I'll save you the effort of processing this entire piece by summing up Polish studio CD Projekt RED's new fantasy epic – and with a reported 200 hours' worth of gameplay available, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt certainly earns that "e" word – with two easy comparisons. It's Red Dead Redemption with ghouls and ghosts instead of gunslingers, or Grand Theft Auto V reskinned as Game of Thrones. Sounds cool, doesn't it? And it really is.
This is a game to get completely lost in for days on end, to poke at the extremities of until it tells you to turn back because you've reached the edge of the world, which takes a while. It's intoxicating in its depth, dizzying in its seemingly limitless number of side quests and monster contracts and scavenger hunts and horse races and card games and NPCs to piss off. Its towering mountains scrape the heavens, just as its seas reach depths that few comparable titles can (be sure to take a deep breath). It rewards curiosity with treasure just as readily as it meets bold exploration with a beast several levels more lethal than you are. It is, probably, a Skyrim beater, which is all you came here to know, right? See you later, then.
Assuming you've made it below the fold (it's alright down here, honest), let's look at what The Witcher 3 actually is, because I know the objectivity brigade is well into that kind of thing. This is an action role-playing game, more Zelda than old-school Final Fantasy, viewed from a third-person perspective, where the (main) playable hero protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, must overcome enemies and politics (uh oh, someone's keep-politics-out-of-gaming klaxon just began wailing like a banshee) using sharp and pointy things, an array of magical gadgets, a pocketful of explosives and just a dash of persuasive discourse.
Geralt is a witcher, a professional monster slayer for hire, whose scarred body is full of mutagens that allow him to take a right old beating before keeling over (and yet, falling from just too high will kill him, instantly). The story of The Witcher 3 takes him on a quest to find the girl he treats as his daughter, Ciri, who the player also gets to control in flashback sequences. Ciri is in danger, with the Wild Hunt out for her blood (literally), so Geralt must catch up with her before the mist-shrouded mythical huntsmen do. The three of the title is there with good reason: this is the follow-up to 2011's The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, which was the sequel to the first game of 2007. Is that enough saying-what-it-does-on-the-tin, yet? I'm beginning to feel flushed.
The Witcher series has long had a reputation for showcasing video gaming's awkwardness when it comes to sex, and the series' third game proper isn't shy in lining up partners for its protagonist, assuming you want him to plough the field (in joke!) when he's not chasing down prey. Geralt wears saggy granny pants under his otherwise completely customisable armour yet is somehow a total lady-killer, and will find himself in plenty of amorous situations if the player decides to follow those avenues of, ahem, investigation. Most of the breasts you'll see are entirely plastic, shiny and unmoving, which is impressive given the medieval surroundings. But the sex scenes here aren't completely embarrassing – you'll have seen much worse, even outside of video games, and the first humping I witness is actually between a pair of snow hares. The filthy animals.
What's more impressive is how The Witcher 3 handles love, rather than lust: with a sensitivity and subtlety that anyone who's been in a long-term relationship will recognise and relate to. After no few hours of horsing around the expansive land of Velen – swamps and marshes, broken-down castles and dilapidated villages, mostly (fast-travel points unlock as you explore each map) – the game's story takes a turn for the ocean, placing Geralt on the Skellige Islands, an archipelago of snow-capped peaks and sirens-swarming seas. It's a notable change of pace for an hour or so, from action to intimacy, and it's here where he reconnects with Yennefer of Vengerberg, a sorceress who's been the witcher's primary love interest in previous stories, stretching through games and back to the original novels and short stories.
The pair's body language expertly conveys their guarded feelings in the company of those they're not entirely familiar with, and their own suspicions as to what the other – a brief reunion earlier in this game aside, they'd not been together for a long time – may have been up to. (Well, did you go all the way with Keira Metz just a few in-game days earlier?) The acting during their exchanges is brilliantly measured, and while Yen might be cursed with the same artificial features as so many other ladies of The Witcher, not to mention seething with magical power, she's probably the most human character of any you'll meet on this adventure.
It goes without saying that the human inhabitants of The Witcher 3's rolling landscapes are the most monstrous beings that will cross your path, even discounting the bandits and pirates you'll be forced to put to the sword. There are (Irish-accented) werewolves in this game that you'll feel more compassion for than you will Emhyr var Emreis, the Charles Dance-voiced emperor of (the southern region of) Nilfgaard. Dance's instructions must have been to "do Tywin", as if you close your eyes during his exchanges with Geralt you'd swear there was a Lannister in the room.
