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Simply Stunning

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    The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

    Rating: 5.0 – Flawless

    Simply Stunning

    Every now and then, a video game comes along that ticks all the boxes. The Witcher 3 is one such video game.

    In my 100-and-odd hour journey through the expansive lands of the Northern Realms, not once did I feel any frustration, disappointment or anger towards this fantastic game.

    I lost track of time as I delved deep into the murky, inherently evil Crookback Bog, I ignored friends and family as I sailed between the beautiful Nordic-themed isles of Ard Skelige, and I neglected food and toilet visits as I entered a high stakes Gwent tournament in historic Novigrad. Just a mere handful of the game’s environments.

    Setting the bar very high in almost every facet; from story telling to gameplay, from side quests to open world exploration, for want of a better term, CD Projekt Red have nailed it.

    Opening with a somewhat subdued set piece (particularly in comparison to the remainder of the game), you are placed into the hands of our hero, Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter, or Witcher, as they are known in this particular fantastical world. Geralt was first dreamt up by Andrzej Sapkowski many moons ago in the fabulous short story collection The Last Wish.

    Effectively, Witchers begin life as orphaned children kidnapped at an early age and forced to under go various mutations and tests that allow for heightened skills, senses and abilities. Paid a pittance by those who require their services, Witchers are then tasked with killing the things that no one else will, the things that steal your daughters, slay your sons and cause general havoc to your local village.

    Whilst this is the third numbered game in the series, it does a very good job of providing glossaries full of historical and background information on settings, characters and events that help colour in what you may not know. Having read the novels, I feel the game can easily be played without being fully apprised of the series.

    At the outset, Geralt is hot on the heels of Cirilla, Lion Cub of Cintra, a fair young maiden whom is destined for great things. Cirilla, or Ciri, is pursued by the Wild Hunt, a spectral force determined to put an end to her life. This is framed by the backdrop of a devastating war and political unrest which is far reaching across the land. I do not wish to spoil the story but I will say that the developers did a fantastic job in escalating the main plot with absolutely memorable character interaction, not to mention outstanding battle sequences.

    The characters, both leading and minor, are full of depth and were almost always interesting. I found that even the very evil and the very saintly quite often had well worked moral quandaries and backgrounds that gave a superb basis for their reasoning for doing x or y. Above anything else, CD Projekt Red have laid such a good foundation in building the game’s many inhabitants, it was a pleasure to interact with anyone and everyone.

    The script itself is well written and colourful, dealing with traditional fantasy elements in a unique way with Polish folklore interwoven amongst mature adult themes that are dealt with efficiently and are certainly not brazen in the usual loud, video game-y way. Peril and humour, romance and heartache, death and life are expended in excellent invigorating fashion with some sharply written dialogue. Even those minor NPCs have a few diamonds â€?You’re a well travelled man, how often should I beat my wench? Once a week or more?.

    From a technical perspective, the game is consistently brilliant across all fronts. The scenery is lush and sprawling, with wide open rolling hills and blossoming meadows, intersected by the honest brutality of a war-torn country, thick Tolkien-esque forests cover the horizon, as well as various bustling cities and lesser villages thrown into the mix. The sense that these could be real world locations is astounding and testament to the amount of effort put into the game by the developers.

    Compared to such other technical open world marvels (Grand Theft Auto 5), this game was made on a far lesser budget ($80 million to $256 million) making it all the more of an achievement.

    And it doesn’t stop there, with the ambience and weather affects being some of the best I have seen in a video game. From the way the setting sun breaks through foliage on the horizon as you race across the landscape to your next contract to the battering storms that drive rain into your face and soak the world in a beautifully rendered manner, it can come across all very romantic. I am reminded that, in open world titles, when you get the little things right, then the bigger things fit into place much easier.

    Naturally, the soundtrack both for ambient and cinematic scores is truly memorable. Quite often I’d find myself humming a particular tune in a quiet lull or find myself inspired by a particular instrumental in the middle of a tense battle, moving seamlessly to fit any given moment. On a similar note, the voice acting is by far the best I have ever come across in a video game, up there with the likes of The Last of Us and Telltale’s first season of The Walking Dead, putting the uninspired voice acting of Skyrim to shame.

    Whilst the Witcher 2 had an equally interesting setting and story, its incessant loading screens, poor frame rate, mediocre visuals, as well as particularly clunky combat and controls marred the experience for me. Thankfully the Witcher 3 addresses these issues which I found all worked fluidly and I did not encounter any particular problems, moving in and out of menus with ease and very little in the way of loading screens.

