The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is close. Really close. Confirmed in 2013, waiting for this fantasy role-playing giant has been arduous, to the extent where some fans of the series might have wondered if the game was ever actually happening – its initial release date of autumn 2014 came and went, and a February 2015 slot was missed for a revised launch of the 19th of May. But the game's makers, Warsaw studio CD Projekt RED, have stuck to their May day, and now that we're under a month from release it's okay to be excited. Hell, it's expected. But equally, some gamers out there are sure to be thinking: "Well I haven't played the other two, so this is going to be a confusing pack of shite, isn't it?"
Wrong. The world of The Witcher is densely packed with a metric ton of characters, settings, stories and monsters, but CD Projekt RED has been explicit about their desire to create a game that services both old fans of the series, those who know the lore inside out, and newcomers who can just jump in and get going with the latest epic. And we're here to help, too. This is pretty much everything you need to know about the games and their stories before you dive into The Witcher 3.
The Who's Who of Witching
Geralt of Rivia
A legendary witcher. What's a witcher? Fair enough. Witchers are a breed of monster hunter genetically modified to kick the crap out of the horrible filth that plagues most corners of this rich fantasy land. Geralt is a gruff, silver-haired dude who gets all the ladies and has unparalleled skills in battle, both with his dual swords and his unique magical spells, or signs in this fiction.
Then there's the huge supporting cast. The Witcher series has never been Game of Thrones: The Game in scale, but it's pretty close. Previous games required you to pay attention throughout the story, to all conversations as new characters were frequently introduced or mentioned, and also to read the extensive journal and codex entries. Here's a handful of other, fairly major players you need to know about:
Yennefer of Vengerberg
A powerful sorceress who's been in a relationship with our Geralt, the White Wolf. Yennefer has only appeared a few times throughout the two previous games, and it was all in flashbacks. Like Geralt, Yennefer is also an amnesiac. Rumours are that you will meet Yennefer throughout the story of Wild Hunt, but I'm sure that'll only complicate things because of Geralt's other love interest...
A central force of 2011's The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Triss is also a powerful and enigmatic sorceress. At the beginning of the second game, Geralt and Triss are already in a relationship, with Triss still good friends with the absent Yennefer. As the game progresses you get the choice whether to pursue that relationship or not – this being The Witcher, there's a lot of choice and almost always unseen consequences. Triss makes a welcome return in Wild Hunt – she's featured in trailers, which have showcased some intimate scenes between her and Geralt, so it'll be interesting to see how integral your decisions will be in the way our lead protagonist's relationships play out.
Ciri Fiona Elen Riannon
Ciri's tale is far too complex to explain in full with so few words, but she's a young woman in danger and is being chased by the Wild Hunt, for one thing. The (sort of) adopted daughter of Geralt, Ciri will be also playable as part of the main game. CD Projekt RED has been quiet regarding what capacity that'll be in, exactly, but has revealed that Ciri's playable segments will be linear offshoots from Geralt's central course of questing. She's clearly a huge part of Wild Hunt.
Hold up. What is the Wild Hunt, anyway?
It's bad, is what it is. Think Game of Thrones' White Walkers, or Mass Effect's Reapers. The Wild Hunt is a group of spectral beings that tears a trail of destruction whenever they roam across the land. In The Witcher's world, the Hunt (itself spun from fairly ancient European folklore) is seen as a great omen – a sign of misfortune and death. They're led by the King of the Wild Hunt – a towering bad guy in an impressive suit of armour (pictured directly above) – and he's dominated a lot of the pre-release marketing. He's desperately searching for Ciri, for reasons currently unknown, and it's Geralt's job to confront and stop him. We suspect that meeting won't be entirely civil.
What kind of fantasy world is this?
A dark and mature one, to say the least. There's a lot going on already, even before we've got to Wild Hunt, which is said to be larger than the largest of RPGs, the likes of Skyrim, and by some margin. A recent GameSpot video on the game – which provided previously unseen insights into the making of its world – revealed that it takes at least 20 minutes on horseback to travel from the centre of the map to the huge city of Novigrad in the north. That's bloody huge.
As well as the main landmass, you'll also visit the Skellige Islands, another diverse area full of snow-capped peaks and sparse forests, all traversable by boat. But all of this space wouldn't be much good if it wasn't full of interesting characters, quests and locations to see and experience, and that's something CD Projekt RED aren't short of. Whether it's interesting myths or legends, Geralt's story riffs off a lot of cool historical literature and European stories to provide a rich canvas to direct a fantastical narrative set in surroundings which seem both inhabited and steeped in history. You'll arrive in this world and feel like it existed 500 years before, and like it'll exist 500 years after you stop playing.
The first 15 minutes of 'The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt'
What's changed with the gameplay?
Combat in The Witcher is tough and unforgiving. It's not up there with Dark Souls or Bloodborne in terms of difficulty, but it'll provide a considerable challenge. CD Projekt RED has changed quite a bit in the jump from Assassins of Kings to Wild Hunt, though. Encounters can still be formidable at times, but there are now many more customisation options to Geralt's arsenal, and you're able to switch between magical signs easier than before. Alchemy has also changed – you can now take potions on the fly rather than having to down them all pre-combat. This is one of the most substantial changes, and it really fits the open world structure.
Quests have evolved in the years between games. There's said to be 200 hours' worth of gameplay here, so expect to embark on lots of individual side missions, each with their own branching stories. CD Projekt RED has stated that there are 36 possible endings to the game, so player choice is clearly going to impact on the game world and its inhabitants as you run through the core story.
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Okay, I'm in. When can I get involved?
Slow down just a second, there. The lore of The Witcher stretches way beyond the games, and there's significantly more reading to be done if you're a newcomer who really wants to feel at home with Wild Hunt in time for its release. Plenty of information is readily available on wikis and forums, but credit to the dedicated team at CD Projekt RED for aiming to deliver one of the most impressive RPGs ever made while considering that not all players will be familiar with its world and characters. If you feel you're ready inside, work on prepping your outward appearance for the 19th of May, because a jaw doesn't half look lame when it's dropped to the floor.
Previously on VICE Gaming: