The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Hands-On Preview

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A grand battle plays out over a dark field. One scared-up warrior watches it unfold, and a mysterious cloaked figure on a horse dodges the slings and arrows of the fight. The warrior lifts up his sword and slices the horse’s head off in one fatal swing which sends the rider tumbling to the ground. Days later, Geralt of Rivia inspects the horse’s head in the charred remains of the field. Back on the battle we see the rider was Yennefer, former lover of Geralt who hasn’t been seen in some time. She encounters more soldiers and produces a spell where the earth itself swallows an entire group of them into the dirt, and Geralt continues to look over the evidence of the battle searching for her. This is the opening cinematic to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and it’s a surprising indicator of the entire game right down to the incredible character renders and medieval gumshoe work.

I was lucky enough to be invited by CD Projekt RED to check out The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt last week in San Francisco, the culmination of years of work and a defining chapter in the saga that has been the cornerstone of the developer’s existence. As I sat down to the play the game, I realized this was the perfect setting to continue the journey of Geralt as I was seated in a dimly-lit pub constructed entirely out of wood and in a chair with a fur blanket draped around it. Clearly this is how high fantasy games should be played. The opening cinematic played out in front of me and like that I was ready to begin the game.

The game starts in the Witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen. Geralt bathes while Yennefer lounges reading a book. Players assume control of Geralt after he gets dressed and decides to check in on the young Ciri, who has ditched out on her lessons with Vesemir in order to further her combat training. Following the extensive cut scenes, the game shifts to a tutorial, teaching the player the schematics of the controls and the mechanics of the game itself which are easy enough to master after working with for a few minutes. As in the previous games, players have two swords at their disposal, steel for fighting men and silver for fighting monsters. In addition, a number of magical signs are still at your disposal; Axii allows players to control an enemy for a brief period; Aard sends a psychic blast forward knocking away enemies; Igni allows players to shoot a burst of fire; Quen protects players with a magic bubble; and Yrden traps enemies in a specific area for a limited amount of time.

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The tutorial itself does well by the player in that it allows them to get the groove of the controls and fully understand what is at their disposal. As the training concludes, young Ciri knocks a helmet off a training dummy and goes to retrieve it. Geralt waits and notices that the training dummy is bleeding and as he tears away the fabric, he notices it is stuffed with an actual body. Hearing a scream, he turns and sees Ciri in the hands of the King of the Wild Hunt himself, where he freezes her solid. Geralt then wakes up back in the present day, the entire training section a horrid nightmare in his head. Vesemir and Geralt begin to talk with players given the option to tell him about their dream or not only to be attacked by a group of ghouls, the first non-dream combat encounter.

Combat in The Witcher 3 is fun, albeit a little clunky in some capacities. Swift hits and heavy swings make up much of the fighting style along with the various magical signs (and later, a crossbow!). After quickly slaying the ghouls, the pair head off to a nearby village where they encounter a man being attacked by a Griffin (check out that cut scene in the player below). You might think you know what a Griffin looks like, but The Witcher 3‘s Griffin is one of the scariest looking monsters I’ve ever seen. A truly hideous amalgamation of an eagle and lion, the ferocity of the monster is outlined by the incredible detail in the game’s graphics and the sound design, which gives him a skin crawling squeal.

I assumed control of Geralt after the Griffin left and rode into the town. We were encouraged by the folks of CD Projekt RED to explore the game as much as we wanted, and not feel like slaves to the through plot line, so I did. I wandered the town, interacting with people and accepting side missions. What’s most intriguing about the core of the game itself is that it’s not 100% combat focused, the game requires players to conduct their investigation as Geralt into what they’re dealing with, what monster is where, how they can stop it, etc. One mission in particular I took part in had me investigating the fire of the town weapon forger/token dwarf. Using Geralt’s abilities, it didn’t take long to find the arsonist and without even unsheathing a sword it was a pretty enjoyable mission. There is certainly density to the game’s storytelling, it’s not something players can half pay attention to and still conquer – your entire attention is required, but the game makes it worth it.

I ran down a path on my trusty horse Roach having accepted a mission to hunt a “Devil in a Well.” One interesting thing I really enjoyed is players don’t have to steer their horse if they’re running on a path, a convenience that I didn’t realize I wanted until it was given to me. On my way to the nearby farm I noticed a soldier also riding a horse, yet the horse wasn’t there, and neither were his legs or arms. I saw my first glitch of the game wherein a soldier was merely a floating torso, though this was the only time I saw it.

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When journeying from the town to the nearby farm was when I was struck with just how big the world of The Witcher 3 is. Not only is it a fully open world with seemingly no off-limits corners, unlike many open RPGs, it’s all quite beautifully rendered. Another differing aspect between this world and others is the sheer amount of ecosystems present. Villages? Yup. Forrests? Definitely. Swamps? Check. Castle regions? Of course. Barren farm land? Absolutely. It’s all there, and it’s all ready for you to traverse and spill blood on.

