The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt preview: Casting a spell
We get a hands-on on the eagerly awaited RPG and talk to the developer about creating the final part of the trilogy
BLOOD, sex and magic – you’d almost think that unholy trinity never existed before Game of Thrones exploded forcefully onto our TV screens in 2011. But well before George RR Martin published the first of his fantasy novels on which the show is based, there was The Witcher.
A little-known saga by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, it mines similar themes in telling the tale of a medieval monster hunter named Geralt of Rivia. Despite spawning several books, a TV series and movie, The Witcher is perhaps best recognised in these parts for inspiring the best-selling videogame. Now the concluding part of the trilogy is almost upon us, with release set for May 19.
Polish studio CD Projekt Red is just in the final stages of polishing Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, having delayed the launch by three months to nail some pesky minor bugs. But the developer was confident enough in its sprawling open-world RPG to show off a robust, near-final build at a recent preview event.
We spent almost four hours in Geralt’s company exploring the new game, including the lengthy prologue as well as missions set much later in the storyline. We also spoke to level designer Miles Tost about how the studio brought the universe of Witcher 3 to life and how it’s different from other open-world games.
“I'm really proud of the fact that we have a really varied open world that isn't just one theme but multiple,” says Tost, an affable German based at CD Projekt’s Warsaw studio.
“On top of that we have scale. You've played the prologue, which is really only a small percentage of the entire game world. Compared to the prologue the other areas are way, way larger.”
Witcher 3 opens in confrontational style with a playful CGI cut-scene depicting Geralt and his long-time love Yennefer lounging languidly in the nip. But Tost rejects accusations that The Witcher aims for titillation – this is a series after all that previously featured collectable playing cards for every woman that Geralt slept with.
“It's something that gets asked so often,” admits Tost. “I can only repeat that we [at CD Projekt Red] basically see sex as part of mature life. We make a mature game for adults.
“We have romance in the game too. The way it's done, like love in the books itself, underlies the whole morality, it being not black and white but shades of grey. One of the options at the beginning has Yennefer ask: ‘With how many women have you been?' He says, ‘Doesn't matter but I only ever thought of you’.
The peace of the opening scene is soon shattered by Geralt’s vivid dreams of the Wild Hunt – described by the studio as a “cavalcade of ghastly riders capable of unspeakable destruction”, and to me reminiscent of the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings.
And so Geralt sets out into the world with his mentor Vesemir, chasing the Wild Hunt, seeking to protect Ciri, Geralt’s young female protégé, and worrying about Yennefer.
Witcher fans will feel instantly comfortable with Geralt’s assortment of skills, from hack’n’slash swordplay to magical attacks (or “signs”). What really stands out from the very first frame are the lush settings, capped by glorious skyboxes, complete with day/night and weather cycles. The leap to next-gen platforms has enabled dramatic scene-setting allied to expansive locations – the studio claims the playable area is 30 times larger than that of Witcher 2.
Comparisons with Skyrim are inevitable – it’s one that CD Projekt Red doesn’t shy away from, boldly claiming to offer approximately 50 hours of storyline along with another 50 of side-quests.
Tost insists there’s no padding just to appease the franchise’s most demanding followers or to compete with other RPGs.
“The fans are really really passionate and pay so much attention to detail,” says Tost. “We want to put so much content in there. And it’s not just very shallow. We really want every single bit we put in there to be good. In my case being a level designer, that boils down to arranging individual stones on the level."
The open-world template has been abused by other studios in recent years, with games like Watch Dogs or Dragon Age Inquisition guilty of flooding its maps with a series of repetitive quests. Tost promises Witcher 3 won’t fall into the same trap.
“We don't treat side quests any different than we would treat our main story quests,” says Tost. "Maybe you've noticed when you play our side quests, some of them start out as what one might think would be a generic fetch quest. Some of them actually take an interesting twist, be it just story-wise or even just are a complete flip of expectations of the player.
“One could argue that Geralt being a professional monster-slayer that he goes out often to kill monsters. But the interesting thing in our game happens with the narrative, where monsters are not always the monsters. Sometimes they are the victims of a certain situation.”
Certainly, some of the early side-quests bear out that confidence. Many may be relatively standard but might, for instance, incorporate Geralt’s new “Witcher sense” – a sort of infra-red vision to locate traces of earlier events. Others contain a little sting in the tale, such as the hunt for someone’s missing brother, who is actually an army deserter – do you turn him in for a reward or let him go free?
The studio assures us every such action has a moral impact that could come back to haunt you later.
With three months to go, the fundamentals are all in place and there’s little doubt CD Projekt Red will squash most of the little glitches. But in the remaining time, the studio can do no more than just tweak the combat, which for all its possibilities felt a little blunt.
Admittedly, the combos of dodging, parrying and counter-attacking worked well with smaller enemies but facing bigger foes, it got frustrating. Against a giant, swooping griffin (body of a lion, head and wings of an eagle), the only viable strategy relied on spamming shots from a crossbow.
Equally likely to go unchanged is the motley cast of Irish accents encountered when the action shifts to the Skellige islands, home to a clan of Nordies who clearly haven’t been near Norn Iron in a long time. To an Irish ear, the dialogue and inflection sounds cringeworthy but the rest of the world will hardly notice.
It’s a small blot on Witcher 3’s copybook made that bit more egregious by its solid cast elsewhere, including our own Allen Leech (Downton’s Tom Branson) and Charles Dance.
Though we saw only a small percentage of Wild Hunt, the quality and breadth of experience bodes well for the dozens of hours and acres of landscape that lie ahead. For RPG fans waiting for the next Skyrim, there’s a good chance Witcher 3 will weave its magic spell on you.
* The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be released on PC, PS4 and Xbox One on May 19