Finally after months, nay years of anticipation The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is in our grasps. A handful of games each year are predestined to be great, and some are destined to be pivotal moments in gaming history. The culmination of years of development and painstaking work has led to this console generation’s turning point. Not only is Wild Hunt arguably the best game to release on the PS4 to this point, but CD Projekt RED has carved out their place in the RPG library hall of fame.
I must first state that this is my first taste of the world that author Andrzej Sapkowski create in his Witcher novels. I went into Wild Hunt without any knowledge of the lore, mythology and history of the previous two titles. My lack of knowledge aside, the game’s story and plot never felt overwhelming. Taking control of the main protagonist, Geralt, after he awakes from a coma, you are thrust into a grand adventure to find his adopted daughter, Ciri. The problem is that the Wild Hunt is chasing her down because… well I won’t spoil everything for you, simply put they will stop at nothing to get her. Your job as Geralt is to find, protect, and ultimately defend her to the bitter end.
I doubt I could write enough to spoil the main story of Wild Hunt, but I feel it is more important in a review to explain how it is. Coming into any game after several entries have already passed can be an obstacle to many. Couple the previous games with the books and other mediums that the Witcher’s world has encompassed, and you could seriously take a college course on the subject. Wild Hunt never lingers in it’s past and instead roots you in the moment -- a war-ravaged land where men are not only at odds with themselves, but the creatures and beasts that also inhabit their world.
Taking inspiration from the folk legend of “the wild hunt,” the story is instantly entrenched in lore. The wild hunt is similar to the horsemen, symbolizing death and ruin. The story makes the stakes high and reason enough for you to save Ciri. Not only is she the closest person Geralt has to a daughter, but she is the tool they need to bring about the end of days. The plot is not hard to wrap your head around and the characters in the world are more than enough to keep your attention. Almost every character has knowledge of Geralt’s past, and each person will give you even more clues to who you are actually playing.
Some of the character development in the game is so stunning that you begin to feel invested in certain people’s success and feelings. The realism of each individual is a testament to how much effort went into immersing the player in the world. Playing as Geralt you have the ability to love, to hate, and to be the mediator of the situation. Geralt has all the confidence to throw himself at the ladies, and balancing his love for Yennifer, Triss, or any other lady is something you must take into account. Seeing what unfolds because of animalistic desires is very rewarding, and adds even more to the world.
You meet people throughout the several maps that you explore in your search for Ciri. Each section has it’s own unique design and characteristics, and are huge. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by how large and vast these areas cover. I thought FarCry 4's and GTA's worlds were large, but traversing the lands of Nifgaard and Radania, or the water of Skellige, put all other open-worlds to shame. Having such a large world does have drawbacks. Sometimes Wild Hunt can be too big. When most tasks and goals have you fetching something or traveling to a different area, riding a horse simply does not cut it. There are posts that teleport you to areas, but they also break from the experience that you have with the game. The result is the player looking at the mini-map and auto-riding through most of the land.
It’s hard to complain about the world's size because it just reflects the game's ambitions. Gamers and the industry have been looking at the studio for some time now because of the way their games have been trending: bigger, better, more epic. They crushed the bigger part, having made one stunning looking game and one amazing adventure. The world and characters are so memorable they draw you in and make you think about the game constantly.
Wild Hunt hooks you with the story, the world and the characters, but really it's the gameplay that makes this game a blockbuster. There is a nice level of balance between what you must do and what you can get away with in each encounter. The mechanics are easy to pick up on and once you do you will be slaying monsters like the witcher you were born to be. You have a fast and strong attack for combat, you have a magic button and you have your potions. Combining all three is what makes combat so fun. It is a true mastery of the dance of death.
Learning what enemy you are facing and preparing yourself will lead to success and steer you away from failure. Some will fall at your feet with one swing of the sword, while others you will either avoid or lock yourself into an intense battle of wills. Boss battles and monster hunts are some of the most rewarding experiences in the game. The combat had a similar feeling to Knight of the Old Republic, using magic like you would the Force to get a leg up on defense or give you a breather from battle. Then you can use potions to further enhance your swords or abilities. Finally after dodging and blocking constant attacks, the final swing of sword takes down your enemy and you reap the benefits from their corpse. Brutal yes, but you are a witcher, and it is your job. Half way through the game Geralt must gather his allies to defend Ciri from the Wild Hunt. Several missions that all lead up to one climatic encounter. The battle that ensues is one for the ages, and the way the story and missions progressed to get you there really immersed you in the adventure. These set piece moments in the game are done to perfection and make you want to hold on to the controller for hours on end.
After several encounters and getting various supplies, there is the meta-game of upgrading and equipping your character. Like any RPG, from Final Fantasy to Mass Effect, enhancing abilities and equipping your gear is what defines your character. You might be playing as Geralt but you are creating who Geralt is. Being able to focus on close combat and magic and avoid most alchemy, I crafted the character I wanted; soldier first, mage second, a potion buyer. Wild Hunt also has an impressive supply of loot to gather. Plants, armor, relics, if you name it I am sure they put it in here. What is really nice are the short books and stories that give you further understanding of the world and have you invest even more time in it.
When it comes down to games that try to achieve so much on so grand a scale, it really is about the immersion as well as the joy you have playing. Every battle is enjoyable and meaningful. Taking myths and legends and weaving them into the story made the game that much more believable -- I am not slaying water hags and decapitating drowners for nothing. I am simply putting them to rest because one was a woman who lured young men into the swamp and the others were souls who lost their lives by drowning. Each creature has its own story and all weave a grander picture of the world.
Another addition that really builds up the world is the card game, Gwent, that the locals play, a simple game of trying to get the most points each round, but one that does require its own set of skills. I only won a few rounds I played, but having plots and side quests that revolved around Gwent made you feel more involved in the world. You even get a trophy for collecting them all, so why not do your best and defeat all your Gwent foes on the way? Having a game within a game is nothing new and it feels like they added Gwent as a means to check another box off the list of features.
Graphically, Wild Hunt did not cut any corners. From daylight to sunset, from rain and snow, Wild Hunt is one beautiful piece of art. Over each horizon is a picture perfect view. The swamps are eerie with fog at your feet. Caverns are dark and foreboding, making entering one as creepy as any horror game. Playing on a PS4, there were occasional texture pop-ins and image hiccups, but nothing that distracted from the overall grandeur of the game, especially the set piece moments of the game’s story and important missions. All were perfectly fine-tuned, with the cutscenes being especially spectacular. Everything being done in engine is a feat in and of itself. This attention to detail and maxing out the system’s capabilities are why infrequent technical issues are not a problem.
Everyone expected greatness from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. There have been plenty of trailers and gameplay demos to showcase the excellence that was being made behind closed doors in Poland. Being able to play hours upon hours of the game and still have more to do, and more to look forward to in terms of DLC, is a testament to how much the studio believed in itself and its ability to deliver. The only items that can even be griped about are the overwhelming landscapes and texture issues. These qualms, though, are because of the risk the developer took to create an experience that redefines gaming. I mentioned before that some games become pivotal points in industry. Games that deserve to be played by every gamer so it can be referenced as the industry’s standard bearer. When something is as close to perfection as possible in this world, we owe it to ourselves to see it. I can not wait to see what else is in store for Geralt and his fellow witchers, and what CD Projekt RED has planned for Cyberpunk. Make some room on your hard drive and shelf, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt deserves a permanent spot in your gaming library.