The Witcher 3; First Impressions
If you haven’t tried The Witcher 3 yet, I highly recommend that you do. I usually write about World of Tanks, but took a short break from it to play a different game. RPGs have always been one of my favorite computer game genres and it’d been a long time since I dove into one. They can take enormous amounts of time if they’re good you’ll often lose track of time and seemingly warp into the future. Typically to about 3 A.M. the next day when you have to work at 7. Of course, the good ones do that because they’re immersive. You take the good with the bad. I’m here to inform the Nerdgoblins this is one of the good ones.
You may be laughing that I’m writing a first impressions article on a game that’s been out for quite a while. But don’t we all probably have a stack of titles we’re interested in and just never got to? Life is busy and you can’t play all the games. I think. Can you? Anyway, The Witcher 3 was a game on my short list, and as I was on hiatus from tanks, I decided to give it a try. I bought the Expansion Pass version from Steam which included two expansions called Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine. One benefit of waiting so long is I’ve a much larger game to explore! In fact, the company claims the third installment is 30 times larger than the previous games. I’ll admit that it feels much larger.
The Witcher series is developed by CD Projekt RED, the third installment of which was released on 19 May 2015. So it’s been out for over a year. It’s won numerous awards and continues posting strong sales. The game is set in a high fantasy world, with a decidedly gritty and mature (occasionally “adult”) edge. There’re monsters, elves, dwarves and undead, all the usual high fantasy themes. The main quest is a mystery/chase/search as your character searches for someone, and of course unravels a larger meaning as he goes. The series has always had something of a hard edge with mature, adult themes. It’s based on novels by Andrzej Sapkowski a Polish fantasy writer. Interestingly he is a former economist and the often serious nature of his high fantasy novels are probably effected by that. There is a very, no nonsense feel about them.
The main character of the series is Geralt of Rivia. Geralt is a Witcher; a mysterious kind of mutated human that hunts monsters. He does it not out of kindness, or benevolence, or to protect the world, but for pay. Geralt gets around, so to speak, and he’s not really a nice guy, though you can often make choices that smooth his edges. Of course the world at large reciprocates and he often finds himself embroiled in quests and situations full of moral ambiguity and difficult decisions. If you’re looking to be the white knight, this is probably not your game.
At the end of the day, you can be anyone you want to be in this world, as long as it’s a Witcher named Geralt of Rivia.
Several things set the Witcher series apart. First is the above mentioned game mechanic where you can be exactly one character. There are some set piece quests in the main story line that let you play as the person he is chasing, but those are very channelized and more for the story than to develop a second character. Next is the convoluted and very detailed main quest story. You set off to find someone, but it is anything but a straight forward search; much like the world setting itself there’re many stops and starts. One of the early main quest interactions with a character called the “Bloody Baron” is very good indeed. You get a significant amount of time with the character during the part of the quest he helps you with and I actually felt like I was getting to know him a bit. That’s good RPG game design. It’s a great start and bodes well for the rest of the game.
I mentioned the story line is worthy, and I’d add that the writing is certainly above average. For those that remember the first game in the series, the writing was sometimes hilariously bad in the translation department. You could often get some comically nonsensical dialogue. But they’ve very much polished things with the third installment and the dialogue is generally very good.
Other than the writing, one thing that surprised me a bit is the cinematography with the cut scenes. Yes, you read that right. The direction of the cinematography and use of cut scenes is first rate. Often it’s like watching a movie with how the camera is worked. I’m not saying it’s Oscar materiel but it’s a far cry form the early days of computer RPGs. One such example is a scene where you go into a tavern to listen to a bard. There’s actually a song, and a pretty good one at that, which is performed in full. The camera work through the crowd was great, the music was good and interesting. Often I will just skip such things because they tend to be cringe worthy. Happily this was so well done I just listened, it was very engrossing and I felt immersed in the world. That is exactly what RPGs are supposed to do.
There’s also some nerd humor. One comedic scene has you come across one of the standard NPCs hanging out in the wilderness. He asks you to do something dangerous, and because you’re playing a game to do dangerous things as a Witcher you of course agree.
Turns out the NPC double crosses you, and when you go back he attempts to trick Geralt with the time tested, “look out behind you”!
I laughed out loud when Geralt very deliberately crossed his arms and stared at the NPC, then said.
“There’s no one behind me, I’m a witcher, I would know”.
The NPC immediately runs away. It was a small moment but the game is full of these little gems.
Gameplay wise it’s very polished. The world is large and mostly seamless. What I mean by that is there’re very few load screens and other immersion breaking transitions. When you come to a cut scene it usually makes sense to the larger picture and the load time is so fast you don’t stare at a blank screen at all. It’s more like a movie fade to the next scene. The animation is just good enough that it’s not like watching stick figures try to emote; the facial expressions especially are very well done, and more importantly believable. This matters in a game like The Witcher because it attempts to convey a lot of nuance and ambiguity in its hard knock world. One small thing I especially liked is that transitioning into a cave, or a building feels like it exists in a congruous world, there’s no load screen or stoppage of the game. A load screen for every time you leave an area or enter a door can be very immersion breaking. Even the small caves and dungeons largely work this way. Such a small thing, but very important and technically challenging. Games have come a long way in this regard.
Another thing that has come a long way is scaling the game to character level and difficulty.
Scaling of difficulty and progression is always an issue with RPGs. This one does a fine job with it by using what appears to a bit of a hybrid system. Some games scale globally, meaning that as the character goes up, the majority of the game world increases with them to keep the difficulty somewhere around the characters level. Others will have areas that require a certain level to access, in order to have a chance to win. The Witcher uses a hybrid system where the main quest appears to scale closely with the character and many of the side quests require a certain level for a reasonable chance to beat it. The two additional content modules are all for higher level characters. What this system allows is for the player to go through the main quest at any point. If you want to go straight through and ignore the side quests you can, but if you want to mess around with the tons of additional content, you can do that as well. Meanwhile the main quest will be waiting. Just realize that if you do too many of the side quests you’ll eventually get over leveled for even the main quest.
I highly recommend The Witcher 3 to anyone who played the first two. I’d also recommend it to anyone interested in RPGs. It has some very remarkable game play mechanics, is well polished and it’s huge. Be aware that there is some adult language and content, Geralt can be a bit randy. Best of all the story is great, the characters are interesting and I guarantee you’ll get immersed in the world which the mutant monster hunter, a Witcher named Geralt of Rivia, lives.
Joe Granducci is a student of politics and military history. He is a life-long gamer and a former fighter pilot. Reliving his wasted youth, and starting his second career after retirement he enjoys reading, movies and computer gaming. Joe plays way too much World of Tanks, and you can follow him on Twitch here or his YouTube channel here. If you like what you see follow all of the NerdGoblins at NerdGoblin facebook and twitter @thenerdgoblin