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The Witcher 3 Preview - PAX East 2015

We play through part of the prologue from the upcoming RPG

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If you missed it, be sure to read my interview with Damien Monnier from CD Projekt RED where I picked the senior game designer’s brain about the upcoming third installment in the studio’s The Witcher series. After the interview was over, Damien offered me the opportunity to sit down and play the first hour of the game. I was all too happy to take him up on the offer and get a last look at the highly anticipated game prior to its release in May.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The opening scene starts with Geralt soaking in a wooden bathtub. It’s quiet, serene, and soft - an all-too rare moment of peace for the White Wolf. While Geralt closes his eyes and relaxes a strange, scorpion-like creature slips into the water, pinching the unsuspecting Witcher. Geralt pulls the little monster from the water and tosses it on the floor while bantering with the sorceress who conjured the creature, sitting on a chair naked, save for the towel wrapped around her head. After a moment, the sorceress removes the towel and reveals her long, raven hair, indicating she is Yennefer, Geralt’s on-again-off-again lover from the novels. Geralt gets out of the tub and pulls on his clothes before exchanging a kiss with Yennefer - they must be “on-again” at the moment.

Ciri is supposed to be having lessons with another Witcher, but Yennefer has Geralt go check-in as she suspects the girl might be getting herself into trouble. During this sequence, Geralt’s Witcher sense is explained through a tutorial, and using the sense I locate a key to unlock the door to where Ciri should be studying, only to find that she has left her master sleeping and gone off into the courtyard to work on her sword fighting.

While CD Projekt RED has spent a lot of time talking about the open-world nature of The Witcher 3, I was instantly impressed with the game's cutscenes. Recent titles like Infamous: Second Son or The Order 1886 might outpace The Witcher 3’s cinematic beauty, but only just. While the game has gotten bigger, it has not sacrificed the attention to detail.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Upon reaching Ciri in the courtyard I was given a choice on how to discipline the girl. Ciri and Geralt’s relationship is a very important one in the novels and the game quickly works to establish this. There’s a father-daughter like bond established between the two. After a brief talk with the girl, I begin a traversal tutorial. As I guide Geralt along the ramparts of the castle and down a series of ladders, he banters back and forth with Ciri. She teases and taunts Geralt as they race through Kaer Morhen. The controls in The Witcher 3 feel faster paced and more precise than in previous games.

This feeling is confirmed once I get down to the training yard. Here I begin a combat tutorial. The combat of The Witcher 3 is more responsive. It, like the traversal, felt faster and quicker. I also thought that navigation of the radial dial menus containing Geralt’s spells and traps was easier to use than before.

Once the training is completed, The Wild Hunt storm the Witcher's fortress. It’s revealed that Geralt has been dreaming. He awakes and speaks with his fellow Witcher, Vesemir about his dream. While Assassins of Kings felt political and epic, the initial dialogue of The Witcher 3 felt personal. Geralt's ties to Ciri and Yennefer allude to the relationship conflicts between himself and the two women.

Geralt and Vesemir are searching for Yennefer, tracking her through the No Man’s Land in the battle between the Northern Kingdoms and the Empire of Nilfgaard. The two Witchers don’t even mount their horses before they are attacked by a pack of ghouls. Again, I get to feel how much more tightly and responsively The Witcher 3 handles. The ghouls are still a dangerous opponent and get some hits in, but it feels like it’s easier to manage the many different aspects of Geralt’s weaponry to defeat the monsters.

After the ghouls are dead, Geralt and Vesemir mount up and ride toward a nearby settlement. Horses are something new to The Witcher 3 as the previous titles were set in multiple enclosed areas, making long-distance traversal unnecessary. The riding in The Witcher 3 feels very comparable to Red Dead Redemption. You can repeatedly tap the gamepad to make the horse gallop at full speed, or you can hold a button to have it automatically follow the trail at a more leisurely pace.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

While travelling, Vesemir is injured by a griffin. We quickly ride to town to get aid, but find our welcome is lukewarm. The little settlement is impressively teeming with life. Soldiers in black patrol the roads, children play in the dirt. The environment feels alive.

Upon reaching the inn, Vesemir tends to his wounds and I ask the locals about Yennefer. Again, I am presented with dialogue options, including a Witcher skill to persuade the tight-lipped peasants to reveal information they normally wouldn’t. While using this dialogue option, the villagers start to get suspicious about my abilities. Luckily, one of the men in the inn reveals that Yennefer came through the town and tells me where I could find more information.

After I step out of the inn, I am confronted by two of the peasants who had noticed my Witcher powers of persuasion. Here the fistfight controls are explained and I knock both peasants out. Once the fight is finished, I mount my horse and begin to ride through town.

A single glance at the map of The Witcher 3 gives you an idea of the dozens of things you can do. There are quests everywhere and plenty of items to collect for crafting available. Instantly I am distracted from my quest for Yennefer by a dwarf who tells me his blacksmith shop was burned down by someone in the village. The dwarf talks about the complexities of the Nilfgaard army taking over the town and forcing him to make weapons – the same ones likely being used to kill the people of this very village. The dwarf asks me to investigate and I do.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Using Geralt’s Witcher sense, I track the trail of the arsonist until I find a group of ghouls. After the monsters are vanquished, Geralt reasons they would have wounded the man I'm looking for. I head back to the village and look for a man with a ghoul wound. Upon finding him, I bewitch the villager and force him back to the dwarf who turns the boy over to the Nilfgaardian army. It’s one of the first quests available in the game, but already demonstrates the game’s complexity in both story and structure.

After the dwarf thanks me for my services I ride out into the countryside, still looking for answers regarding Yennfer’s passing through town. Again I’m sidetracked, as I find a mill currently overrun by ghouls. I fight off the monsters and secure the mill, making it open for trade and opening up more quests.

Unfortunately, my hour with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was up at this time. Even in the opening minutes of the game I was impressed by the complexity and detail of the world. The open-world aspects have yet to be truly tested, but if CD Projekt RED delivers on their promises, Wild Hunt will definitely be an impressive feat. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is scheduled to be released May 19th on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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