Few other series have a chance at the kind of evolution exhibited by the Witcher. While some other developers’ series have evolved over the years, improving visuals and tightening or replacing mechanics, sequels are almost always the same core gameplay and often built on the same engine.
The Witcher couldn’t be more different. The first game was built on a version of BioWare’s Aurora Engine and used a simple time-based fighting system. Its graphics weren’t exactly cutting edge.
When CD Projekt Red returned to the series a few years later, they used first version of their custom-built REDengine and put players in more direct control of the main character, Geralt of Rivia. Fighting was faster, tougher, and more acrobatic, and the team was able to build a gorgeous world that still pushes many PCs today. What remained the same was the idea of complex, mature stories that asked the player to make tough decisions they might not see the effects of for many hours.
Now, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is on the way, and we have an open world game to play with and promises of more content than ever.
The team behind the game asked me to come out to San Francisco to preview the next installment in one of my all-time favorite series. I bet you can guess my answer.
All told, I spent about four hours on a leather couch, fuzzy pillow behind my back, experimenting with the Xbox One version of the title. I also took some time to watch about half an hour of someone else playing the game on PC.
It’s safe to say the game is well on its way to its new May 19 release date, but I’m also glad, having played it, that the team chose to risk that delay. They have another gem on their hands, but it’s not without some serious rough edges.
Wild Hunt starts with a solid tutorial that reintroduces you to Geralt, to the remaining mechanics, and to the new ones the new wide-open game has allowed. You’ll also be introduced to two of the game’s biggest characters. Fans of the books will recognize them instantly, but this introduction and the first few hours of gameplay both work to keep fans of the games from feeling like they’re missing out.
The introduction establishes right away that this is not a game for children by reintroducing us to Geralt through what looks to be a flashback of him and Yennefer relaxing in his quarters at Kaer Morhen (home of the witchers), neither of whom are too concerned about clothing. Geralt and Yennefer are currently leading in the race for “most attractive couple in video games.”
You’re not inside for long, though, as Geralt’s protégé hasn’t quite adjusted to her training regimen. Here you’ll get reacquainted with the combat. The combat should be familiar to fans of the previous title, but it’s not identical.
It’s still a combination of attacks of the fast and strong varieties, dodges, and of course the collection of witcher signs we’re used to. Combat is still smooth and rhythmic, but some small adjustments make it feel a bit less gamey. In The Witcher 2, we spent a lot of time rolling around on the ground to avoid enemy attacks. Geralt spends a lot more time on his feet now, with successful hits from enemies really being the only thing to put dust on his doublet.
Parrying might be the most satisfying new element of combat. Unlike in Assassin’s Creed where the game virtually requires that you constantly counter attack and gives you HUD elements to tell you when to do so, The Witcher 3 gives you a bit more freedom to fight as you will and asks you to learn different enemies’ timing. This will require that the team get a steady framerate running on the hardware, as a few dropped frames could make the tactic more frustrating than fun, but more on that later.
Combat still isn’t easy, though, even if it’s a bit smoother. If you’re fighting a single, human sized enemy, then sure, you might not have a tough time. But it’s rare to come up on a single enemy – human or otherwise – unless they’re big enough to literally bite your head off. In these cases, you have to keep the rhythm of combat going while managing the battlefield. It’s not as intimidating as in Witcher 2, and it won’t be easy unless that’s what you want.
Even if you do choose an easier difficulty setting, monsters do not level up with you. That means that, should you choose to strike off in a particular direction, you will at some point run into someone or something ready to show you the error of your ways. This will, hopefully, keep combat constantly exciting and ensure that you can both feel a sense of advancement and set your own challenge level.
One way the team has helped convey Geralt’s character and methodology in the past is through combat preparation. While many games’ main characters have the magical ability to pause time so that they can rifle through a backpack filled with hundreds of glass vials, Geralt isn’t so lucky. He’s an agile guy who can switch weapons with only a couple seconds warning, but he doesn’t have the time to put down his bag to find just the right potion for each occasion.
