Wednesday, August 5, 2015

If you're not a gamer, you'll wish you were -- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review

“Lesser, greater, middling, it's all the same. Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred. I'm not a pious hermit, I haven't done only good in my life. But if I'm to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all.”
― Andrzej Sapkowski, The Last Wish (1993)

In May, I finally got my hands on a game I so eagerly anticipated that I had reserved the collector's boxset edition 11 months in advance of its release (see my post on unboxing that set here). At last, 200 logged hours and a small mountain of tin soda cans later, the credits rolled and I set down the final chapter of Geralt of Rivia's tale in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. There are two ways for me to recount my experience. The short version is where I tell you that, in the course of the story, I accidentally unleashed a bubonic plague upon the peasantry, purposefully threw a baby in an oven and locked the door, spent about 15 minutes leading a goat back to its owner with a handbell, helped a warrior get over his fear of his own father by wandering through a dark cavern with him under the influence of shrooms, and caved an ancient elf-lord's head into his torso with a mace the size of a small tree. I tell you it's one of the best games ever made, you dismiss me as a psychopath and never visit my page again. Or, if you have the patience for it, you can read the long version.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the last installment in a series of open-world role-playing games based upon dark fantasy books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski and a heap of Slavic folklore. Most people, including many hardcore gamers, have never heard of it. Those who have will think it's either "that game my PC will never be able to run", "the Skyrim knockoff", or perhaps "that racist, sexist game where everyone is white". I prefer to call it instead: "the game that will make non-gamers wish they were".

The hero 

 


 Introducing Geralt of Rivia

You play as Geralt of Rivia, a "witcher": a monster slayer who wanders the world in search of beasts and ghosts who haunt the realms of men, and villagers who are willing to pay hard coin for a professional to exterminate them. He is at once hunter, investigator of the paranormal, and (when the circumstances allow) a lifter of curses. As with the other members of his guild, Geralt has trained in the arts of swordsmanship from childhood and subjected to genetic mutation to enhance his reflexes and senses just enough to be regarded as a freak and outcast from the rest of society, but not enough to actually be superhuman. But, as much as common folk may revile them, the witchers are oft-enough the only ones standing between the people of a remote village and their total extinction at the hands of a werewolf prowling the woods at night, or worse. In short, imagine a medieval Batman meets John Constantine from Hellblazer.

Geralt is controlled from a third-person camera so you can admire his ugly mug and pirouettes during fights. The bread-and-butter of fighting will always be your two swords (a steel blade for humans, and a silver one for monsters), but Geralt's arsenal also includes a whole system of herb-gathering and alchemy to create potions, oils, and bombs. There are also five basic magical spells that won't win the battle for you, but can give you a slight edge such as blasting foes back with telekinetic force, launching a wave of fire, or muddling an enemy's mind to fight on your side for a time. That last one can also be used in some conversations as a sort of Jedi mind trick to get people to see your way; just be careful when using it among groups of people, or the guy's friends might catch on that you're using a hex on him and try to snap him out of it. New to The Witcher 3 is a mini-crossbow, especially helpful for bringing flying enemies such as harpies and griffins down to your level, though you do get chided by fellow witchers for such an anti-traditional armament.

Unlike most RPG's, you don't create your own character here. While you get to make moral choices galore throughout the adventure, this is definitely a "Geralt simulator": you spend the vast majority of the game controlling one pre-defined character whose history spans not only the past two games, but two short story collections and six novels. Just as you can't make Batman kill someone in the Arkham Asylum games, you can't make Geralt gay or adopt the persona of an aristocrat. Cosmetic changes are limited to armor pieces (which are actually quite diverse) and an array of hairstyles and beards. Within the reasonable confines of the character, though, The Witcher 3 gives the player a freedom to act and explore that has never before been seen in the history of the video game medium.

Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon was as central a character as Geralt in the books, but The Witcher 3 marks her first game appearance. She's also playable in several sequences, and is just as fun.

