Between Dragon Age: Inquistion, Bound by Flame, and Lords of the Fallen, we’ve already had some deep, fulfilling role-playing experiences on our shiny new systems. In a full year since their release, those are quite impressive credentials for new platforms.
But after spending three immersive hours with The Witcher 3 on Xbox One, it soon became very clear to me that bigger and better things are just around the corner.
My hands-on time was situated in the prologue area of the game (containing around five hours worth of game content), which, apart from boasting eye-watering visuals, finally manages to capture a fluid and slick Witcher experience on home consoles. The combat moves at a very comfortable pace, while the interface and key-mapping doesn’t feel clunky and haphazard, nor does the character movement appear hamstrung and jagged. Right from the start, you can tell The Witcher 3 has been designed for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One users just as much as their PC brethren.
Once again, players are pitted as Geralt of Rivia, legendary Witcher, but while the white-haired, cat-eyed protagonist will be a familiar sight and has had plenty of adventures prior to the events of Wild Hunt, it’s important to note that the game clearly sets everything out for newcomers, just as much as it nods and winks knowingly at long-time fans.
During a tutorial sequence where Geralt is training Ciri as a young apprentice, the Wild Hunt (a band of inhuman, otherworldly entities clad in plate armour) invade the previously presumed privacy and security of Kaer Morhen (The Witcher’s fortress and training area) on the back of a giant vessel. With reckless abandon, the Wild Hunt scorch the planet and begin war on the Northern Kingdoms, with the Witchers somehow critically tied to their aggressive agenda.
The sequence serves as a disturbing dream for Geralt, who awakes to find himself on the road years later alongside his mentor, Vesemir. Both Witchers are searching for a woman who smells of Lilac and Gooseberries – the two warriors are on the outskirts of a nearby town, hoping to get answers to their questions from the inhabitants. However, the town has its own set of problems, not least of which is a giant Griffon tearing both human and livestock flesh to shreds with its savage talons.
As you might have guessed, the main purpose of the prologue chapter is to study, hunt down, and kill the Griffon as a favour to its protectors and dwellers, and in return, gain more information on the woman Geralt is searching for.
This is where Geralt’s Witcher senses play their part. Best compared to Batman’s Detective Vision in the Arkham series, Geralt uses his cat-eyes and heightened senses to track beasts and gather clues. Often you’ll need to follow footprints, blood stains, disturbances in the dirt, and even investigate seemingly abandoned houses to find hidden entrances and crucial information. It’s much more sophisticated than Inquisition’s method of pressing the thumb-stick in and moving toward the vibration, and even adds to the mission narrative, giving off a more interactive feel than simply following traditional formulaic questing.
This is further reinforced by the Bestiary. Normally, when killing an enemy in an RPG, you’ll get a few paragraphs worth of background on the beast added into your journal. Let’s be honest, you’ll probably never get around to reading it. Here, choosing not to read up on your opponent is practically suicidal. When facing some enemies for the first time, almost inevitably, their tactics are going to catch you off guard and put you on the back-foot. You’ll spend most of your time trying to survive and struggle to find a weakness. The Bestiary not only gives you a history and background of the beast, it tells you what its strengths and weaknesses are, what it’s immune to, and even the best time of day or night to find and fight it. Collecting clues in your investigations also help paint a detailed picture of your prey and better prepare you for the big battles ahead.
During the Griffon battle, I received a fair bit of support in addition to the Bestiary. Vesemir talked me through the battle, pointing out when the Griffon was about to swoop in for an attack and when I should strike. He also told me when to give chase and when to hold back. Prior to the battle, I was also handed an extremely effective crossbow which enabled me to attack it from range and shoot the beast in the skies. On this occasion, it was self-evident what I had to do, but the foundations are put in place early, and researching your opponent is as important as putting them to the sword or arrow.
Of course, with more dynamic, flexible and powerful opposition, the combat needs to feel less like another console recreation of The Witcher 2. While there are certainly similarities, such as the use of Signs and timely parrying, the short-sharp strikes and long, powerful lunges make it quick and easy to punish a foe foolish enough to drop their guard. You can easily dart and dodge your way around the battlefield and deflect attacks from all sides, even if your enemies are in the majority.
And it feels great, with Sign casting mapped to the bumper buttons and quick taps of the X button (on Xbox One) launching quick, nimble strikes. The whole system feels less like a ported mouse and keyboard interface, and more like something comfortably suited to dual analogs and buttons.
Making use of Sign-casting is an effective strategy. One sign in particular allows Geralt to trap his opponents within a circle, exposing their weaknesses and making them susceptible to ranged strikes. There’s also a large shield which, when used to block an enemies attack at the right moment, can send them flying backwards involuntarily. Sign-casting can even be used in conversation. Geralt has his own form of a Jedi mind-trick which he can use to influence people and get them to tell him the truth or a lie at an appropriate time.
Environments in The Witcher 3 are just mesmerising. The detail is astonishing, considering the map is being pitched at around 20% bigger than Skyrim. I wandered through poisonous bogs, climbed up mountain tops, roamed through forests, scaled castle forts, and even spent some time underwater. You’ll have an incredibly diverse playground to wander through, so you’ll need a horse on hand at all times. But where horses have become a trusted companion to navigate enormous environments, CD Projekt RED have done things a bit differently compared to their competition.
For one, there are saddlebags attached to the horse, meaning players can store items in a bank-like area if their inventory is full, but still have those items easily accessible as the horse can be called to your side at any time. It’s also best to think of your horse as another character. So if you venture into an enemy infested area, or you try to travel to places at night and it senses opposition, the horse’s fear factor will start to flare up. If it maxes out, the horse will run away, leaving you alone with things that go bump in the night. Considering enemy levels don’t scale, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could be in some serious trouble.
We’re just scratching the surface here, but one thing is certain: The Witcher 3 might just be a masterpiece. That being said, I did experience a few issues with the build. The horse responsiveness felt a little off and when double-tapping A to gallop, occasionally the game was very slow to respond. There were also a few unspoken lines of dialogue, fortunately substituted by subtitles, and some slight screen-tearing. But I was assured that all feedback from the preview session was being taken accordingly, and that they’re already working on some of the highlighted issues. Their aim is to make this the most polished release they possibly can. Despite drawing attention to them, I can honestly say the issues didn’t affect my playthrough in the least. The core of the game is solid and terrific fun.
With Dark Souls 2 encouraging gamers the world over to hold onto their last-gen systems just a little while longer in 2014, The Witcher 3 is giving us a huge reason to upgrade to the new consoles in 2015.
If my time with The Witcher 3 is anything to go by, then this is the RPG experience you’ll remember your new-gen system for long after the format has been surpassed.