February 6, 2020 at 7:21 PM #903
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding
Springtime for Poland and Witcher 3
I am daunted. Witcher 3 is huge, complex, detailed beyond belief, makes no concessions for series newbies, and there’s some talking point to be made about almost everything it does. I haven’t felt so overwhelmed by the option range and interplaying mechanics of a game since Deus Ex and System Shock 2; it isn’t a thing that happens anymore outside of maybe New Vegas. Surprisingly this isn’t unforgiving for new players, it’s confusing but it isn’t a game I had to restart over and over since builds and development are kinda unimportant; it’s overwhelmingly complex but the complexities don’t mean much.
The game is bold yet utterly devoid of streamlining and it’s a massive shock to the system. The comparatively lower budget hasn’t sacrificed graphics, size or acting quality, instead it’s sacrificed a vetting system as every idea anyone involved in the creation had is included. There’s three different crafting systems, multiple buffing mechanics offering passive and combat gains, a fully-fledged card game, multiple skill trees which link into a limited number of upgrade slots to be switched between tactically, and then nested and contextualized menus for all of that. It feels like nothing was left on the cutting room floor; the tutorial section alone is about four hours long. Amazingly this is the third entry in the series and was designed with consoles in mind so this must be the most streamlined effort so far, it’s madness!
This puts The Wild Hunt in a tough position to review. It’s a story game featuring a lot of non-story content and it’s great by the standards of story games which usually approach it with equal parts apathy and disgust, like a rice cracker with some poo on it. This sits somewhere between "great for a story RPG" and "below average for an x-genre game". I’ve never liked praising or damning something based solely on competition comparison because it’s reductive and counterproductive to forming a clear opinion, but this invites that thought process quite often. It has so many ideas going on and hits a lot of unexpected bases, but it’s hard to decide if they’re outright good or if it’s just impressive to see them try. Was Michael Jordan pretty decent at baseball for a basketballer, or was he just a rubbish baseball player?
Did you know this used to be a book?
At any rate the "point" of The Witcher is the story, and it’s one that makes watching 130 hours of cutscenes amazingly fun. The tone sits perfectly between pulpy and serious allowing it to switch between lightly comedic and horrifically bleak in an instant without feeling out of place. I’ve never read the books but the game has either taken serious liberties or they’re a little more trashy and playful than dramatic and epic. There’s a war and beloved friends can get impaled in the middle of the shopping district, but Geralt mostly stays out of it, does his job, drinks, goes whoring, plays cards, cracks jokes and generally isn’t a sad-sack. Sure he’s grizzled but with enough sarcasm and smarmy charm to never make it a slog through sadness despite the existence of miscarriage zombies. It’s pretty low brow and filled with pop culture and folktale references so maybe there’s a lack of "artistic depth", but I love this pulpy mood from videogames and this nails it better than anything else on the market.
Importantly our protagonist Geralt is, well, Geralt. He isn’t a player avatar or a blank slate to project onto; Geralt is a defined character with his own motivations, emotions, knowledge and personality. He exists within a game with dialogue choices and branching paths rather than being created for it. This means that the writers are able to make an internally consistent, likeable protagonist who can shift moods without coming across as a bipolar cartoon. "Nice" options have a little sting of tension under them or imply that Geralt is trying to diffuse the situation without chopping people in half diagonally, rather than the dead eyed boy scout wholesomeness of Sheppard or Fallout 4-dude, so when you snap and disperse the crowd into evenly sized portions throughout the tavern it isn’t jarring. Interactions are engaging to be involved in and feel authentic even with your outside influence.
There’s clearly been a lot of effort in making these characters relatable as the graphics, voice acting and music are phenomenal, faces are particularly expressive and reflect their current moods excellently with a lot of detail put into the eyes and facial movements. You can see a few seams as faces are reused to a distracting degree and when cutting between dialogue trees there can be daytime soap fades, but overall characters are emotive and are easily liked or hated as intended.
The heavily characterized protagonist does have downsides when it comes to the investigation sections of the game. As part of his job Geralt needs to do more than simply stab guys in the neck, he also needs to track down that neck and make sure it’s the right neck. Passages of combat and chatting will routinely be broken up with some 13th century CSI to find tracks and remains to determine exactly who or what a target could be to aid in preparation for what awaits. It’s a cool idea and I wish I could say it wasn’t merely an ok break from all the killin’ and bonin’, but I can’t simply because Geralt is a master tracker, not you. The mechanic devolves into examining glowing items so Geralt can tell you exactly what’s waiting ahead and how to handle it. It’s a solid little aside from other primary tasks which builds up the character and his place in the world, but it could’ve been something amazing in another game.
