It’s fitting that The Witcher 3 is the first Xbox One game I’ve been tasked with to review, because I am arguably both the most and the least qualified person to comment. I’ve played both other Witcher games, beating them and loving every second of it. I’m a huge fan, and because of that it might be hard to explore how effective this game would be on a new scrub to the series. After all, Jeff Gerstman of Giant Bomb fame had complained on his podcast that the game is hard to come back to after leaving for a long time. I stopped playing for months as life got in the way, and returning to the game for this review after 70 hours in and months apart, I had no problem fitting right in. But I know and love these characters. Much of the enjoyment you’re likely to gain from this game will depend on what you come into it looking for.
The Witcher 3 is an open world action roleplaying game. You play Geralt, a grey haired monster hunter who fans have been following for three games now, and uber fans have even read the Polish novels of which the games were based on. The previous games were critically and commercially praised for their strong story, writing, characters, and setting while simultaneously being criticized for clunky combat and an uneven difficulty. The newest game in the franchise improves on all the largest issues people had with the previous games, but not enough to make them disappear.
What separates the open world of Witcher 3 from the likes of Skyrim and the action roleplaying from the likes of Diablo 3 is in its storytelling. Cinematic and dramatic, the writing is equal parts Game of Thrones as it is Lord of the Rings. It’s a dark and twisted world where Witchers like Geralt are the Jedi. Sworn to neutrality, you are tasked in making moral judgements on people and creatures and godlings and elves and dwarves, choices with heavy impact on the narrative. You explore an open world doing quests, and searching for Ciri, all leading up to a pulse pounding finale that is longer than most games so plan accordingly. It’s a lot of watching people talk and develop around you as you make friends that will have your back throughout the course of the story.
At the center of the game is Geralt’s search for his adopted daughter Ciri, who is being hunted by “the Wild Hunt” (See also the show Sleepy Hollow if you don’t have 120+ hours which is how long I’ve put into this game). It’s very easy however to get swept up in the hundreds of available sidequests and monster hunting contracts available throughout the world. The game world is massive, taking up multiple large provinces, where you will travel by horseback through easily 50 or more towns and villages perusing notice boards, talking to people in need, or bullies messing with an innkeeper begging for an asswhooping. You can ride on by, but you’ll more often than not be tempted to talk to whoever you can, and explore every nook and cranny. It’s amazing how fleshed out the personalities of even many bit players are throughout the game. You’ll meet friends of Geralt, or old enemies reminiscing on past squabbles. There’s a lot you’re likely to miss if you try to power through the game, but even sticking to the main story tasks you with getting information from people who won’t talk until you wade yourself deep into the lore of the world. There is no casual speedy way to play this game. You have to be willing to drink deep of its high fantasy and mature dramatics.
And you’ll have to kill a lot of things. And it’s thrilling and fun, and far improved over past games, but it’s still clumsy. It’s a game that asks that every move you make be calculated. Against larger creatures every hit that you take can take large swaths off your health. Smaller enemies can swarm you if you don’t watch yourself. On higher difficulties you have to plan your actions and swing your sword at the right time. Know when to parry. Know when to dodge. You can take no damage if you play the game right, and it doesn’t decide to fight against you, have Geralt dive the wrong way, or switch targets when you didn’t want. Or waste a bomb throw that should have hit the mark because it bounced funny. More often than not I found myself losing on the higher difficulties not because I was making bad decisions, but because I was fumbling with the controls to get Geralt to do what I wanted him to do. I ended up bumping the game down to the easiest difficulty.
The movement was such a complaint that the developer released a patch to the controls, an alternative option that made turning with the character less realistic and more practical. I’ve tried both and could tell little difference between them. Certainly didn’t solve my being unable to loot a corpse right in front of me because the direction my camera faces and the direction the character faces doesn’t quite line up. And trying to turn him so it does only causes him to run around the corpse in circles until you have to pull back and take like bombing runs on the thing. It’s still pretty clunky. Even just trying to keep up with walking-while-talking NPCs is a pain. You walk two times slower than them, and run three times fast. Couple that with minor bugs for getting stuck in the environment that forced me to reload old saves, and this game isn’t perfect.
