Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Witcher 3 : Wild Hunt review

It's been a strong 12 months for fantasy RPGs. Last year's Dragon Age: Inquisition was an Impressive slab of adventuring action from BioWare, and Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity was even better. The Witcher 3 blows them both out of the water. In fact, it sets a new standard for RPGs, combining a more impressive open world than Bethesda's best offerings with a depth of storytelling we haven't seen in a game for a very long time.

Wild Hunt continues the story of the witcher Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter, who despite his best efforts, has a tendency to get involved in other people's problems. Sometimes it's a spat between two peasant families over a curse one has inflicted on the other; sometimes it's a debate over the fate of an entire country.

This time, Geralt also seeks to solve a personal problem. His adoptive daughter Ciri, who vanished prior to the events of the first game, has abruptly returned, smack in the middle of a war between two powerful nation states, while also being pursued by a gang of inter-dimensional riders known as the Wild Hunt. To track her down, Geralt must wade into the middle of this war, while dealing with criminal gangs seeking to profit from the chaos, witch hunters who burn anyone that so much as performs a card trick, and hordes of monsters growing fat on the corpses rotting on the battlefields.

The Witcher 3 : Wild Hunt

The Witcher games are based on the works of polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, whose fantasy world sits between the Brother Grimm's Teutonic fables and George R R Martin's brutal fantasy. In the Witcher 3, CD Projekt has replicated this world in gorgeous, earthly detail. The roads are thick with mud, the peasants eye you warily as you ride through their squat, smoky villages and the wind whispers eerily through beautiful forests.

The world split into three main areas. To the south is the battle-scarred no man's land of Velen. To the north is the bustling city of Novigrad and the picturesque farmland that surrounds it. To the west are the Skellige isles, where the only elements harsher and colder than the climate are the people who inhabit this frostbitten land. It's a truly enormous world, but even more impressive than the scale is the amount of stuff you can do in it. There are bandit camps and monster dens that can be cleared in a matter of moments, abandoned communities that can be restored to life and vast, twisting ruins and caves that conceal abundant hidden treasures.

Remarkably few of these activities are cut-and-paste task, like the ones in many other open-world games. The vast majority of them have been created with painstaking care and craft. What's more, they're the tip of the iceberg when it comes to The Witcher 3's depth and detail.

The Witcher 3 : Wild Hunt

For starters, Wild Hunt sees the introduction of Witcher Contracts - dedicated monster - hunting quests that see Geralt investigating scenes of monster attack, before tracking down the creature responsible and dispatching it in single combat. These missions act as showcases for the superbly designed monster, but they equally serve as fascinating detective stories that rarely end as you expect. The process of investigating is rather simplistic, but the missions are cleverly structured, suspenseful and consistently engaging making you feel like a real tracker.

The entire game is similarly rich and sumptuous, nuanced and deep. Fleeting characters, such as shop vendors and quest givers, have clearly defined personalities, while every line of dialogue is sharply written and laced with humor that's, by turns, wry, bawdy and dark. Meanwhile, the game's 'secondary quests' are sprawling adventures that span multiple missions, sometimes branching out into additional sub-quests. A simple bit of tavern redecoration turns into a murder mystery that encompasses the entire city if Novigrad, while in Skellige, there's a huge island dedicated to a single, massive side-quest.

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Then there's the main story itself, a simultaneously grand yet deeply personal adventure that involves one of the most diverse and emphatic cast of characters seen in any video game. We see far much more of Geralt's character than in previous Witcher games, brought out by his paternal feelings for Ciri, and reuniting with friends and lovers. His emotional state is conveyed with wonderful subtlety too, with little flickers in his expression that as much as any of his spoken dialogue.

Wild Hunt also features some of the best female characters seen in a game. There's Ciri herself, as warm and earnest as she is dangerous. She's even playable in certain sections of the game. Alongside Ciri is a group of sorceresses, including the bubbly and devoted Triss Merigold, the spiky and impulsive Yennefer, and the arrogant and scheming Phillipa Eilhart. CD Projekt slightly spoils the effect of these great female characters with the odd bit of tawdriness though. Novigrad seems to have more prostitutes than guardsmen, while the peasant women of Velen are worryingly underdressed for such an obviously chilly climate.

Yet for every time the game's narrative or character portrayals stumble, there's a dozen instances where they excel. Wild Hunt is capable of being funny, touching, uplifting, sad, contemplative and dark as a forest night. it tackles difficult subjects, such as domestic abuse and racism, with tact and thoughtfulness that even Bio Ware would struggle to achieve, although it would also be good to see some more non-white faces among The Witcher 3's characters. And you're always an active participant, expected to make impossible choices that will change and often end lives. Sometimes the consequences remain unseen until hours, even days after the decision was made.

The Witcher 3 : Wild Hunt

There's so much that we haven't discussed yet, such as the fantastically improved combat system, which is lithe fast-paced and viciously bloody, or the incredible soundtrack, which dispenses with much of the popular Hans Zimmer-esque bombast in favor of a blend of Eastern European folk music and haunting Gaelic song. Of course, there are some problems. Technically, it's pretty demanding, and it's also prone to the odd crash. In game terms, moving around in confined spaces is rather awkward too, while levelling and ability unlocks aren't that exciting. If you enjoy stats and thoughtful tactics, Wild Hunt isn't the game for you.

If, however, you like great storytelling, smart dialogue, brilliant characters, thrilling swordplay, ambiguous decisions making, astonishing world building, terrifying monsters, sex, swearing, shocks. violence and witty, foul-mouthed swamp children, The Witcher 3 is an absolute must. RPGs have a new champion, and his name is Geralt of Rivia.


Overall Score: 95 %.

Epic, intimate and astoundingly deep. The Witcher 3 represents a new high point for fantasy RPGs.

By Rick Lane

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