Originally published on GameInformer.com May 20, 2015, at 7:00 PM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 5/28/15.
5,822 views as of June 4, 2018.
Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
I've long felt that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt could be one of the best games of this console generation. Since seeing the demo nearly two years ago at E3 2013, this has been my most anticipated game bar none. Its predecessor was a compelling game with many great qualities but a few issues, however, CD Projekt RED had helped assuage those concerns.
To judge by my initial impressions, the final build does appear to enhance already strong features and at the same time improve areas that were less refined in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. As with any game, there are still problems, but thus far in my play-through they are minor, even nit-picky. At every turn I am impressed, and eager to continue the journey.
The game begins with a storyboard review (above) of the current situation. This sets a powerful tone, as the art design throughout is superlative and the dialog and voice acting are top notch. Granted, I've only played maybe a couple hours thus far, but no two voices are alike, and accents are varied. Narrative, as in the prior game, appears to have some depth.
As before, a backdrop of military conflict and a monstrous scourge provides the context for events impacting main character Geralt, who begins in search of his love Yennefer, though the fate of his ward Ciri is also in doubt. I'm not entirely clear of the timeline, especially the opening narrative, and Geralt's story takes place in the present and flashback (though that transition sometimes shows real flair).
Assassins of Kings had its share of adult situations, and Wild Hunt is no different, beginning with a suggestive flashback between Geralt and Yennefer. I appreciate the more adult content, but what immediately impressed was the high production values during gameplay. Again, art design is imaginative, showing interesting Middle Eastern and Eastern European influences, among others.
What most impressed, however, was the meticulous craftsmanship, whether detailed textures on all surfaces (marble floors, wood furniture, stone masonry, etc.), dynamic particle effects such as the dancing flames and rising embers in a firepit, or other effects such as how shadows cast by the fire move in response. Even wind-blown trees impressed, in particular when seen through textured glass windows.
Character animation nicely complements the quality voicework, where facial expressions convincingly convey emotion. Body movement likewise is fluid and natural regardless of activity. Ambient noises help establish every scene, and the lyrical fantasy score -- whether utilizing strings, a piano, or both -- goes a long way toward creating the right atmosphere.
All such design elements help set the stage for key gameplay moments whether they involve dialog or combat. As before, gamers can choose their responses during conversation, and varied choices ensure different reactions or outcomes. I have yet to make a consequential choice; however, even small reactions, like peeved bar patrons or gratified beneficiaries, are satisfying.
Most features are welcome next-gen upgrades to elements that were already well implemented in the prior game. But combat, for me and some others, was the biggest hurdle to fully enjoying Assassins of Kings. While this activity was not poorly designed, it was more cumbersome and less intuitive than it could have been. This could have been due to the controls or how training was integrated into the game.
I'd been told that once gamers journeyed beyond the training, Assassins of Kings became a much more rewarding experience (much like Metal Gear Solid's VR training missions are reportedly more difficult than story missions). Indeed, I struggled plenty in the confines of the combat arena, but out in the open world, fighting was less intimidating and more satisfying. (Though I think that had less to do with training than, again, design.)
Here is what I'd said about arena combat in Assassins of Kings: "The lock-on mechanic (hold trigger) is OK when faced with one, but any more and I forget to release and relock, resulting in my swinging at fallen foes or, worse, air while getting slashed in the back. Then there are all the spells, traps, bombs, daggers, etc.
"Basically, I was holding one trigger for lock on, the opposite one for block, I think, maybe a shoulder button for the items menu, the analog stick to select one, another button to equip and upon release of some of those, pressing a last button to cast, deploy, hit, parry or dodge.
"By the time I did all that and read accompanying descriptions I have yet to familiarize myself with, I either had been skewered by approaching foes or singed by a fireball. Then lather, rinse, repeat if wanting to equip a different item. It’s no wonder I spent most time running away just to create enough distance for inventory management."
So what's changed? For one, what felt like a two- to three-hour training symposium (a portion of which covered combat) has been better integrated into the game, so that training opportunities happen organically depending on what you're doing in the open world (i.e. no more combat arena). More importantly, a few design changes help streamline combat.
As in my description above, locking on to a foe before involved holding down the left trigger button (Xbox 360). When attacking the same enemy with a sign (spell), the sign menu had to be accessed by holding down the left shoulder button. This restricts combat options on the fly, and exposes one to attack, especially since combat is only slowed while using menus, not stopped.
