So I’m one of the huge horde of gamers who picked up The Witcher 3 recently and I’ve been playing it consistently as my free time allows between raiding in World of Warcraft. I’m not done with it – in fact I don’t even think I’m half done with it. But I’m already 50 hours in, level 17, and have 95% of the map cleared for Velen and Novigrad so I think it’s time to put my thoughts down about the game and see if it follows my expectations to the end.
Firstly, The Witcher 3 is an incredible game. Possibly the best RPG I’ve played in the last 10 years – which puts it above even the nostalgia-laden Pillars of Eternity. All of the internet complaining about downgraded graphics and dishonest publishers hasn’t touched me in the least – I didn’t go into the game with any specific expectations and I’m not someone who makes buying decisions for ideological reasons. Purely if a game interests me, I buy it and then I try to appreciate it for what it is.
The Witcher 3 has the best single player quest stories within the main storyline I have seen. In Velen the quest chains you will go through in your pursuit of first Yennefer and then Ciri will draw you into a world where you’ll be forced to make decisions which will impact the world around you. You’ll meet characters who are presented initially as villains but come to be sympathetic characters and you’ll have a chance to impact their ties and their futures. And even if most of the ‘choices’ are canned or not meaningful in the end there’s no denying that in the moment when you play through this game for the first time you will appreciate the portent of every path you take. The quests, in a word, are mature and rewarding to participate in – something that most RPG’s fail at.
The audio is incredibly good with top tier voice acting throughout. Very few lines don’t work. This isn’t like RPG’s of 10 years ago where you could tell the readers had just been handed the script on the day of the recording and couldn’t connect what was going on between the conversations. For the most part the dialogue flows naturally and helps draw you into the dark fantasy world that is Geralt’s home.
As for the graphics I don’t find them bad in the least. People seem to be disappointed in them, but I think it’s worth noting that the great difficulty of creating convincingly high detailed worlds typically isn’t how close you can jam your nose into a corner but rather the density of the data that you can populate the world with while streaming data to the end user. The Witcher 3 excels at this – the furthest hills will be wrapped in a haze with the lush tree line still sticking up to the horizon. And if you choose to do so from any place on the map you can run to that horizon and find the same consistent beauty as where you’re currently standing. It’s hard to explain why this is so compelling, but after modding with games like Skyrim where we know that the whole world is broken down into chunks that get passed through an aggressive LoD system I can say that the world of The Witcher 3 feels refreshingly less constrictive. The point where we see noticeable level of detail transitions is pushed far far back from the main character to the point where if you don’t actively go looking for it the game world will just feel very cohesive. To me this is the greatest strength of an open world game, and the Wicher 3 will give you breathtaking panoramas, vistas, ruins, and caves to enjoy your adventuring in.
The great weakness of the game is, in my opinion, CD Project Red’s choice to make the game open world. Not that I have anything against this as a design goal, but for what it means to the way players are encouraged to play the game.
The main storyline quests are so compelling but the player undoubtedly feel like they’re missing out if they ONLY do the main storyline. Indeed, the entire map will be dotted with question marks just from your movements through towns and cities where you will overhear countless conversations leading to locations. And then there is also a reward for the exploration – MANY crafting recipes are hidden at these notable locations even if that doesn’t really make sense from the game world perspective (why was there a recipe for Cat-school Witcher Armor in this random chest that fell from a waylaid merchant’s wagon?). As such if you want to craft the best armors for your character you’ll feel that it’s practically required to investigate ALL of these markers. I decided to do this around the time I was doing the Bloody Baron questline in the main story and doing so took me off the trail for about 15 hours. FIFTEEN HOURS, just to run around, place movement markers on each ‘?’ and go see what there was to see. It greatly interrupted the main story, and what’s more it felt like a chore. Like Skyrim – just a bunch of places for me to go and see so I could say I did without any real reasoning or compelling narrative.
I know a lot of people like this type of feature, they think it adds content to the game for the player to experience which extends their time with it. But it’s so boring – they would have been better off to create 5 hours of quests with the quality of the main storyline rather than 15 hours of ‘run around and kill monsters to loot chests’. I see this open world game style as merely a means for CD Project Red to appeal to the OCD-must-collect-everything gamers who invariably devour games in 20 hour play sessions and after 100 hours complain that a game is ‘empty’. They’re the ones who will incessently talk about your game on social media and create the hype around your game on sites like meta-critic or with Steam reviews – not the average gamer who is more happy to just enjoy a game at leisure and never bother to write reviews because they have lives to get on with. As an older gamer I wish games were directed more towards quality rather than trying to fulfill these gamers’ demands for quantity that can never be met and only serves to pad a great game with additional bland content.
But on the whole I’m happy with what CD Project Red has given us – their focus on creating this world and a really great story in it filled with convincing characters is a breath of fresh air. RPG’s in the future will have a new watermark to try to live up to – and the next time we’ll probably see these limits pushed is with whatever Bethesda is working on for the next Elder Scrolls. I’m glad they had someone come before them to set the bar so high.
And 50 hours in I’m amazed to realize there are entire other areas for me to explore – just as big and dense as Velen and Novigrad. It’s going to be a wonderful few weeks helping the suffering masses of Skellige and learning about the fate of Geralt of Rivia.