The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review – It’s More Than Just Banging Barmaids

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Not to start off the review with a meme of all things, but there is a popular image that has circulated online for the last few years that shows a dragon from the second Witcher game next to a cartoonish picture of a dragon. The former has CD Projekt’s name under it, while the latter dragon, who I believe is something from an old Disney cartoon, has BioWare’s name on it. (Editor’s note: view that here) Though I don’t want to make this review an attack against the Canadian-based and EA-owned developer, it does perfectly illustrate what separates CD Projekt Red and their Witcher series from the RPG hobby at large.

If you know European CRPGs, you know most lack the broad appeal that gets them large pre-order numbers or mainstream attention. The Witcher never had that problem, partly due to CD Projekt Red’s ability to compromise and infuse their games with enough western sensibilities that even those who dislike European games are often found playing them. The hard to master combat, lack of enemy scaling, and obtuse rules of their games are balanced out by the user-friendliness of their quest tracking, detailed journals, and easily traversed terrain. Though they might have slipped up a few times in the past (Witcher 2’s initial lack of a tutorial comes to mind), this balance has made The Witcher series a perfect gateway drug for curious gamers wanting to get into European style CRPGs.

With each game, they’ve done better at balancing these two styles and seem to have perfectly honed it to a razor’s edge in this third installment. With a much better tutorial and a far easier to learn and control combat system, Witcher 3 is, if you’ll permit me to give in to the hype a bit, the ultimate fusion of European and North American game design. A game that can please both the casual and the discriminating nose-in-the-air connoisseur alike.

Of course, I didn’t expect to come away with that opinion on the game, especially after the controversies that kept popping up during the game’s run to release. Between the whole “Gwent card game is only available for Xbox One Pre-purchases” and “The graphics are dumbed down for the consoles” I ended up buying into the idea that CD Projekt had abandoned the PC. Admittedly, it did seem to hold water.

So let’s explore that first. Is the game dumbed down for consoles? Are the visuals lacking? Is it a buggy, crash-prone wreck of a title?

As always, your mileage will vary depending on your rig’s setup, but from the nearly 40 hours I’ve spent with the game so far, there is nothing that indicates to me that this is true. Matter of fact, I’ve rarely played a game that was not only so consistently gorgeous, but also this stable. Having spent all this time with the game, I’ve only had two crashes. One was a clean CTD with no error (And I restarted the game again with no problem) and the other was an infinite loading screen that occurred when I tried to load my quick save. Par for the course, really.

As for the graphics, there is no doubt this isn’t the 2013 demo. I think that’s been established and whether or not that is something we need to penalize the development team for is a debate for another time. What I will say, however, is that Witcher 3 is the best looking PC game I’ve seen since, well, Witcher 2.

The shadow play, the god rays, the waving grass, the trees that bend in the direction of the wind, the reflections off of puddles and armor plates…I have a 225MB large folder full of uncompressed bitmap images I took of this game’s most beautiful areas (Editor’s note, all included screenshots were taken by the author) and I look at them with nearly the same level of reverence I do my family photo albums.

Granted, it doesn’t have the spiffy rendering system that the 2013 demo is celebrated for, but what *is* there looks good. Damn good. The funny thing about how well it looks and runs for me is that my PC sports an unsupported operating system and is far below minimum specifications for the game as well.

My rig, which I built in 2008, is a Vista x64 machine that currently sports an AMD 6950 and an Intel Q9650 CPU built on eight year old architecture. Not only that, but since AMD stopped supporting Vista a year a half ago on their 6-series cards, my video drivers are from 2013. Yet, with my machine being so under-spec, I’m still able to run at 50-60FPS and leave everything at medium with textures set to high. If that isn’t amazing optimization, then I guess I’m hallucinating.

