It tends to be quite rare that you, as a gamer, come upon the occasion that your pre-conceptions are proven to be wholly wrong, insofar as a game you’ve written off is concerned at any rate…
Let’s face it, if you’ve decided that a game isn’t going to be any good, you’re unlikely to pick it up and play it are you? I don’t know about you, but I tend to avoid paying upwards of £50 for something I actively expect to be rubbish.
Why’s this relevant? Well it just so happens that I didn’t have high hopes for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Indeed, I had virtually no expectations, as I’d written it of completely…
You see, like many gamers, I’d picked up and played CD Project Red’s original Witcher game with interest. Hell, it had been the first game I’d played on my new PC back in the day.
The problem was: I hated it. I’ve not played many games where my experience and view was so comprehensively contrary to the majority of the industry, but with The Witcher I most certainly was.
As accolade after accolade, gushing review after gushing review, was heaped upon it, I couldn’t really understand it. What was I missing? Virtually everything about the game seemed to be geared up to make me hate it. The combat system was obtuse and convoluted in the extreme and the fact that the developers had decided that, despite it being completely different to any other contemporary mechanic; they didn’t need to bother actually telling anyone how to play the damn thing grated on me a touch. On top of this the rather immature-feeling focus on sexual content and the associated card-collecting made me feel uncomfortable. Call me a prude if you like, but I looked at the game’s content and I could see why games get a bad press with some people. It felt like a real regressive step back in a conceptual and thematic sense and the fact it was being showered with praise made be less than proud to consider myself part of the gaming community. I guess the above also made me less than willing to overlook the understandable rough edges that were the inevitable consequence of a fledgling company making their first foray into the industry.
So yes, I wasn’t a fan of the original game. So, as you might imagine, I was hardly inclined to show much anticipation at the prospect of the sequel. I must confess, in fact, that I basically ignored its existence and have, to this day, never seen more than the odd glimpse of gameplay footage nor much inkling of the general plot.
So, on that basis, I was hardly disposed to be particularly generous in my enthusiasm for the third instalment. Indeed, my approach to it set out much the same as the second game: I dismissed it. I even had the chance to have an in-depth look at the game at EGX last year, but passed on the opportunity. You could call me unprofessional (and with some justification) but I just couldn’t bring myself to care at all.
However, a review copy The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt found its way into my review schedule, none the less and, in the post-game glow of a 6 month session of Dragon Age: Inquisition, my desire to continue scratch the fantasy RPOG itch out-weighed my indifference to the series. So I set out to give the game a go, fully expecting to be unimpressed, but I have to admit:
I was wrong; utterly and completely wrong.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a masterful piece of RPG crafting. Every aspect of the game has been overhauled and boy does it show.
The combat is exceptional. Unlike most of the gaming community, I have so far managed to avoid Dark Souls and so am not really very familiar with the action-RPG white-knuckle combat slog, but boy am I now. Witcher 3 punished me (and continues to do so) even, to my great shame, on easy at times. To really make hay in a combat scenario you have to really think; utilising signs (magic), dodges, blocks, potions and timing to plot the best way to overcome the fights. Not only that, but the vast variety of enemies is refreshing, presenting a plethora of different challenges to overcome. Even the difference in the number of enemies you’re engaging with or the environment you’re in affect your required tactics in a way that I haven’t seen before. It’s an exceptionally engaging and, when you get it right, immensely satisfying experience. The last enemy you kill at the end of a group combat is usually finished off in a pretty brutal manner and it’s a surprisingly satisfying little moment that allows you to take a second to reflect with satisfaction (or more often relief) that you made it through.
Combat is complemented with just the right level of ancillary features. The balance of healing and health bars is just right, with the health bar being short enough to mean that you can’t afford to mess up too much, but it does allow for less than perfection. The fact that healing positions and foods increase your healing rate over a time period rather than instantly topping up your health, which requiring an adjustment period, is another welcome aspect, as it means you have to go on the defensive to allow yourself to fully utilise it. The game also allows you to prepare for fights ahead of time utilising various oils to coat your blade, which add damage against certain types of enemies. You identify which via use of the game’s bestiary and it’s the best way of naturally incorporating the game’s glossary into an RPG I’ve ever seen.
So that’s a massive tick on the combat; but what about the other pillars of an RPG experience; visuals and narrative?
Well, visuals are excellent. Mine was an Xbox One copy and I have to say it was a luscious one for my eyes. Now, of course, the fact that I’d just spent 6 months with the slightly ropey visuals of Dragon Age: Inquisition may have made the Witcher’s visuals look comparatively better, but I still think that the difference was pronounced. Character models are detailed and pretty realistic and, unusually these days, pretty varied. While I’m sure character models were being re-used all over the place, it’s telling that when I think back, I’m not aware of having noticed.
Where the game really excels is in its narrative and voice acting. The characters are all excellently acted, even if protagonist Geralt’s voice has taken the gravelly-voiced protagonist trope and set it to infinity. Not once did I notice any clunky or unengaged delivery and, to be honest, the vocal acting would grace any AAA film you could name.
This is perfectly overlaid on the stellar writing. Every aspect of the game is superbly created and told. These sort of open-world games split there narrative experiences between the core, linear narrative and the side-quest; much like a divide between a novel and a bunch of short stories. Both types require quite different qualities and features to engage and occupy the player and both are done expertly here.
I lost track of how often I got entranced and side-tracked by an engaging side-story in my game. Side-quests are picked up through talking to NPCs as you would expect, but also through noticeboards, which flag up ‘?’ icons on the map for you to investigate. There are a great number of different types of event at each of these, from destroying monster nests to investigating crimes, but all are great fun to do and provide enough variety to keep things interesting.
The main narrative is also exemplary, with a great number of established canon characters introduced and interacted with. The story is excellently paced, with points of high drama and action accentuated with calmer and occasionally humorous interludes, all presented through the previously-mentioned exceptional voice acting. So good was the main narrative and acting that I’ve actually picked up and begun reading the book series that the games were based on…
There are some slight flaws with the game of course; the damn horse keeps getting stuck on things, Geralt occasionally manoeuvres like a washing machine on a skateboard, random OP’d enemies one hit you out of the blue etc., but they’re not enough to even come close to tarnishing the experience. The biggest annoyance I had early on was the Xbox One specific glitch that disabled saving if you didn’t close down your game when you turned off your console. However, this has now been fixed in the latest patch, so isn’t such a big issue.
So yes, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt made me humble. It made me realise that while all of my feelings about the first game still stand, I was wrong to write of the series on the basis of one game and going forward I will be much more open-minded about gaming franchises.
The Witcher 3 made me all too aware of the flaws of pre-judging a game (or indeed anything) and provided me an education in giving things a chance to impress.
And really, when was the last time you could say a game gave you an honest-to-goodness life lesson like that?
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Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at email@example.com