The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review
The Witcher 3 surprised us. Sure, we had been primed to expect to find ourselves let loose in a gargantuan open world, but we can’t be the only ones who, calloused by the characteristic bombast of triple-A marketing, were at least a little cynical about how the fantasy we were being sold ahead of release would look in reality. As it turns out, the game is startlingly close to being everything CD Projekt Red claimed it would be.
That’s most obvious when it comes to the game’s sheer scale. Travelling through thick forests and open plains, small villages and huge cities, you gradually begin to appreciate how staggeringly colossal Wild Hunt’s world is. To say we are impressed by the scale of The Witcher 3 doesn’t quite capture what it is that makes it so brilliant, however. The fact that a game is big does not in and of itself make it compelling. The trick is to leverage that scale in such a way that it impacts on your relationship with the world that you’re exploring in a meaningful way – that is what Wild Hunt achieves and that is what makes it such a fantastic game.
Take the game’s mission design, an aspect in which it is quite different to its open-world peers. Think of how often in other open-world games you have, for example, undertaken a mission where you have to race somebody. Upon completion of that mission, you are informed that there are now are number of other race missions unlocked on the map for you to complete. Those games will continue to follow that tedious pattern, introducing you to a handful of templated mission types for you to repeat ad nauseum. The effect of that? You feel as if you are being presented with ‘content’ to ‘consume’, content that feels extrinsic to the world in which it is housed.
Wild Hunt does the opposite. Everything you find within its world, everything that you are tasked to do, feels unique by virtue of the fact that there is always a carefully crafted story attached. Its quests are intimately related to places and people – traumatic events that took place in the past, struggles in the present, myths, political turmoil and so on. Each one teaches you something about the world and its inhabitants, as opposed to being a piece of content that’s only there to give you something to do. By taking that approach, the game skilfully creates a strong connection with its sprawling fantasy world. You are left with the impression that there are things going on in those areas you are yet to visit on that gigantic map, things that you want to discover, not for the gold, or the XP, but for the stories you might find. You are invigorated by the idea that this is a living, breathing space that would continue to exist whether or not you are there to see it.
Indeed, things will occasionally happen because you are not there to intervene. The Witcher 3 prides itself on offering you the choice to respond to situations as you please and take different paths to achieving your goals, but occasionally, the choice to quite simply not engage at all is also viable and will have consequences of its own. Again, The Witcher uses this openness in an intelligent way. In contrast to other games with a strong focus on choice, it often refrains from telegraphing the consequences of your actions, or even the fact that a particular action will have a consequence, allowing it to be far more nuanced and surprising than it otherwise would be.
Still, the game is not perfect in that regard. Sometimes it can fall into the trap of assuming that taking a ‘shades of grey’ approach is necessarily sophisticated. We think in particular of a serial domestic abuser that plays a key role in the story and whom you can respond to in a variety of ways. That the game wants to paint him as a rounded character is understandable – desirable, even – but in doing that, it strays dangerously close to presenting his actions in a sympathetic light by virtue of its fear of appearing simplistically moralist. Thankfully, that’s a rare misstep in a game that is usually far more intelligent in the way it handles its characters and the way that it situates them within its dark, brutal and unjust world.
Speaking of that brutal world, it’s worth noting that – in combination with the game’s size – it plays perfectly into the fantasy of who protagonist Geralt is and what he does. When travelling from place to place, you get a real sense that you are in a vast unforgiving wilderness populated by violent and dangerous creatures. The idea that, as a Witcher, though often derided, you are needed for your skill in tracking down and slaying said creatures makes perfect sense.
Wild Hunt further plays into that fantasy through the way it structures its combat, particularly when it comes to taking down the powerful monsters attached to Witcher contracts. The game tasks you with talking to witnesses or investigating the scenes of previous attacks using Witcher senses that highlight significant objects, tracks, bloodstains and so on, in order to learn about a creature’s weaknesses. Using that knowledge you can craft oils to apply to your sword to enhance damage, or make bombs to which a particular creature is weak before finally tracking down and confronting it. That process of investigation, preparation and confrontation is satisfying in itself, but also has the effect of playing up the importance of every encounter and making you feel like the job of a Witcher is as specialised as the game tells you it is.
Alongside those RPG-tinged combat element, Wild Hunt also proves itself to be more than capable as an action game. Light and strong attacks, dodges, rolls, magic, blocks and ripostes that leave enemies open to counter attacks are all part of your repertoire and using them can be incredibly satisfying. Arguably, things can get a little messy when you’re fighting a large number of enemies, but that encourages a cautious approach that can be rewarding once you’re accustomed to it. It’s a matter of acknowledging that you must respect your enemies in a way that you don’t have to in titles that have taken a more automated approach modelled on the Batman: Arkham system of combat. It’s indicative of The Witcher 3’s desire to give you as much agency as possible and to make it feel like everything you do matters.
Given that The Witcher is so accomplished in almost every aspect, what a shame it is that it can be let down by technical deficiencies. We could forgive the couple of hard crashes we experienced during our substantial time with the game, but problems with the frame rate are much harder to ignore. It’s not that we’re obsessive about frame rate as a general rule, but it is so inconsistent here that it is frequently distracting. In fairness, that aspect of the game did improve with its launch day patch, and CD Projekt Red has promised that more are coming. Given that it is a studio that’s been praised for its post-release support in the past, it’s reasonable to be hopeful that things will get even better as time progresses.
Let’s sweep those relatively minor technical issues aside, though, because it seems almost churlish to even mention them when you’re confronted with a game as fantastically accomplished as this. Wild Hunt is a masterpiece of open-world design in which it feels like every last detail has had the same level of care, thought and attention paid to by the team that created the game. It is fascinating to explore, consistently rewarding, always engaging and cements CD Projekt Red’s reputation as a studio to watch.