A more common sight during your first 10 or so hours in the saddle will be the Bloody Baron, a hulking man of bristling beard and furious temper, who is as odious as they come: "I slaughtered the shit-eating twat and fed his carcass to the dogs," is his recollection of a previous situation where someone got on his wrong side. But it might be that you see a more vulnerable side of him as his own story unfolds. It might also be that his quests introduce you to one of this game's most grotesque yet pitiful creatures. It just might.
When it comes to the non-human adversaries you'll face, there are the frequently encountered sorts – wolves, drowners and wraiths – that represent mere fodder for your twin blades (all witchers carry both a steel and silver sword, for humans and monsters respectively), and a handful of much larger, more challenging foes. A tank-sized fiend can (and will) rip through your defences with ease, so you have to stay mobile, while every monster contract you accept will climax with a battle against a very special enemy, be it a foglet that's lived so long as to become a true horror of nature, or the malevolent spirit of a woman driven from her home, now haunting a village well her skeleton still hangs in.
Melee combat in The Witcher 3 can be messy when several bodies crowd the screen, limbs a blur, with even locked-on blows lacking the precision that a tenser standoff against just a handful of enemies engenders. During one lengthy battle alongside the Playboy_-featured (entirely NSFW link) sorceress Triss Merigold against a band of Witch Hunters, the frame rate (on PlayStation 4, at least) absolutely plummets, making _Arkham Origins' slow-motion fisticuffs look like liquid mercury. Hopefully that's something that will be fixed come the game's retail release – and it hardly ever happened elsewhere, for me.
But while they're not as exacting as what we've so recently seen in the close-quarters confrontations of Bloodborne, fights can still be matters of life and death here. Higher-level enemies will deplete Geralt's health with frightening efficiency, and several require special measures to take down effectively, be that the use of a particular sign (the game's magical powers) or the application of damage-maxing oil to his blades. Alchemy is an essential part of gameplay: harvest ingredients when you can, from flora and fauna, and combine them to create useful concoctions, ready to provide a vital perk to weapons and witcher alike when the time comes. You'll also be using your heightened senses to look for clues at crime scenes, and track friends and foes alike – a squeeze of the left trigger activates this game's version of the Arkham series' Detective Mode.
While brewing potions and spying highlighted objects of interaction will come quite easily to any Witcher beginner, what might be a lot tougher to get to grips with is the fiction supporting Geralt's quest. Characters from previous games crop up frequently during the course of this story, from the marketing-campaign-friendly Triss and Yen to the second game's primary antagonist Letho of Gulet and the Termerian Blue Stripes commander Vernon Roche. Some have bigger parts to play than others – in the game's largest settlement, Novigrad, you'll be spending ample time with Sigismund Dijkstra, plotting against other members of the city's underworld (one of whom, the King of Beggars, looks like Vinnie Jones coming out the wrong end of a Pukka Pies addiction). If you can do a favour for any of these returning faces, it's worth it, as they will pay you back later. Trust me, you'll want to have them on your side as the Wild Hunt closes in.
The scale of the backstory can be daunting at times, but there's an in-game glossary that keeps track of all non-player characters and their own connections with Geralt – both now, and before. These documents and the game's narration comes from the perspective of Geralt's dear friend, the poet-bard Dandelion, who you soon discover has got himself into a pretty dire situation involving a less-than-amiable chap called Whoreson Junior. Truthfully, without paying attention to the reams of text available, or dipping into one of several online wikis, coming to The Witcher 3 with no previous knowledge of Geralt's exploits will feel much like hopping aboard the Game of Thrones hype in the middle of season four – you'll be rudderless, slashing at quarries simply because a marker on a map took you there, with no real context. Do make the effort to read up on events prior to the affairs of this game, at least a little, as it'll result in a significantly richer experience.
Rich, too, are the visuals when everything aligns – the perfect lighting spreads over the ideal setting, and the PS4's Share button gets its moment to shine. There are slight shortcomings, as you'd expect to find with any game of such environmental ambition – certain textures aren't as crisp as they might be (I actually find a tiny stretch of path, in the northeast of the Velen map, that's a blur of green with no detail whatsoever, like something from an N64 game), and there's moments of exaggerated pop-up and comedy clipping that just for a second snap you out of the engrossing unreality. But, truly, this is a beautiful looking game, with dynamic weather and set pieces of striking composition that will live long in the memory. One in particular will always stay with me. Without giving much away: a ship, a djinn, a mountain, gorgeous. The music's pretty enough, but sometimes its slightly portentous sweeps can feel disconnected to jovial scenes playing out beneath them, and thus overpowering, such as when a pair of sisters bicker, playfully, about who does or doesn't fancy Dandelion.
