We're going to cheat a little and wax lyrical about the whole of The Witcher 3 when talking about it being the Game of Last Year, and that includes content that landed in 2016. This year our 2015 game of the year was completed by the release of Blood & Wine, with CD Projekt Red's ambitious action-infused role-playing game fleshed out further with what's effectively a whole new adventure. Technically it's an expansion, otherwise you can bet your bum that it'd be in our top ten games of the year for 2016, such is the quality that it brings to the table. But before we marvel at what CDPR put out in 2016, let's first remember the brilliance of Wild Hunt.
Although it had glaring issues on launch, CD Projekt Red's continued support with over ten patches and 16 free DLCs turned The Witcher 3 into a much smoother, better optimised, and more accessible game. There aren't many single-player adventures that get this kind of support, and over such a long period of time. Beyond that, our biggest criticism is that this is a game that has been built firmly with the male gaze in mind, and perhaps it lacks completely universal appeal. There are strong women featured throughout this world, but there's also a lot of cleavage, and for some that'll be off-putting.
Those who can look past (or don't mind looking at) a bit of nudity - even Geralt gets his kit off - will be treated to one of the most compelling game worlds ever crafted. It's overflowing with interesting stories of all shapes and sizes, and perhaps CDPR's greatest legacy is the excellence of the side-quests that litter these complex and immersive environments. The studio showed the rest of the world that distractions along the way needn't been filler, and there's character and personality at every turn.
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Whether walking through city streets, braving the seas of Skellige Isles, or wading through the vineyards of Toussaint, there's intrigue everywhere, and simply checking out the local notice board will reveal new missions ideally suited to the skillset of a monster hunter extraordinaire. The characters you meet during your adventures are well written, competently voiced, and nicely animated, and there's plenty of interesting detail on offer that adds new threads to the overall tapestry of your understanding of the local and wider lore.
Just as the side-quests are brilliantly done, so to is the main story (don't worry, it's not something we plan on spoiling). We will, however, say that it offers hours or entertainment, dragging you as it does across a world filled with engaging characters each with their own motivations that are often at odds with those of Geralt.
There's a common theme that extends across main and side-quests alike, and that's the moral ambiguity that defines so much of your decision making. There's often no right answer, and guiding Geralt through these events is often an exercise in trying to find the lesser of two evils. There is no black and white here, this isn't a binary world, but rather it's a wash of grey that's full of ulterior motives.
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There were two paid-for expansions. Heart of Stone was smaller in scale, and nestled nicely inside existing locations, but t offered a new Runeword system, and over ten hours of content with some amazing new quests. From attending a wedding possessed by a ghost, to planning and executing a heist GTA-style, the first paid-for DLC had a lot going for it.
Blood & Wine, on the other hand, took Geralt to the sun-kissed world of Toussaint, and in a 15 hour plus adventure allowed our white-haired monster slayer to wrap up his story and retire in his own upgradable estate. The story saw our hero squaring up to vampires in a land defined by chivalry and knightly tradition. Unlike Heart of Stone, it offered a whole new sandbox world for Geralt to explore, and it offered the kind of depth that many standalone single-player games can only dream of.
Great writing and rich world design will only get you so far, but The Witcher 3 is much more than that. The combat and crafting systems, that has you upgrading your abilities and crafting potions and lotions to help you in a pinch, feed into the fact that Geralt is often up against extremely dangerous enemies. In fact, the monster designs are among the very best in gaming, and the player has a deep and challenging system to engage with if they're to dominate the battlefield.
There's some brilliant beasties along the way too, from griffins to giant toads, and CDPR keep the surprises coming throughout. These creatures have been expertly crafted from a visual perspective, and challenging gameplay design requires investigating your surroundings for anything that might give you an edge in battle, before learning attack patterns and dodging dangerous blows. Indeed, Geralt has to use his brain just as much as his brawn, and there's plenty to make you think as you continue your adventure, with little mysteries popping up along the way that need to be figured out.
There's depth in every area, from the magic powers that help Geralt during combat, to the oils, bombs, and potions that make him increasingly deadly in battle. It looks fantastic, with sharp and expertly crafted character and enemy design contrasted by stunning art and a watercolour feel that at times has you stopping just to admire the views. But while the world is beautiful and deadly in equal measure, much of what makes this game so compelling is the ugliness that exists in every dark corner, confronting you with uncomfortable moral quandaries that have you questioning your judgement throughout. It's this bleakness, this unpredictability, this plausible hostility of a country in turmoil that turned what's undoubtedly a great game into our game of the year, an honour that was bestowed on it by both critics and players alike.
From the gut wrenching Bloody Baron saga, to night drinking with your fellow Witchers (an extracurricular activity that can involve cross-dressing and goats; Geralt likes a drink), we were given so many memories during The Witcher 3's amazing adventure. And don't even get us started on our Gwent addiction (a card game that proved so popular it's now going standalone).
Geralt's third game well and truly put CD Projekt Red on the map, transforming this competent and assured studio into one of the most respected developers in the industry. While we're not the only ones sad that they've drawn a line under this fantasy series, we also don't blame them for doing so; retiring something when it's at the very pinnacle of its field is a luxury that not many have (it looks like we're seeing it again this year and next, with Naughty Dog wrapping up Uncharted on their own terms too). At the same time we can't wait to see what this studio does next, and the world's eyes are now fixed firmly on Cyberpunk 2077. Frankly, it can't come soon enough.