The scared man with the white hair scans the notice board in the center of town. He looks at one a bit closer, then pulls it off old wooden block and walks to a hut near the edge of the settlement. He questions the woman, who tells him about the beast that has been attacking her livestock the last several weeks. The man climbs on his horse and rides out toward where the woman normally tends to her flock and investigates the remains of a cow that has been ripped asunder. He analyzes the claw marks, notes the dried spittle on the throat of the cow and the feathers left strewn about the area.
“Griffon,” says the white-haired man to himself. “No doubt about it.”
After restocking his supply of bombs and prepping oil to coat his blade, the man follows the trail into the forest and eventually up a hill. At the top, he spies a massive winged beast with talons long enough to eviscerate a man in one swipe. The man pulls out a bomb and blinds the griffon before it can take off and dashes in to slay the startled beast. After a protracted fight that required timed dodging and the use of several of his magical signs, he deals the final blow and cuts off the head of the griffon.
After burning the nest, he returns to town and shows the woman that the beast that has harried her cows is dead. She pays him, but not before casually insulting him for his overly calm demeanor and cat-shaped pupils. The man takes the money, and rides off, looking for the next mark that’ll hopefully pay for a night an inn instead of sleeping out in the open.
The man, named Geralt of Rivia, is a Witcher, a line of magically and chemically enhanced humans who have been altered in order to fight off some of the biggest horrors in their world. If you’ve got a monster that is terrorizing your town, you’ve got to hire yourself a Witcher. Sadly, their typically treated with fear and derision, as the mutations necessary to give the Witchers the physical edge in their encounters strips them of their emotions and changes their eyes into cat-like slits.
Normally, I don’t start reviews with short fiction and character explanations, but it felt appropriate for The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. It’s a massive game that took me nearly a hundred hours to clear its main campaign and another 30 to wrap up the downloadable content expansions. More than being the third game in a trilogy, Geralt’s world has a deep history behind it that fuels not only its political machinations, but its social ones as well. I don’ typically jump into games on their third iterations, but thankfully the writers do a bang up job in summing things up so you can follow what’s going on. Should you want more background, there are numerous codex entries that will let you know the pasts of characters, creatures and kingdoms.
But all of that doesn’t matter if you don’t have a good game to back it up. If all it had was a good story, then I’d just go and read the Andrzej Sapkowski novels that the games are based on. Thankfully, The Witcher 3 has some of the most satisfying third-person combat I’ve run across. In general, the flow of the game has you get a mission from either a notice board in a town or an NPC who needs help, a favor, etc. You’ll then use Geralt’s Witcher-enhanced senses to investigate what is going on. In some cases, you’ll find that your answers are more mundane and you can return and talk things out. In most cases, like the little story above, you’ll have to prepare yourself for a fight.
Once you know what you’re dealing with, you’ll get a codex entry about the creature. In it, you’ll see what the beast is weak against. You can create special bombs that can limit their access to magic, use alchemy to create oils you can coat your blades with to increase the amount of damage you do, brew potions that enhance your own abilities and so on. Once you’re ready, then you go and hunt down your prey. You have a heavy and a light attack with your swords and you have ready access to several magic Signs that shield you, create circles that slow down creates, summon flame to burn armor off and so on. Combat is designed to be a more tactical affair, forcing you to time attacks and parries in order to fight off larger creatures. Later on, when human enemies become more common, you’ll have to deal with large crowds, so clever use of your Signs and parries will be the difference between life and death. And believe me, you’ll be dying a lot. Even on the normal difficulty, you’ll be facing a decent challenge. In higher difficulties, be ready to get punished for unwise attacks and ill-prepared ventures into dungeons.
The game takes place on a massive map, which leads into one of the things I love the most about The Witcher 3. This game wants you to wander and take in the sights. There are dozens and dozens of discover-able events strewn about all the maps, which give you additional story and leveling opportunities. You can find people being attacked that need saving, nests of monsters that need destroying, places of power that amp your signs and give you permanent points to use for your skill trees. The developer, CD Projekt Red, took the best of what Bethesda and Ubisoft did with open worlds and put it with their superior story-telling skills. Witchers by their nature typically wander, and with all the conflicts that are going on in this story, it completely makes sense for Geralt to be wandering all over this continent and its islands.
So in The Witcher 3, Geralt finally has his memory back after having amnesia the last two
games. He not only remembers that he’s been searching for his old ward Ciri, but that a pack of armored savages called The Wild Hunt is after her. With the help of an old flame and an invading emperor, Geralt begins his search for Ciri again in earnest. However, in order to find her, he’ll have to navigate through several kingdoms in active conflict with each other. Oh, and there is a religion that’s sprung up that is persecuting magic users and any non-human they come across. Yeah, Geralt has definitely got his work cut out for him. In between, you’ll even find time to deal with the love triangle that he’s managed to get himself in. Hint: go for the red head, she’s the best.
What I personally like is how Geralt isn’t the end all, be all in this story. He’s generally a pawn in the plans of people far above him. Kings use him to find exiles, spies make him go under cover, sorceresses call in favors from the past to get them to safety, and so on. He’s rarely his own man here. And when he does have the opportunity to make his own choices, there are usually dire consequences involved. Choosing to spare an elemental in a forest will lead to the death of a character later on that you couldn’t foresee. Some plots hinge on your action and, should you decide you’re needed elsewhere, they will fail. It’s not quite Mass Effect levels of change, but it’s enough that you’ll definitely take your actions seriously.
Once you’ve beaten the main game, there are two larger pieces of DLC for you to experience. The first one, Hearts of Stone, takes place on the main map and can be started about half way through the main game. However, due to the levels of encounters you’ll be getting into, I wouldn’t even think about it until you’re late- or post-game. Stone, takes place on the main map and can be started about half way through the main game. However, due to the levels of encounters you’ll be getting into, I wouldn’t even think about it until you’re late- or post-game. There are some new types of (expensive!) upgrades you can add to your armor and there is a decently-sized storyline to go through. It generally feels like something that could’ve already been in the main game and is done in less than ten hours. However, the real meat comes with the second expansion, Blood and Wine. Here, you’re taken to an entirely new area with its map full of new treasures, hunts and story beats. Geralt, once again, gets wrapped up in a larger story that he’s a cog of and has to deal with court intrigue, powerful monsters and some big consequences. It’s large enough to be a full-sized expansion of yore, in the mold of Oblivion’s Shivering Isles. It’s at least 20 hours’ worth of content that matches the best that main game can offer.
With a complete edition out now and the original version of the game going for cheap, I’d absolutely recommend fans of fantasy games pick up The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. It’s engrossing story and deep combat will have you stuck to your screen for dozens of hours. Just be sure that you’ve got nothing else you want to immediately play, because you won’t be getting to it for a while.