read some of the books as well as played all the Witcher-games, so I have known the character for a long time. He does seem more grown up in this game and that makes me think that this is the most interesting Geralt we have ever seen.

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Geralt and Ciri, some of the best main characters ever to be seen (SOURCE: static.cdprojektred.com)

A common complaint I have heard about the Witcher-games is that you can only play as Geralt, a sword-guy with a set persona. If you compare this to a Bethesda or Bioware-game, the customization of the playable character is non-existent. Well, this is of course true, but CD Project RED wanted to tell this story with Geralt and since they have a set main protagonist, they can use that to create some really great chemistry between him and many characters in the game, in a way the simply didn’t work in the other studios’ games. It’s a trade-off between customization and quality of story-telling and I think CD Project RED made the correct decision of making Geralt a set-character throughout the games.

Ciri, or Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, is the person Geralt is searching for, his adopted daughter. She is also the second playable character in the game, sprinkled out in short flashback-sequences throughout the game. This was the character I was most interested in, as I hadn’t read the books before playing the game and she isn’t in the previous games. In short, Ciri is wonderful. She is energetic and stubborn, but also very tough and short-tempered. In other words, she is very different from Geralt, but you still see why they like each other so much. She is young and wants to explore the world, but has a heavy burden, which makes her a very human and sympathetic character. The game laid a lot of responsibility on this character, because if we don’t care about her and her relationship to Geralt, the story falters. This is not the case however, as Ciri is very likable and human character and has an amazing relationship with Geralt. Their father-daughter chemistry was to much for my eyes on a number of occasions.

I will not bring up the other characters since there as simply far to many to cover. The character-gallery in this game is among the best I have ever experienced, all you friends from old games and books are here, couple with a bunch of new and excellent characters. While I do still hold Mass Effect 2 in higher regards to character and development, I wouldn’t lie if I put Witcher 3 on second place on that list, as the sheer quantity and quality of these characters are just astounding.

I also shortly want to mention the endings for the game without spoilers. There are three distinct and completely different endings, as well as numerous variations of each and every one. But the thing that stands out to me is that you get an ending basted on many different decisions you made throughout the game. This is how I wanted Mass Effect 3 to end but it didn’t. I think it’s the first time I have seen this type of decision-making throughout affect the ending in such a meaningful way. The endings themselves are also absolutely amazing, many tears were dropped. Massive praise for CD Project RED, this is how you should do endings in a game and we should expect nothing less in the future, looking at you Mass Effect Andromeda.

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This is actually quite hard (SOURCE: technobuffalo.com)

As mentioned, you play as Geralt of Rivia, professional monster slayer. This game isn’t heavily gameplay-based, but you will of course spend a lot of time playing the actual game. The Witcher 3 is an third-person action-RPG with swords and sorcery, meaning that there will be a lot of close combat. A tip if you are playing on PC though, if you can, try to play with a controller, as the game was made with that in mind. The PC controls are not as awful as Dark Souls (in fact, I played only with PC controls on my first run), but you will get a better experience playing with a controller. The gameplay mainly revolves around you controlling Geralt, running from point to point, engaging in combat with enemies, managing your inventory and quest log. You also talk with NPC:s and tweak your character to your liking. Very usual things for an action-RPG and most of it works as you expect. The leveling system is clever and interesting, the inventory works well enough and the dialogue sequences are particularity well made, if most by the stunning technical qualities of them.

The combat is similar to The Witcher 2, that is you lock on in combat and use your sword with light and heavy attacks, parrying and rolling. Also pretty standard, but it has been improved in The Witcher 3, as combat is a bit smoother and more fun. Geralt is more mobile, with a lot of options for dodging and so on. The magic also works well. You have from the very start five spells, all with different effects. You can then choose if you want to upgrade them or your sword-techniques. The gameplay of The Witcher 3 is very good, but I can’t say it is amazing. It is pretty standard, akin to Dark Souls and other third-person action RPG:s. But all elements work well enough, and since you can upgrade your self, you can play in a variety of different play style. But as you always play as Geralt, you are of course forced to play with sword as your main weapons. I think the gameplay is varied and deep enough to warrant multiple playthroughs without getting bored. However, if you plan on making a NG+ run on the fantastic game that is The Witcher 3, it probably isn’t because it’s gameplay is quite good.

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Sorry for crappy quality but wanted to show you Ciri in action (SOURCE: i.ytimg.com)

As I mentioned earlier, you do get to play as Ciri in certain flashback sequences of the game. If you feared that this would only be a lesser version of Geralt’s move set, you can rejoice. Ciri plays in a very different way, as she has no access to equipment you get to use her strange powers in combat. While Geralt’s combat was a bit more like Dark Souls, slower, dodging etc, Ciri’s is more like Devil May Cry. Really fast, you can teleport from place to place, deal massive damage, attack three enemies at once and then double back, all within five seconds. It is really fun and since you never really get to play as her for a longer amount of time, it never gets stale. Her powers also increase throughout the game, which enables you to use more and more or her arsenal. Really fun gameplay, and thankfully different from Geralt’s. Here it is however almost required to use a controller, as you simply can’t keep up with her fast moves on keyboard, at least for me.

