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.
But it doesn't work like that. We needed Wolfsbane to poison an otherwise quickly-healing werewolf. We have no clue of where it'd likely grow (hillside? By a lake? In a forest?), and the only herbalist who might sell some was a long ride away. And that was a "might", leading to a lengthy detour. Elsewhere we wanted to forge armour from schematics we found, but needed Dark Plates to finish the build. We had to find a blacksmith and painstakingly go through our collected wares one by one to see if any could be dismantled to source the material, and when that yielded nothing, we had to hope to stumble on some by chance along the way. "Needle in a haystack" comes to mind. Some pointers - general areas that you'll find what's needed - would have been of huge benefit.
The menu system doesn't cater for easy management or custom lists, and while we're deep into the double-dights in our hours playing, we're still confused by it. The result is we're left feeling like we're missing an important element of the game, and combat devolves into a slow slugfest as we chip away at enemy health knowing we could be better equipped and therefore have a better chance of survival.
It's the one part of the game that doesn't feel welcoming to newcomers. Concessions could be seen as pandering to casual console players, much as Mass Effect was arguably diluted into an action-heavy RPG as the trilogy finished, but there's no denying the lack of hints or explanations here is a weakness for everyone other than the hardcore PC RPG crowd. The game would be much more approachable and enjoyable as a result.
The reason this doesn't kill our enthusiasm is fights don't feel insurmountable. They're just tougher. A battle in a dank cave against an ancient Foglet - a teleporting goblin-like horror that'll evaporate from sword thrusts then reform behind you - is exciting precisely because we're underprepared. We were on a slither of health for most of the struggle, each near-miss of its claws as we performed yet another perfectly-timed sidestep bringing a beat of sweat to our brow.
As overwhelming but clearer is the XP system, another deep chasm of potential buffs and character upgrades that with multiple tabs and unlocking sections requires careful reading to decide what best suits your play style. This isn't Skyrim - you can't choose to develop a fire-wielding mage or ranged rogue - but there's some good thinking that's went into each of abilities to activate. There's no easy answer as to what'd be best to develop to strengthen ‘your' Geralt.
And equally the story delivers in a big way. We like that your immersion in the world is entirely your choice; ask additional questions in conversation for characters to wax lyrical about the world, or be curt and get right to the thrust of the quest. But there's consequence to a lot you do here, and no choices are straightforward. One major one early on we replayed when the immediate fallout was not to our liking. Little did we know the greater horrors to come picking the other until hours later. No-one gets out unscathed. There's as many shades of grey here as in any season of Game of Thrones.
That said, the character switch introduced as way to tell two co-current storylines disappoints somewhat, though more because combat is simplified and XP is locked when playing as Geralt's one-time ward Ciri. The switch is enforced - no hot-swop by choice here - as you get a short glimpse to what Ciri's been up to for a short spell, usually revolving around some (in comparison) limited combat. And as your fighting options expand as the former, the latter's basic offerings feel more and more lacking. Story and dialogue though, remains strong.
There's a lot of that in Wild Hunt. Overlaid onto a map that's easily the equal of the likes of Red Dead Redemption and Elder Scrolls, it's easy to be overwhelmed and lose threads, forget characters. Background NPC chatter as you enter villages and towns add yet more hints to the wider world, but it'd be churlish to see this as a negative, as again, it adds to the richness of the world.
Our advice? Stick to one region and see out what quests and discoveries you can find at your current level before moving on. All places have quests that you'll need higher levels for and therefore need to return to, but racing between different areas and scouring noticeboards to unlock missions can easily see you acquire a huge backlog of missions that lose impact as you lose touch with the persons they're attached to. You lose track of what's going on, and so stop caring.
You could, possibly, clock the game in that 25 hour speed run CD Projekt claim. But why would you want to? This is a world to be savoured, explored. Noticeboards and NPC talk will drop question mark icons onto your world map with potential unknowns at those locations, but there's much more to find than even those. If you so wish there's option to toggle off HUD markers and breadcrumb trails to objectives. NPCs do a good job pointing you in the right direction, and the devs use visual markers to get you in the right area. Searching for clues with your Witcher sense are more involving when you don't have a footstep countdown to your next checkpoint.
Sometimes you don't need to active a quest line to stumble upon its beginnings, and to an extent can play things out of order, with your impact interwoven organically into the story. It can be big: bargaining for a stamped pass ended prematurely when the trader asked us to help his brother clear a battlefield nearby - the brother we'd failed to save when doing just that hours earlier when we were overrun by ghouls. It can also be small things, like a gate guard becoming less surly with us when his partner recognised us from a potential bar brawl we'd diffused that day. All help build the illusion of an interconnected world.
World design taps into medieval England with an overlay of European folklore. You can easily imagine this skirting into Monty Python territory, and while some of the common populace feel a tad cliche, what humour there is is dour and dark, if not unfunny. The effects of war on populace and land, the continual fear of the unknown skews this closer to Game of Thrones infused with Del Toro's horror works. Everyone and everything has a surprising depth, a history to them. Take your time to be immersed and you'll be as equally entranced with a metaphor-heavy heart-breaking talk between ex-lovers as you will with the discovery of an executed wife's last days as you uncover evidence of her murder.
Wild Hunt's a game brimming with diverse, involving content. That we don't feel as emotionally connected to Geralt as we would Red Dead's John Marston or Joel and Ellie in Last of Us may be an issue intrinsic to the fantasy genre with its clear separation from the real world, or that this is a character whose personality and relationships comes with two games' worth of baggage. That's not to say playing Witcher 2 is an essential to enjoying the game, far from it. He's still an engaging lead; shame that his inventory and crafting skills are overly convoluted.
Reviewer's note: This review was based on a PS4 debug version of the game, but we didn't spot any major bugs during our week's worth of play (other than an NPC character clipping during one cutscene). A day one patch will be available when the retail version is released. We'll be looking at that as well, and if there are any major changes - positive or otherwise - we'll update our review.