At around 20 hours in to CD Projekt RED’s conclusion to The Witcher (or is it? The studio recently hinted they’ll return to the universe) I’m not ready to write my final review. Hell, this is a game that the developer estimates can take around 200 hours in order to see and do everything – plus, the narrative branching means that there’s plenty of reasons to come back for another go, should you have the stamina for it.
20 hours is, however, sufficient for me to give some initial thoughts on what is undoubtedly one of the year’s most anticipated releases. My thoughts so far? The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an excellent game, but one which will likely draw the ire of many players expecting the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread. Continuing the tradition of Witcher games being somewhat rough around the edges at launch, Wild Hunt has a number of flaws which can cause frustration and while it certainly is the most accessible game in the series, it’s not perfect.
Considering that both The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings both received substantial post-release updates in order to address player complaints, you would have thought that CD Projekt had gone all-out to ensure that Wild Hunt was a satisfying and polished experience from the get-go. Sadly, a combination of a dodgy camera, an awkward UI and an unforgiving difficulty curve on anything but the lowest settings means that I won’t be surprised if the finale to Geralt’s story will soon be overflowing on second-hand shelves everywhere thanks to gamers who don’t have the patience to put up with its problems. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker, but a lot of deaths early on will leave you watching the (lengthy) loading screen more often than you’d expect at the start of the game and have you reaching for google for combat tips which the game itself should provide.
Much has been made recently about accusations that CD Projekt deceived people in their initial trailers, and that the game has received a graphical downgrade between announcement and release. It’s true that, at least on console, The Witcher 3 doesn’t quite live up to the promise displayed in those initial trailers. But make no mistake – The Witcher 3 is still an incredibly gorgeous game, its world packed with so much detail and life that it’s right up there as one of the most visually impressive games ever made. Trees, foliage and hair sway in the breeze; as dawn breaks, the world is gradually bathed in a golden glow that suffuses everything with shades of orange and amber. Fire fizzles realistically, sparks flying through the air. Visually, The Witcher 3 is a sumptuous treat and it’s hard to imagine the previous generation of consoles being able to come close to doing it justice.
When it comes to the sound work there’s a lot to love, too. Use Geralt’s Witcher sense and his hearing is enhanced along with his sight – you’ll hear twigs snapping underfoot, nearby creatures growling and gurgling in the distance. Combat feels brutal and weighty thanks the clang of metal, the sickening crunch and squelch as limbs are broken or severed. The real highlight is Mikolai Stroinski’s orchestral score, which effectively sets the scene and acts as the emotional and atmospheric backdrop to each and every scene. The music is sweeping and epic, but never so grandiose that it threatens to get in the way of proceedings. Quieter, more personal moments are accompanied effectively by lilting, almost mournful flute and string melodies, combat brings in bombastic brass and percussion to get the blood pumping. It feels suitably Slavic in origin, while at times evoking other cultures, such as the mediterranean and Middle-East.
In terms of raw presentation, The Witcher 3 is almost flawless. While some frame-rate issues on Xbox One can sometimes be a little jarring – particularly when they occur during quiet in-game cut scenes where not a lot is going on – there’s little to fault.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the UI and menus, which can be awkward to navigate using a controller and particularly make the early hours feel like the game has been released before it was ready to be, even despite the numerous and lengthy delays during development. The inventory menu in particular is a chore to navigate, making finding items difficult. This isn’t helped by tiny menu text that had me straining my eyes to make out vital information on item types and attributes, and little in the way of explanation about what certain bonuses actually meant in practical terms. Series veterans will be aware of concepts such as Toxicity, the difference between Steel and Silver swords, and the various damage types and resistances; but newcomers may well feel overwhelmed in these early hours, a fact made worse by the lack of effective help from the game to keep you on an even footing. Some concepts and mechanics are introduced in a way that still leaves you confused, while others are explained hours before they even rear their heads – meaning that when they do materialize in-game, you’ve forgotten the information you need to know, resulting in a trip back through the menus and the voluminous reams of explanatory text in the glossary.