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Look at that lighting! It’s through the trees! (SOURCE: i.ytimg.com)

The Witcher 3 is an open-world fantasy RPG, but it is not an Elder Scrolls game. Instead of featuring one huge world, it is divided into a few zones that are separated with loading screens. However, every single one of these zones are big enough to be their own game, they are that huge. With all the lands together, the Witcher 3 might feature the largest world I have ever seen in a video game. But the most important part, the world of The Witcher 3 might also be the most immersive that I have ever witnessed. Imagine this, you are gently walking through a dense forest. You look around, all you can see are trees and bushes, barely any light come through. In the distance, you see a wolf pack, but you choose not to disturb them. You start to run and you see some glimpses of the sun ahead. You then see that it’s a clearing and happily enter it. The forest is starting to become less dense and you look up to finally see the sun. But what you see are dark clouds and you are met with a storm. The rain starts pouring and the trees start to bend because of the strong winds. I could go on, it is so easy to tell an immersive tale about something that really isn’t such a big thing in a game. But this world succeeds because every single detail is thought out and executed with care. The world is of course beautiful to look at, but things like the dynamic weather system, where you can see how it affects the nature and villages, makes the immersion go through the roof. An excellent world executed to perfection.

I also have to mention Novigrad, the biggest city in the game. As you venture forth throughout the game, you go from village to village, some big, some small, but nothing really massive. Then you come to Novigrad, and it will absolutely blow your mind. This city is so big, it’s insane. As I reached Novigrad, I spent the first fifteen minutes just exploring the outskirts. You can easily get lost in the game and is probably my favorite town in a video game, period.

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If this picture doesn’t blow you mind, there are at least 3 more of these squares in Novigrad (SOURCE: images.bit-tech.net)

But I can see where CD Project RED:s inexperience in open-worlds (it’s their first go at it) affects the game, as I simply don’t get a sense of exploration. Whilst the world is beautiful to look at and never brakes my immersion, I don’t really want to explore that much. I recall my times of playing Skyrim, where new adventures roamed around every corner and everything was interesting to discover. Well, there are some things that hamper this in The Witcher 3. Firstly, the quests. Most quests are either found marked on bill boards or with exclamation points, making it easy to spot them. While this system works, it’s not nearly as satisfying as finding quests yourself. It also tells me where quests are to be found, resulting in me not venturing out in search of quests. Sure, some quests are found while exploring, but these are usually very short and not very memorable. The other thing that dampens the world is that the things you can discover never really get that interesting. Let’s say that you are playing Fallout 3 and wandering aimlessly around the wasteland. Maybe you stumble onto a school full of raiders? Or maybe a small grove full of plants? There are so many different things to be found whilst exploring and that goes for most of Bethesda:s games. What can you find in The Witcher 3? Well, some bandit camps, monster nests, caves, places of power, hidden treasure, abandoned sites and a few more. All these places look and work exactly in the same way, and they are then spread out thickly over maybe the biggest open world ever created. They are all also marked with question marks on the map so you know exactly where to look for things. Yes, after 200 hours it becomes very repetitive to kill the same bandits and monsters or find some treasure over and over. In the end, it simply isn’t that interesting to discover the actual map since you know what kinds of things you can encounter, a shame since this is a massive open-world game.

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So many question marks, so little motivation to discover them (SOURCE: i.imgur.com)

However, there is one thing that saves the game from being stagnant and that is the masterful quest-system.

While I do think that the story and characters of The Witcher 3 are masterful and probably some of my favorite parts of the game, the quest-system is the overall best thing to come out of this game. It is simply the best system of quests that I have ever seen in a video game, nothing really comes close (well, Witcher 2 really did have great quests, but nothing like this). Let me break it down for you, first you have your main-quests. I have talked about them before, so I won’t go further into them. Then you have the side-quests, that divides into Secondary quests, Witcher contracts and Treasure Hunts. The treasure hunts are simple quests where you look for treasure, nothing deep, but still fun to do. The secondary quests are what you would call regular side-quests in other games, here you help people with various problems that they might have. Witcher contracts are special quests where you actually act out your inner witcher and track down various monsters, slay them and collect your reward and trophy. These are great quests, as for the first time in the Witcher-series I feel like an actual witcher and it feels great. This is really helped by the incredible monster-collection in the game. There are so many creatures and most of them are different from each other and always create fun boss battles. But the best thing about these two types of side-quests is that each and every story told is often memorable and unique. That means that while what you are doing might not be incredible fun (following characters, following characters in caves, tracking things, tracking things in caves), you are always intrigued by the story and how it will turn out. There is often be multiple endings based on your decision, which makes these quests small stories in of the selves. Heck, some of these quests are as good as some main-stories in other games.

