The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review
A high water mark not only for the Witcher series, but for the entire genre of open world RPGs
It is not uncommon these days to find Role Playing Games that boast playtime totals of over 100 hours. In most cases, the quests in these RPGs are divided into story quests which receive most of the attention, a handful of well-constructed side missions that match this quality, and then a whole slew of repetitive side content that is in place for the sole purpose of padding the number of hours it theoretically takes to complete the whole experience. My usual stance towards these quests is that if the developer didn’t put much effort into crafting them, I won’t put in the time or effort to complete them, and as such I have found myself often finishing these “100+ hour games” in half as much time or less.
The Isles of Skellige are a breath of fresh air
Though a standout RPG for its time, the first Witcher had some of these trappings, with a rather lengthy play time that came about as a result of a lot of drawn-out fetch-quests and collectathons. The excellent sequel did away with these ‘filler’ quests almost entirely, and as a result was significantly shorter. Now after many years of development, CD Projekt Red have done the seemingly impossible: they have created a game that is much larger than both previous entries in terms of both length and geographical size, and despite this, somehow manages to steer clear of any obvious padding or filler. The Witcher 3 has a mind-boggling amount of high quality content in terms of both the main story, seemingly endless hand-crafted side quests, and also in terms of organic exploration of the game’s vast and vivacious world.
While playing the first two entries in the Witcher series will certainly help when it comes to backstory and character knowledge, the third and supposedly final Witcher game represents a more or less self-contained story. The central hook is simple; returning protagonist Geralt and his long-time love-interest Yennefer are on the trail of their long-missing ward Ciri, who is in turn being chased by the mysterious Wild Hunt. Your quest is to find her before the Hunt does. How you go about this task is anything but simple, as you trade favors for information and get embroiled in a wide variety of political, familial and cultural goings-on that will see you traveling from the countryside of Velen to the huge city of Novigrad to the Viking-themed Isles of Skellige. You will meet countless characters both new and familiar, almost all of whom have their own personalities, motivations and opinions of Geralt.
While there is no shortage of emergent activities in the game’s open world like destroying monster nests and hunting treasure based on notes or maps, the quests are the real star of the show. The story quests themselves are consistently engrossing, although you might get a bit fed up early on with the structure of exchanging favors for information. What you do within this framework is almost always interesting however, so you probably won’t mind too much. Often when the main storyline has played its course with an important character, you are given the opportunity to do further quests for them, and these optional quest lines are almost always lengthy and incredibly well designed.
Large cities provide seemingly endless quests
A quest line that starts with you helping set up a Cabaret theater transitions into the investigation of a serial killer. You will get involved in the underground criminal factions of Novigrad, help decide the next King of Skellige, and attempt to disrupt the genocide of those who practice magic, all in secondary quests that often surpass the central storyline in quality. Later in the game, you will find that whether you chose to complete these side quests, and even how you chose to complete these side quests, will influence the main storyline. The consequences of your actions and choices are usually not immediately apparent, but if you pay attention and remember what you did previously, you will be amazed at how different side and story-quests end up interweaving later in the game.
When you move past the quests that are tied directly to the main story, you will find a seemingly endless supply of Witcher contracts and other one-off missions that are rarely as straightforward as they first seem. While not all of these side quests are home-runs, those without at least some twist, interesting hook or important choice are the exception. You never just to go a quest board, pick up a quest to kill a few monsters and then return to the quest board for a reward. Even if you do pick up a seemingly straightforward monster-killing contract, you will usually have a series of well written conversations with whoever posted the contract in the first place. When in the village where you received the quest, you will overhear the villagers talking about the monster when you arrive, and praising you if you manage to kill it.
While the quality of the quests on display is on average incredibly high, the MMO-style quest and enemy leveling system is an awkward fit for the game. Every enemy and quest has a level associated with it, and if your level is significantly higher than a given quest or enemy, the difficulty will become rather trivial. The rate at which you level up seems to be such that if you do the main story quests and the ‘prominent’ secondary quests that are tied to the story characters, you will be at around the right level to progress through the game. However as soon as you stray from this path and start completing random side quests or other activities in the open world you will quickly start to out-level the story missions. Inversely, if you focus on the story quests, you will out-level dozens of side-quests. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the rate at which you level up only changes every ten levels, and even then by a small amount, so you actually begin to level up faster later in the game as quests grant bigger XP rewards but the amount of experience required to increase your level does not change.
Drowners will prove Geralt's constant companions
Even stranger is the fact that lower level quests are sometimes barred behind higher level ones. For instance, the quest that first sees you sailing to the second large area of the game, Skellige, recommends that you be level 16, however once you arrive, many subsequent quests and enemies are at a lower level. The game’s difficulty feels just right for the first twenty hours or so, but assuming you spend some time exploring the open world and doing side quests and Witcher contracts there, the difficulty of the story quests and the prominent side quests are reduced accordingly. It is clear that CD Projekt Red wanted you to be able to focus on the story without having to worry about being under-leveled, but this is a disservice to the rest of the game since you aren’t given any hard incentive to go off and explore once you reach a sort of tipping point in your character’s level and strength. Fortunately, the open world activities are so enjoyable that you will want to go off and do them anyways.
While in many cases you can avoid fighting by selecting certain dialogue options, there will be times when Geralt will have to fight, against both other humans and monsters. The combat system in The Witcher 3 represents a refinement of the action-oriented mechanics of The Witcher 2. You will still dodge, parry and use signs to succeed in combat, but the mechanics have been tightened up and the action is far more fluid and enjoyable as a result. If you became frustrated with the high initial combat difficulty of The Witcher 2, you might be happy to know that the third game is less punishing early on. The most significant change is that you can now consume potions and apply weapon enhancements during combat, not just ahead of time. This means that potions and oils are infinitely more useful, which is fortunate since alchemy plays a much bigger role in The Witcher 3 than in previous Witcher entries.