Format Tested – Xbox One
Stirling Castle, cradled defensively by the steep cliffs of Castle Hill, still stands as proudly and prominently as it did during the 15th Century. This beautiful, high-rise area, has seen the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots, eight major sieges, and even association with King Arthur himself. So it’s little wonder that CD Projekt RED have used it as a source of inspiration for the crown-jewel of their globally renowned Witcher trilogy.
Despite being the pride of Poland, Scottish ambiance is prevalent throughout The Witcher 3, not just with its beautiful vistas and snow-capped scenery, but in narration as well. The Witcher 3 has a solid cast of English, Irish, Scottish and even Welsh voice actors, their guttural tones drawing you into to an age of high fantasy and medieval savagery. This mesh of culture works wonderfully and really sets the scene for something truly special.
I got to spend three hours with the game and my presentation was primarily focused on the Prologue area of the game, though I also got a sneak peek at a section much later on in The Witcher 3. Early on we see Geralt training a young Ciri, teaching her how to maintain her balance while dancing along the parapets of Kaer Morhen, the Witcher’s training fortress, but also how to wield a blade and sign-cast.
As CD Projekt RED have already revealed, we will get to play as Ciri in The Witcher 3, so this makes the opening sequence all the more interesting. While my demonstration didn’t take me away from Geralt, from a character perspective, I’ve learned that Ciri is a feisty, excitable, impressionable young girl, certain to be hardened by events to come. She also happens to be Geralt and Yennefer’s adopted daughter, so there’s family ties there.
It quickly becomes clear that The Witcher 3 is a more natural fit for consoles than Assassins of Kings ever was. The camera is less jagged and overly responsive, it now pans much more smoothly. Geralt’s reactions are also less stunted. His motions, both in combat and movement are more fluid. Geralt can now climb ladders to reach higher platforms and make timely jumps to get across gaps. He can also duck, weave and roll out of the way of danger when in combat, which makes for much more dynamic action. Then there’s the combination of sign-casting and using both a sword and crossbow to fend off opponents. The Witcher 3 has its own version of Fus-Ro-Dah which can propel enemies backwards and away from you. There’s also a Stun sign which keeps an enemy fixated in a circle on the ground. There’s even a sign which can set them on fire!
Bombs have also made a comeback. In The Witcher 3 you can get an over-shoulder view of Geralt and aim using the analog stick. The aiming system takes a bit of getting used to – you’ll always need to aim lower than you expect – but once you’ve used it a few times, it soon becomes second nature.
Once the tutorial element of the prologue is over, the presumed protection of Kaer Morhen is disturbed by the Wild Hunt, an enigmatic group of savages, fully clothed in plate armor. I don’t learn much about them in my time with the game, but their parting words to both me and Geralt are ‘I’ve waited a long time for this, White Wolf.’ – The scene then quickly switches to present day Geralt who had been reliving the tutorial section as a dream.
The Prologue begins proper on the road to Temeria. Both Geralt and his mentor, Vesemir are sat around a campfire, preparing to search for a woman who smells of ‘Lilac and Gooseberries’ and hope to find some answers in a nearby town.
As they’re resting, however, the two Witchers are set upon by a horde of goblins. The goblins hint at a darker presence nearby, and cause both Witchers to be on their way sooner than they had anticipated. Sure enough, they soon find a cowering man on their way to the town who is trying to hide from a large Griffon. The Griffon has been terrorizing the townsfolk by tearing into their livestock and killing their families. While Geralt and Vesemir remain stalwart in their desire to find this woman, it soon becomes clear to both of them that their paths are certain to cross with the Griffon sooner rather than later. They are, after all, professional monster slayers.
From here, we get an early taste of the game’s dynamic weather and day and night system and finally get to see the true capabilities of REDengine 3 in action. As we begin, it’s sun-rise and the glorious, orangey hue is both blinding and awe-inspiring. The use of sun in games is usually a great way to show off the quality of the lighting and environmental effects. The Witcher 3 is certainly no exception with its mesmerizing shades, different degrees of rain and cloudy skies. And yet, the system is not only created for aesthetic effect as the monsters Geralt faces in The Witcher 3 actually respond to the cycles. For instance, Werewolves will only come out at night and are much stronger when faced under a full moon. You’ll also find that some monsters can only be faced in certain weather conditions and in certain areas, you’ll find that townspeople will choose to stay indoors because it’s too cold outside. As such, The Witcher 3 requires you to pay attention to the environment in ways you’re not used to with traditional role-playing games.
Entering town, it soon becomes clear that Witchers are not the most welcome of people in Temeria. When entering a nearby tavern, Geralt is given the hostile treatment by some of the locals when asking about the missing woman. It’s up to you how you further the conversation. We all know Geralt is good at fighting and could probably kick their asses from here to Sunday, beating it out of them, but there are other ways to progress the situation. Geralt can allow the insults to go over his head, he can respond in kindness, or he can even use one of his signs like a Jedi Mind Trick. This trick will get the person to involuntarily tell them everything they know. Of course, people will know what you’re up to and quickly tell everyone nearby that you’re practicing Witchcraft. Those are the risks you take.