But then we come to the very best part, the quest-lines. The main story does go for some detours, and what that means is that it intertwines with some other story-lines. First you are looking for Ciri, but then you meet a guy with his own problems. Then these two storylines intertwine for a bit, as you have to help him to get more information. But when you know everything you need, the main quest ends and you can leave. But you have not solved this guy’s problem. That means that you have a separate side-quest storyline that you can pursue in your leisure time. There are many sub-plots in the game and I think it’s amazing how they are intertwined with the main-story, but are still their own thing. These sub-plots can affect a lot of the endings of the games and some of these stories are generally superb story-telling, amongst the fines in the game. I think this is what The Witcher 3 will be remembered for, not for graphics or story or gameplay, but how well these quests are done and how they integrate with the main story in such smart ways. I am amazed even writing this, CD Project RED pulled this of, they really did!

I don’t think that graphics is the most important part of a video game and that a lot of other aspects should be prioritized. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I’m very happy that CD Project Red spent the amount of time they did to polish every little graphical detail. The Witcher 3 simply has some of the best graphics that I have ever seen. It focuses on a photo-realistic aesthetic, which means that it might not stick out amongst the hundreds of games that try to look photo-realistic. But the technical graphics that presents this game are simply amazing. Every texture is of high quality, the draw distance is great, all different weather effects are stunning and the animations are absolutely top-notch. But my favorite graphical aspect of the game probably has to be the conversations. Here, you can see all facial texture really close-up, and they are drop-dead gorgeous. And that feeling comes again every time I take a longer pause from the game and then go back to the dialogues. No game has ever done it better.

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Look at how nice everything is framed and the amazing texture quality. A serious eyegasm right here (SOURCE: netdna-cdn.com)

The soundtrack for The Witcher 3 is amazing. If you thought that The Witcher 2 should have gone out a bit more on it’s Slavic vibe, you will be very happy. The Witcher 3 features a lot of songs with clear polish and Slavic sounds. It fits extremely well and lends to the eastern European feel of the game. There are a lot of different tracks, but my favorites are the upbeat battle and inn-themes. This is a soundtrack that you should have on your phone (and I don’t have many game soundtracks on there).

Gwent is the name of the card-game that every citizen in the Northern Kingdoms seems to be playing. Gwent takes the place of dice-poker from the previous games and act much in the same way in terms of quests. It plays a bit like Magic The Gathering or Hearthstone and while not as complex as those games, it is surprisingly deep for a mini-game. It has a great balance between luck and skill and matches are very enjoyable to play. But the best part is that you get to collect cards from all over the world and create your own decks. This may sound like a chore, but you will be amazed by the sheer amount of fun it is to look for cards and improve your decks. Hands down the best mini-game I have ever played in game.

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I probably never played a game this well, but I ain’t to bad with the monster deck (SOURCE: te3.wikia.nocookie.net)

As hard as it might seem, I do have issues with the game. The biggest one by far is the third act and the antagonists. I will not go into details as it will be spoilers, but if you compare the care and effort that went into this game at every detail, then the last act feels surprisingly lack-luster. Firstly it is much shorter then the other acts, but that isn’t the bad part. The thing is that they try to do a bunch of different things, looking for artifacts, meeting new characters, exactly like before. But they never flesh any of them out which makes many of the things you do in the end a bit forgettable. This also affects the villains of the game somewhat as they to also feels underdeveloped. I don’t think it is a huge issue, because of some spoiler-reasons, but it still hurts the overall game. I think it simply has to do with CD Project RED running out of time and trying to jam a few things in there in the end, but I do not think they work that well.

Then there are some other strange things as well, like why can’t you look closer at your dungeon map? It can be quite hard to get a sense of the caves you are in, but the map is near useless as well as you can only view it from the mini-map. This hurt my enjoyment of the caves and made me wish I could just find my way out them sometimes, shame.

Then there is the part I mentioned during the over-world section, you just don’t really want to explore it in the same way as the capital wasteland or Skyrim, which isn’t a good thing in an open-world game.

I had very high hopes for this game, I had played the two earlier titles multiple times and loved them and thought that the early footage for this game looked great. I was however concerned with the open-world, as it is something that the studio had never done before. Well, I have now spent 236 hours with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and my expectations where met, and then some. What CD Project RED has created is a game that I simply can’t stop praising enough. Everything single aspect of the game is polished and executed with near perfection. The story-line and narrative? Perfect. Gameplay? Varied and excellent. The quest-system? Best I have ever seen. After I got my ending on my first run I was moved to tears. On my second run even more so. I look at every aspect of the game and see things that I enjoy. There are however a few rough-spots, most notably the rushed last act. It hurts the game a bit, but I do think the excellent endings kind of make up for it. And then my concern turned out to be somewhat true, whilst containing a beautiful and immersive world, there simply isn’t enough out there to warrant a full on exploration. These problems do hurt the game a bit, but I think that the sheer quantity of amazing content makes up for any short-comings. Of course I would like them to go back and fix them if they have the time, but if this is the final product, I’m more than happy. As a long-time lover of RPG:s with deep stories and immersive worlds, I simply can’t stop gushing over this game. This is what I think is an instant classic, something that I will replay for years to come. I rank this game amongst my favorite of all time and that is a very small collection.

5.0

Cover image source: blogs-images.forbes.com

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