The story begins with the hero in search of his lover and his adoptive daughter, Ciri, from the books. While The Witcher 2's plot grew into the political like a spider web of schemes and double-deals in the council halls of kings, this game's quest remains entirely personal throughout. Yes, you'll run into King Radovid from the past two titles and Emperor Emhyr (voiced in the English version by Charles Dance and, as you can imagine, sounding more-or-less exactly like his character Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones), and you can choose to embroil yourself neck-deep in their machinations; but the core always remains the search for Ciri, delivering her from the clutches of the spectral cavalcade known as the Wild Hunt. (I have an entire post on the folklore phenomenon of the Wild Hunt here.) You're not here to save the world: just to stitch some semblance of a family together and make a living, wandering from town to town along the way.


The world



The debut gameplay trailer

You start the tutorial in the ancient witchers' fortress of Kaer Morhen (a stunning recreation of the first area of the first Witcher game) via a flashback to Geralt and Ciri's past, but soon you wake up in the open world. In truth, the game starts you off in a village called White Orchard and its surrounding environs. It's big enough to think you're already in the open world, but White Orchard is actually just a primer region to help you get familiar with the game's mechanics until it ejects you into No Man's Land, a swampland fiefdom on the edges of Temeria, ravaged by war and famine. Unlike Skyrim's single map, The Witcher 3 spans across not only No Man's Land, but the two cities of Oxenfurt and Novigrad (on the same map), and the isles of Skellige on another map, which is accessible later in the story. Together, the two maps form a whopping 52 square miles of explorable territory; Skyrim was only 15. It's a good thing CD Projekt now gives us a horse to ride across the world in, or else we'd be walking forever.

Of course, size isn't everything, but The Witcher 3's world also matches quantity with quality through an inexhaustible number of fully-fleshed side quests strewn about every crook and nanny of the world. This is a world which doesn't revolve around the protagonist's existence. People have everyday problems as simple as an old lady asking you to find her frying pan, to deciding whether or not to intervene when you see a gang of peasants descending upon a lone enemy soldier lost on the road. Hayden Dingman's review on PC World described the last one as such:
Early on I was riding my horse down the road—flanked on both sides by hanged corpses—when I came across a group of angry peasants surrounding a lone soldier, part of an invading force. The peasants insisted the foreigner be lynched. I told them to back off. The peasants attacked. I killed them all.

“Thanks so much,” said the soldier. “So lucky you stopped by.”

“If I hadn’t stopped, only one man would’ve died here today,” said Geralt.

And I felt bad. So bad that I succumbed to the perennial video game advantage—I reloaded. This time I let the soldier die. When the peasants walked away, there was one more corpse hanging by the side of the road. I looted the soldier, only to find a letter from his wife desperately begging him to come home.

I reloaded again. I killed the peasants.

Hanged Man's Tree
Aside from the dozens upon dozens of such encounters (which, even after 200 hours of play, I still have over 10 left undone according to my strategy guide), there are something like 26 monster contracts, not counting DLC's, which all build upon a basic but nonetheless entirely satisfying formula:

1.) Learn about a monster terrorizing some locals via a notice board or talking to an NPC in person;
2.) (optional) Haggle with a contract giver for a higher reward
3.) Conduct an investigation to learn about the monster and its weaknesses by questioning any witnesses
4.) Explore the wilderness by using your heightened "witcher senses" (like Batman's detective vision in the Arkham games) to look for clues
5.) Prepare for, and kill the monster in a mini-boss battle
6.) Return to quest-giver to collect reward

Just a few examples of monsters: 

-wyverns
-rock trolls
-noonwraiths (the ghosts of women who die violently right before their weddings and only appear when the sun is at its zenith in the sky)
-hyms (vengeful specters who only haunt those guilty of grievous sins, slowly sapping their strength)
-leshens (woodland spirits who control the trees and animals, and often use their powers to demand gifts and worship from local villagers as gods) 

There's also a high chance that there's a "twist" to any contract if you look hard enough, such as that the monster was of the villager's own creation through cursing or wickedness. One of the recurring themes of the entire Witcher saga, after all, is that sometimes the worst monsters are the ones in human skin. Most importantly, even these contracts serve a greater purpose to the story of The Witcher. Here, Geralt is plying his trade, like a traveling cobbler, thatcher, or actor might for their daily bread. You need money to buy better armor, weaponry, or crafting supplies if you want to have a decent chance of taking on the Wild Hunt, and the game's economy is designed so that your hero mostly reflects Geralt in the books: always broke and on the road to find another monster to kill, and another paycheck. 