The camera is also extremely troublesome, and movement feels over-sensitive on Xbox One. The slightest nudge of the stick can send Geralt jogging off in a direction and bumping into scenery. This isn’t much of a problem in the expansive outdoor areas, but it becomes a frustrating issue inside buildings or towns. It can be difficult lining Geralt up so that he can loot items, making gathering resources and crafting materials problematic. Oddly, it’s often impossible to loot something when you’re standing right next to it, but move about 6 feet away and suddenly the button prompt appears.
One thing that might have eased some of these navigational and interaction problems would have been setting Geralt’s default movement speed at a walk, with holding down the A button (X on PS4) making him jog, and tapping it activating his stamina-draining sprint, similarly to the system employed by Rockstar in its games. While a very gentle movement on the left stick does enable you to make Geralt walk, the over-sensitivity – even on the lowest settings – means that it’s unreliable. Movement is finicky and unnecessarily unwieldy as a result, and one of the areas I hope that CD Projekt RED will fix in a future patch.
Targeting enemies also feels a bit cumbersome and hit-and-miss. A click of the right stick sees Geralt locking on to an opponent, but too often the game locks in on the enemy you didn’t want it to, and the maximum distance for locking onto an enemy feels too restrictive. Move ten feet away from an enemy and your lock is broken, which can make it hard to track an enemy particularly in some of the more densely-wooded areas. It’s a minor distraction, but another of the many small rough edges that permeate throughout.
Once you finally get your ahead around things however, and the game starts to open up, The Witcher 3 reveals itself to be a fantastic game. Like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Wild Hunt’s world isn’t truly seamless, broken down instead into a series of expansive areas selected from the world map. Unlike Inquisition, none of these areas feel small or empty. Each one is packed full of quests, gorgeous views (made even more attractive by the wonderful lighting), and rich in detail and character.
But it’s the world’s inhabitants who weave the richest tapestry in Geralt’s third outing. The main quest is well-written albeit somewhat dry, but the hundreds of side-quests strewn throughout the game bring genuine life to the world of Temeria, its political machinations and myriad individual stories. Almost without exception, even the most minor and inconsequential quest is well-written, intriguing, and punctuated throughout by small pockets of detail and interesting characters which hint at other, unseen details. Early on, I came across an elderly woman making a racket outside a house on the beach. Upon investigating, I found myself petitioned to help her recover a frying pan that had been borrowed from her but not returned. The woman said the man responsible resided inside the house in front of us, but she was receiving no response. I won’t spoil what Geralt finds inside, but while the entire quest takes maybe a minute to complete and passes without incident, it adds an extra layer of reality and texture to the world you inhabit.
Plenty of other quests throw up interesting moral quandaries. While studios like Bioware frequently restrict their meaningful moral choices to simple good and evil decisions, and largely restrict them to the main storyline, The Witcher has long prided itself on exploring the shades of grey which inhabit the space in between simple right and wrong. An arsonist turns out to have been influenced by little more than too much to drink; his actions have left a local blacksmith out of pocket and unable to work, but handing in the man responsible will see him executed; his family are penniless and starving, and his fate is in your hands – what do you do? Elsewhere, a woman has been injured by a Griffin. She’s certain to die without help, but the only possible solution is to give her a potion which could result in an agonizing and slow death. What do you do? A local tradesman distrusts the invading forces and is hesitant to support them, but the local commander insists he cares about the wellbeing of the local population and that he requires their co-operation in order to maintain order and stability and improve their standard of living. Whose side do you take?
Time and again, you’re confronted by the fact there is no right decision to make in any of the situations you find yourself in, and the outcome of your choices frequently surprises. Very rarely is the impact of your decisions felt right away. Often, it’s only a return visit later on that reveals the ultimate outcome of events, restricting your ability to simply reload a save and choose an alternate path – and just as often both outcomes will be just as bad as each other.
Even the most insignificant stories and quests can have far-reaching consequences, sometimes affecting the balance of power in a region or the prosperity of townsfolk. The titular Wild Hunt are the central villains of the piece, but they’re largely kept in the background, more of a motivating force driving the central narrative than actual agents whose actions shape the minute-to-minute gameplay. Largely, whether a character is a hero or villain is largely down to how you perceive them. Are the invading forces of a little more than warmongers seeking to expand their territory? Or does the order they impose on the territory actually benefit the region in the longer term? Should you follow the letter of the law, or instead take a more lax approach to what rules and conventions you help enforce? The fate and lives of single individuals is as much in your hands as those of entire towns, but rarely does one feel less important than the other. In this sense, CD Projekt RED has crafted a truly mature tale of morality that frequently forces you to question the true nature of right and wrong, good vs evil. You’re not asked to simply choose between two moral paths – you’re challenged to decide what that morality is in the first place.
