Geralt of Rivia, monster-hunter extraordinaire, gets his knackers nipped by some sort of mythical lobster creature in the bath within moments of booting up The Witcher 3. See? Any worries you might have about CD Projekt Red’s distinctly unique world being dialled down are unfounded. Since the huge shift from niche fantasy action-RPG to mass worldwide acceptance, The Witcher series hasn’t lost much, if any, of the personality that defined it and, whether its frequent nudity and anachronistic swearing is up your street or not, it has unashamedly crossed into the mainstream for good.
The long-awaited third entry thrusts you, once again, in the scarred and buff skin of The Butcher of Blaviken himself, Geralt of Rivia, as he fights, slashes, punches, cons, shags, magics, card-games and beards his way across Temeria at a time of civil unrest on the search for his missing former student Ciri who, herself, is on the run from the dark and ominous Wild Hunt, a group of teleporting spectres who represent death itself. So, it’s not exactly Made In Chelsea, but it may match it in terms of troubling and potentially risky sexual encounters.
CD Projekt Red have widened the series’ world to such an awe-inspiring degree that the sheer vastness is breathtaking when it’s first unveiled. The shift to open-world from the boxed adventuring of its predecessors is the first step in the absolute right path for the game, giving The Witcher 3 an unprecedented sense of life as tiny villages and huge towns all develop their own personalities, people, problems and legends that you can dip in and out of at whim.
The Wicher 3’s story develops organically, unfolding through seamlessly integrated side questing surrounding the flickering and distant nucleus of the main narrative. Everything about it seems woven into this land of creepy, conniving bastards, grotesque creatures and legendary, but feasible, cultural traditions. Side quests range from the simple and mundane (locating a frying pan for an old lady, seriously), to complex, dark and sprawling. Non-scaling enemies make all this side questing a necessity rather than a luxury, as some main story quests require you to level up or Geralt will quickly lose his white-haired head to some lumbering creature he’s not equipped to handle yet. It’s simply not advisable to jump on your horse, Roach, and ride out to the farthest reaches of the map, and that’ll quickly become apparent, because that’s probably the first thing you want to do.
However, its streamlined combat makes flinging your fists, two swords and magic hands mid-fight easier than before. Casting magic spells, known as Signs, remains largely unchanged from previous Witcher titles, but they’re still a vital arm of combat, with the ability to set enemies alight, or engulf yourself in a magic forcefield. The addition of a new rolling mechanism allows you to quickly scoot away from impending doom as Water Hags and Drowners fling muddy arms at your surprisingly frail body. Strength is measured by vitality which can be topped up mid-battle by collectible consumables and shielded by bought, salvaged or fashioned armour, alongside special mutagens which can be integrated into customisable skill trees, upgraded via ability points collected as you level up, or worship at special places of power dotted around the map.
It all sounds much more complicated than it is, especially when Geralt reaches the limit of weight he’s able to carry and you need to start painfully picking and choosing which salvageable goods will be helpful later in the game before dumping the rest by the side of a road like one the many slain and chewed corpses lying around the land. But The Witcher 3 is far more accessible from the outset than its predecessor, and allows you to organically discover the benefits of its complex skill structures and crafting your own potions before heading into battle.
There are elements here of Assassin’s Creed as you liberate villages off-quest from rampaging beasties, and Skyrim’s vast open-world adventuring, as well as nods to Game of Thrones and Dark Souls. There’s also a curious hat tip to LA Noire as Detective Geralt engages in a little Witcher CSI, investigating crime scenes using ‘Witcher Senses’ to locate clues and blood trails, often including explicitly detailed autopsies.
The world of The Witcher 3 actually feels perilous and any time you start to feel particularly invincible, there’s a street brawl to knock you down to size or an oversized beast lurking over a hill to truly prove how small you are. All this restrains The Witcher from becoming too much of a hack ‘n’ slash playground, keeping you wary about the state of your degrading armour and how many potions you have left, just in case some side quest you didn’t anticipate unfolds into hours of clambering around in an uncharted and pitch black cave with trolls lurking nearby. Crucially, at no point do you ever feel like you’re bigger than its world.
So, The Witcher 3 is doing story and gameplay right, but for everything it does so well, there are hurdles it fails to vault over. Simply traversing the land in the rawest manner can be a bit of a clunky mess with Geralt’s new ability to roll and jump everywhere constantly getting him caught in between fences and rocks. Geralt can take down massive, spitting beasts one moment, then fall to his death off a small ravine because of poor handling the next.
