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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review: Setting the bar for story

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The Witcher 3: Wild Huntthe witcher 3 box art
Price: $59.99
System(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: May 19, 2015
Publisher (Developer): CD Projekt RED (CD Projekt RED)
ESRB Rating: “Mature” for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, and Use of Alcohol

CD Projekt RED has, to date, only made three games, all of them set in the dark fantasy world of author Andrzej Sapkowski’s Wiedźmin series of short stories and novels. As with the books, these games follow the travels of Geralt of Rivia, a witcher (monster hunters, trained and empowered with mutagens) who finds himself caught up in world altering political and magical events, despite his ardent attempts at neutrality. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt picks up six months after the end of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, with Geralt on the tale of Yennefer of Vengerberg, a sorceress with whom he shares a storied and intimate history.

Geralt contemplating his next moveWe begin with a mystery

Soon, Geralt is seeking not only Yennefer, but his long-lost adopted daughter, Cirilla (Ciri, as everyone calls her), who is on the run from the Wild Hunt. They are a group of spectral riders who have been in the background of the series since the first game, and whose machinations eventually lead to their direct involvement in the proceedings of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Additionally, with the events of the second game having left Temeria a shattered remnant of its former glory, Nilfgaard and Redania are vying for control of once-neutral lands and the king of the former, the true father of Ciri, wants Geralt’s help in finding her and turning her unique powers to his own ends.

If this sounds oppressive and dire, that’s because it is. The backdrop against which The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is set is the stuff of medieval horror, with monsters and magic striking constant fear in the hearts of a superstitious populous. They’re fearful of the beasts and monsters that populate the spaces between their towns (and sometimes encroach upon their borders), but are equally fearful of the mutants they hire to help them, the sorceresses and mages who once held such political sway (now forced into hiding) and even the non-humans—elves, dwarves, and dopplers—who walk among them and draw their suspicion. This is an ugly world to live in.

Taking on a challengeThe diamond in the rough

But the world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was a beautiful one to visit. I don’t even mean that in the sense that the game was visually stunning, though it certainly was when its settings were cranked to the max (it’s extremely well optimized, too; I had little trouble running it at ultra settings on an R9 270X as long as I turned off Hairworks). Despite the ongoing political conflict and the looming dread of the Wild Hunt, this was a fascinating world to inhabit. Rarely did I encounter a one-dimensional character, unless enemy combatants count, as almost everyone had something of a story and often disparate motivations. Not contradictory, no, but certainly dissonant.

Dissonance was at the heart of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, with Geralt as its avatar. It’s a tale of the small people, and how they are affected by the men who sit behind the scenes and vie for their fates. It’s about scapegoats and things that go bump in the night. But it’s also about lust and revelry, about dry wit and amusement. While a serious game, there were plenty of moments of levity, and Geralt always bordered on genre-savvy without dipping too far into the meta end of things. It was the writing that accomplished this, and so it is to the writing that I tip my hat.

That writing served equally well when dealing with the game’s core theme of family, the importance of it and the sacrifices made for its sake. Even the emotional distress that comes from fracturing it, from jealousy and disappointment. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was one of those rare games that gave me moments of heart-ache and of joy. It sucked me in by gently tweaking at my emotional anchors, enticing me to lose myself in hour after hour of play, hunting down even the smallest of quests and playing innumerable hands of Gwent just for the sake of a few more lines of dialogue. For all that, it didn’t grab me initially.

The first ten or so hours of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt were extremely awkward, with a lot of mechanics thrown out all at once and not a ton of time to get used to them; combat was responsive, but I needed time to grow comfortable with its idiosyncrasies, and Geralt was very fragile at the start of my journey. Add to this alchemy and crafting, and the gathering and supply scrounging associated with each of those, and there was a staggering amount to take in at once. Eventually, navigating those menus, as well as the world, became second nature, but that initial rough patch was something of a blemish on the experience, text tool-tips and all.

manly boastingOne Geralt adrift in a storm

When I think of the game now, more than the combat or the vast exploration, I find myself picturing my Geralt, with his loose hair cut short pairing with his mustache and soul patch for a very Errol Flynn aesthetic, sleeveless light armor exposing the scars that trail his arms. Despite being someone else’s story, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was an intensely personal experience for me. Geralt always had his own ideas about events, and it was particularly impressive that actions even diametrically opposed to one another could both feel “in character” for the White Wolf. And still, there was agency and consequence to be had, littering the gray areas in which most of the game’s cast fell.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt made me laugh, cringe, groan, and feel an ache of soulful longing. There were moments bittersweet and times when I took actions uncertain of their morality. This was a game that caused me to feel and to consider, and more than its gameplay elements, strong though they may be (and so this gets a hearty recommendation to any fan of swords and sorcery action-RPGs), I found myself playing just to be in that world, that depressed and destitute world on the verge of collapse, just a little while longer.

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A review copy was provided for this review.

Site [The Witcher]

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  • Arizona Willie

    TW3 should easily be game of the year ( or the century ).

    It breaks new ground as much or more than Half-Life and Doom did in their day.

    I have never seen a game with so many cut scenes.
    It’s like a movie where you get to play one of the characters and make choices that determine what happens in the movie.

    It’s amazing how they can deliver so many cut scenes with no spooling. I have way over 100 hours in and have never seen the spooling animation.

    It is a true technological achievement and the story is engrossing and all the elements fit together.

    The writers and programmers certainly deserve high praise and awards.

    If you aren’t playing Witcher 3 you are making a big mistake.