Geralt does battle with a griffin
Throw in the main quest for Ciri which spans three acts, treasure hunts, side activities like horse-racing and fistfighting tournaments, and the surprisingly entertaining trading card mini-game called Gwent (yes, strange as it sounds, The Witcher now has its own, more fun version of Pokemon or Yu-gi-Oh), and you could easily put one or two hundred hours into it yourself before the end. To top it all off, CD Projekt has been constantly releasing free DLC from release even up to now. While they're small additions, to be sure; a spiffy new armor set here, a monster contract there; CD Projekt has demonstrated their commitment to rewarding their customers with new content without nickel-and-diming them for each new thing, not to mention the constant updates to fix the bugs which are inevitable in any game of this scope. 


The visuals



NVIDIA Gameworks features
 
Oh, by the way, while the graphics are the least of The Witcher 3's achievements, it does happen to also be the best-looking RPG ever made. As with past titles, the flagship platform is the Windows PC version, which can take full advantage of a PC's superior hardware if your system specs are up to snuff: drawing distance that lets you spot trees from miles away, ambient occlusion draping interiors and objects shielded from the sun with lifelike shadows, dazzling flora and fauna populating every bit of wilderness, and, if you have an nVidia graphics card, you can turn on "HairWorks", which simulates realistic hair animation on both man and beast. The sun even rises earlier in the morning the further north you travel on the map!

Unless you already play a lot of recent, high-end PC games, your computer is unlikely to run The Witcher 3 on settings that do the game justice (if at all), but the good news is that you can also get the game on Xbox One and Playstation 4. I haven't tried the console versions out myself, but I know that most players have, and according to all reviews I've read, both next-gen consoles run the game at a respectable level of graphic detail that still knocks just about every other game on the market out of the ballpark. Oh, and you can, in fact, use both Xbox (360 and One) and PS4 controllers with the PC version. Though the keyboard and mouse is stronger for navigating the interface and general exploration, the gamepad is a better match when it comes to actually swinging your sword and dodging about.

A panorama of the Free City of Novigrad, the largest, most densely populated and believable medievalesque city ever rendered in a game.

If making the most beautiful RPG in existence is the least of The Witcher 3's accomplishments, then what's the greatest?

 


 The game's outstanding, orchestral main theme

Quite simply this: that The Witcher 3 raises the entire gaming industry's bar to a new standard for content and storytelling that hasn't been seen since the original Deus Ex back in 2000. The only way I can explain is by way of a short spoiler. Early in the game, Ciri's trail leads you to a man called the Bloody Baron, the self-appointed warlord of No Man's Land. A common-born deserter from a defeated army and a brute whose beard, you can only imagine, is matted with bread crumbs and vodka, the Baron demands your help in finding his lost wife and daughter in exchange for information on Ciri's whereabouts. As you investigate his manor, you see all the signs of domestic abuse: broken furniture, poorly concealed holes in the wall, signs of a miscarriage, and in the basement, a written prayer from the Baron's daughter, Tamara, asking the Eternal Fire to strike her own father dead. It becomes clear that the Baron's family had enough of his drinking and left him of their own accord in the night.

