The Wild Hunt is the third instalment in the highly-acclaimed Witcher series. The first instalment was available only to the PC Master Race, however much to their chagrin its sequel became available to the rabid legion of filthy console peasants (in the form of the Witcher II: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition). Once they got their hands on it the identity of the series was forever changed. Fitting then that the mantle of responsibility to provide that true next-gen console experience (that many feel has been lacking) fell on the shoulders of the Wild Hunt. Polish development team CD Projekt Red promised the populous beautiful graphics, engaging stories and a world of breathtaking scale to explore freely. It was widely believed that it would be a game that would harness the power of current-gen, a game that gamers could show their friends or pets and watch their eyes melt out of their skulls as they were bathed in its glory. In many ways CD Projekt Red have done just that (I showed my cat Sir Meow-a-lot and he loved it). The talented developers have successfully crafted an epic Western-style RPG that is worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder (or at least shoulder-to-nipple) with the current pinnacle of the genre, Skyrim.
The Wild Hunt places you in the leather boots of Geralt of Rivia, a famous witcher plying his trade across the empires that make up the Continent. Witchers are essentially mercenaries that are hired to hunt and kill the various monsters that roam freely in all parts of the Continent. The monsters appeared after a calamitous event called the Conjunction of the Spheres. This same event brought magic into the world and is a force that is both feared and revered amongst the people. Witchers are mostly willing to take on any job, but never for free. Although their services are essential and people won’t hesitate to gather the funds to hire one, the witchers are looked upon with disdain and mistrust. Witchers are genetically enhanced with cocktails of mutagens and conditioned in brutal training regimes to have heightened senses and strength, and live abnormally long lives. They are also well-versed in alchemy and will always be found with numerous potions and poisons up their vambrace-clad sleeves. As time has gone by, the witchers’ numbers have dwindled and no new students are currently trained. They are generally solitary creatures, living hand-to-mouth as they wander the lands looking for their next contract.
The opening events of the Wild Hunt assumes a lot of previous knowledge with the previous entries in terms of stories and characters. Even having played the second game I found myself having to refresh my memory as to the roles of the many characters. Luckily, a compendium is included with the game that will give you the cliff notes, although I recommend an in-depth primer if you want to glean maximum satisfaction from the story. The game opens with Geralt seeking the sorceress Yennefer after he receives a letter from her requesting his aid in an urgent matter. Yennefer is Geralt’s old flame of many moons ago, and he can never resist her beckoning, no matter how poorly she treats him. While his reputation is that of a consummate ladies’ man, he has a soft spot for women that often gets him into interesting predicaments. After reuniting with Yennefer he is informed that his long-lost surrogate daughter Ciri has been sighted, and her father, the powerful emperor of Nilfgaard, tasks Geralt and Yennefer with finding her. Finding a missing daughter is a simple enough premise on paper, but this is no Where’s Wally? Finding Ciri will be no mean feat and will have Geralt traipsing the length and breadth of the Continent in his search. He is destined to become embroiled in political scandals and be tested by friends and foes alike while battling the mysterious dark forces of the Wild Hunt that relentlessly pursue Ciri.
The Witcher III is presented as a dark fantasy epic and if it’s one thing CD Projekt Red manage to fully realise, it’s the setting. The Continent is an incredibly rich backdrop, with a long past and many stories to tell. It is a land currently in the midst of a power struggle between the mighty Nilfgaardian Empire of the South and the various empires of the North. It is a fairly bleak place, with peasants that struggle to eke out an existence on shabby farms living at the whims of the rich and powerful. It is a land dominated by humans but contains small surviving remnants of ancient races of elves and dwarves. Although all the races live side by side, racism is rife in the Continent and non-humans are generally looked upon with scorn and thoroughly mistreated by the populous at large. The game world also features heavy lashings of religious strife, with victims and persecutors on both sides of the religious coin. Although witchers are supposed to remain neutral in matters of state and religion, Geralt is continually drawn into the tumultuous events that take place at every level of society, from the nobility in their ivory towers to the commoners scratching in the dirt. The Continent is a violent, unpredictable and unforgiving place. As Geralt I was inspired to leave it a better place than how I found it, though of course whether you do the same is entirely up to you.