But all that is very forgivable once you feast your eyes on the game. This is easily one of the most beautiful titles I’ve ever seen, giving us awe inspiring vistas of grassy fields and old temples, and glorious sunsets providing panoramas that could challenge any game currently on the market. Make no mistake this is one of the best looking games ever made not just technically, but artistically. From every little detail of all the many buildings you explore, to the blades of grass swaying in the wind.
Even the expressions on the faces of the hundreds of unique individuals that you interact with show emotion and gravitas that fit the game’s exquisite and nuanced writing. These are characters that aren’t hard to sympathize with, and it’s a good thing too because you’ll be spending a lot of time resting your controller and watching them speak. The writing and visuals easily guide you through every cutscene and conversation, and those were in fact my favourite parts of the game. That’s also the kind of gamer I am.
There was the odd moment, more like a split second, when I would load into a scene and certain textures would be missing, filling in after just long enough for you to want to point it out to the person beside you, without being enough time to actually do so. At one point a woman’s hair took 5 seconds to load. That coupled with a few gameplay stutters did… absolutely nothing to interfere with my enjoyment of this game. I could feel my Xbox was being pushed to the limits, and the world and experience I was being given made their minor hiccups I experienced to be far less than even a trivial annoyance.
The conversations and cutscenes are helped along with the strong voice acting. The Witcher paints a believable world, and even more believable characters to inhabit it. They all have appropriately foreign sounding accents, some leaning perhaps too heavily on British, and the non-human folk you interact with are equally appropriate in their otherworldly-ness. One complaint I did have was in the subtitles. There is a lot of dialogue in this game, enough to fill up 3 or more novels and a hundred movies. I’m the kind of person who will play a game like this without subtitles, so that I can enjoy the visuals. I find subtitles distracting, but if you turn them off in this game you’ll miss the translations every time someone talks in a different language. It would have been nice to have a third subtitles option to only show the translations.
When you’re not talking to people, which isn’t too often, the ambience of the world does a great job of drawing you in. You can really appreciate it when you activate your Witcher’s sense and you hear, like a wolf, the rustles of creatures around you, and the breathing of frightened maidens. And it sounds great in surround, with voices of guards mocking me as they pass from behind my head. You can track the direction of monsters through the soundscape in your living room if you have the right set up. Fighting them is thrilling with the striking sound of each sword swing, the boom of magic, and the crackle of arcane energies seeming authentic to the setting. This is a game that excels most, perhaps, on its presentation over all things.
This is a tricky category to gauge. I don’t actually generally replay games as a rule. There’s so much available that’s worth my time I generally jump from game to game. I believe the stronger word in this category is value. Is there enough game here to be worth full retail price? If you haven’t been able to tell from my review so far, I think so whole heartedly. The game world is massive, and every bit of it seems filled with something to do. And the choices you make in even minor quests can have ramifications later on. Like a quest I did freeing a dark spirit to help me save children from evil god things. Later in the game the decision, while well meaning, came back to bite me when I returned to a village to find it destroyed by the spirit, the people there having gone mad.
I’ve played 122 hours of the Witcher 3, skipping a lot of monster contracts and a good many secondary quests. I generally try to roleplay these games, and have only been taking quests that I figured Geralt would deem worth the delay in finding his daughter. Still, my xbox claims I’ve only done maybe 25% of what the game offers. You can get lost in this game, but to do so requires that you invest fully in the setting and characters. It requires that you be looking for something more from a game than mindless action. More often than not I found myself feeling more rewarded when I managed to talk my way out of combat. If you’re not the kind of person that appeals to then this game probably isn’t worth your time.
Much of the enjoyment you’re likely to gain from this game will depend on what you come into it looking for. If the idea of spending an extended stay in a fantasy world making friends with a bunch of fantasy beings sounds like fun to you this game is everything you could hope for. Of course, if you’re that kind of person, you’d probably have no difficulty looking past the technical problems of the previous games. With the first game often on a Steam sale for a couple bucks, and the second game a Games with Gold on Xbox 360 not too long ago it would be really cheap to catch up from the beginning. There are certainly people who might enjoy Witcher 3’s improvements and not be able to get past the limitations of the previous games. But I can’t imagine those people would get the full experience without following many of the same characters throughout this 200 hour three game epic journey. Not since Mass Effect has a video game trilogy felt this cohesive.