You are Bewiiiiiiiiiitccchhered
That whole issue would be a lot more relevant if this really was a game about monster hunting and combat with intricate and important buff decision making and careful pre-planning, and Witcher 3 really isn’t despite having mechanics out the ass for everything. At the hardest difficulty levels the buffs and oils have some sort of a place, but otherwise the preparation and actual fight to end these investigations sadly isn’t that big of a deal. While I now have a unending desire for there to be a hard as nails combat game where you prepare for fights based on passages of in-depth sleuthing and win or lose based on your study of evidence and precautionary decisions, The Wild Hunt is not that game. This is a game about stories and people, everything else is an add on.
The majority of the tasks fit into three categories: Main quests which directly link into the very simplistic overarching plot, Secondary quests which relate to your friends or miscellaneous events happening around the world, and Witcher Contracts which are Geralt’s exterminator day job. The main and secondary quests are often only classed differently due to plot relevance rather than scale or complexity, while Contracts are a bite sized version of the gameplay loop. Adventures typically begin with a lengthy discussion to give an emotional or practical link to the events at hand, then there’s some investigation and/or a fight, then there’ll be a revelation which raises stakes or flips around your preconceptions and possibly a dialogue branch on how to react to the new drama, then it can repeat as needed. Most plots manage to be unique in some way and outside of a few Contracts there’s a refusal to play anything dead straight. While the twists aren’t exactly mindblowing most of the time seeing a game take so much care to avoid flat and directionless questing is incredibly absorbing.
The levelling system plays into this strength since you gain very little experience from killing enemies. Instead, when you’re getting near a new level you’ll do a couple of secondary missions or contracts for the extra XP. Even if they are charming by their own rights the game goes a bit overboard with the sheer quantity of smaller missions and doing all of them will leave you overlevelled for the main plot, so I get the impression this is how it’s meant to be handled. This is a game where grinding portions are just more unique handcrafted stories and I cannot fathom how Bethesda can sell radiant quests a positive when this exists.
Decisions decisions decisions
The Witcher 3 keeps you involved in these character based stories with dialogue trees focussed on butterfly effects, no win outcomes, and forcing stances before facts are revealed to varying degrees of success. There are some rippers like the famous Bloody Baron sidequest which manages to blend all three concepts together into a convoluted moral quandary where you’re never going to feel completely comfortable in your decisions, but in a good way. On the other hand the weakest quests in the game fall into these categories too, particularly when they’re forced into breezy tasks that can be completed in under ten minutes. There’s a lot spotfire events around where you’ll find someone getting their teeth kicked in and you have the choice to intervene or let it happen without finding out the truth before picking sides, and while it’s a fun situation to be put into the first couple of times the lack of change ups does wear thinner than Trump’s chain link wall.
The worst of the bigger sidequests either don’t give the option to talk things through peacefully or fail to make the moral quandary actually a quandary. Take the utterly idiotic one where a jilted ex-wife puts a fatal curse on her ex’s child out spite and demands he abandons his new family to poverty and returns to her. The choices here are to tell him to do it, reverse the curse on her, or let the kid die. Infuriatingly you never get option to tell her that you will flat out murder her if she doesn’t stop killing an innocent child, and come on, kill a child vs kill a woman who is killing an innocent child isn’t a quandary. If you reasonably kill the child torturemurderer Geralt takes a moment to express his grief over the psychopath’s death like it was the evil choice. This sort of thing pops up more often in the back half of the game and it’s the only blight in an otherwise satisfying process.
I have a question for you
I’m not actually sure whether I should be bothered by this topic or not, but it’s fun to talk about regardless. That primary gameplay loop of fleshed out stories is easily worth over a hundred hours but CD Projekt Red didn’t stop there; enter question marks. Like every open world game The Witcher 3 smothers its world with mystery icons for doing extremely minor pieces of content like clearing bandit camps, destroying monster nests, raiding scaled loot bins, uninfesting infested towns, powering up at shrines and all that crap which fills up the grand expanses of these types of worlds. While this is standard operating procedure for the genre this doesn’t have any need to play for time at all, there’s so much handcrafted content here that the checklist feels more out of place than usual.
Icons can be turned off so the map doesn’t have to be covered with dozens of markers tempting you into wasting your time. I played sections of the game like this it did make stumbling into random bandit camps less lame than actively seeking out disappointment, but completionism and the enjoyment of liberating townships and finding stat boosts made it hard to embrace wilful ignorance, even when only a fifth of stops are remotely interesting.