Now, one simply presses R3 (PS4) to lock on to a foe. Also, there are other options available via face buttons. Besides parry and dodge, one can now also roll (X), so a total of three defensive maneuvers are at one's disposal instead of two. Likewise, two consumables can be assigned to the directional key pad, as opposed to one mapped to the right shoulder button (360) before.
Whether more controller options or a more streamlined tutorial or both, the combat learning curve this time around is significantly less dramatic. Plus gamers are given a choice of difficulty setting to begin instead of being assigned one based on the outcome of the combat arena. Overall, I've found game design in this regard to be more accessible and welcome.
Sparring against Vesemir (above), and then confronting enemies in the open world, is a much more efficient and user friendly introduction to combat than confronting increasing waves of foes in the previous game's combat arena. As before, combat thankfully is fluid, whether transitioning between parry, dodge, roll, strong attack, fast attack or casting signs.
Unless casting the same sign in any given fight, however, sign selection can prove the one impediment to an otherwise fluid combat experience. Changing signs still involves inventory management and, as before, accessing the sign menu only slows combat instead of stopping it as in most other games. But this design just requires more strategy on the part of the gamer when choosing between Yrden (magic trap), Quen (shield), Igni (fire), Axii (minds/distraction) and Aard (telekinetic blast).
Exploration continues to be integral to gameplay, and shows off Wild Hunt's spectacular production values and dynamic settings. For this version, horseback riding and swimming are well implemented into the options available for traversing the world. So far both control nicely, reminding me of the same options in other titles such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As in that game, fast travel is also available.
Horseback riding, for instance, can be done at a gallop. An extra nice touch is being able to hold down the action button (X) when on a road to automatically stay on that route and avoid using stamina. Also important is the ability to wield one's sword and engage in combat while on horseback, which too many other games avoid; though it can be less effective as I found when trying to fend off a pack of wolves.
When riding horseback, I encountered one of the few glitches that I've experienced in the first two or so hours of gameplay. A road through a gaseous swamp was blocked by an invisible barrier, forcing a journey through the harmful swamp until I realized that making my horse jump was enough to overcome that obstacle. It created momentary frustration but was thus far a rare problem.
Since I'm on the subject of glitches, the only other problems of any significance included a repeated framerate stutter at the beginning of one scene, though thankfully it did not interfere with any exposition. Also, while near the entrance to a Nilfgaardian camp (below), someone came next to me and bent down to pickup an object that only materialized when he showed up. These were exceptions, however, and relatively minor.
Swimming is fairly intuitive as it controls similarly to many other games. Dive and surface are both mapped to face buttons, as are a fast swim option and action/interact to gather items from the bottom of various bodies of water. A standard breath/air meter helps you monitor your time spent underwater and avoid drowning. As with other settings, bodies of water, including river/lake beds, are well conceived.
The farther one journeys, the more an appreciation grows not only for the variety of voicework including accents that each character demonstrates, but also for the breadth of character models and personalities encountered along the way. Though only a couple hours in, each person feels unique, populating this world with convincing individuals and groups of people (the Nilfgaardians, for one, having a distinct dialect).
It's simply one more example of the meticulous attention to detail that CD Projekt RED has lavished on Wild Hunt, and one more indication of why delaying a video game, if necessary, can help construct a well designed and consistent but varied world and gaming experience. Sure at this point I've only scratched the surface, but I'm nearly as far as I was into Assassins of Kings and already am impressed with this sequel's quality. I hope to have more on my experience as I continue the adventure.
I had very high expectations for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and they only grew over two years' time. So it's that much more impressive that CD Projekt RED pulled off such a rewarding experience. If I had a next gen console at the time, I would have preordered the Collector's Edition, as I usually do when I expect a game to be great and appeal to me (as I did with BioShock, Gears of War and The Last of Us).
However, because I obtained a PS4 late, I missed out on preordering the Collector's Edition for Wild Hunt. But that didn't prevent me from searching high and low for a copy on Tuesday. Thankfully, my search paid off as I found seemingly one of the only retailers in LA to carry a non-preorder copy and undertook the 20 mile round trip to secure my purchase. And like the game, the high quality contents don't disappoint.
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