It isn’t all about texture depth or reflections though. The real beauty of the game’s world is in the little details that add to The Witcher’s suspension of disbelief. The way dark clouds begin to roll in right before a thunder storm and the wind that picks up shortly thereafter. The way trees creak and knock against each other when the heavy breeze bends them. The effect of water that accumulates on the muddy paths of the peasant villages and sloshes as you gallop over them. The rude comments people make if you run into them. The increased height of the waves lapping against the beach when the weather gets bad. The fact that your boat has a realistic location-based damage model and can sink if you break a big enough hole in it…these are all just a small selection of the myriad of reasons why The Witcher, even if you aren’t happy with the visuals, is the most realistically looking open world game that you’ll ever see.

The world truly does feel alive. So alive that even though there is a fast travel option, I very rarely take advantage of it. I’ve actually discussed this with others who have the game on my Steam friend’s list and they all say the same thing: the world is far too gorgeous to skip over.

Travelling from point to point is so fun that a large part of my time with the game was spent simply galloping, running or sailing to my user-created destinations and taking screenshots. Silly, I know, but I couldn’t help myself.

One thing CD Projekt Red managed to get right that no one can deny is the way the sailing and horse riding systems have been handled. Sailing is something that has been a bit of a bugaboo in RPGs, ever since Wind Waker divided the Zelda fandom between those who loved the boat and those (like myself) who still fight back nightmares of it. Thankfully, Witcher 3 makes open world sailing fun again by giving the boat Halo-esque driving controls and putting extra care into the rendering of waves and the foamy wake of your craft.

Nothing beats sailing the wide open sea west of Velen during a torrential rain storm, with waves so big they rock your boat like the SS Minnow. The physics, the movement of the waves, the reaction of the boat as it strains against the wind and water…it has to be experienced to be fully understood. Just queue up a loop of “Sailing Away” by Christopher Cross and lean back in your chair. It makes you forget that you’re a white haired man cutting up scaly monsters for gold. At least for a while.

I know it all comes across as hokey, but the world CD Projekt Red has created is so lifelike and vibrant that they deserve to be praised for it. Combine this with the typical European/Gothic/Ultima 7 inspired NPC interaction/scheduling and you have a game that is absolutely peerless as far as realism goes. There is no one out there that can doubt that, minor glitches or no.

So the world detail is there, but what about the actual story? The choice and consequence? The narrative?

If wistfully recounting the digital explorations of a fantasy world is silly, then doubting CD Projekt’s story and lore-building skill is even more so. Though The Witcher games have been unfairly pigeonholed as “that game where you have sex with barmaids”, it’s always been more than that. Based on Andrzej SapkowskI’s “The Witcher” books, these CRPGs have always had a strong story accompanying the medieval James Bond shenanigans. It’s the same for this third installment as well. With a good mix of the typical bog-standard quests and the more involved branching ones, it doesn’t beat you over the head with an overdose of dialog complexity nor does it spoon feed you fetch quests all the time. It’s a fair mix of the two.

Like the first two Witcher games, Wild Hunt gives you plenty of leeway in terms of how you want to deal with the world’s NPCs. Every main quest and about half of the game’s secondary quests involve at least one decision that you can make that will at least slightly alter them, some more than others.

One good example of this is the Keira Metz quest line, which starts with a simple mission and turns into a long and branching quest tree that spans a good 8-10 hours of gameplay and ends open-endedly with results as severe as you murdering the woman or you allowing her to bring a dangerous biological weapon into the world, and everything in between.

Though that kind of involved quest isn’t the norm, there are quite a few of them and they all involve you deciding the fate of the world’s major political figures in one way or another. The Bloody Baron quest line is another prime example, with certain decisions having wide-reaching and long-lasting ramifications that can even cut you off from certain portions of the game. In short, fans of “choice and consequence” should feel taken care of.

A feature that really helps make a lot of these quests feel more dynamic and original is the usage of Geralt’s “Witcher senses”. Though it was toyed with in the previous game, the idea of Geralt using his superhuman powers to detect trails of blood and wafts of odor plays a much bigger role this time around.

