Geralt Theft Auto
When most people look at Geralt of Rivia, they see an indomitable, dual-blade-wielding monster hunter who could cut a man in two without batting an eye—and he frequently does, truth be told.
When I look at Geralt in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, however, one name comes to mind: Tommy Vercetti.
Sure, at first glance, a mutated, scar-laden beast-slayer might not seem to have much in common with a Ray Liotta–voiced Italian-American mobster decked out in ‘80s neon cruising a facsimile of the sun-soaked, cocaine-fueled beaches of Miami. It’s not their looks or general demeanor that connect the two, though—it’s how they go about their business.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was the last time I felt a true sense of freedom in Rockstar’s landmark open-world series. Ever since then, I’ve certainly enjoyed the games, but with each entry, I feel like I’m doing things less and less the way I personally prefer. Other so-called “open-world” titles have felt even more stifling in recent years. Sure, you’re free to explore the world, but usually on the developer’s terms.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt gives the open-world genre back to the player. CD Projekt RED didn’t simply deliver on their promise to craft a sprawling landscape worthy of the fantasy works of Andrzej Sapkowski, essentially the George R. R. Martin of Poland—they vastly exceeded it. And now I face my toughest challenge with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt: pulling myself away from the game long enough to actually write about it.
Here’s perhaps the most important thing, though: If you’re shying away from The Witcher 3 because you’re unfamiliar with the series and lore, I can only say you’re making a huge ploughing mistake. In fact, I’m slightly jealous of those starting out with Wild Hunt, since it does a far better job of introducing the world and its important players than 2011’s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (my entry point into the franchise).
The easiest way to describe The Witcher in shorthand is as a fusion of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings with a Slavic twist—populated with a few more high-fantasy beasts than the former and less reliance on outright good-and-evil tropes than the latter. Oh, and it’s filled to the brim with horrific curses and Spirits of the Forests That Must Not Dare Be Disturbed. Slavic elders of yore clearly did not want their children to venture off into the woods, swamp, bog, or estuary, if the world of The Witcher and its terrifying consequences for crossing the supernatural are anything to go by.
Indeed, this is a cold, cruel realm, one where exchanges like “What happened to your hand?” “I sacrificed it to the gods…” aren’t met with shock and horror but simply a knowing nod.
Perhaps my biggest problem with most RPG worlds is that they feel completely inorganic. They’re disparate landscapes fused together in order to reach some predefined notion of what constitutes a “fantasy realm.” In talking with the developers at CD Projekt RED over the last couple of E3s and at the game’s global hands-on event back in January, they told me that they wanted Wild Hunt’s architecture and town layouts to make sense from a theoretical historical perspective—and that definitely rings true in the finished game.
The Witcher 3’s various castles, towers, mansions, and roads all feel connected to an unspoken in-game history. As you wander through the slums of Wild Hunt’s largest city and then ascend to its pristine, temple-filled summit, it feels like the same kind of journey you might make in a place like Rio de Janeiro from the ramshackle favelas to the opulence and excess of Ipanema. But the shift is so gradual in-game that it’s not immediately noticeable that you’re even making such a trek.
These same elements are at play even when it’s nature defining the boundaries. The game’s desolate swamp-filled area, Velen, is a harsh, treacherous, and even poisonous burden for its unfortunate people—truly a No Man’s Land that cruel kings and ruthless monsters have taken advantage of over the centuries. The Witcher 3 does an excellent job of making each new place feel distinct, its own little slice of the game’s unnamed continent. Even the music plays a role—the exploration and battle themes shift with each area to really fit the tone, with Eastern European instruments and vocals adding a bit of folk flavor in each stop on Geralt’s quest (Velen’s themes are particularly spooky and unsettling).
Perhaps the most important reason The Witcher 3 works so well, however, is the fact that it rewards exploration, curiosity, and learning about this expansive, expertly crafted world that spreads out in all directions before you. It couldn’t care less about grinding. The game doesn’t hand out experience for slaying hordes of monsters roaming the fields—only by engaging with townsfolk, chieftains, sorceresses, or kings and completing quests and contracts will you gain levels. And from the moment you set foot in White Orchard, the game’s prologue area, you can call upon Geralt’s trusty steed, Roach, and immediately ride in any direction. You’re rarely, if ever, prodded toward the main questline, and I would recommended exploring the game on your own terms whenever possible.
