Geralt’s latest adventure will probably go down as one of the most ambitious games ever released. For once, a developer hasn’t sold us on lies. No, Wild Hunt is gargantuan, all-encompassing, and for the most part, an utterly glorious adventure. But such is the enormity of CD Projekt’s latest, that occasionally it falls slightly short under the weight of that ambition. But before you light that pitchfork up, I don’t want you to think that I’m saying it’s bad because of this – in fact, it’s good to see someone taking risks.
You see, filling a world this big is always going to be a concern. It’s fine to tout your game as “X times bigger than Skyrim”, but nobody really cares about that unless it’s actually filled with interesting things. Within the first fifteen hours, if you’re playing the game naturally (and not rushing through the story), you’ll be lucky to encounter the same quest-type twice. Now, of course you’ll end many of them in combat, or by killing things, but the wrapping is the exciting part of these presents. Actually, the non-essential missions are often more interesting than the main story ones, because they never seem to be artificially trying to lengthen the game, often occurring naturally as you explore the vast map. CD Projekt RED have managed to create the huge world they promised, but also have it be alive. The tiny, almost insignificant details that most developers wouldn’t even bother with are everywhere, and it just creates something that feels complete. This is somewhere that’s dying to be explored.
For example: I was simply going from A-to-B to continue the story, and noticed a group of men outside a building. As I slowed my horse (which you have from the start, making traversal far quicker), it seemed as though they were barricading a door up. Curiosity killed the cat, I know, but not when the cat is a badass white-haired witcher. Chatting to the men it appears they are about to burn someone alive in the building – the bastards (probably, you don’t know at the time and that’s half the beauty of it). Dialogue options aplenty, but as I was already en-route to somewhere else, I decided to just tell them to do one, because I said so. There are other choices, and I could have talked them down or bribed them, but I’m a witcher in a rush to find someone. After they were dead, I tore the barricade down and saved an Elven woman, who rewarded me with coin. Incidental, yes. Essential, no. Brilliant all the same? Yes.
And Wild Hunt is just littered with this kind of thing. I could regale you with so many of these tales. It’s only when you get to the story missions that things can fall down ever so slightly. The voice acting is absolutely wonderful, and there’s plenty of it inside the set dialogue sections, but people in the open-world often only have a single line. The story missions themselves rather remind me of Red Dead Redemption. Geralt’s tale begins as a search and rescue one. For a few hours you are trying to find someone, and when you find that person, they set you on a larger, more detailed quest to find someone else. Now, in Red Dead Redemption, you were a force to be reckoned with (just like Geralt is), yet you still couldn’t just get simple information from people without doing something for them first.
The Witcher 3 has this in abundance. There’s a huge, hours-long, multi-layered, multi-path quest that caused me to lose count of the number of times it required me to do something for someone else. Elsewhere, in less-important missions, you can use your signs to persuade people (“these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” style) to speed things up a bit, or bribe them, or just beat them up. In the story missions, often you have to just do as they want. This would all be fine, and I don’t think I’d even have noticed, if not for the “Goat” part of one particular mission. Of course I won’t spoil things, but there’s a mission where you have to find a goat for someone. Let’s break this down a moment: Person A has encountered who I’m looking for, but will only help me if I find person B. To find person B I need to speak to person C, but person C can’t help me until I find his goat (let’s call it Goat Z).
It’s ridiculous, because Geralt’s in a rush to find his person, yet rather than strong-arm all these other idiots, is now off finding a bloody goat. You’re given a bell to ring, and after a few times of doing so, Geralt mutters “Do I really have to ring this bell over and over to make you follow?”. It’s funny, and you’ll laugh, then you’ll realise that, yes, you actually do have to slowly ring the bell to get the goat to follow. After all of this is over, it feels like you’ve spent nearly three hours on this quest, only to be told “actually, all I know is that the person you’re searching for is awesome, but they went to this other place, so you should go there” – and it all begins again.
Now I know that makes me sound down on the whole thing, but I’m not. The combat isn’t too different from Assassin’s of Kings (so is still enjoyable, if not the best out there), and thankfully you start with your five signs (magic), so there’s no arbitrary requirement to unlock skills you should already have. The levelling process is slow, meaning you add points to your skills over a long period of time. There’s a system in place that lets you multiply the strength of skills based on what colour they are, and it’s well worth investing in to ensure you’re getting the best witcher you can get. That said, it’ll be a good ten hours before you start to unlock the second rung of slots to equip these additional buffs and skills to (and a great deal many more to unlock the third and fourth lot), so you don’t get too hung up on them too early on.
