The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. Those statements fall well onto the over-the-top, hyperbolic side of the spectrum, but it helps to get the point across that the world you inhabit, explore, and discover in the third game in the Witcher franchise is a vast one. The breadth and scale of the environments are massive, but size alone doesn't make for a good open-world video game.
What good is a gigantic map if there is nothing to do in it? Games such as L.A. Noire come to mind in which there is a huge map that is underutilized and largely empty. The Witcher 3 doesn't suffer from this issue. In fact, Wild Hunt may be the most detailed world I have ever explored in a video game. Make no mistake, it is still one of the biggest game worlds I have ever explored as well, and that makes the staggering amount of detail all the more impressive. Every single corner of the world feels lovingly hand crafted by the team at CD Projekt Red. The same amount of care went into making out of the way huts and ruins in the middle of nowhere as went into well-traveled areas you will visit often, such as the city of Novigrad. Characters show emotion in subtle ways thanks to the extremely robust facial animations that even include dynamic wrinkles in the forehead and corners of the mouth. NPC characters in a village will run to find shelter when a rainstorm breaks out, while all the trees and bushes sway in the wind. Any single area of The Witcher 3 packs in so many small details that would be impressive on its own, but apply that level of craft over a huge open world and it becomes absolutely amazing.
To my mind, there are three things that any good role-playing game must have: interesting characters, a compelling story, and a detailed universe. Skill trees, dialogue systems, and other gameplay mechanics may differ among the various styles of RPG, but a game quickly dies on the vine if it doesn't have characters that you want to spend time with, a rich world to invest in, and a captivating story to drive you forward. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt makes all three of those things look easy.
All of the characters you meet during the main questline are well-nuanced, flawed individuals with their own goals and reasons for existing. The main characters are a joy to get to know over the many hours spent with the game. Some of them have hidden agendas, some of them aren't what they initially appear, and some of them plain just don't like you. Even characters that you only spend five minutes with on a small side quest manage to feel like living, breathing parts of the world that will continue about their day after the player leaves.
As mentioned previously, the facial animation in The Witcher 3 is very impressive and is a large part of what makes the characters in the game so appealing. Most video games struggle to achieve decent lip synch with their characters, even with all the other graphical improvements in games of recent memory. Characters in other games often have static faces with creepy, dead looking eyes. The characters in The Witcher 3 by comparison move and act with surprising fidelity for a game engine running in real-time. Among other things, the characters in this game can raise an eyebrow, squint their eyes, scrunch their foreheads, and bite their lips!
While the technical systems required to achieve this are probably very impressive as well, the amazing thing about the characters in this game is how well they convey subtle emotions. There were times when I marveled at the fact that it looked like a character was actually thinking before they spoke. There's such a subtle difference between that and simply delivering the next line of dialogue. That type of subtle acting is difficult enough to achieve for actors on film or a high budget animated feature. I found it amazing to get that feeling from a video game.
The world that Geralt of Rivia, the titular “witcher” of the franchise, inhabits is mostly a nasty one. The end of the second Witcher game kicked off a bloody civil war that affects everyone from common peasants all the way up to kings and queens. While life may be terrible for those living in the villages pillaged by enemy soldiers, it also means business is good for wandering cat-eyed monster hunters such as Geralt. There are plenty of people in need of help, and plenty of coin to be made from monster contracts and other jobs no one else wishes to do.
The world of The Witcher 3 is also one of magic. Geralt himself makes use of simple magical signs, easily cast in the midst of a skirmish. Sorceresses can cast powerful spells that are the typical sort of magic one might expect in a fantasy universe. Witches make use of dark magic rites and incantations. There are those who use cast bones to see visions of things to come. Others use the power of dreaming to examine the past and predict future events. Wraiths and other creatures have the ability to become invisible or teleport. Geralt can even discover the hidden lair of a mage who induces visions using the power of pungent cheeses. The many types and incarnations of magic are just one example of the breadth of detail utilized by CD Projekt Red in bringing this universe to life.
Geralt's story in The Witcher 3 begins with a dip in the tub and can end with one of several different conclusions depending on choices the player makes along the way. The witcher's journey takes him all over the world from the tallest mountains to the deepest caves. He fights beasts large and small, gets into bar brawls, becomes entangled with an underground criminal organization, races horses, hunts treasure, explores ruins, and even puts on a stage play. Geralt's tale is varied and epic, yet everything he does all comes down to a very personal connection with Ciri, a young woman he tutored when she was a child and the closest thing Geralt has to a daughter. Ciri also happens to actually be the daughter of an emperor and possesses powerful magic abilities. This heritage means that many want to use Ciri for their own ends including the Wild Hunt, a group of elven specters from another dimension bent on exploiting Ciri's powerful magic to take over the world. The stakes may be high and the world may be in peril, but Geralt just wants to reunite with Ciri and protect her from harm.
There are many secondary quests in the game to experience as well, several of which tie into the main story in interesting ways. If one of the major characters wants something done, it is well worth helping them out because they may be more inclined to assist Geralt in the future if you do. There are also horse races to win, playing cards to collect, and boxing matches to enter. Monster contracts give you many unique beasts to track down and kill. New witcher gear and other treasures are out there to find. There are potions and blade oils to craft, skills to upgrade, and unknown points of interest to discover. Every moment of time in The Witcher 3 is well spent and rewarded no matter what you choose to do.
Another area in which The Witcher 3 excels is atmosphere and mood. The excellent sound design, superb soundtrack, and hand crafted environmental design all contribute to creating a sense of place that is easy to disappear into, and everything shines all the brighter thanks to the fantastic lighting in the game. Riding through a dense forest in the moonlight, wandering the city streets at mid-day, or delving deep into a gloomy mist-enshrouded cave all invoke different feelings in the player thanks in no small part to how the lighting paints the world you are in. Combine the gorgeous lighting with a wide variety of possible weather, and you'll catch yourself sitting on a hill admiring the sunset more than once. The fact that each sunrise and sunset looks completely different depending on the weather conditions is the extremely tasty icing on an already amazing cake. The majority of the time I found myself ignoring fast travel in favor of enjoying the atmosphere while riding to my destination, a testament to the beautifully crafted world created by the talented artists at CD Projekt Red.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is not perfect. I ran into relatively few glitches during my time with the game, however I did encounter a goofy broken animation here or there. The menu interface isn't especially friendly to navigate when your inventory fills up, and the stat that tracks your time played is completely broken. Underwater swimming can be especially tricky to control, and the camera isn't ideal in really tight spaces. There are many small things that could be nitpicked to death, but in the end none of those things really matter. All of the positives far outweigh anything negative to the point that any list of nitpicks becomes minuscule by comparison and hard to remember. The Witcher 3 may not be perfect, but it gets very, very close.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the richest, most detailed open-world game of any type that I have ever played. It is an experience I will not soon forget, and it is definitely a must-play title for any fan of role-playing games.
Score 5 out of 5
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was reviewed using a PC download code provided to The Gamers Lounge by CD Projekt Red.