Instead, you’ll have to think ahead about what you’re fighting and what situations might come up so that you can equip the right potions for it. If it’s undead you’ll be fighting, there’s a sword oil for that; humans have their own weaknesses, too. If you’re already in the heat of battle, though, you’re out of luck.
Some of these elements have gone out the window, though. In previous games, you had to meditate to level up Geralt or to mix potions, and to meditate you had to find a campfire. They weren’t exactly rare commodities, but they, again, asked the player to think ahead the way a witcher might. You can level up just about any time now, and mixing potions no longer requires a sit-down. Meditation, too, can be done in any safe place if you need to heal up or pass time quickly.
These small adjustments should make the game a bit more welcoming to newcomers without ruining the fun of more experienced players.
Fighting monsters isn’t all Geralt does, though. While he’s willing and able to put monsters down if they pose an immediate threat, he doesn’t rush to action at someone else’s say-so. Geralt wants to get the job done right on the first try, and it’s up to you to get him there.
The first monster you’ll hunt down in the tutorial is a rather unhappy griffon that has been, as of late, viciously attacking the nearby town and military encampment. Since the monster has abandoned its nest, you’ll have to figure out a way to attract it. If you’re willing to spend the extra time, you can find out why the monster is so angry, as well as some pertinent details about its biology that might give you an edge.
At the very least, they flesh out the story behind the attacks, painting a more detailed picture of the world and the small elements that help give it life. Killing a monster is plenty of fun on its own, but learning that some soldiers made a bad problem worse by killing the monster’s mate and smashing its eggs puts it in the context of the area and people in it. It becomes a memorable experience rather than just another combat sequence.
Finding these details that lead up to revelations like these requires your mutagen-enhanced witcher senses. This isn’t entirely unlike mechanics we’ve seen in games like the Batman: Arkham games. By holding down one of the triggers, you can highlight not only lootable containers, but clues that’ll help you along the way as well. Footprints and lingering scents can lead you to new places and better understanding of your surroundings.
Unlike the Dark Knight’s Detective vision, you won’t want to keep it on all the time. You’ll get a little buzz on your controller to clue you in to there being something to look for. It’s useful without being too useful.
Things like combat preparation and mystery solving have done a lot to tell us about who Geralt is, and because of that, I’ve found it to be one of the few games where I’ll actually role play the character and try to behave as I imagine he would.
One of the rough edges the team has to take care of lies in the visual department.
The game is gorgeous, for sure, and PC gamers whose rigs satisfy the hefty requirements will get the best CD Projekt Red has to offer. No doubt. Whatever the platform, the game is going to look good.
The Xbox One version does show how the team is pushing the console pretty hard, though. I had a lot of texture pop-in during my time with the game. It wasn’t enough to detract from the experience, but it was noticeable. The framerate chugged a few times as well. This was most apparent, interestingly, during a few cutscenes. I didn’t notice it during combat nearly as much.
With that said, the team has an extra three months to work on the game, and Microsoft has been updating their devkit with new ways for developers to squeeze a few more cycles out of their hardware. I’m remaining optimistic that we’ll see this in the final product. I’ve reached out to CD Projekt Red to inquire about how some of the more recent changes to the Xbox One by Microsoft might be improving the experience.
On the PC side, things ran smooth as butter and everything was beautiful. The powerful PCs running the game allowed for better textures and effects all over the place. Scars have more depth, fires burn like you’d expect. If you have a PC, it’s definitely the place to play, whether you use the mouse and keyboard or your dual analog controller of choice.
I ran into a couple other bugs, like audio dropping out during conversations, but that’s not too surprising from an unfinished game and not really something to be too concerned about.
The preview did nothing to dull my excitement for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and I’d be surprised if the team at CD Projekt Red wasn’t able to deliver on the game’s many promises.
Note: CD Projekt Red provided airfare, hotel, and transportation for this preview event.