And here’s the thing, if you start a fight in a town or steal something in sight of the guards, there’s tremendous backlash. Not only will you get all the hefty guards pummel you to the ground, you’ll lose all your gold, as well as some experience.
Other locals are slightly more welcoming, but just as competitive. One drinker challenged me to a few rounds of Gwent, a card game with a twist. It’s a turn-based, fast-paced game that is said to feature over 150 unique cards, alongside four factions, hero and spell cards and more. Each card has a different value and can be placed on the front line, back-line or at the center, but you can also skip turns and choose not to place a card from your deck. However, opponents can also place cards on your row and directly challenge your card. The aim is to have the highest amount of points at the end of a round, and most rounds win. It’s good, simple, competitive fun and the Hearthstone comparisons are mostly fair aside from aforementioned differences. It’s certainly not as easy to get to grips with.
When I get as much information as I can, I start to look around the town to see if I can pick up a few quests along the way. Sure enough, the townsfolk have plenty to offer. In addition to a massive noticeboard full of cries for help, I encounter several NPCs with their own sets of conundrums. The beauty of The Witcher 3 is that the developers stress they’ve spent as much time on the side-quests as they have the main story, and it shows. Side-quests don’t feel like traditional ‘grab and bag’ reward fests, they’re driven by narrative, first and foremost, and often the course of a particular mission will change as you progress. Your moral compass will often be challenged. For instance, one mission you’re tasked with finding a deserter from the battlefield, but when you find the deserter sat with another deserter from the opposite side, both choosing to spend their final hours together, you get to decide their fate, whether you choose to leave them be, or hand them into the authorities for a substantial reward.
The interesting thing about The Witcher 3 is that there is no Paragon or Renegade choice ala Mass Effect. You have to follow your gut and do what feels right to you, the narrative will then unfold naturally from there. The game doesn’t judge you on those choices, it’s merely impacted by them. It’s the next evolution for narrative within gaming with titles no longer hand-holding you, trying to teach you right from wrong. The collar is off now and the decisions are truly yours to make.
Missions generally require you to make use of your Witcher senses, whether you’re tracking footprints, blood stains or dirt disturbances. Often these clues will develop the narrative of your mission, providing answers or prompting further questions. In terms of the Prologue, as we mentioned earlier, the end goal is to confront the Griffon, and in one of the game missions, you’ll actually need to learn more about your prey – its size, sex and age – before confronting it. This helps build the entry that goes into your Bestiary, which can then later be used to your advantage to gain the upper hand on an opponent. Bestiary entries reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a character, when they venture out into the wild, which signs are most effective against them, amongst other snippets of knowledge. Suffice it to say, keeping it close at hand is a life-saver during critical moments.
With certain missions, you’re also able to haggle for higher rewards. Being a Professional Monster Hunter is a real job and people expect to pay Witchers for their services, but if your asking fee is lower than what they’re offering, you can ask for more. Be careful, however,
As you might expect, The Witcher 3 is a massive game, so navigating its varying backdrops on foot is probably not the smartest plan. Thankfully we have Roach the horse. Roach is like most other horses in games, he can sprint, he can gallop, he can leap over gaps and hop fences and will come to your side whenever you call. But Roach can also serve as a mobile-banking area. Thanks to the saddlebags on his sides, you can store non-essential items, freeing up crucial inventory space but still have them close at hand. That’s potentially a real game-changer in the RPG space.
It’s also best to think of Roach as another side character in your party, not just a static vehicle that gets you from A to B. In addition to his stamina bar, if you venture into a dangerous area – whether your level is too low, or the area is dark or there’s an army waiting for you – Roach also has a fear factor. If he gets spooked, it will go up. If the fear factor maxes out, Roach will turn around and abandon you, leaving you to fight off whatever is in front of you.
The game’s levelling system is fairly similar to ones you’ve seen elsewhere, though one major difference is grouping abilities from the same family together to gain additional bonuses. For example, if you level up one section of a tree and map abilities from that tree, you could gain additional strength bonuses, or even an all new ability unique to that family. I didn’t get to play much with the talent trees in my demonstration, but the foundations are certainly interesting and open to a great deal of customization.
The prologue gives a great indication of what’s to come, but I also got the chance to briefly look at Skellige, the area of The Witcher 3 most influenced by Scottish culture and Sterling Castle. From exquisite banquets to viking culture and a whole lot of bears, my time with the later stages of the game was just as eventful and enjoyable as the early-goings.
Getting to see the places that influenced this creative and committed development team bring this certain masterpiece to life certainly gives me a greater appreciation for the world and community surrounding The Witcher. From first hand experience, this imagined world feels authentic and genuine.
The Witcher 3 is brutally beautiful and has everything going for it. CD Projekt RED have got so much right and, unquestionably, are on track to make the game of 2015. The wait for May 19th got that much harder.