Nearly every quest, and especially the monster contracts that require you to track your target, are dependent on your ability to search for and identify clues. It makes Geralt feel less like a sword-slinging barbarian and more like the cultured, intelligent fount of all monster knowledge that he truly is. It’s all very Batman-esque and acts as a pleasant compliment to the game’s otherwise hectic flow.

Quests aren’t just limited to slaying monsters or working for NPCs, either. Since the game is now an open world sandbox style RPG, there are several little side activities you can engage in that help keep the balance amongst all the serious-minded missions the game wants you to complete. Besides merely running through the countryside and hunting down treasure caches and monster nests, there’s also occupied towns that need liberating.

These towns, which are either overrun by monster nests or “claimed” by bandits, can be cleansed by Geralt if he encounters them on the world map. When eliminating all threats, the townspeople that lived there will begin returning. What this means is that new merchants will appear in these areas, who will give Geralt extra opportunities to offload his unwanted gear, buy supplies, or play some Gwent. It’s nothing major, but it does call back to Gothic 3 and its town liberation mechanic.

Which is interesting, since a lot of Witcher 3 seems to borrow from the Gothic series. At first I thought it was just me and my bias towards Gothic, but after speaking to other players, it seems this feeling is something many people have picked up on. If you need proof of it, you need not look any further than the combat.

Sword fighting in the first two Witcher games was a bit hit-and-miss, no pun intended. In the first game you had to time attacks to coincide with a blinking cursor that appeared over your aiming reticule, and in my opinion, it was about as subtle and had as much elegance as a bull in a china shop.

CD Projekt tried to improve it in the second game by unlocking it from that cursor and allowing you to move more freely. Unfortunately, the hard to predict range of melee attacks and the clunky nature of the camera prevented it from being an improvement. If anything, the second game’s combat was even more of a mess than the first one.

Witcher 3 seems to have learned its lesson and takes a more simplified approach to combat. Though the camera positioning can still be a problem at times, the issue with melee attack range being hard to judge was solved by having each attack cover the same amount of ground per swing.

Furthermore, they borrowed the dodging/parrying scheme that was used in Gothic and Risen, creating a very familiar “rhythm” to combat that Gothic devotees will find extremely welcoming. Like those Piranha Bytes games, timing and patiently waiting for openings in your opponent’s animations are the key to winning most fights.

The depth in the system now is instead placed on what the monsters themselves are vulnerable to. I don’t mean just the type of bombs or magic that exploit their resistance weaknesses, but the way you have to dodge their attacks as well. Since you have four ways to cancel out an enemy attack (Dodge, roll, parry, or Quen shield) the designers have set it up in such a way that some enemies are able to prevent you from using one or more of those defenses. Take Foglets, for instance. Their attacks are so strong they break through your parry, and yet their invisible nature makes it almost impossible to successfully initiate your dodges in time. Instead, you have to put up a Quen shield and wait for the Foglet to hit it before beginning your combo attacks.

Then you have enemies like the Griffons, which have wide-reaching sweep attacks that negate any rolling maneuvers, or the Grave Hags that have claws so strong they rip through even high level Quen shields. It really makes you think before you enter a fight and forces you to memorize how to best tackle each monster type. It was a level of complexity I didn’t expect, to be perfectly honest.

As for the magic side of things, it hasn’t changed as much as swordplay has. Magic is still unusually powerful and if you focus on Axii and Quen, you can make even the harder difficulty levels seem painfully easy. I suppose that’s the way the Witcher is supposed to be, but some balancing would have been nice. This is especially considering how lopsided magic-specialized Geralt was in the previous games.

Another aspect of the game that feels like it has become more powerful is the crafting. Though the random loot you find in storage containers can be quite powerful, the real stuff is locked behind the crafting screen. Like before, diagrams are your key to making new equipment…but unlike before, you literally find dozens of them every hour of play. Every bomb, every sword, every potion you can use in the game must be unlocked through locating its diagram and finding the ingredients to craft it.