The Witcher 3’s fast-travel system also encourages exploration, since you need to find a signpost first before you can warp to it—and this usually means that you’ll stumble upon several points of interest along the way, perhaps even getting roped into a several-hour quest. The game is filled with distractions like this, but it’s the best kind of procrastination. Instead of feeling like a time-sink, it ends up illuminating the world and making the journey all the more meaningful as you progress.
The open world and storytelling are, of course, the major draws and where the game truly rises to spectacular heights. Those were expected successes, however, given the previous entries in the series and its rich literary inspiration. Thankfully, many of the franchise’s major weaknesses see big steps forward in Wild Hunt. Combat still isn’t on the level of the best action-RPGs, but it’s much improved over the previous game. Here, I truly felt like an enhanced mutant who could take out a normal man with little more than a flick of a sword, and the increased integration of Geralt’s potent mind-control powers leads to many amusing “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for”–style moments.
Geralt’s witcher senses, meanwhile, allow him to do all the detective work necessary to track his foes, adding depth to monster-slaying quests and making them feel like far more than simple contract work. In The Witcher 3, Geralt comes off almost like a fantasy combination of Cole Phelps, Solid Snake, and Batman, and the character is finally fully realized as the superhuman bounty hunter–cum–problem solver he’s always been intended to be.
As a stalker who hunts both monster and man with equal aplomb, the titular witcher is armed with two swords (in one of the game’s lighter moments, a couple of slack-jawed yokels actually make an amusing, bawdy dig at the two conspicuous blades sticking out from his back). The steel sword is for battle against humans and animals, while the silver sword serves as his weapon against monsters. Unlike previous games in the series, Geralt now automatically draws the correct sword depending upon the type of foe he’s facing, and his various magical signs are now easily accessible via a radial menu.
The previous game’s convoluted alchemy process is streamlined here, making for a far more user-friendly experience in the realm of decoctions and potions. Once you’ve crafted an oil for your sword to exploit enemy weaknesses or brewed an ability-enhancing elixir to consume, it’s yours to keep permanently—you just meditate in order to replenish your stock (as simple as finding an open field or a street corner). Health-regenerating consumables prove more useful this time around, too; if you run out of one type of food, the game will automatically slot in the next one in your inventory, even mid-battle.
The user interface, unfortunately, doesn’t see enough improvements for a game of this size and scope. Sure, it’s a step above The Witcher 2 (a shining example of how re-creating a medieval-style map may sound awesome in theory but becomes utterly useless in a video game), but the map doesn’t mark off enough of what you’ve explored or properly annotate the landscape. It can be a chore to navigate cities in particular—realistic, perhaps, given that I’ve had my own hard times traversing ancient cities in Japan and England that seem to sprout in every direction, but it’s an unnecessary headache.
The most annoying element, however, is when you run out of inventory space and become overburdened, which weighs down Geralt to walking speed until he unloads or sells off items. You can keep collecting items while in this state, but the game is an absolute chore to control. I can defend the use of limited inventory space in a more linear game, but considering that The Witcher 3 actively begs you to rummage through the belongings of princes and paupers alike, it seems counterintuitive to the freedom present in the rest of the game. Sure, you can purchase saddlebags of various sizes that will mitigate the issue somewhat, but even they don’t help as much as they should. I would’ve paid a king’s ransom—or gladly murdered a monarch in-game!—for unlimited inventory space, since this is the one element that truly seemed to get in the way of my enjoyment.
I get that CD Projekt RED is trying to be true to its old-school role-playing roots, but as I’ve mentioned, this is far more than an RPG in execution. After completing pretty much any quest, I’d find myself overburdened with the spoils of victory—and moving at a snail’s pace to get to the nearest shopkeeper to sell off excess baggage. With no option for storage, this took precious time away from what I actually wanted to do: explore the world.