The Continent is split into several smaller territories that you can travel around at will. The bulk of the game involves you accepting and completing quests from notice boards or NPCs you find in towns as well as in the wilderness. Do not be mistaken, this game is absolutely massive in size and scope. Each area map is sprawling and peppered with points of interest. You have a fast travel option between sign posts in the areas that you’ve already visited, or you can just walk or call for your trusty steed, Roach. Navigating such huge expanses is generally handled well, although I would have liked if you could zoom the camera out more in order to get a better view of things, especially when you’re looking for a distant mission marker. This is a particularly glaring issue in the archipelagos of Skellige. I came to loathe that place as I could never memorise its segmented and mountainous geography and would resort to randomly scanning the numerous isles to find where the hell I had to go next.
The missions you acquire during your journey are generally of four types. You have the main story missions where you continue your pursuit of Ciri, and side quests that aren’t essential but highly recommended. There are also witcher contracts which have you tracking and hunting troublesome beasts for coin, and treasure hunts for rare diagrams that allow you to craft powerful weapons and armour (provided you can find a smithy with the right skills). To add more variety there are also many people in the world who dabble in the highly addicting card game Gwent, and you can play them to receive rare cards that bolster your deck and allow you to take on better players. There are hundreds of quests both great and small, and I spent well over 120 hours exploring the vast majority of them. Lucky then that the quest writing is universally excellent, as it is completing these that truly allows you to experience the world, and get in touch with the overarching features and themes in the Witcher III. Quests have you completing an array of interesting tasks, and even those with seemingly mundane setups (like fetching a pan from inside an old lady’s locked house) transpire in unexpected ways. Whether it is exploring the laboratory of a powerful tyromancer (read: cheese mage), punching a bear to death to prove you’re the best fighter in the land, or investigating a series of sadistic and grisly murders, the stories you take part in are all quite engrossing. Quests are also your main source of experience points (killing enemies nets you far less in comparison) and levelling is a bit slow so you’ll want to grab as many as you can.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to really appreciate the game world simply by casually observing its inhabitants. Unlike Skyrim or GTA, it does not feel like a living, breathing world that would continue to exist if you weren’t in it. While the stories told through quests give a cohesive sense of place, the day-to-day behaviour of NPCs don’t help at all in this regard. You could stand in the same spot next to a pair of guards for a week and they wouldn’t move. Boats also seem to be fair game and you can commandeer any of them without fear of reprisal. Does anyone actually own these things!? Similarly, it seems that all merchants and armourers operate like that dodgy servo across the road from the pub and always seem to be open when you need them. While it was certainly convenient having a master blacksmith available to craft those gauntlets that I simply had to have at 3 am, it wasn’t terribly realistic.
As a swords and sorcery RPG you can expect to be dabbling in your fair share of combat against both man and beast. The combat system is very similar to the Witcher II, but appears more refined. Despite his advanced age, Geralt is quite quick on his feet and is able to dodge or roll evasively before moving in with his steel or silver swords (depending on what sort of foe you face). He can also block incoming blows directly and avail himself of four simple combat spells (called Signs). These spells include Igni, which allows you shoot fire from your fingertips and immolate your enemies, and Axii, which allows you to possess opponents and make them fight one another. You can also craft bombs with various effects and your mentor Vesemir gives you a crossbow early on for ranged combat. More so than in the second game I found myself making full use of my arsenal and magical abilities to exploit enemy weaknesses and emerge victorious. Combat is a little slower-paced than other Western RPGs (this is no hack and slash) and requires a little patience at first. I played on Blood and Bones difficulty and initially a small band of ghouls was enough to have me thoroughly tongue punched in the fart box. After not too long though I was taking down enemies with ease by mixing up my strategies and for the last half of the game I found all encounters were won with relatively little effort. The Quen spell in particular, which provides a shield to all damage up to a certain amount, is a little overpowered. All combat and magic abilities can be upgraded with ability points as you level up.