These sections have scaled loot which I despise at the best of times, but it’s particularly painful here because the game already features an effective loot limitation system. Every piece of armour and weaponry has a minimum level requirement before it can be used to restrict the player from getting overgeared, adding loot scaling to this means that not only will you never be able to use anything powerful immediately, you won’t even get anything that could be powerful in future. The two systems actively clash together without consideration. What’s more the game already has more structured treasure hunts which visit all the well-designed miscellaneous places while providing objectively better gear than anything you’ll ever find or buy. The hunts feature note based storylines for each marker too so they’re basically the better content in a lot of open world RPGs; the outright padding is beneath the game.
But does the existence of crappy optional content matter when there’s an eternity of meticulously handcrafted and supreme content out there? God knows I didn’t do all of it and the worst that happened was unlocking an upgraded bomb forty hours before I found the base version. This is filler with virtually no downsides for ignoring and the related obnoxious screen stuffing can be turned off; it’s clearly subpar but it’s also 100% avoidable, so should I care? I don’t have a set answer, it just feels like I should on some kind of vague principle I didn’t know I lived by. The presence of this stuff didn’t actively affect my experience at all but I don’t like that it’s there anyway, it’s the vibe.
Wait, is this what it feels like to be anti-gay marriage?
Could do with some Polish… that joke doesn’t work in text format.
For something easier I do have a bunch of niggles with the game to bag out where I’m actually confident they suck. The menus are goddamned agony, I recently pooped (fairly) all over Breath of the Wild’s nightclub toilet of a menu system, but this might be friggen worse! Witcher 3 has the defence of being an infinitely more complex game, so complex in fact that the game apparently can’t handle it because the menus have freaking input lag! Have any of you ever used a remote desktop to run an Excel spreadsheet using a capped 256kb connection? Well today’s your lucky day!
While every input lagging sucks enough there some weird design choices too. When items are sold the list leaves blank holes, items are differing sizes so the cursor doesn’t move in a reliable fashion, particularly when the next item in range is on a diagonal. Player and merchant lists are not separated properly and the cursor doesn’t automatically drop rows when reaching the end of one, so it’s easy to jump between lists accidentally. Tabs separating the various classes of items are only scrollable from the top menu row since the triggers are used on entire menu sections, forcing you to constantly move up and down the entirety of lists. You can’t sell equipped gear or change equipment in a sales menu while merchant and inventory menus are three nested depths away from each other with a forced dialogue in between. The item descriptions for selected items pop up directly over the top of every other item in the vicinity.
The map is spoilt for choice with the range of toggles for what appears on it, but for some reason it doesn’t show all results, so if you just want to see if any nearby towns have a blacksmith to craft a new item, too bad, until you’re right next to them there’s a choice of three random ones. The minimap is zoomed to an immediate range of only a few buildings making it easy to get disoriented as you can’t see enough landmarks.
Movement is famously divisive and for good reason. The idea is clearly to make Geralt feel fast and graceful at pace so when you’re running free the controls feel great; You turn on a dime and the climbing and jumping mechanics are fluid while sprinting, but then things slow down… To make this hyper agile movement work Geralt sets off from a standing start at a panicked sprint, launching himself into a Tom Cruise movie at the slightest provocation, yet to make those graceful running turns possible he stops with a heels-in-the-dirt slide. Precise movements are agony as it’s virtually impossible to take a couple of steps or change direction without cannoning off into the stratosphere. The game actually features two completely mirrored movement options because it has no idea filtering whatsoever, but enjoyable or logical movement sits somewhere between the two extremes. The alternative mode is the polar opposite, giving you a tedious two step walking acceleration period before you can run, and stopping is jarringly instant between full speed and stopped. Its turbo spazman vs lethargic cough syrup addict and they’re as bad as each other, with spazman feeling slightly better for exploring.
The woeful more precise movements team up with the item collection to create possibly the worst looting system I’ve ever played. Every item right down to flowers requires one press for a pop up box saying what it is, and then another to grab it without a "you gathered x" notification. How pickups register is neither entirely camera based nor character based, instead needing an awkward a piece of both. If Geralt is facing a lootable option but the camera is looking in the other way he won’t gather, likewise if you point the camera at something but he’s facing off to the sides. This combination of hectic movement, precision requirements and cumbersome menu use led me to just mashing the living hell out of X while I bolted around like a madman gathering anything that briefly fell into my path while never actually knowing what the hell I was picking up; effectively baleen whale logic. As petty as it sounds this was really unsatisfying and genuinely my least favourite thing about the game.
