Go your own way.
I don't often stand still in games because there's usually so much to do, with some driving crescendo urging me on. However, as I canter through The Northern Kingdoms -- the over world in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt -- on my trusty steed, Roach, I can't help but stop and gasp at my surroundings.
The world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is astonishing, deliberate and vast. I could run, ride and sail my way through it endlessly. The sun rises and falls, and sprays its light through grey clouds and leafy trees... trees that sweep and sway in the wind with the kind of meticulous precision that took developers at CD Projekt Red a very long time to create. The plants, the animals and the terrain combine so consistently into so perfect a tableau that I cannot help but stop and appreciate it. Even more impressive than the world's beauty is the staggering wealth of things there are to do in it. The Northern Kingdoms are brimming with dank caves, elven ruins and foreboding castles all aching to be explored and their secrets pilfered. Some I discovered on my own, but sometimes I was sent there by a frightened populace whose compelling motives and personalities are as complex and interesting as the world they inhabit.
In a place as dangerous as The Northern Kingdoms it's only a matter of time before that danger finds its way into the lives of the many villagers and townsfolk who call it home. Their only recourse is to call upon the services of a Witcher, a Witcher like Geralt; a monster hunter, part of a dying caste of highly-trained (if controversially) individuals who are singularly equipped to deal with the creatures terrorizing the good people of the land. Though necessary, Witchers are not well-liked. They are feared almost as much as the ghouls they hunt. As a result, Geralt faces animosity as often as gratitude. The dynamic this creates is always interesting. Geralt is a hero, but a reluctant one unless he's being paid, of course. Witchers must make a living like everyone else. Player choice plays a great part in how the world sees Geralt and how he reacts to it. He is sarcastic and jaded, but there is kindness in his manner, though this can switch to callous disregard, should the player choose it.
The size of the world and the nature of Geralt's profession mean's that this is the first game in The Witcher series where I really felt like a Witcher, travelling from village to village, checking notice boards and solving the locals' problems. Typically these problems take the form of monster hunts -- Geralt's bread and butter. Getting as much information as possible from the contractor before journeying into the wild to track and slay the beast is the norm, but these hunts (and many of the game's quests) are rarely as simple as they first appear. These quests throw up choices that can have far reaching ramifications. Many of the decisions available to players will only affect the story and the world many hours later, and are rarely black and white.
Once you locate these beasts, combat ensues with one of Geralt's two swords: silver for fiends and steel for humans. Combat is quick and brutal: pirouettes, dodges and parries. Geralt can strike quickly, or commit to heavier blows depending on the opponent. The fighting is simple, but involved. Enemies are dangerous and they fight in packs leading to situations where even a Witcher's superhuman reflexes aren't good enough. Thankfully their rigorous training has other benefits in the form of magic spells.
Geralt knows fivespells: Axii, Aard, Igni, Quen and Yrden. These spells can turn the tide of a fight, with most enemies being susceptible to at least one. Wraiths aren't fond of the protective circle that Yrden creates. It makes them corporeal and more easily beaten, and very few enemies get on well with the jets of flame created by Igni. Spells are good in a pinch, but preparation -- in the form of potions, oils and bombs -- is the key to success in the game's toughest battles.
Alchemy is another of Geralt's fortes and his training-induced mutations have made him capable of imbibing concoctions that would kill a regular human. Using plants found throughout the world and grizzly pieces of his downed foes, Geralt can create an elixir for any occasion. Potions can restore health, enabling him to see in the dark and increase his resistance to harm. Oils, on the other hand, are more offensive in nature and coating your silver sword with one can mean the difference between life and death. Bombs can be used to stun, burn and poison, giving Geralt yet another tactical, lethal advantage over his foes.
The sheer amount of options available to Geralt means combat can be approached in a variety of ways, and keeps it interesting even when fighting the game's more common enemies such as human bandits and drowners. The upgrade system adds even more options as the game progresses. Everything can be upgraded, from Geralt's sword techniques to his spells, and even the potency of his potions and oils. Thanks to the skill trees, my killing methods changed dramatically throughout my own journey. Early on, a group of bandits meant frenzied flame blasts and slashing, but soon I was taking over my enemies' minds and turning them against their former friends, and tossing bombs and shooting my crossbow at those who dared get close.
An adventure as large, and as far reaching, as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt needs a strong narrative to give focus amidst the wealth of side activities,. Thankfully, the game doesn't disappoint. Geralt is searching for his apprentice Ciri who is being hunted by dreaded spectres -- The Wild Hunt -- amidst a war between the two key states of Nilfgaard and Redania. The tale is well told with universally-strong voice acting. The varied locations and scenarios, as well as the many game-changing player choices, make the story feel organic. I felt I was shaping it through my actions.
The greatest compliment I can pay The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is that I want to exist in it. I want to fit in. I can choose to sprint through the winding city streets of Novigrad, but I won't. That would be strange. Geralt wouldn't behave like that. He would walk or ride his horse. I so desperately want to blend in, to feel like a working part of the world because what has been crafted around me is so perfect, so accurate, detailed and believable that I don't want to upset the status quo. I want to wholly embody Geralt, become him and inhabit the Northern Kingdoms as authentically as I am able. The game deserves no less.
This game was reviewed with a full retail copy on PlayStation 4.
Images courtesy of CD Projekt Red.