Even though CD Projekt RED delayed the game’s release in order to focus on fixing bugs, they’re still present here in numbers higher than I’d like. What’s more, the patches seem to fix 10 things and break one or two new elements. These bugs can have some unintentionally positive side effects, though. At one point, the game threw me off my horse and straight off a cliff (thankfully not killing me, somehow), but I stumbled upon a neat little area and sidequest I’d never have seen otherwise. That’s the joy of The Witcher 3: Even when it glitches, it can send you on a fantastic adventure.
In spite of a list of flawed design decisions that run the gamut from “curious” to “rage-inducing,” however, I could never stay mad at The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for long. That’s because the game consistently surprised and impressed me with characters and quests that didn’t easily fit into one fantasy box. The themes in one early quest alone are amazing in tapping into the range of human emotions and experiences—that one narrative thread, by itself, is more impressive than what you’ll find in most games of this ilk.
The Witcher 3’s characters don’t have “Strong Woman,” “Sympathetic Gay Character,” or “Oppressed Minority“ tattooed across their foreheads. Sure, these may be elements that come out during the course of a given questline, but they’re only facets of their stories—not what defines them. I won’t dwell too deeply on the subject here and now, but I will say that to distill this amazingly vibrant world into useless, contemptible Twitter and Tumblr buzzwords like “toxic,” or “problematic” does an utter disservice to the true complexities on display in its stories—anyone who does so simply isn’t paying enough attention.
Even seemingly insignificant details add to the experience. You can overhear conversations on the street or in royal chambers that add to the layers of complexity and give a sense of what certain characters say when they don’t think Geralt is around. And I haven’t even gotten to the collectible card game, Gwent, which has my fellow EGMer Josh Harmon hooked. (I, on the other hand, got all of that out of my system back in Final Fantasy VIII with Triple Triad.) That’s one of the great things about The Witcher 3—there’s enough here to attract many different types of players.
In fact, with so much of the side content of such standout quality, the main questline feels like the one area that suffers the most. The sidequests are so intriguing, so well-written, and so illuminating that it’s tough for the main narrative to be as compelling at times, since much of the political machinations and world-building are found in the side stories. It’s almost better to think of them as short stories—appropriate, since the Witcher universe began as a collection of Sapkowski’s novellas—than anything else.
This is particularly noticeable as the game reaches its climax. It’s not that the endgame is necessarily bad, and it does set up some tantalizing elements for the series going forward (CD Projekt RED has said the series will continue, but without Geralt as the main protagonist), but the Witcher universe is truly at its best when it’s focusing on the personal and the relatable, not dealing in bombast and battles with spectral, skull-faced riders (though I will say that one particular confrontation about halfway through the main storyline is as intense an RPG battle as I’ve ever had to strategize through).
Perhaps I feel that way in part because I had to make my way through the game a little faster than I would’ve liked in order to get this review done—and even then, I probably clocked in at close to 100 hours. Still, this isn’t a game that should be constricted in any way by an arbitrary deadline. Now that my review’s written, I’m going to start all over and do it right: Call it The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Geralt of Rivia Slow-Jams Edition. This time around, Geralt won’t be on anyone’s timetable except his own, and the adventure will last for months on end—and that’s just the way it should be.
|Developer: CD Projekt RED • Publisher: CD Projekt RED • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 05.19.2015|
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is far more than a fantasy role-playing game. It’s an amazingly fleshed-out world that rewards careful, thoughtful exploration. CD Projekt RED didn’t just deliver on their promise to craft an open world worthy of author Andrzej Sapkowski’s lore—they greatly exceeded it.
|The Good||A true open world that feels amazingly fleshed out; the best sidequests in game history; Geralt of Rivia skyrockets past any Japanese RPG pretty boy as perhaps my favorite role-playing protagonist of all time.|
|The Bad||A list of curiously flawed design decisions; CD Projekt RED’s patches seem to fix some things and break others.|
|The Ugly||Geralt’s swimming form. A motley group of high-schoolers easily take him in the pool.|
|The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by CD Projekt RED for the benefit of this review.|