Although it has been around since 2007, The Witcher has remained determinedly under the radar of all but those who class themselves as true action-RPG afficionados. However, we reckon its third iteration – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, due for a 19th of May release on PS4, Xbox One and PC – possesses the tools to take on the likes of The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age, and finally become one of the big beasts of the RPG jungle.
We schlepped up to Stirling in Scotland (whose geography and architecture was a big influence on the game’s Skellige Islands region) for a three-hour hands-on session in which we played through the prologue – a very extended tutorial – plus a more advanced section much deeper into the game.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a proper open-world RPG set, unsurprisingly, in a mediaeval fantasy world, in which you play Geralt of Rivia, one of a dwindling band of witchers, who have been genetically enhanced to become monster-slaying specialists. Inveterate tinkerers may be initially disappointed to discover that you can’t alter his appearance, but he has loads of personality – a feature of the game is its refusal to lapse into genericness.
Geralt has a steel sword for fighting humans and a silver one for monsters; the combat system is pretty simple, with light and heavy attacks plus parries. So-called Signs bring defensive and offensive magic, taking in the likes of temporary defensive bubbles, traps that inflict area-specific damage on enemies and throwable bombs. An encounter with a Noonwraith forced a strategic combat approach, by employing traps that gave her corporeal form that allowed physical attacks: CD Projekt Red has clearly striven to avoid identikit combat encounters.
Geralt also has enhanced senses which bring the ability to, for example, track footstep trails, bringing a pleasing element of detective work to many missions. One striking aspect of The Witcher 3 is how quickly and completely it immerses you in its world: all the story- and side-missions we played through were thoroughly memorable and the game-world has an unusually plausible feel to it. For example, we helped a woodsman on a side-mission, during which it emerged he had been exiled from his village for being gay; Geralt’s conversational options were pleasingly non-judgmental.
Visually and environmentally The Witcher 3 is as state-of-the-art as you would expect: we explored villages, swamps, forts and forests. Geralt can swim, too, although we found his underwater movement a tad clunky.
Flipping forward in the game, and advancing from Level 2 to Level 15, we played through a Skellige Island story mission set in an impressively constructed castle (CD Projekt Red reckons The Witcher 3 contains the biggest mediaeval city ever seen in a game) and centred on a banquet which went horribly wrong when three guests transformed into bears and wreaked havoc. That gave us a taste of the political intrigue that comes into play in the game when you move from countryside to city, as we had to align Geralt with either the hot-headed heir to the throne or his more rational sister.
We were able to delve into the attributes/abilities/perks tree after a bit of levelling up, which was a glacially slow process in the prologue, but clearly speeds up in the game proper. There was a vast amount of choice regarding how to spend your XP, ranging from core offensive and defensive attributes, to new Signs and alchemy abilities. All you need, in other words, to shape Geralt according to your favoured play-style.
The runes appear most favourable for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It looks spectacular, is distinctive and memorable in terms of storyline and peripheral characters, the combat system is spot-on and it certainly feels very meaty: the areas we explored were huge, it has a teleportation system to help you get about. There’s no doubt that it has what it takes to keep RPG-aficionados thoroughly immersed for months. This time around, it should generate more than just a cult following.