As Geralt enters frame on his trusty steed Roach, the camera pans up to a dying tree that is covered in corpses hung from each of its twisted branches. The twin swords on his back glint in the sun and the wind kicks up dust as an orchestral soundtrack worthy of block buster films kicks into life. Geralt kicks Roach into life and the two plough down the dirt track in the search of excitement, adventure and those he loves.
It’s the world that The Witcher 3 is set in that grabs you first. It’s a gritty and dark world filled with raw human emotion and turmoil. Set on a world built by the polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapowski and drenched in Polish mythology, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt follows our hero Geralt of Rivia as he tracks down Ciri, his adopted daughter. That’s the main objective, that’s the thread that guides you into the world. It’s the opportunities, caves, nooks and crannies, and side quests you find along the way that keep you enthralled for more hours than you’re comfortable admitting. While this is a fantasy world, it feels grounded in reality. Human emotion is raw and real, people lie and cheat and betray each other just to get by in this harsh reality. Politics and religion clash in medieval cobblestone streets. Peasantry struggle with their rich overlords and an occupation underlines every area with a bubbling tension. While this is fantasy, The Witcher 3 does fantasy in its own way. The usual tropes of ghouls, goblins, witches and wraiths are present but done in a way that it’s completely natural to the world. Monsters flirt between sexy and outright scary. It’s terrifying and dark, in keeping with the tone.
The characters Geralt meets, whether it’s on the many side quests you can find yourself distracted by, or in the main narrative thread are wonderfully created, animated and acted. The voice acting is more often than not a plus point for the game. Characters, especially ones critical to storylines are well acted and rounded, although you do occasionally run into the bad egg. Character models are rich and facial animation is some of the best I’ve seen. Graphically, it’s not just the character models that impress, the entire world is majestic and hauntingly beautiful at times. The game features a full day and night cycle and dynamic weather. At times the hills of White Orchard are bathed in sunlight, and others the mud sticks to your boots as everything is doused by torrential rain. All this is done with little load times and little slow down.
The Witcher 3 performs well. I played a PC copy for review. For full disclosure, my PC is around two years old now. I have a 7870 running with an i5 3570 and performance is stable for me. I’m able to keep the game at medium to high settings (altering a few things for taste) and remain at 60fps. It does dip down at times but not by much. It’s never gotten to the point of being unplayable or ugly. I have tested the game on Playstation 4 too. While the graphical fidelity is kept high, the resolution and fps take a hit. It’s noticeable but still playable. There are times of texture pop in and slow down on the console too. I’ve encountered very few bugs and one hard crash. As ever though, with open world games such as this, your mileage may vary. It’s actually been a pleasant experience. It’s a shame that the industry has come to a point where a game that runs well and isn’t a buggy mess is cause for slight surprise.
The gameplay is key though. As good as the voice acting, graphics and world might be, if it’s not fun to play that is all for naught. Luckily, CD Projeckt RED have outdone themselves and produced a game that is wonderfully challenging at times and a blast to play. The core mechanics from the Witcher franchise are back. Geralt can augment himself with crafted potions and oils to give himself an edge in battle. His ability with a blade is broken down into a quick swing and a heavy swing, and he is able to block and parry some foes. Combat is quick and visceral. The clang of steel is quickly followed by a spurt of red and bodily dismemberment. Geralt wields two swords, which is a Witcher tradition. One steel for human foes and a silver blade for the supernatural. Distinguishing which blade to use, which oil to use and how you can augment your attacks with bombs and signs is core to the gameplay. What are signs? Signs are magical abilities that the Witcher is able to use providing him with abilities such as a fire blast that melts armour, a magical shield that absorbs a hit or the ability to stun the mind and render foes immobile for a second. I will note that if you’re quite an experienced RPG gamer or have played the other Witcher games, the “normal” setting may be a little too easy. I would recommend you bump it up to provide you with a real nail biting experience.
Combat and exploration make up the bulk of gameplay. The game allows you to explore and murder (if that’s what you’re into) at your own pace and adjusts accordingly. In fact, the people you kill can alter how quests are approached and what you have to do to advance the story. It can alter how people treat you and it does all this without waving it in your face. There’s no text that appears saying “someone will remember that”. The game just adapts and the characters within react naturally, albeit sometimes irrationally. It was only a few coins, he didn’t need them anyway!
On their own, great combat, wonderful storyline or an engaging world don’t make a great game. It’s the combination of all the elements. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a great combination of some fantastic work across the board. The presentation and craftsmanship that has gone into this title is evident from the very first menu screen. It’s fun to play, it’s a treat to look at and it’s an absolute joy to listen to. I would pick Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption as close counterparts. The size of the open world is bigger than Skyrim and the way you traverse it and the emergent nature of gameplay reminds me of Red Dead Redemption. I would argue that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt surpasses those great games and will eventually be considered one of the great games of our generation. It’s certainly the best open world RPG to come out in a very long time.
It’s utterly outstanding. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a monster contract to follow up.
RATING (out of 100): 94, Outstanding.
Taj Sandhu is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.