And death is simply not enjoyable in The Witcher 3. While loading times are impressively minimal as your ride out across the world, reloading post-death can be sore. If anything, loading times act as penance for the stupid mistakes you keep making, and the Charles Dance-narrated reminders of your place in the story that trigger when your game is loading quickly move from being helpful to really fucking annoying. Fortunately, frequent meditation will keep your vitality up and can often be abused to the point of recharging your power between fights, keeping you safely away from the edge of death long enough to feel powerful again.
Races and fist-fights, though, can often become luck-driven flails. Some of the most difficult moments in The Witcher 3 aren’t in the form of grisly, monstrous battles on cliff-tops, but trying to stay on the path during a mundane horse race. Curiously, though, Geralt’s steed (whom you can whistle for at any point, no matter where you are in the world and he’ll miraculously appear like Al from Quantum Leap) is usually a fantastically eloquent way to travel across the world until you have to actually steer manually.
While The Witcher 3’s immediate predecessors reeked of gratuitous boob-shots and confusingly modern swearing, the latest entry has, in a sophomoric and clumsy fashion, at least tried to smooth the edges of its aged FHM sexism. While there are still, of course, genuine problems with its portrayal of women, Geralt’s relationship with his headstrong sorceress soul-mate Yennefer can be touching at times, and the introduction of playable Ciri sections give the series a complex new point of view that will hopefully take steps towards completely eradicating the series’ history that, let’s not forget, once delivered its female characters as collectable fucks. As you hunt for Ciri, you’ll intermittently get to play her as her story unfolds, giving a great insight into her movements, whereabouts and how her past and personality have affected the world surrounding you. Then it goes and spoils it all by putting her half-naked in a sauna.
As expected with The Witcher series, decisions are weighty, but conversational ones often don’t open any new avenues towards a completely separate story, instead funnelling you down certain routes. It’s to The Witcher’s merit, however, that you can still feel the ripples of decisions made early in the game for the duration. It’s not all sombre and tense though, with humour injected into scenarios more so than in previous Witcher outings. Moments in which Geralt finds himself having to act on stage, protesting this by claiming he has a lack of emotional expression, or a particularly odd moment where he and his Witcher buds get hammered and cross-dress, all give much-needed comic relief, knowingly winking at the fact Geralt can be a gruff, muscled stereotype. Although, its light-heartedness sometimes undermines the serious depth of Assassins of Kings. The cast of familiar characters are now more colourful than before and there’s a threat of them becoming caricatures of themselves, but the game’s unique ability to give depth through optional conversation allows room for them develop before sentencing them to complete cardboard. Its populist makeover here may have allowed ample spearing of its near impenetrable story, but there’s a worry its characters become less menacing, losing some of the backstabbing twists of the earlier stories. However, characters such as the Bloody Baron, whose story is both touching and terrifying, is an early indicator that scratching at each character’s story unfolds into something incredibly special.
Geralt, as a mutant Witcher, is living in a world that fundamentally hates him. While its villagers require his service in ridding its world of evil spirits and hulking monsters, he’s constantly undervalued, manipulated and downtrodden. Conversations between fellow Witchers hint at the dismal, bleak future their race has and moments like these make you wonder if concerning yourself solely with the mechanics of the game is simply misunderstanding the true strength of CD Projekt Red’s vision.
Aside from side-questing and main questing and spontaneous questing and sub-questing, The Witcher 3 also allows you to shape Geralt’s facial hair and indulge in a spot of tediously boring card-play known as Gwent, which it will insist you play at some point, as if it’s desperately trying to undermine the complexity of the rest of the game. We played Gwent, maybe, once throughout the entire story and that was enough, but its constant conversational recurrence suggests it’s a way of appeasing the urges of gaming’s most enthused collectors. Talking to strangers can unlock games of Gwent in which you can win special cards, if that’s your bag.
The Witcher 3 is a game where the main story places a quest marker far across the map, and you don’t bother fast travelling there. You can spend four hours travelling towards it, bumping into interesting side quests that unravel into others and spiral much deeper than their initial summary would hint at. And this is open-world done absolutely right. The Witcher 3, in that respect, is a triumph. CD Projekt Red have taken the game from its admirably esoteric, cult roots to worldwide triple-A status without losing any of its guts. In fact, they’ve given it more. Its seamless story-telling and rich, dense world is peerless at the moment. Even if you were so cynical as to pummel your way through it, ignoring as much as you can, you’re still looking at about 50 hours of refined, exciting gaming here. But The Witcher 3 serves best those who don’t play it like a game, catering more for those who want to dive into its world and completely lose themselves in its lore. At that, let’s just reiterate, The Witcher 3 is utterly peerless.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is available now for PS4, Xbox One and PC.