Richness. A hard word to get away from when experiencing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The opulence of the open-world visuals, satisfying diversity in every quest, diversion and pastime, engaging dialogue, top voice work, deep mythology, beautiful character design and enjoyable combat. This fantasy action-RPG is makes a mockery of the shallowness inherent in missions and story from lesser sandbox titles. But it's not entirely perfect either.
You play as Geralt of Rivia, mutated beast hunter for hire who's striking out across the world on a personal quest. One that ultimately intwines with the stories and fates of multiple other characters you'll cross as you track down the whereabouts of a one-time ward who's now in danger. From this main narrative arc unravels multiple story and quest threads; some important, others minor, but all intriguing. You're barely see a shadow of the "Fetch this, Kill X of these" missions that plague other titles.This is the new gold standard for the genre.
Each is a chance to earn XP, grab items and equipment, and slay monsters. Real-time combat is core to surviving the wilderness - and city life at times - in Witcher 3. You've two swords; one to tackle humans, the other monsters, with Geralt automatically unsheathing the correct one come clash. You can perform strong or fast strikes, block, parry. You've five spells - Signs - quickly selectable through a bumper button press that offer a mix of offensive and passive abilities. Cast any and you drain adrenaline, which replenishes in time before you can use any again. Added to these, shortly into the game you'll earn a crossbow for longer range strikes.
It may seem a limited range of options. But as with everything in Wild Hunt, it's all about nuance. And knowledge. For instance, a sword-swing from horseback can decapitate an opponent, but the swing takes longer to execute than that on foot, so timing's different, and you need the correct speed and angle to score a hit. Success however will score a flying head and a punch on the air at your victory.
There's a wealth of creatures and characters you'll face and each requires a different approach to beat, and each susceptible to different Signs. Single opponent versus pack. Hulking monster with a huge attack range versus close-quarter combat with a well-armoured soldier. Tactics for battling a group of bandits will be entirely different than a scuffle with a pack of wolves. Knowing when to dodge roll and when to simply side-step. Basic combat is continually invigorating, tense.
But nicely, you can figure out a solution on the fly. Sure, water-dwellers and fur-covered beasts will react more to a fire spell, but how about being attacked while on foot by a bandit on horseback, and figuring a quick mind-control spell on his steed will see it fling him off the saddle and into your swinging sword?
The diversity of situations couple with one other fact: enemies don't level with you. While accepted quests signpost danger through a suggested XP level to be at before commencing, you've no such warning when stumbling on dangers that populate the countryside. We encountered a griffin on a mountainside ramble that killed us with one hit. We took ten minutes downing a gigantic Fiend at the end of one main quest mission and felt a badass, only to be knocked on our ass during a brawl with two looters half hour later. Get stuck in the middle of a group of Dwellers and your health bar can be torn into ribbons in seconds. The game keeps you on your toes.
There's an important element to combat that while theoretically one of the game's better assets, is crippled by an obtuse menu system and lacklustre tutorial. Conceptually preparation is a big part of surviving Witcher. You're supposed to prepare for battles by studying menu bestiaries that suggest potions and sword oils that targets are weak against. Ideally it gets you invested in the world's lore, even in actuality its just equipping buffs as a quicker way of ending fights.
Potions, oils and upgrades need to be crafted first. As in most RPGs, materials are sourced from looting chests and bodies around the world, gathering herbs from the countryside. Thanks to the abundance of diversions the world offers, sourcing, say, the ingredients for a monster poison, could lead you to a number of fun sub-missions. Diving into lakes to pick underwater weeds, ransacking underground ruins for ingredients, tracking another monster to kill it for mutagens - there's plenty to do.