Thursday, November 22, 2018

Console Corner: Review of "Hearts of Stone" Witcher 3 Expansion

Looking at in-game statistics, I spent just shy of 100 hours completing Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. Yes, almost 100 hours--months of time. I don’t know what the average length of a video game is these days, but such a length is rare. It’s the equivalent of sitting in a chair for four straight days, no food, no sleep, only gaming—err, witching. Developers having built a massive world, told a major story (as well as several quality side stories), and enriched it with a plethora of details, it is a veritable feast of a game. It was thus a big shock that CD Projekt Red came out with an expansion to Witcher 3 in 2016 called “Hearts of Stone”. I’ve since entirely broken the century mark …

Best played once the player has reached level 30-32 of the base game, “Hearts of Stone” is, in its most fundamental form, a major side quest to Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. Responding to a note on one of the village’s notice boards, Geralt heads into the northern regions to talk with a man who wants a monster killed. Upon arrival, Geralt encounters a band of merry-makers one step shy of madness. Nevertheless he agrees with their leader, the drastically scarred Olgierd von Everec, to go to Oxenfurt and kill the monster hiding in its sewers. Everything going to plan (even getting some assistance from a medic named Shani) in the fight, the story spins sideways. Geralt’s trajectory going in an unexpected direction, he has to use his strength and wits (and dancing shoes) to get to the bottom of who cheated whom, and straighten what is otherwise a crooked situation.

Perhaps it’s just the honeymoon of completing “Hearts of Stone”, but there is something inside me that wants to say its storyline is actually better than The Wild Hunt’s. Deeper inside I know it’s comparing apples to oranges (it is, after all, impossible to compare one major storyline broken up over 100 hours versus one compact storyline played over roughly 14-15 hours). Nevertheless, my guess is that years from now I will remember “Hearts of Stone” more readily than The Wild Hunt. CD Projekt Red telling the life of Olgierd von Everec in mythical yet human fashion, I daresay it’s impossible not to finish “Hearts of Stone” without the full scope, good to evil, of his character etched in mind. Ciri’s plight in the main game is engaging, but it’s somehow less relatably human than Olgierd’s. The last few decisions the player makes (no spoilers!) feel truly involved. Given that these decisions likewise have irreversible repercussions makes for an experience that feels meaningful, and indeed makes the player ponder the wider of areas of ambition, despair, redemption, forgiveness, and justice. Olgierd’s story reminiscent of the Baron’s in scope yet entirely fresh in detail, it’s more great storytelling from CD Projekt Red.

In addition to Olgierd’s tale, the other major thing “Hearts of Stone brings to Witcher 3 is more diverse gameplay. The Wild Hunt features Gwent, horse races, boxing matches, treasure hunts, romances, and other ‘games-within-games’ as options for the player to experience the setting in different ways. The “Hearts of Stone” expansion only adds to this. On top of adding more of the aforementioned ‘games within games’, there are additional scenes, bosses, puzzles, even aesthetics (yes, aesthetics—impressionist aesthetics!) for the player to interact with and play through. For example, at one point in the new storyline a wedding occurs, during which there are numerous activities for Geralt to participate in that go far beyond what has been available thus far. At another point, Geralt must puzzle his way through something like a haunted mansion—a mansion whose boss fights throw twists at the player they’ve yet to encounter. (One in particular seems a clear tribute to Dark Souls.)
And yet there is more. “Hearts of Stone” also offers new crafting abilities (including a Runemaster), a new culture (the Ofieri, who loosely resemble Arabians), new armor and weapons (including one entire new Witcher school called Viper), new NPCs, new collectibles, new locations, new enemies, new potions, new side quests, and new treasure hunts. Where The Wild Hunt can be peeled back and back and back, and each time a new layer of detail found, “Hearts of Stone” offers the same, and more.

Before closing the review, it might be important to mention one thing in terms of integration with the base game. Regardless whether you buy The Wild Hunt stand-alone and then buy “Hearts of Stone”, or buy the Witcher 3 GOTY edition (which contains the base game and all DLC), CD Projekt Red have given players the option of immediately jumping into “Hearts of Stone” without having to start from the beginning. “Hearts of Stone” is selectable from the main menu, and the game immediately cuts to a levelled up Geralt. After assigning ability points, players can seek out Olgierd von Eserec to start the storyline. For those like me, who traded in the base game to buy the GOTY edition, it’s not necessary to invest dozens and dozens of hours before being able to dig into the expansion. The downside to the auto-levelled start is that the player has a small inventory of goods that will require a bit of exploring to build up to a desired level, not to mention some of the important side quests (like master swordsmith and master armorer) need to be done again in order to unlock the ability of crafting high level items. And there are other disadvantages to jumping right into the expansion, but overall it’s fair to say CD Project Red have given players the bare bones of what they’ll need to succeed, not to mention bare bones beats replaying 60-70 hours of the base game to arrive at the same level. Thus, kudos to CD Projekt Red for having the players in mind while designing the expansions.

I finished my runthrough of Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt extremely satisfied. It is a rich, complete experience that must be considered one of, if not the top rpg made in the history of video games. The icing on the cake, cherry on top, mustard on the hotdog—however you want to quantify it, the “Hearts of Stone” expansion only takes a great experience and makes it better. From the well-developed storyline (that perhaps bests the main game’s?) to new weapons and armor, new abilities to new characters, any player looking for more, has it. In terms of major DLC in gaming these days, it’s impossible to ask for more for $20.

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