I continued on my “Devil in the Well” journey, which led me to an abandoned village nearby where the so-called specter was haunting. The investigation aspect of the game continue to be my favorite portions as I looked through homes and found clues about why there was a beast, revealed to be a Noonwraith, haunting this area. When the monster made herself known, a repulsive corpse in a dilapidated dress with a partial resemblance to Left4Dead 2‘s Spitter, I was instructed to check out the Beastiary, the Witcher guidebook to monsters. Not only is there an entry for every monster encountered, but there’s a detailed listing of the monster’s habits and traits, plus weaknesses. It became apparent in this moment though that this is not a game for people looking to just hack and slash their way through monsters. It’s an exercise in patience, a welcome change from so many other solely combat-driven titles.

Following the time spent looking into the whole matter, which involved diving into the well, it becomes time to actually take down the Noonwraith, which is a simple enough task despite her ability to create doppelgangers in order to throw off the player. After defeating her, Geralt burns her body to free the spirit and returns to the farm to let the man know that the spirit is gone. As is Witcher custom, Geralt doesn’t work for free so when the man offers to pay him what he’s saved up for his daughter’s dowry the player is given the option to accept or reject it – I rejected it. This moment though, coupled with the burning of the corpse, are prime examples of the rich mythology of The Witcher. It might appear a dense text from the outside, but given its immersive nature, it’s easy to get tangled up inside the world, its rules, and its monsters.

At the point I thought I’d done enough lollygagging and should get onto the primary objective, which was to speak to a nearby garrison of soldiers to find out if they know anything about Yennefer who had already been through this way, as confirmed to me by other townsfolk in the area. When speaking with the leader of the troops, it became clear he knew something, so in exchange for his information, Geralt offered to kill the Griffin in the village, but to do this I needed supplies. I had to collect a certain plant from the bottom of a river that would attract the Griffin, which lead to a bizarre glitch wherein Geralt didn’t actually swim but walked along the floor of the river. I know Geralt is capable of swimming after my investigation into the Noonwraith, so why was this happening? Though it wasn’t a game-altering bug, it was certainly distracting and out of place. After getting my smelly plant, I went to meet up with a local hunter who found a group of soldiers massacred by the beast. He lead me to the site of their death, which was smeared in blood, which in turn lead me to the broken nest where a dead Griffin lay. After inspecting the corpse, it became clear the Griffin currently terrorizing the town was the male, lamenting the death of its mate as well as their eggs. Clearly it was personal.

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I stopped to “help” a trader whose cart rolled into a swamp, though it quickly became apparent he was a thief that just needed someone to retrieve his loot from the area where monsters were ever present. He managed to get away before I could gut him, but like the Griffin he made this personal and I’d find him. I returned to town and found Vesemir. After relaying all the information I had found and deciding it was time to lure the beast into our trap, we set up in a barren field near a riverbed which proved the perfect spot. As the beast swung down and tore into the bait, Vesemir handed me a crossbox, a new segment of combat that would prove useful.

We began to fight the beast, which was much more difficult than taking on the Ghouls earlier or even the Noonwraith. Griffens have sheer size and power on their side, plus they can move quick. Suffice to say, it was a difficult fight, one that I had to restart a number of times, and by the time I had to leave still hadn’t fully completed. The game is not only tedious in its legwork but in its combat too. Dodging large scale attacks isn’t always the easiest as the controls didn’t fully cooperate with my desires all the time, particularly when a wild animal with clever-sized claws weighing a ton is about to fly right at me.

Here’s the part where I relay the disappointing aspect of my experience with The Witcher 3. The demo I played crashed. A lot. At least five times. I don’t think this is indicative of the game as a whole as no one else playing on the variety of consoles (I was playing on a PlayStation 4) seemed to be having the issues. I think I might have just had a defective demo. This still made for a frustrating time though and it was always at the least opportune moments that the crash would take place. Luckily, the game has a constant auto-save feature so there was never a worry of restarting the demo over and over. Again, I don’t think this reflects the game as a whole, I had the bad apple of the bunch in front of me, but hopefully it’s not indicative of a larger problem in the game.

Even with the included frustrations, The Witcher 3 is a lot of fun. It’s the kind of large scale RPG players always image in their heads, and it’s one of the most beautifully-rendered games I’ve seen. There’s no doubt an intimidation factor with it being the third chapter in the franchise, but it’s a new player friendly game which explains its elaborate plot to players unfamiliar with the world. That’s not entirely needed though as once you get caught up in the characters and mythology, it opens up all kinds of doors for the story and immersion. Bugs were present in the demo I played, but there’s still plenty of time for the game to be truly refined, and if CD Projekt RED can work out all of the kinks they will hands down have a game of the year title on their hands.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will be available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on May 19.