Admittedly, it can be frustrating sometimes when you want to use a certain item and don’t have the parts necessary to craft it, but one of the upsides to this system is that once you craft a potion or bomb, you never have to craft it again. Reusable items are replenished during rest, so long as you have a strong source of alcohol. Though purists don’t seem to enjoy that new feature, I found it a nice change of pace over what I went through in the first two games. It’s certainly better than having to keep a ton of plants in my backpack at all times.

While I’ve compared the game to the previous two entries in the series and found it to be better in all regards, I feel that many gamers out there are probably more likely to compare the The Witcher 3 to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. While I enjoy Skyrim, I think that much of its world was sparsely populated and a lot of empty, barren, lifeless land existed in between points of interest.

Witcher 3, on the other hand, is very densely populated and squeezes a lot of ancillary goals in between the larger ones. This makes every tiny bump and mountain in the game’s world feel purposely placed and meaningful. You can’t go in any direction for more than 30 seconds without hitting into something, and that is quite a feat considering how large the world is. Though it may not be as big as Skyrim, it is far more content-rich.

This level of care can even be seen in the NPCs faces, which are easily the best looking and most authentic medieval grills I’ve ever stared into. The moles and freckles on Ciri’s face, the random missing tooth here and there, the fact that there are actually real fat people in the world instead of everyone having the same exact body model…it shows how serious CD Projekt Red took this game. Which isn’t a surprise when you find out they hired a botanist to sit there and populate the landscape with ecologically correct foliage.

With a game so beautifully crafted, telling a gripping narrative that revolves around one of gaming’s biggest badasses, I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with it. Though extremists, purists and those with an axe to grind will nitpick inconsequential shortcomings or may have their opinion of the game sullied by the unfortunate fact that certain PC configurations have problems running it, The Witcher 3 is still one of the best CRPGs that I’ve played. Luckily, the game ran fine for me and I have nothing but praise for it.

Though I’d probably add a few things to it, like some sort of in-game loot stash to control the god-awful amount of equipment you find and maybe reigning in that nasty dip in difficulty that rears its head about halfway through; these are very minor concerns that don’t limit my enjoyment of the game in any significant way.

What CD Projekt Red has done here is make the defining CRPG of a generation. An antidote to the forced and contrived drama found in *other* so-called “mature” and “adult-themed” RPGs. A game that doesn’t spend its time tokenizing homosexuals or shoehorning in an elven woman that looks like a meth addict and call it “inclusive” because she is hideously ugly to appeal to god knows who for god knows what reason.

No, what these wonderful Poles have done is make a game that has adult situations that make sense and stir up real emotions without resorting to the thin and plastic-like motivations other triple-A developers seem content to resort to. The fact that I sat crying in front of my screen after the Keira Metz quest line and debated quitting the game forever stands as proof of that.

There are no hilariously bad and meme-creating romances that involve “riding the bull”. There is no real world 21st century social message juxtaposed against the medieval setting. There are no unexplained changes in the player’s beliefs or mission and certainly no “lazy writing”. What you have is a very well-constructed, mature, entertaining RPG that gives you a good 60 hours of content at a time when you’re usually lucky to hit even half that time mark.

It’s been awhile since I played a game bad enough to truly skewer it, so it feels cheap constantly heaping such praise on Witcher 3. Regardless, I feel it genuinely deserves it. CD Projekt Red has ticked every box and met nearly every goal with this game, and while not everyone has had as smooth a time as I’ve had with the engine, I can only grade it according to my own experiences.

And for me, this is one of the most complete and fulfilling RPG experiences I’ve ever had.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was reviewed on PC using a code purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict 9.5

Pros:

  • Beautiful visuals
  • Seemingly never-ending stream of content
  • Improved combat over the second game
  • Transportation methods are fun, addicting
  • Well written dialog that makes sense

Cons:

  • Somewhat uneven difficulty near the middle-to-late game
  • Too much loot, not enough space
  • Menus could use some work to make them more user-friendly
Carl Batchelor

About

Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG'er who especially loves European PC games. Even with more than three decades of gaming under his belt, he feels the best of the hobby is yet to come.