Just finished my first playthrough of The Witcher 3. I left it a couple of days before putting up this review to try and decide just where on the scale of excellence this game belongs. Obviously I’ll be including some elements of the story, but I’ll keep spoilers to the absolute bare minimum.
You play as Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher (professional monster hunter, and a mutant). Geralt’s searching for Ciri, with whom he has a surrogate father-daughter relationship. Unfortunately, the Wild Hunt is also after her, and your task is to both find and protect her.
One aspect that I really enjoyed was the secondary quests that branched off from the main storyline. They’re entirely optional, but by doing them (or not) you can affect the way the main story ends up going.
Geralt’s a neutral sort of character, and can be pretty harsh or relatively nice depending on the player’s preference (a small minority of dialogue options are timed, so you may need to decide quickly how to react to a situation).
There’s a strong cast of characters, including some potential romantic interests and old friends (such as Zoltan and Dandelion).
The side-quests are engaging and interesting, rather than escort/fetch quests (they feel like mini-stories rather than box-ticking or fetching X for Y). It’s quite possible to find yourself so preoccupied with side-quests you forget the main storyline for some time. I don’t think I’ve ever come across side-quests done as well as this.
This is my first Witcher game, and I imagine that’s true of many. A concern, given there are two prior games and a book series, was that I’d find it as incomprehensible as a cut-scene from Metal Gear Solid 4.
The initial part of the game starts in a good-sized area (which is nevertheless minute compared to the others), and you learn about the war and political situation through the interactions you have with ordinary people, rather than through lengthy exposition. It unfolds naturally, and avoids the videogame equivalent of info-dumping.
So, whilst I do think veterans of the series will get more out of it (particularly with minor returning characters), there’s no problem getting your head around the world if this is your first visit.
The combat has three major aspects: physical attacks, alchemical shenanigans and magic. You have at least basic abilities in all these areas and can develop them more as you wish. Combat did take me a little while to get into, and some enemies proved more troublesome than others (I’m rubbish against werewolves). Being able to customise your skills to match your fighting style (I went heavily for magic with a side order of melee) works well, but you will almost certainly use all three parts of combat to a greater or lesser extent.
The spells are powerful enough to be of use without making combat a doddle. Likewise, alchemical oils will help you, without being a silver bullet.
Difficulty (on the standard setting) was high enough for a challenge but I only felt overwhelmed (at the right level) a few times. Mostly against werewolves. Furry gits.
The levelling and skill allocation system is something intuitive to grasp, but a bit tricky to explain in a single line. Levelling is graded, so you only need 1000xp to level up to about 10, then levels 11-20 requires 1,500xp, and so on. Each level gets you one skill point. You can also acquire skill points from places of power (rare monoliths scattered through the world, a few of which you’ll encounter as part of the main story).
These skill points are then spent improving your melee, alchemical and magical prowess (or in a fourth, miscellaneous, category which has simpler enhancements like more health or faster stamina regen). Skills can be enhanced multiple times, and using a certain number of points is necessary to unlock the next tier of enhancements in a given skill table. For skill enhancements to become active they have to be placed in one of twelve slots (which gradually become available as you level). These skills can further be enhanced by use of the right mutagen (one mutagen per three skill enhancements). So, use a blue mutagen with magic to get a boost.
Quests are tagged with a recommended level and divided into main storyline, secondary, Witcher contracts and equipment hunting. It is possible to fail quests.
Crafting is entirely optional and you can get good gear without it. Crafting weapons/armour occurs only when you’re chatting to a smith. Alchemical crafting can be done by yourself, at any time.
The world is beautiful. Not just in terms of graphics, but also in the way the mountains and hills, rivers and seas have been put together. Dozens of times, especially early on, I’d just pause the game to enjoy the view (and get a screenshot). Weather is dynamic, and a really nice effect is that trees/bushes will bend significantly in the wind.
Clothing mostly looks great. Textures are good, though there’s the occasional rough spot. Every piece of armour has a wet look, so if you go for a little swim and then come out, your clothing will be soggy.
The sea looks especially nice, although one of the first whales I saw did freeze, its tail forever sticking above the surface. Near the coast the sea is flat and calm, but further out the water gets choppier, especially in storms.
On rare occasions (a few times during the whole playthrough) textures took a moment to load, but it was just a moment. Pop-in did happen, but it was also rare.
Voice-acting is generally very good. Geralt’s probably got the best voice of a male protagonist since David Hayter was Solid Snake/Big Boss. Yennefer and Triss both sound great, and having Charles Dance as the Nilfgaardian Emperor fits very nicely.
The music’s brilliant, not just in that it’s well-composed, but each theme seems to really fit the situation. The fact that you get the music on a separate disc as a free extra for buying the game is just another bonus.
Bugs and Other Issues
In a game this size, there will be bugs. The question is whether they’re serious or comical. Mostly, they’re comical (I saw one dock-worker doing what appeared to be a river dance audition as he worked). Occasionally, they’re more serious. As well as floating characters and other minor issues, Geralt did once start jumping incessantly (which was amusing initially before it refused to stop). I eventually found that getting on Roach fixed the bug.
The initial load screen lasting forever (which has hopefully been patched and didn’t recur when I started a new game today to see if it was still a problem) was very tedious. I also came across two flying beasts that were invincible. At first I thought it might be intentional (I had to rescue someone and was thinking he might get the kills), but reloading solved the problem. And, once, the music just decided not to play (entering a cut-scene with music brought it back).
One thing which did irk me was that sometimes (but not always) it was necessary to be online to load my save (due to the DLC). I have no idea why it was sometimes needed and sometimes not.
There are some nuisances in there, but nothing game-breaking.
Not a bad thing but ‘another issue’ is the free DLC, which is still being released. There will be 16 in all (I think we’re up to about eight now). Some are toggled on/off in the main menu (alternate looks for characters/cards), most are quests or items purchased in-game (NB for game money, not real cash).
There are flaws, but they’re little niggles rather than persistent problems. When I look at it from another angle, seeking areas it could improve, there really isn’t anything.
The Witcher 3 offers the morality of Game of Thrones, the open world of Skyrim and the strong storytelling of Dragon Age in a game with around 200 hours of content. It’s a triumph of style and substance and may very well be the game of the year (I think only Fallout 4 may compete with it for the accolade).