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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
E3 Impressions
"The game, which can occupy a thorough player for over 100 hours, is 35 times larger than The Witcher 2."

This could be IT. After seeing a 30-minute gameplay preview of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I'm confident that CD Projekt RED is creating one of the best RPGs of any era, and if they deliver on all the potential behind Geralt's last chapter, it could be the best.

We were first shown a stunning cinematic trailer in which Geralt mused on the nature of evil and monsters. Although he stopped on the road to deliver a monster's head and collect a bounty, he can't just walk by as the peasants attempt to beat and hang a woman. He has to mettle. Old and wizened, tired of human monsters, Geralt knows that even a witcher must get involved sometimes.

The preview was a live presentation of real in-game footage and the presenter claimed that there are still "rough edges." I sure didn't see any. The Witcher 2 was beautiful, and Wild Hunt adds to it an almost unsurpassed depth of field. The vistas are astonishing, breath-taking, and the detail and lighting are evocative and magical. What little I heard of the soundtrack was phenomenal as well, particularly the return of the witcher theme and a new exploration track with haunting vocals.

After speaking with a jarl, the demo took Geralt to the seas, where he passed a raiding party's ship (the rowers' song reaching across the water). We then saw the fast travel option, which is quite appreciated in a game of this size. The game, which can occupy a thorough player for over 100 hours, is 35 times larger than The Witcher 2. Yes, it's also larger than Skyrim, although comparing the two misses a few points. Allegedly it takes Geralt 40 minutes to pass from one end of the world to the other. On a horse. The developers actually have tools to develop realistic geography. They have one tool, for example, with a single purpose: to measure where rain would gather on terrain and allow a forest to grow.

I later interviewed Jonas Mattsson, an environment artist, and he explained the construction of the world as "organic," a term I commonly use when critiquing level design and world building. He assured me that the player would encounter something interesting every two to five minutes, and I believe it. From a single vantage point, we could see a house on a little island cliff, a fallen ruin, roads leading away, farmhouses, mountains, a forest, and probably more things I missed. That I couldn't take control of Geralt and explore almost killed me. There are sure to be side quests, caves, monsters, and treasure along all these routes, and some of the quests randomly pop up, although none are randomly generated. The entire game is handcrafted, which gives it a feeling of immense authenticity.

When Geralt headed to some ruins, he discovered a Fiend eating a corpse on the ground. A Fiend is a hulking three-eyed antlered beast of terrifying composure — you can spot it in the E3 trailer. It immediately attacked and an intense battle unfolded. The Fiend unleashed its special attack: using its third eye to hypnotize Geralt, causing his vision to darken and blur. The effect was horrifying, exciting, and unique — probably the coolest single thing I saw at E3.

Geralt meditated for a bit before moving on with the main story and the weather turned dark. Weather, time of day, and even the moon cycle affect NPCs and monsters. Rain might discourage NPCs from going on a raid while a full moon might empower some creatures. Other monsters come out in higher numbers at night. Storms toss the seas and can even dash Geralt and his ship against cliffsides if he travels at the wrong time and place. The weather is some of the most advanced I've seen from a graphical standpoint as well. Trees bend and boughs twist, flames leap, and rain spatters the screen. Seeing a forest during a storm was almost an emotional experience.

Everything is connected in Wild Hunt, much as it is in real life. Local economies obey certain rules, for example. Fish sell for higher prices in the mountains, Jonas Mattsson explained, while bear hides and furs might sell for more near the sea where those creatures rarely appear. Story presentation is often a major weakness of open-world games like Skyrim, but Wild Hunt seeks to make that more organic and less gamey. Mattsson believes that presenting side quests in a halting manner breaks immersion, and I have to say I prefer CD Projekt RED's way of doing things. After speaking with a main quest NPC, an event immediately unfolded that was completely irrelevant and optional. This gives the impression that the world is a complex and dynamic environment.

The last major segment shown involved one of the new features: monster hunting. Witchers' work. Geralt was able to track a beast using special vision given to him by his witcher mutations. By following tracks, claw marks, and kills, Geralt was able to identify the beast: a lesher, a forest creature that can control animals and plants. Following the sound of crows cawing, Geralt located and destroyed the beast's three totems before taking on the monster itself. It appeared in a flock of crows: a woodsy being with a stag's skull for a head. He plunged his fingers into the ground to attack Geralt with powerful roots and summoned wolves and crows as well.

There are 80 different monsters of this type, each with its own footprints, telltale marks, and other identifying characteristics. An ample bestiary provides players with all the information they'll need to prepare for the battles, as will Geralt's combat skills. We weren't shown his skill trees, but we can expect the typical witcher abilities of alchemy, swordplay, and signs. Combat looks much more fluid than The Witcher 2's, and there are 96 action sequences compared to the second game's 20. Finally, CD Projekt RED has promised no more QTEs.

This might all seem irrelevant to Geralt's personal story, but Wild Hunt is sure to deliver on that front as well. Indeed, the main story begins with the Wild Hunt themselves attacking a village. Geralt is called upon to investigate. After all, the Wild Hunt is a monster. No one is said to return after encountering the Wild Hunt, but what Geralt did once, he can do again. We didn't get much information about the story, but the world is in political chaos, the Wild Hunt is on the prowl, and Geralt has yet to reclaim his lost love. There's much at stake.

When asked about influences for level design, Mattsson cited films and paintings. For Novigrad, capital of the north, he was inspired by Italian paintings tinged with what seems like a golden light. In Novigrad, that golden light symbolizes wealth. These kinds of artistic details make the Witcher games unique. There's something undeniably poetic about the games; the violence, sex, and darkness are not opposed to that, but part of it. Without the darkness, there can be no light, and Wild Hunt is full of it.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt may be the first truly "next-gen" game I've seen, and even though I mourn the passing of Geralt's tale, I cannot wait for its release next year. Best RPG — no, best game — of E3 2013.

© 2013 CD Projekt RED. All rights reserved.

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