We've been hands-on with one of the most anticipated titles of 2015.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was a combat-focused fantasy RPG set in several hub worlds, but despite their size they were ultimately beautifully decorated corridors. This is about to change, with the series finally going open-world in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. During a recent press event we didn't get to see the open-world in all its glory, instead our hands-on time focused around two areas; the prologue section that culminated in a battle with an angry griffin, and an exploration of the Nordic-themed island, Ard Skellig.
Let's start with the prologue area, the place where all players will be able to cast off their training wheels and get to grips with the controls. Before the action started off in earnest we were shown the basic controls during a short introductory tutorial. Geralt of Rivia, our titular witcher, is in his quarters. We need to get out of the room, and pressing a button we use Geralt's witcher senses, revealing items of interest with icons or a shimmering red glow. We find the key needed to open the door, and go off to find another witcher, Vesemir, who sits asleep in his chair. Outside a girl is leaping between wooden posts while practising her swordplay, moving with the agility of a Jedi.
Next we meet the girl, Ciri, a character that we already know we'll be controlling later on in the game, and together we race down to the training yard, learning more of the controls as we go. Then there's some combat practice, and it's not long before we're back in a groove well worn during hours spent with Assassins of Kings.
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Fast forward a few years. We're in a guesthouse asking the landlady if she's seen someone who was rumoured to have been in these parts recently. On her advice we then go about talking with some of the patrons, and in-between learning a new card game called gwent, we get a couple of leads to follow.
These leads take us to the captain of the local Nilfgaardian garrison, and he knows where we need to go, but will only give us that information in exchange for the head of a troublesome griffin. And off we go, exploring this first hub-world, meeting the locals, fighting the wildlife, and taking on side-quests as we go. It's during this exploration that we're first blown away by the sheer amount of detail. At one point we note the mended tear on the clothes of an NPC character. At other moments we wonder how many devs were assigned the task of giving Geralt's ponytail its realistic swish.
When it comes to the side-quests there's a nice level of variety, at least as far as we could tell from this four hour introduction. We helped an elderly woman who was missing a frying pan, and another mission had Geralt uncovering the culprit of a recent arson attack. Both side-quests were interesting for different reasons. One had a fairly straightforward, yet intriguing resolution, the other was less clear cut. The tragic backstory gave us food for thought, and no matter what choice was made, somebody would go on to get hurt. The stall is set out early; very few of the decisions you'll make are cut and dry.
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We chewed through the story mission and some side-quests (there were more that we didn't get around to seeing, and talking with other journalists revealed a mix of shorter missions that we had yet to uncover), and before long we were setting up a trap for the griffin that culminated in a tricky battle with our winged opponent. Witcher fans will be familiar with the strike and dodge approach to combat. Monstrous enemies are powerful and in a straight up fight they will undoubtedly win. Instead you have to attack, move fast, dodge and roll, and use the the witcher's spells - signs - to stun and injure your opponents.
Before the trap was sprung Vesemir handed us another new tool, a crossbow, which we proceeded to use to bring the griffin out of the sky as he swooped in to attack, as well as to chip off little bits of health while we were too far away to attack with our sword. After achieving a hard-fought victory we went to turn in the head of the griffin to the local garrison and effectively end of this part of the demo, but CPR had more to show us and off we went to Skillege.
The island of Ard Skellig is The Witcher 3 at its most similar to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It's windy, desolate, beautiful, snowing, and full of gnarly jarls. The accents are different (Irish here), but much is the same. It's one of several islands, but this is the largest and, by the looks of it, it's bigger than the entirety of Assassins of Kings. The demo starts with Geralt, dressed more respectably, standing outside a huge castle, snow falling. We walk in through the guarded doors and initiate a quest line that's been prepared for us.
This time Geralt is hardier thanks to his level 15 stats, and sometime later, after another tricky battle, there's two paths to choose from; resolve the quest by physical means, or by investigating the incident - CSI Wild Hunt - and following a trail back to the guilty party. We choose the latter, and upon the quest's completion the map opened up for us and we were able to explore the island.
The beasts you discover in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt don't scale according to Geralt's level, so when we came up to a clearing that was home to a level 30 earth elemental, our sword attacks were not even making a dent to its considerable health bar. After landing several hits and making no impression at all, it landed one hit and took off half of our own health. We didn't need a second invitation and called our horse, Roach, who appeared shortly thereafter and whisked us away.
Our exploration of Ard Skellig marked the end of our hands-on time with the demo, and for the most part we were very impressed with what we saw. The cutscenes, rendered in-engine, are framed with cinematic flair, and the the voice-over that accompanies these scenes is of a high quality. Visually there's much to commend; from the character animations to the watercolour feel of the wider world (the local flora has a cel-shaded finish, likely a solution to the memory drain elsewhere, but an elegant one nevertheless). That said, the console versions of the game on show during the event didn't compare to the PC version in one key area; screen tear. Apart from a little texture pop-up, the PC version was superior than the offerings on both PS4 and Xbox One in this regard.
There's still three months for the studio to iron out these technical shortcomings if they can. There's other issues, such as lines of dialogue that went missing, and we heard of other journalists that broke the demo by doing things out of sync. Movement on horseback was occasionally frustrating, with Roach getting snagged on scenery and refusing to jump (the horse automatically follows the path most of the time, but if you go off-piste it can get tricky). Camera movement was sometimes disorientating. From time to time the hit detection felt a little off.
However, all of these issues are minor and fixable, and it reinforces the wisdom behind the decision the delay the game. There's still work to do if The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is going to deliver an experience that is as polished as it is ambitious. However, there's no reason why it can't be done.
We came away from our four hour demo with a positive impression. From everything we've seen, which admittedly isn't much in the grand scheme of things, it appears that this trilogy closer builds on and improves almost every aspect of its predecessors. The open-world feels like a natural extension and it suits, and the challenging combat and deep complexity that made previous instalments so popular remains intact. Everything is in place for this to be one of the best games of 2015, and we're very much looking forward to seeing it once CPR has ironed out the last of the kinks.