For long stretches, The Witcher 3 does little to warrant its PEGI-18 content rating. There's lots of riding, lots of Telltale-like talking, a great many sequences where neither swords nor voices are raised. Fights against small groups of bandits can be brutally short, especially once Geralt has levelled up and hunted down some superior weaponry (or had it made for him), flashes of blood and viscera just that, and over in a heartbeat. But when you least expect it, a sight that could turn even a full stomach presents itself.
Upon first entering Novigrad, there's a burning going on in the city's central square, and it's not books that are cooking. Much later, a reverend of the Eternal Fire religion is discovered spending his paid-for time with a prostitute in ways that'd make GTA V's Trevor Philips uneasy. The pursuit of a serial killer leads to bodies opened up in sickening ways, and as for the aforementioned Whoreson Junior and his appreciation of women... let's just say that if you let him off the hook when the time comes, yours is a more forgiving soul than mine.
'The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt' gameplay trailer
The game's maturity is evident in its handling of racial and religious discrimination, and more – an early exchange with a gay hunter, isolated by his kinsman because of his sexuality is, for a video game, very delicately written. It's a shame, though, that the "strumpets" of Novigrad are exclusively flesh-flashing women, and that the developers haven't done slightly more to shift the male gaze typical of triple-A games. There are strong female characters on show, in Yen and Triss and Ciri, but outside of Geralt's circle of friends most NPCs in skirts are simply there to scrub floors, wash laundry or spread their legs for their fellow townsfolk.
While you can tackle secondary quests and take on contracts to boost Geralt's stats, making the game's later stages that bit easier, when the game switches to Ciri's path – the one our core protagonist is trying his best to follow – you have to make do with what you're given. Thankfully, Ciri is a more than capable warrior herself, quicker than Geralt and possessing the ability to teleport behind an assailant's back for a swift deathblow. She can't take as much of a bruising as her honorary father, though, so when it's a toss up between taking on a dozen soldiers armed with crossbows as well as axes and the like, or legging it to the next checkpoint, choose wisely.
Gameplay with Ciri is wholly linear, your path forwards clearly marked – but when Geralt isn't "on mission" he's free to wander far and wide. And you should do, too, as there's so much to find by just pointing your horse, Roach, at one corner of a map and cantering into the unknown. There are caves full of loot, guarded by nightmares; abandoned towns which, when cleared of their current, antisocial occupants, will become populated by grateful villagers, whose services you can subsequently take advantage of. Soon enough, the main maps become littered with discovered locations and mysterious markers alike – one assumes that once the central plot has been seen to its climax, you can tick off anything you didn't crack prior to the credits rolling. (And I can only assume, as I'm still playing through the story – although it definitely feels like it's hitting its final beats.)
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Of course, you will run out of things to do here, eventually. But there's free downloadable content on the way, as well as paid expansions offering a further 30 hours of gameplay. Add it all together and you're looking at ten days solid of adventure, assuming anyone could stay awake for so long. That is incredible value for money, isn't it? It'd count for nothing if The Witcher 3 didn't constantly call the player back to its verdant fields and swampy wastes, but based on my experience with the game, that's another of its successes. As I write this, I'm fighting the urge to shut the laptop and get back to killing harpies and water hags. And, I'm losing.
So, to conclude, albeit based on "in-progress" impressions: this is the Red Dead Redemption sequel we've yet to be given, albeit with a few dragons and that flying about the place and a wonderfully nuanced love story at its centre (though you might, fairly, say that RDD featured the same). It's an exemplary example of a modern open-world video game, with a high fantasy aesthetic that's consistently engaging and only the smallest quirks to compromise proceedings: control of your horse, and when you're swimming underwater, can be fiddly, and the loading time after you've died – be that by the flames of a fire elemental or just by accidentally falling off a broken bridge on the way to find a black pearl – is fairly long.
Still, that just tells you to get better, so do excuse me: I'm off to introduce a treasure-guarding cyclops, who previously crushed me to death, to my new and improved arsenal. He'd better have more than some bloody dwarven spirit in that chest of his. (Turns out, he did. Thanks, dead cyclops.)
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is released on the 19th of May for PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox One. The game was (well, is being) tested using PS4 code, provided by the publisher.
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