Wild Hunt looks great on PS4, and as you ride from DownWarren to Crookback Bog, though the colours remain the same, the subtleties are lovely. From wooded areas in the sun, to a literal bog, mired with broken branches – then it starts to rain and it just feels alive, and dare I say, a bit special – there’s even the chance for your very own Bloodborne-moon-moment. Eventually you get to Novigrad and can explore back-alleys of a larger, bustling citadel, instead of the dusty trails leading from small village to isolated hut. Most of the time you’ll either be fast traveling to signposts you’ve discovered (the load times are short, though they do pop up when starting cut-scenes or some dialogue trees, but are only slightly obtrusive), or riding Roach (your horse), but you can also swim or ride boats. Swimming adds yet more to the size of the world, as you can now plumb the depths for herbs and sunken treasure, whereas boats feel a little out of place, as there’s nothing to do aside from just sit there, sailing.
Special mention needs to go to the fact that all dialogue is well lip-synced, and Wild Hunt has excellent facial animations. I don’t recall ever seeing such minutia in a face modeled so well – let alone in a game world so large, with so much on-screen time for multiple characters. Let me spin you another tale of my adventure: again, traveling across the lands I came across an elderly woman, banging on the door of a shack. Her tale is one for you to learn, but it’s a fairly daft one. And as I pondered how trivial it all seemed, Geralt’s brow furrowed in a way that suggested he found it equally ludicrous, but as her tale continued, and I (we) decided to help, it changes subtly to show care for this lady. It’s brilliant, and hasn’t ceased to enraptured me a single time.
Like no game I’ve played before it, Wild Hunt is one that really needs to be savored. There are so many things you could miss if you rush, and thus the overall world suffers. On top of story missions and side-quests, there’s a whole witcher contracts thing at play. One of the very earliest (tutorial, of sorts) missions asks you to hunt a Griffin down. It’s a spellbinding tale, and is far from simple. Where most would drop a marker on a map and say “hey, go kill this beast”, Wild Hunt gets you to actually hunt the beast.
Holding the left trigger enables Geralt’s witcher senses, and will reveal red or yellow markers in the area. Yellow tend to be things you can loot (for ingredients, gears, etc), while red reveal points of interest. It could be a carcass in the grass you didn’t initially spot, or footsteps that lead you to your foe. In the Griffin’s case, it’s a trail of blood. Once you find your foe’s nest, you can investigate further to reveal more about it: what age and sex is it? These clues fill out information in your bestiary and give you a better chance of winning the eventual battle. Now you know it’s weak to a certain sign, or a particular potion or bomb. It’s captivating, and these investigations, whether related to witcher contracts, or just being used to uncover mysteries, are the brilliant core of Wild Hunt.
Moral choices are never black and white, and decisions you thought were “good” can come back to bite later. It’s phenomenal, because you don’t see it coming. Even things which seem obvious and easy will come to fruition in a shocking way. There’s a story mission that’s genuinely one of the darkest tales I’ve ever seen, and even when you think there’s nothing left down this path, a decision made five hours ago will shape the outcome in a way you simply couldn’t have predicted. It’ll slap you hard around the head because it’s actually all your fault. But the genius is how if affects you. At first, a character seems nice enough, but investigation reveals he’s not so nice. Swinging wildly, the tale wraps around itself so cleverly to the point where even now, with him a distant memory, I’m not sure if I should like, hate, or feel sorry for him – even responsible for his life. Is he a victim of circumstance? Is he just an inexcusable drunkard? The fact that I’m ruminating here shows how deeply it dug into me.
Initially there actually isn’t as much combat as you’d expect, and you’ll spend a great deal of time in conversation with people. Geralt has two swords (a normal one, and a silver one for beasts) and his signs (magic). Being a witcher he can also brew potions, which can coat your weapons (or buff Geralt by drinking them), but bombs can also be crafted to give you an edge in battle. Ingredients and resources are everywhere. And while it doesn’t matter for a good ten to fifteen hours, eventually encumbrance becomes an issue. It’s nit-picking, and I know that, but it’s absurd that suddenly an arbitrary number is hit and you can’t move as quickly. I feel as though it should either be there and be realistic, or not be there at all – and the fact Geralt is carrying eight swords, four changes of clothes, and enough ingredients to open a herbalist shop, but suddenly can’t move quickly any more because he’s picked up a ninth sword is just plain daft, even if you can buy gear for your horse than allows you to carry more.
But these are minor faults in an otherwise fantastic experience. Wild Hunt is so utterly, completely rewarding if you give yourself to it. The combat doesn’t reinvent the wheel, nor does it really add much to what The Witcher 2 brought to the table. No, this is about the world, the characters, and the story. There’s something about The Witcher that just feels special, and Wild Hunt adds to that, and makes it feel a more personal experience, while also being comfortably the best RPG of this new console generation. This is my Geralt, and for months on end we’re going to be sharing stories about what we did in this world, and that’s something truly magical – it really is.
Stunningly realised world.
Terrific voice acting.
Side-quests and Witcher contracts are brilliant.
Combat is more of the same.
Some story missions feel too long.