Plenty of ink has already been shed here and elsewhere in praise of The Witcher 3’s sumptuous open world. CD Projekt’s sprawling RPG has rightly accrued voluminous praise for delivering a setting that is at once sweeping and nuanced.
From the blood-tinged mires of battle-scarred Velen and the rotten underbelly of the free city of Novigrad to the majestic peaks and treacherous coasts of the Skellige isles, The Witcher 3’s world is a masterful piece of design made all the more impressive when one considers that it’s the Polish studio’s first attempt at such a thing.
Huge skyscapes shot through with luxuriously saturated hues of violet and orange are suddenly blown away by rolling tempests cracked with forked lightning, sleet, and gales that bend trees to their uttermost extremity.
Beneath lie bucolic hamlets, tangled forests, and ominous ruins that suggest a world with a rich history and strong continuity. Density is this landscape’s greatest asset. There’s enough room to breathe between iconic locations, but there’s no filler, no sense of copy-paste déjà vu. Every corner and crevice of this world feels as if it has been meticulously constructed and considered from every angle to maximise the sense of wonderment.
Stalking across, above, and below this world is a diverse bestiary of original and traditional fantasy foes for mercenary monster hunter Geralt to track and dispatch. Vampires lurk in damp sewers, wraiths haunt crumbling towers, and parasitic demons possess unwitting hosts. Witcher Geralt will vanquish them all – if the coin is right.
But as impressive as the world is, it’s merely the stage dressing for The Witcher 3’s greater achievements in characterisation. Even as Geralt strives for simplicity, the powerbrokers of the Northern Kingdoms are drawn to him for his unique talents, and look to entangle him in their schemes. Geralt is inexorably pulled into spheres of political intrigue, of superstition and religious extremism, and it’s his interactions with these cast members that set The Witcher 3 apart from so many other games in the genre.
CD Projekt has dived headlong into subject matter that it’s difficult to imagine many US-centric publishers being at all comfortable with – issues that include spousal abuse and gender identity, for example – and the studio has done so without beating players around the head with the kinds of simplistic moralising that is so common in games.
Everywhere, Geralt encounters startlingly human characters, each defined as much by their flaws as by their virtues. Whether elf, dwarf, halfling, or man, the occupants of the Northern Kingdoms are all so wonderfully lifelike, and their lives are all as thoroughly messy and contradictory as our own.
The common thread is the simple but surprisingly affecting tale of Geralt’s search for his adopted daughter, Ciri, who is being hounded across the world by the otherworldly Wild Hunt. Ciri’s tale intersects at right angles with the comparatively petty machinations of the Northern Kingdom’s ruling caste, and so Geralt is inevitably but organically pulled into the world’s wider events.
Geralt himself is the nearest The Witcher 3 comes to anything remotely resembling a miss. He’s merely a competent vessel for the player, a gruff Atlas upon whose reluctant shoulders the fate of this world rests. It all starts to fray at the seams a little when Geralt shrugs it off for hokey romances and strained flirtatious dialogue that sounds ridiculous in his two-packs-and-a-bottle-of-scotch-a-day voice.
As a developer, CD Projekt’s attitude towards sex and nudity has also matured, evolving the from the furtive, sweaty-palmed era of collectible centrefolds in the first game, to something more like HBO in this third outing: titillating but still a little forced.
Propping up this world and adding some role-playing structure are a handful of serviceable but generally unremarkable systems. As Geralt explores the world completing main quests, secondary quests and Witcher bounties, he accumulates experience points and levels up. Whenever he does so he’s able to invest a new ability point in abilities categorised into one of four trees, and these abilities often have multiple levels to them.
Unfortunately, these decisions rarely feel important or meaningful: another two percent chance to crit here, a slightly increased toxicity threshold there – it all adds up, but there’s no sense of excitement or urgency, no need to pause immediately and weigh up a fraught choice as to where to invest.
A practical alchemy system rewards Geralt for preparation, and is in keeping with the fiction handed down to CD Projekt by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, but the game’s crafting and loot system doesn’t quite feel right. There’s frequently an imbalance between the narrative weight given to quest rewards compared to how little time it’ll take Geralt to find a better alternative on the corpse of an unnamed trash mob.
However, the action-focused combat is crunchy and fluid. Geralt can dodge, parry, and combat roll with suitable flair before dancing his blade through hordes of enemies. The swordplay is augmented with five basic magical abilities called Signs that offer some tactical variety and depth, especially as a form of crowd control. Nonetheless, enemies usually telegraph their incoming attacks with large gestures and HUD highlights that make things even easier for Geralt. By the late game, most players will have settled into a repeatable pattern of attacks, parries, dodges, and Signs that work for almost any encounter.
For a game of The Witcher 3’s scale and ambition, it should be no surprise that the odd bug has evaded capture. The occasional asset is missing, and some textures pop in. After fast travelling, some NPCs are excruciatingly slow to load. CD Projekt’s offending in this department is at the very lowest end of the scale, however, and the studio’s well-known player-centric philosophy gives us every confidence that these very minor irritations ironed out in due course.
The Witcher 3 is a triumph. CD Projekt has delivered a world that is epic and textured, and a narrative composed of swelling crescendos and artful asides. This is a studio at the top of its game delivering a title that’s now at the top of the field. Quite simply, The Witcher 3 is unmissable.