The Bloody Baron: deserter, warlord, drunkard... and concerned father
Before you draw your sword and go full Punisher on the man, though, you learn the Baron's side of the story. You even get to play as Ciri (in the first of several sequences throughout the game) in a flashback where the Baron shows his fatherly side, taking her in to the manor as one of his own until she's restored to health. Where there was once a savage warlord, we now see a man with serious character flaws, yet stands as a gentleman compared to the motley rabble of plunderers and rapists he tenuously commands. A man who, in true Slavic spirit, was born on the wrong side of the bed... but yet, like Dmitri in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, though his veins run with vodka, they sustain a heart beating with compassion in the darkest hours. I won't spoil the story any further; it suffices only to say that this questline was the single most gut-wrenching experience I've ever had in a game.

The Witcher 3 isn't perfect. There are still, at the time of this post, some annoying bugs that haven't been patched out. Combat on horseback is very frustrating and not really worth trying. For veteran players, you can import a save file from The Witcher 2, but most of your decisions in the end of the second game don't have any effect on the third's story. BioWare RPG's like Mass Effect and Dragon Age are pretty good about at least giving the illusion that your choices from past games affect the state of the world, but it seems that CD Projekt didn't try very hard here. And, there's one important quest toward the very end of the story whose conclusion makes no sense to me and smacks of "we ran out of time, so let's just end it like this". Other flaws ultimately reveal the shortcomings of the open world game in general. Yes, there's a washerwoman NPC who looks like six or seven other peasant wenches elsewhere in the game, but the only reason we notice is because The Witcher 3 achieves excellence in so many other aspects that the small things start to stand out. Those on the Internet who call CD Projekt "lazy copy-pasting devs" for recycling assets in a game this enormous are like people taking down Michelangelo because the sybils on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are built a little too much like men.

For the rest of us who can take a few paces back and look at the whole canvas, we see a game that, as the Dark Knight trilogy did for the superhero movie, takes the player away from the fact that it's just a game. The Witcher 3, in transcending the limits of the medium, raises the bar for the next generation of games. It tells other developers: you can do better than throw in 85% filler and just a little bit of real content and call it an open world game. You don't have to insult your fanbase by charging $5 a pop for horse armor. You can have great gameplay, great story, and great visuals (and a little humor) all at the same time without having to budget for a thousand programmers.


Is this game for me?

 


An introduction to the Witcher's world

Does the sound of adventure as an itinerant monster slayer in a pulpy fantasy universe where elves and dwarves are persecuted minorities living in human cities, fairy tales can be true but are usually the darker version of the story, and where you'll rarely be able to save everyone in any given crisis situation sound appealing to you? If so, and you're not a kid or would be forced to play this game in the presence of children, then yes, this might be the one for you.

As I said earlier, The Witcher 3 is the game that non-gamers will want to start playing. Does it mean that you need to start with The Witcher 1 and 2 first? Although there's definitely a lot of payoff for doing so, at least half of everyone who bought The Witcher 3 came in with no prior exposure to the franchise. The first Witcher game, in particular, is extremely unforgiving to people who haven't grown up playing computer RPG's. My suggestion for newcomers is to go ahead and start The Witcher 3, but be sure to read all the material that comes with the game packaging and pay close attention to the dialogue and books you can pick up in-game. If you're at all a literary type (and you probably are if you're even reading my blog in the first place), do order a copy of Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish, the first short story collection featuring Geralt of Rivia, and read it as you play.

I suppose we have five more years until I can officially call it, but unless something truly phenomenal appears on the horizon, I'm betting The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will not only be Game of the Year, it'll deserve the title Game of the Decade... and, despite all the time I've put into it, I can't help but want to play it all over again.

5 comments:

  1. I have yet to read the whole review but as an avid player of Skyrim and other ES titles this looks like a great time. The thing is, I have a 13 yo and a 10 yo, boys, who like to play and younger girls who like to watch. While I wouldn't let them play GTA, for example, I'm wondering if this might be on par with Skyrim in that I could play it with them or is it a bit much? We're pretty devout Catholics, and homeschoolers to boot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I allude to this at the end of the review, but no, I definitely wouldn't advise it. You'll have to wait until they're much older, content yourself with playing only in your office after bedtime, or just read the books.

      Delete
    2. Thanks much!

      Delete