I’d posit the lock-on was included as a prank but that doesn’t explain why it’s the first thing the game teaches you. It’s slow to register, bugs out and doesn’t have much influence over Geralt’s position, often leaving his back exposed to the targeted threat. Without lock there’s some level of auto lock to focus and aim your attacks at the closest enemy in the direction you’re pointing anyway, and 98% of the game is mobs so being locked on does nothing except rigidly stick you with one target when your threat priority is constantly shifting and restricts your range of dodge directions. While the right stick does switch between targets, it appears the game doesn’t factor depth into equations so it constantly swaps to enemies in the back rather than the new thing pouncing at your face. There’s no un-toggle input so once you lock the only way out is to hold sprint and run away. Given you get all the traits of a proper lock on (target prioritization, tracking) automatically without all those downsides by not locking the solution is just to never do it, but that doesn’t change that it’s the worst lock-on I have experienced in my entire life.
A hoonter must hoont
The Wild Hunt’s combat is quirky enough to be initially a little overwhelming, mainly because of the sheer volume of extraneous mechanics and a few eccentricities because all things considered it’s a very simple attack and dodge system with some spells. With that said I think it’s excellent for the game, it’s both visually enjoyable and forces the player to stay switched on some level while not being intrusively demanding. Initially I found the game downright hard since it handles movement and dodging very differently to a lot of the 3rd person action games I’d been playing like Bloodborne and Breath of the Wild. The big difference is how damage avoidance is handled; it’s nearly turn based. Positioning and "passive" dodging where you avoid things by positioning yourself out of danger is almost non-existent as everything lunges half a mile and tracks with stunning frequency and accuracy; you dodge with the dodge button rather than with tactics.
It actually works pretty great, it’s very shallow and simple but taking some direct control away from the player allows the combat to look gorgeous with lots of spinning and limb tearing while keeping the encounters breezy and fast. I’m one of the first to beg for Dark Souls mechanics in middling action games but the buffer between your inputs and what happens on the screen means that weapon variety and the like wouldn’t actually change anything since it’s a visual fighter, not a mechanical one. The real upside to it is that’s really digital, whether you eat a hit or not is purely down to "did you hit dodge", and while that’d be garbage for a combat game, for an open world RPG it’s actually effective. There isn’t much variation but the action demands juuuusssstttt enough attention to make slack play inefficient.
Which leads me to another "should I even care?" topic; the variety. Technically there’s a lot more to the gameplay than just wailing and dodging retaliations, but in order to use it you have to play worse. There’s quite an overblown potion, oil, bomb and decoction system to muddy things but the main source of variety is to be found in your five magic spells. At your disposal you have a slowing trap, a shield, a fire blast, a mind control stun, and a concussive blast; all things that are fun to throw at your opponents but one is considerably better than the others.
The Quen shield is objectively the best option in 95% of encounters as alternative methods require very specific conditions to be preferable. Mounted foes are best shot off with wind blasts, shielded foes drop their guard when mind controlled, and some high tier wraiths are easier to damage when trapped/bombed, but at nearly all other times being able to negate all damage is more useful than anything else; it’s usually safer to trade blows without consequence than it is to risk losing quarter of your health trying something cooler. Not only does it become difficult to die at all it also allows for more aggressive play for faster killing. There are many times where you can tell they tried to have alternate weaknesses but the shield just works better. You’re meant to use wind blasts and flame bursts to crash the flying Sirens into the ground while they swoop, but by shielding you can mash quick attack, absorb their hit and stun them at the same time, you get all the upside of the "right" way but without any of the risk.
That means it’s on the player to kneecap themselves to add in variety and fun, the question is whether having an option alone is enough and is it a fault of the game for not making the fun stuff more useful? This is not an uncommon question but Wild Hunt is in an interesting position because the other options are still functional and not that far behind the optimal, whereas something like Breath of the Wild’s variety was so laughably obsolete it wasn’t worth bringing into the discussion. This is merely sub-optimal and it’s a shame the excellent enemy variety is broken so carelessly.
Now sub-optimally doesn’t mean anything less than stat-maxed peak performance is worthless, it means the game itself has to be played in a less efficient manner. Using a lesser weapon in Souls isn’t playing sub-optimally; you’re still engaging in the most effective techniques just with different moves and weapon traits. Witcher 3 sits right on the edge; alternative options are still viable for beating the game, but it needs to be played more cautiously along with a deeper understanding of the potion systems and some level of build focus to get the most out magic regeneration and power. It’s workable but it’s clearly not the path of least resistance.
