I’ve been worried about The Witcher III up until this point. All that hype! Christ, even President Obama’s been talking about it. Couple that with the fact its release date has been pushed more times than a bullied child near a swimming pool, how can it possibly live up to expectations? The Witcher II broke out of its PC confines and swooped up a bunch of new console fans – how can CD Projekt Red appease both pricks at this party?
And as I set a bunch of bastards in a pub alight using one of my Witcher abilities just before drugging a suspected arsonist and leading him to his inevitable death, I realise there is nothing to be worried about. Within moments of getting my hands on Wild Hunt, I had witnessed stark naked buttocks and Geralt of Rivia (monster hunter extraordinaire) had his knackers bit by a lobster creature. Soon after, someone had been called a weevil-arsed freak and a fucking C-bomb was dropped in one of the confusing mishmash of accents available. It’s alright, breathe everyone, The Witcher is back!
The good few hours I got to spend with the game saw me briefly scratch its surface as I battered the fuck out of creepy sea-dwellers, leapt on a crew of rampaging bears in a banquet hall, extorted a man who looked frighteningly like Ringo Starr and lured a giant griffin into the path of a crossbow using a plant that smelled like fish. The best thing about all this is that very little of it had anything to do with the actual story, and most of it took place within the game’s first self-contained town.
This prologue town serves to reacquaint you with familiar Witcher staples as you take the reins of our good friend Geralt of Rivia (who temporarily sports a top-knot like he’s about to Indiegogo himself for some dates) and get to grips with the game’s entangled and exhausting story, its complex skill trees and streamlined combat.
Anyone familiar with the series should find it an easy and welcoming re-entry point since getting into any of the other two Witcher titles should’ve unlocked an achievement alone – it was always an uphill struggle that took a while to fully pull you in. Anyone who argues that the story is simple and accessible is a lying prick or wrote The Witcher Wikipedia. Conversely, Wild Hunt seemed immediately immersive, if you can get past all the cut-scenes which are punctuated by cut-scenes and some more cut-scenes.
Combat was one of my main worries though and there’s a lot of it going on. The usual bunch of parries, blocks, dives and strikes are on offer, as well as utilising potions and Witcher abilities known as Signs mid-combat. The initial set is virtually unchanged from The Witcher II, but the action here feels slicker than its predecessor for the most part. Firing Igni to set your enemies ablaze before leaping in with a well-timed sword to the nugget is fantastic when it works. But, sometimes those Signs don’t trigger. Or your parry doesn’t activate fast enough. And Geralt, despite being a master monster hunter, is surprisingly weak if he’s not chomping on consumables to regenerate health.
Enemies don’t scale either, which made wandering off path both exciting and scary. Swinging my swords at the game’s more terrifying foes without having levelled up didn’t end pretty. I found this out fairly early when the sheer scale of the game was unveiled and I excitedly jumped on my horse and rode out into the open world and encountered a bunch of shitty wolves who were really shitty to me and I don’t really want to talk about it anymore, dad.
But wandering off the path is, undoubtedly, the best bit, and The Witcher has never been about rushing in brute force to slay everyone anyway. It’s not even about all the anachronistic swearing and gratuitous nudity. The Witcher was, and apparently still is, about the strategy of the fight, echoing the cogs-within-cogs nature of its near impenetrable storyline; it’s about learning to craft potions that’ll give you competitive advantage in battles; it’s about utilising the game’s side quests to level up and earn money to buy more powerful weaponry and armour. When all of these elements merge and you find battling becoming a skilled dance of Signs, stabs and consumables, there’s something deeply special afoot.
Although I had limited time with the game, once I’d dawdled off the path, it took me ages to bother coming back to the story. Geralt can climb and clamber his way around now and the joy of exploration is sending the series in the right direction. Side quests offer ‘coin’ (and you can haggle with those willing to dish out) and experience to start managing the game’s daunting skill trees, as well as crafting potions to aid you in inevitable punch-ups when you get on someone’s nerves. Kudos has to be given to how well weaved these quests are into the main storyline and while you know you’re engaging with a side quest, there’s nothing screeching about it, with each reflecting issues that seemed to have organically stemmed from the political turmoil of the environment. Wild Hunt truly appears to benefit from its open-world overhaul. Where its predecessors felt bound to the main story arc, you can now take Geralt adventuring around with much more gleeful abandon.
Most of the quests I got to play around had formulaic elements though. Geralt encounters a problem, then solves it using his Witcher-vision to pinpoint evidence or tracks like some sort of medieval CSI before indulging in a spot of fighting. Although another involved ridding a haunted well of a multiplying wraith, whose weaknesses were slowly unveiled through collecting pieces of a diary strewn around the charred remains of houses. Most had unexpected and ludicrous plot twists like an assortment of bears that may or may not have been humans masquerading as bears. The tone sits somewhere between ridiculously earnest and knowingly daft, undermining its more noble efforts to come across like a weighty 20-part American TV drama series.
Everything about it felt huge though, and there’s a real sense of magnitude and grandiosity. But it’s also a game that, for the moment, feels very buggy. Frame-rate and camera issues really marred some tight combat and failed triggers in animations, missions and speech were annoyingly frequent. Dying is doubly irritating because loading takes ages! There’s slight comfort in the fact you’ll get a recap of where you are in the story as it loads, but if you’re anything like me - shit at video games - you’ll die a lot. In the same place. Over and over. The last thing you want is to be reminded of how you’re still in the same spot. I have no doubt that most of the bugs will be ironed out when it launches and, well, look at Fallout: New Vegas. Utterly broken and I still played the fuck out of it.
But what overpowers everything is the gratifying fact that The Witcher has lost none of its charm and character. Even though I didn’t get to play much more than its prologue before being whisked away from the screen screaming, the withdrawal symptoms of not being able to go back and see where else I could go soon took hold. I really, really enjoyed playing around with Wild Hunt. The Witcher series has a habit of sucking you into its deep lore and Wild Hunt appears to be no exception. From opening its empty map for the first time and zooming out to see its size, knowing it’d soon be filled with locations and markers to CD Projekt Red’s Senior Environment Artist, Jonas Mattsson, explaining how missions and storylines emerged organically from the land itself as they explored it – I simply can’t wait to play it again. I have a fight to pick with some wolves.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt was played for around 5 hours on Xbox One console only. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is released on 19th May 2015 for Xbox One, PS4 and PC.