    As for combat, which is probably the most openly criticised element of the game by others, I have to say I honestly enjoyed the soft-locked multi-enemy approach, despite its familiarity. What was particularly interesting however was having to read up about your enemies and research their habits, likely locations and particular weaknesses and thereafter having to apply the relevant oils, runes and signs (being a rudimentary form of magic) to your plan of attack. It just added an extra layer of immersion in my opinion and made preparation for any given battle an absolute must.

    The game is divided up into several areas, within which are vast lands to explore, loot and enjoy. The game takes a fresh approach to main missions, side missions and lesser objectives in that the game and creates a great sense of impact, especially in the final third. You truly do feel like your decisions matter and affect the landscape of the world both physically and politically. Side missions are especially impressive with particular depth, emotion and variation that you would not expect in a video game (starting early with the events surrounding the Bloody Baron). At the end of it all, given the variation employed, you truly do get the sense of what being a Witcher is like and that this is a fantastically fresh take on open world video games.

    In terms of criticisms, what I do have are very minor and did not affect my enjoyment of the game whatsoever.

    Anyway, in seeking to go off and explore the world, completing the various non-story related missions, I found that by the time I came back to story missions, Geralt was over levelled and I was able to dispatch enemies without too much challenge, even on higher difficulties. Although, in all honesty, I’m not sure how best to resolve that as this is present in many other games.

    That said this minor criticism also had a positive affect. It meant that there were numerous extremely challenging side missions I could try my hand at early on �areas that I felt a little out of my depth attempting but were certainly satisfying if I did manage to complete them. On quite a number of occasions, I was forced to retreat, rethink and approach the situation from a different angle.

    That, ladies and gentleman, is the sign of a great video game.

    As for other criticisms, whilst funds are initially difficult to generate, I found that [approaching the halfway point] I had plenty in the coffers but very little to truly buy. Weaponry and armour was easy to come by in exploring the world and it was quite rare that any shops would hold any more interesting items than what I had already found, bar one or two exceptions.

    Candles. For some reason, the game allows you light every one you can find (or it could at the time I played this). Unfortunately, the issue here is that there quite often candles near objects of interest or NPCs you can interact with. You can imagine the fun which ensues�/p>

    Yep, over levelling, too much money and an abundance of candles are my issues with the game. I’d say that’s really encouraging for such a large open world game as this.

    On top of everything I have mentioned here, there’s one thing I only touched upon briefly. And it’s quite possibly one of the greatest elements of this game. Gwent.

    Gwent is a point based card game wherein the winner of each round is the player who has accumulated the most points after a “best of threeâ€? There are four different playing factions: Northern Realm, Nilfgaardian, Monsters and Scoia-tael whom each have their own playing bonus.

    The beauty of this particularly card game, aside from the fact that most recently the cards have been released physically alongside the substantive (and thoroughly enjoyable) sets of DLC, Heart of Stone and Blood & Wine, is that the game forces to you gradually build and structure your deck by playing other players in the world (some of whom you will find easy and others extremely challenging).

    There is a strategic depth and addiction that goes hand in hand with Gwent as you think carefully about each card you play, considering whether to save high value or ability cards until later or how to best employ your special cards. Quite often, a match isn’t really decided until the last throw of the dice (or card in this instance). To develop and include an addictive “littleâ€?card game within a game such as this is amazing.

    It is also refreshing to note that CD Projekt Red had the stones to release timed free DLC across 8 to 10 weeks (during the initial launch window) for free! Yes, free DLC. Whilst this was not particularly substantive, varying from additional outfits, artwork for Gwent, weapon sets, contracts and so forth, it is something adverse to that which has become a worrying trend in video games this past decade.

    Minor elements such as this are usually at a price �you can see this across the likes of Call of Duty, Assassins Creed, Battlefield and other big named franchises. Map packs, weapon packs et al for a cost �these minor, inconsequential items were things that, once upon a time, were free unlocks as part of natural progression in a game. But not any more.

    That’s why CD Projekt Red are probably now one of my favourite developers for the aforementioned reason. That, and they still make manuals, another rare thing.

    Final Verdict �5 / 5

    The Witcher 3 [PS4] is stunning; a technical marvel on many fronts �storytelling, gameplay, world building �and is deservedly game of the year 2015.

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