On the other hand that’s amazingly more interesting and fun! But should the game be held responsible for making the fun stuff less effective than the boring? It’s entirely on the player to ignore the effective simple path to add the depth and use all the mechanics at the cost of ease. This leads to a lot of "You’re playing it wrong!" justifications from fans when people call the combat boring, but surely the game deserves some blame for providing such a powerful crutch. I mixed up my activities enough and had a blast while doing so, but soon as anything tough showed up I always fell back on the reliable shield and I feel the game plays as big a part in that as my cowardice.
I’ve missed card games in RPGs
For whatever reason trading card games as a sidequest is a trend that’s gone the way of the dodo, either because of some kind of misplaced "it’s old" stigma or because developers ran out of new card game ideas, but it’s gone and Gwent is a great reminder of what a shame that is. I’m not a card player in general but these virtual single player progression slogs appeal to me and having one back is like a warm hug from Gran if she wasn’t cold and stiff with rigor mortis. I’m not gonna get into the rules because it’s ludicrously complex with many single situation effects and a design philosophy reminiscent of children giving themselves super powers when they don’t want to lose when play fighting, but I will say it’s fun.
Virtual TCG’s have a unique progression system where you start with a deck of crappy cards and slowly build a powerful one through beating crappy locals for 60 hours which is a surprisingly addictive process. They’re not fair battles of skill or chance by design; it’s a conquest. Gwent certainly has a degree of tactical nuance to it, but a lot of it has to do with the raw numbers and crazy exploitable rules your deck holds and honestly I enjoy that scrappy underdog to all conquering card-God progression more than a "real" game. The Wild Hunt quadruples down by giving you four different decks (5 with DLC) become the nerdiest hero of all time with, giving you even more progression and growth potential, but it also causes problems.
A glass half empty person could be forgiven for reacting to the multi-deck system as diluting the prize pool more than providing more progression, and it turns out I’m a miserable jerk who resents the very concept of joy. You start off with one full deck with the others empty, so it’s at least 30-40 games before you can even use a second deck let alone have it overpower the starter which as been upgrading that whole time. Each player in the world only drops one card each so you can’t farm up a low end base in any sort of rush. All decks have different play styles so it can be rewarding to screw around, but the randomized dripfeed of winning makes building them up a nightmare and if you decide one sucks (Elves) every time you win another crappy 3 damage elf it’s a troll punch to the vas deferens.
The Monsters deck revolves around cards which automatically pull lower powered matching cards from your deck en masse, winning enough of these cards to make the deck viable takes friggen forever, and every card gained in the lead up is useless until the deck is stacked. I had a similar issue with the Nilfgaardian deck where I had an amazing array of powerful unit cards, but lacked a class of card it needed so the deck remained impotently unused until I finally got one some 30 hours down the line.
I’m feeling very nihilistic about my own thoughts
This is a weird game to summarize and score because the stuff that I love is absolutely the most prominent thing in the game and is 10/10 worthy, and I honestly don’t know if I should care about the unpolished and flawed stuff. If something doesn’t work very well in The Witcher 3 but no one is bothering to experience it, does it make an angry rant on an internet message board?
There’s a heap of pointless filler content and it covers the map like an Ubisoft bukkake? They’re optional, the loot sucks and you can turn off the markers, easily ignored. The combat is repetitive? You can change things up quite significantly with vast potion systems and magic skills at the cost of a little combat effectiveness, easily ignored. The lock-on is less pleasant than having your hand permanently locked down your dads pants? Don’t use it, unlocked does everything you’d want from a lock on anyway, easily ignored. Movement is like accidentally running onto a slip ‘n’ slide flooded with meat sweats? You get used to it and it feels nice once you’re moving and there’s an alternate mode, easily ignored. It’s just so easy to ignore the problems in the game and just look at the good stuff.
I have so much praise for this; the writing and acting is superb, the sheer volume of lovingly crafted content is unmatched, the combat does the job and keeps combat active and the soundtrack is like an amazing uptempo Celtic Dead Can Dance, Gwent is a time sink worthy of its own game. Conversely the only flaws I can say actually harassed me during my play time were shonky looting and menu lag/design; things that are certainly worth knocking off a few marks on a 100 point scale, probably not on a 10 point one. Simply knowing this much content I dislike exists even when it wouldn’t impact myself or many others leaves a bad vibe, so 9 it is, may the Eternal Fire cleanse me.
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