It’s been fascinating to watch the speedy ascent of Polish developer CD Projekt RED from cult favorite to press conference-worthy studio. Expanding an audience of dedicated PC followers to include a respectable chunk of the Xbox 360 crowd with their console port of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, CD Projekt is looking to capitalize on both with their PC-strong, Xbox One conference highlight The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
With a varied world purported to be thirty-five times the size of that in Witcher 2 – with 100 hours of gameplay (including side missions) – it’s hard to imagine how these guys can build such games in barely more time it takes most players to complete them. At its current alpha build, the ambition of project is wearing a bit on the engine, but even with the continuous clipping (Geralt’s ponytail was hilarious) and muddy animations, CD Projekt seems to have managed E3’s prettiest game, provided your PC runs on the blood of console heathens.
Our half-hour presentation placed series lead (and titular Witcher) Geralt in and around Skellige, a Celtic/Nordic inspired archipelago and one of three main game environments. Arriving at the behest of a friendly monarch, Geralt was seeking answers to rumors of a town ravaged by the mythic horde known as the Wild Hunt. The only one to approach the spectral riders and survive, Geralt gets the location of the raid’s lone survivor, and sets off for his location.
Along the way Geralt travels by boat, giving the demonstrators a chance to showcase the dynamic weather and storm system. Something also hyped during our time in front of Assassin’s Creed IV and even Disney Infinity’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” mission, Witcher 3 refreshingly distinguishes itself by having weather so severe as to kill Geralt instantly. Once Geralt docked and whistled for his horse, we came across a house being raided. Part of the long-term consequence system the franchise has long employed, and Witcher 3 reportedly improves upon, Geralt has the option to save the family inside and risk the wrath of the raiders’ leader at some potential future date, or leave the home owners to ruin.
And here is where we come across one of the difficulties with demonstrating any game in the Witcher series. Accurately portraying a twenty-hour gap between making a decision and its fallout is near impossible, and giving any evidence of its three playable epilogues and 36 possible endgames is actually impossible. Those familiar with the series know the promise of long-term consequences usually plays out with CD Projekt – albeit not always as part of the grand machinations they occasionally brag of – but especially with the alleged improvements of Wild Hunt, gamers are just going to have to take the developers at their word until launch.
In between the home being raided and our destination, Geralt is set upon by a particularly aggressive beast. Repeatedly making use of its ability to stun, the beast caused Geralt’s surroundings to darken to black, the monster itself then appearing as a faint trail of color until getting close enough to maim. If there was any doubt that working on consoles has softened The Witcher’s combat system, be happy in the knowledge that our demonstrator would have died approximately six times over the course of our presentation if it wasn’t for the magical God Mode put in place for the demo.
Weakening the monster enough for it to retreat, Geralt continued to the town where the only survivor of the Wild Hunt’s latest raid was residing. Upon confirming the Hunt’s presence in a conversation with the survivor (using a very ugly selection of static text lines as means of a dialog interface), a villager ran up and informed the survivor his family had been killed by a local “woodland spirit”. Confronting the town about their spirit began a side mission that pitted the religious town elders against the pragmatic working class, debating on whether to sacrifice to or kill the “spirit”.
Siding with no one yet, Geralt began to gather information on the “spirit” using The Witcher 3’s new hunting system. And since this is a game released after 2009, this means the Witcher is now Batman. Activating a special ability grays out most of the world, with interactive clues to the nature of the beast highlighted in red; touching said elements (ranging from claw marks on rocks, tracks in the soil, etc.) yields information that must then be cross-referenced in Geralt’s bestiary to confirm the monster’s species and weaknesses. It sounds a bit like homework in motion, but it also feels like it requires more knowledge than clicking a button and trusting the data you’re fed by Oracle.
Once Geralt confirms that the spirit is no more than a well-documented tree-like monster (there are no boss battles in the game and monsters do not level up with Geralt), Geralt is confronted with the option to divulge the information to either the workers or elders. Once the demonstrator chose to tell the worker leader, Geralt then had to decide whether to inform the NPC that the death of the girl he fancied – who was unwittingly marked by the beast – was necessary to the creature’s destruction. Choosing to be straight-forward, Geralt got the worker leader to make the call to kill the woman, and headed back in the forest to confront the not-spirit.
After destroying three of the not-spirit’s totems of power while dispatching a few wolf packs and dodging a few angry murders of crows, we were given a deeper showcase of Geralt’s new combat skills in the battle with the beast itself. Upping the combat animation count from 20 in the previous Witcher to 96, Geralt certainly looks much more fluid switching between direct combat and magical “signs”, but it was difficult to gauge the breadth of the system with the demonstrator using only a few set tactics in rapid repetition to take down the creature, most of which were employed earlier in the battle with the stun-happy monster. And without more than a cursory mention of the alchemy system, it’s difficult to gauge just how well players will be able to buff Geralt to their specifications as was the case in previous games.
Felling the foe after some considerable patience and magic/sword skill swapping, Geralt returned to the village to see the worker leader having slain the entirety of the town elders. A bit buzzed on the power trip that killing his would-be-girlfriend gave him, the worker leader apparently took Geralt’s advice to act a bit further than what was intended. The demonstrator left us with a storyboard-esque cutscene detailing the future of the town, which we would normally see only after returning to the location much later in the game.
In many ways, a game as reportedly complex as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt makes for a pretty, but empty demo. Unable to see how decisions pay out over 50 hours of game time or devote enough attention to all of the alchemy, skill, and combat options, we are left taking CD Projekt RED at their word for a lot more than we tolerate with most games. Thankfully, much of their claims have been proven in previous installments to the series, and the expanded world size and technical improvements are somewhat evident, if not expounded upon.
The morally fluid story feels fully in place yet again, as do the detailed environments and sophisticated NPC interactions (despite the ugly dialog UI). The hunting system is half intriguing, half overly Arkham-y, and we aren’t sure just how many times we can research in-game bestiary data before we want transferable college credit. Until we get hands on time with the game, it’s also difficult to determine just how much the overall combat has improved. But The Witcher brand, coupled with a world that’s basically an open challenge to The Elder Scrolls, should keep any RPG fans eyes open to all future info on Wild Hunt.