While the combat is quite fluid, the movement outside of combat is simply abysmal. At times, moving Geralt around on foot is like steering a pregnant woman encased in a trapezoidal jelly prism greased up with Vaseline. Rather navigate on horseback? Well it’s like putting all that on a horse. Your horse Roach deserves a special mention here, and he will make you question your moral stance on equicide. Continually forgetting how to horse, Roach will get seemingly get stuck quite easily behind something as little as a blade of grass. Although you can call him at any time, it is necessary to weigh up whether it is faster to run half a kilometre than wait for him to awkwardly clip against a fence or rock as he desperately tries to reach you. Swimming is also an exercise in pain, and in an excruciating twist of fate, getting out of the water on to dry land can also prove absurdly difficult. Geralt is also extremely susceptible to death by falling, and even small tumbles are enough to kill the mighty witcher. Seriously, Geralt can take a sword to the face but is barely able to survive a fall from the flying fox at a kid’s playground.
Fighting the controls becomes just another thing you routinely do and extends to the inventory system. As a man of no fixed address, Geralt has no place to put the hundreds of tiny items that he collects over the course of his adventure other than his saddlebags. While managing these, their sheer number causes the various tabs for things such as weapons and alchemical items to lag significantly. Seeing as you spend a lot of time managing your inventory and quests, you’ll find yourself wishing they’d gone with a more streamlined interface and allowed you to store some of your items to make this navigation less laborious.
Graphically, the Wild Hunt is a bit of a mixed bag. The game looks the best when you are scouring the wilderness, with stunning vistas and a dynamic weather system that dramatically changes the look and tone of your surroundings. Considering the size of the game world and the lack of any loading screens while free roaming, it is an impressive feat indeed that it looks as good as it does, and it certainly wouldn’t have been possible on last-gen hardware. Geralt himself has had an incredible amount of effort put into the details in his character model, with a weathered face and a body that tells of its years of hardship with a complex map of crisscrossing scars. Many important characters receive nice attention to detail in facial features and clothing, however this does not extend to your average NPC. Many of the run-of-the-mill Continental folk have very plainly-textured features and garb, and there are all together far too many bowl cuts in this realm. Couple this with the fact that everyone becomes eerily shiny when wet and you have yourself some confronting looking people. Also it seems someone is constantly following Geralt with a fan, as his hair sways dramatically like he’s in a Herbal Essences advertisement whether he’s indoors or outdoors. The game also currently suffers from some stability issues and I experienced three crashes (including one at the very start) during my playthrough, so save often.
It is testament to how strong the game is that these issues don’t ruin the gameplay at all. It is rare that a game has engaged me so completely in such an intricate and well-told story. I genuinely cared about the fate of the world and the friends I had made, and I was obsessed with returning Ciri safe and was prepared to do anything to make that happen. The penultimate story mission was a particularly emotionally-charged and climactic sequence, in which friends and allies banded together against impossible odds with the result being a mixture of triumph and sorrow. Exactly how your story unfolds will depend on the choices you make, and seemingly insignificant choices have a powerful butterfly effect that you rarely see coming. Many times I thought I had the narrative pinned, only to be punched in the feels when events didn’t turn out the way I had imagined, despite my best efforts to manipulate them. It’s a balance between the illusion of having complete control and falling victim to the machinations of the cruelly indifferent hands of fate, and this game nails it completely.
I thoroughly recommend the Witcher III for anyone who wants to get lost in a dark fantasy world that doesn’t shy away from mature themes. It demands a significant time investment however you are rewarded at every step. In a climate where gamers are being groomed to believe season passes, timed DLC and disc-locked content are completely acceptable, CD Projekt Red exists as a shining beacon in the darkness. They have delivered a beautiful and content-rich game to explore and a thrilling story to experience. In a rare move there is also DLC both large and small being offered free of charge down the line. It is obvious CD Projekt Red is comprised of gamers making games that they themselves would love and they deserve all the support we can muster. Do the industry a favour and vote with your wallet. Show the corporate fat cats that honesty and integrity are profitable commodities, and that games as an experience are supposed to transcend petty commercialism. The Witcher III is a reminder of what we used to take for granted as gamers. It gives you much more than the retail price attached to it, and stands as a proud entry developed by a great studio from which only more greatness can come in the future.
Reviewed on PS4