It’s a pity then that for all of the maturity on display in its central and ancillary narratives that The Witcher 3 often falls headlong into crass objectification of women. And this isn’t an issue of the world itself being politically aligned against women in many ways – it’s a case of the director or camera often presenting a stark contrast between how it depicts men and women on-camera.
There’s a comparison to be made here with Game of Thrones, another fantasy world rife with amorality and shades of grey, and also one that isn’t exactly shy in its depictions of nudity, sex and debauchery. George R. R. Martin’s world – and the accompanying television series in particular – is often criticized for being overly preoccupied with sex and gratuitous for the sake of cheap titillation.
But the crucial difference is that Game of Thrones is just as likely to show you a penis as it is a breast; sex scenes are just as often homosexual as heterosexual. In that sense, HBO’s hit television series is equal opportunities when it comes to on-screen nudity and how its characters are depicted.
By contrast, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has a bizarre preoccupation with the female form, while being prudish in the extreme about depicting male anatomy. the very first in-game cut scene sets the scene for what’s to come by opening with a close-up of a woman’s arse crack. Which would be fine, if CD Projekt RED had decided to treat male and female nudity equally. Sadly, it doesn’t. In fact, The Witcher 3 goes to such lengths to avoid depicting male nudity – not even a buttock – that it frequently borders on farcical. In the same scene, Geralt is in a bath and stands up. Cue quick camera cuts to long shots to obscure male genitalia right after the game has lingered over the rear of naked woman. Cue the almost farcical placement of a candle in front of a man’s penis. God forbid that men are treated on an equal footing with women when it comes to nudity.
It’s not the political context of The Witcher 3‘s world that’s at fault here; it’s how that world is presented visually to the player. Women aren’t just persecuted or treated as sexual objects within the political narrative of the game; they’re treated as objects by both characters and in how they’re depicted on-screen to players. If two characters in a scene, male and female, are nude the game will do everything it can to show off the woman’s naked body from all angles, while safeguarding the modesty of the man.
It doesn’t end there, however. Women constantly comment about how attractive Geralt is,and how they would like to bed him. Women are constantly referred to as whores. Older women lament endlessly about how they have lost their looks. Even women who are depicted as powerful constantly comment on how much they’d love to fuck Geralt’s brains out. Female quest-givers are almost always looking for or mourning after men, portraying them as subservient; or they’re victims, fleeing domestic violence or portrayed as weak and in need of a man to help solve their problems. And of course, they almost always wear tight clothing that shows off their breasts and backsides, even when such clothing is impractical.
It’s all pretty embarrassing, and it undermines the maturity on display in the writing elsewhere.
Criticisms about the objectification of women aren’t new to the series, of course. The first game notoriously encouraged players to bed as many women as possible by rewarding them with a series of pornographic playing cards featuring Geralt’s conquests in erotic poses. Thankfully this was removed for the sequel – which did a great deal to handle sex and sexuality in a more responsible, mature way – though the predilection with sex and sexuality continued. While Assassins of Kings found a largely comfortable middle-ground however, the depiction of women and the way the camera lingers over their bodies in Wild Hunt feels like something of a throwback to the first game’s casual sexism, one that isn’t particularly welcome.
Still, it would be remiss to let that detract from everything that CD Projekt RED gets right, and if you look past the few rough edges and dubious female objectification there’s no denying that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an absolute triumph of world-building and story telling.
Rarely has an RPG felt so detailed, nor its world so alive and believable. Many had their doubts about whether the developer was up to the job of taking the complex branching narrative and moral choice of the first two games and making it work on such a grand scale, but CD Projekt RED has delivered what is not just one of the most satisfying and rich RPGs of the last few years, but what is possibly one of the best games ever made, in any genre.
Our final verdict on Geralt’s third outing will be ready later this week, but you certainly shouldn’t feel worried about picking up The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as soon as it goes on sale tomorrow.