Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Console Corner: Review of Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

Fantasy being what it is, there are innumerable games, books, and movies set in a Medieval world featuring wizards and knights, castles and maidens, most of which inevitably see a clash of kingdoms that decides the fate of the world.  It’s cliché.  And yet it continues to be done time and again, some with more deviations from the formula, some with less.  Andrzej Sapkowski, when setting out to write his own fantasy book series The Witcher, knew the familiar elements he wanted to include.  Thankfully, he also knew what he wanted to be fresh and new.  In developing Sapkowski’s vision for gaming consoles, CD Projekt Red made the most of his deviation.  Capitalizing on the singularity of the Witcher’s character as a morally gray monster hunter haunted by demons as much personal as physical, all the while ensuring the traditional fantasy elements were as solid as could be, in 2015 they released the third chapter in Geralt’s story, Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, and in doing so created a masterpiece of action/rpg gaming.

The number of things to compliment about Witcher 3 feels endless; CD Project Red appear to have looked into seemingly every game element possible on modern consoles.  The world, as gorgeous as it is at sunset, is just as phenomenal at the detail level.  Erosion, rock formations, tree type and plant formation—all of these are as realistic as any video game has ever produced, just as much as the fantasy elements, like griffins and trolls, cyclops and sirens, look as realistic as possible.  The villages and farmland, cobblestone streets and markets all feel proper—dirty and lived in, from washing basins to hanging laundry, rickety fences to irregular rows.  Geralt requiring certain flora and fauna for the potions he needs to fight monsters, available in the world are a multitude of plants and animals.  In the early going I stopped counting how many different types of herbs it was possible to collect, just as I stopped counting how many unique little ways tiny elements of fantasy had been braided in—portals, living trees, haunted towers, and others.

And Geralt, and the people and monsters he encounters, as he tries to find his long lost surrogate daughter Ciri are just as nuanced.  Witcher 3 is filled with all types of people, from common bandits to drunken barons, prostitutes to spirit elementals, ship captains to herbalists, goatherds to fishmongers, each with their own animations and mannerisms, as well as role, big or small, in Geralt’s search.  It’s likely, however, that Geralt’s closest confidantes and dearest enemies will capture the player’s imagination even further.

And the multitudinous nature of the game extends to Geralt’s character.  Using a standard experience points system, combined with the various monster mutagens discovered, players can slowly develop the man’s talents in the direction that suits their style.  Whether it be an outright bruiser with a sword or a more subtle user of potions and salves, players have complete control of how Geralt’s talents are extended throughout the game.  On top of this, there are five complete sets of Witcher weapons and armor that can be crafted in addition to the individual items scattered throughout the game.  Said plans hidden in various nooks and crannies, players can focus on developing Geralt’s clothing and tools in a manner that suits the abilities they are building up.  Cat armor makes Geralt fleet and nimble but more vulnerable to attack, whereas bear armor makes him able to take and deal heavy blows albeit slowly, just as a couple of examples.  Part of the fun of the game, in fact, is investigating caves and abandoned homes in the hopes of finding such plans.

All this and I haven’t even started talking about the main and side storylines.  Plot within Witcher 3 exists at four levels.  There is the main storyline, major side stories, minor side stories, and finally the way all three braid together to create the overarching storyline.  Just as an example, in one of the minor side stories Geralt meets a fellow Witcher.  Drama ensues, and Geralt is forced to choose whether to continue the friendship or move on.  The result of this decision has implications for the main storyline later in the game.  Another example are the major side stories, some of which could be games of their own, so detailed and evolving are they.  More than making the game imminently replayable (that is, if one wants to jump into another 100+ hour session after finishing the first run through), it also makes the choices meaningful.  Having played games like Mass Effect: Andromeda where the player is given a choice in dialogue which has zero to little impact on further outcomes, such meaningful choices make Witcher 3 a more engaging experience from the perspective of player agency.

I could keep gushing, but in the end I believe Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is the most comprehensive, satisfying, and mature action rpg title video gaming has produced.   From the vast, detailed world that just begs the player to run out and explore it to the complex storylines, the branching paths toward enhancing Geralt’s skills to sheer level of detail invested in the world, it’s a game for the player’s imagination to get completely lost in.  In short, Witcher 3 is what a person dreams of when wanting a wide open Medieval world full of monsters and magic that is at once familiar yet utterly unique, and possesses an intelligent storyline to underpin it all.  Amazing. 

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