Let me first address the elephant in the room.
I am really late to the Witcher 3 craze.
About 5 years late to be exact. And I acknowledge that there is absolutely nothing original or insightful left to say about this game, but damn it, that won’t stop me from trying!
The amount of hype this game enjoyed around the time of its release was insane. A lot of people believed it was going to be the game that set a new standard for the open-world fantasy genre. Some even believed it was finally going to dethrone Skyrim as the fantasy game against which all other fantasy games are judged. I was really excited about finally sinking my teeth into this 100-hour long monster – lovingly dubbed the “Game of the Century” – and seeing whether it really deserved it’s reputation. After a comparatively modest 60 hours of playtime, what I found really surprised me.
The first couple of hours I spent playing the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I even turned to my partner and said, “Wow, I didn’t think PC games could look this good.” I was just blown away by how beautiful the game’s environments were. The lighting in this game is consistently stunning, dynamic and very atmospheric; the character models are detailed; the combat animations are realistic; the character animations are expressive; I can’t think of one single element that lets the game down visually. The game is not overly colourful – in fact, the colour palette overall is pretty muted. They were clearly going for a realistic aesthetic over a cartoonish or surreal approach – lots of greens, greys and browns – but it doesn’t need to be colourful. The beauty is in striking the balance between visuals that are realistic enough to be believable, yet fantastical enough to convey that sense of magic and wonder – the thing we all play fantasy games for.
The Music/Sound Design
I have already heaped praise upon the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s outstanding soundtrack in my previous post “Five of My Favourite Videogame Soundtracks”, so I won’t waste time harping on about it here. Check out my previous post for more details and clips – you’ll see why I bang on about it so much.
I’m going to come straight out and say that the script-writing in this game is the best I have heard to date. I really do appreciate CD Projekt Red’s commitment, not only to writing compelling and engaging dialogue for NPCs, but for giving them all proper British accents – contractions and all. And not just the Queen’s English, but a variety of authentic accents from Somerset and Norfolk to Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s very refreshing, and legitimately immersive – even if the game isn’t actually set in the UK, it’s much more believable to have your peasants speaking in common-as-muck, barely legible West country dialect, than well enunciated and articulate American English.
The actual quests themselves are extraordinarily in depth. It’s hard to elaborate without spoiling things for potential new players, but what I can say for certain is that there are absolutely no fetch quests, “kill X number of X” type quests or “collect X number of X” quests to be found here, no sir. Not a cut-and-paste quest in sight. Each individual quest, no matter if it’s a main quest or side quest, feels like a self contained story – they’re not always particularly long or complex, but it’s obvious that time and attention has been invested in every single one to ensure they are all engaging and different. They aren’t fillers to kill time between story quests. They don’t just populate the world, they expand it.
The game is far, far, far too easy. By the time I was 25 hours into the Witcher 3, I was cutting through hordes of enemies like a hot knife through butter. I was slaying monsters that were 5-6 levels higher than me with less than 10 hits and barely taking any damage.
By the time I reached halfway through the story, I was over levelled by almost 8 levels, because I completed all the side quests and exploration quests. In a game that puts so much effort into it’s questing experience, why would you punish players for engaging with side quests by causing them to become so ridiculously over-levelled and overpowered that all the challenge disintegrates into nothing?
To make matters worse, enemies don’t scale to my level. If I want to experience everything the game has to offer, I am forced to keep whaling on the same lower level enemies for hours upon hours. I got to the point where I was consciously avoiding quests so I didn’t unbalance myself even more. I should not have to do that in an RPG. That is the antithesis of good progression in an RPG.
All this makes the game-play extremely predictable and unrewarding for me. The problem isn’t a lack of progression, it’s over-progression. It was this exact problem that had me really labouring to get through the final third of the game, and that was so disappointing for me because, by all accounts, I should have happily breezed through those fifty hours. Instead, I was rushing to the finish to get it over with. It’s very rare that I find myself doing that. I played most of the game on the Blood and Broken Bones difficulty level, but playing on Death March is the only difficulty setting I would recommend playing this game on.
In combat, Geralt controls well – his movements are fluid, intuitive and responsive – but don’t be fooled. Outside of combat, Geralt controls in a way that is uniquely frustrating to manage. Control is clunky and awkward, and everything always seems delayed. It really becomes a problem when you’re trying to navigate an interior, or God forbid, a town or city. It’s not impossible, it doesn’t break the game, but is it intuitive? Hell no. And don’t even get me started on multi-level manoeuvring. Geralt dies more easily from falling a short distance than he does from any other kind of hazard, and the number of times I’ve fallen to my death because I wasn’t standing in exactly the right place to use a ladder or climb into a ledge and threw myself accidentally off a cliff… It feels to me a lot like they chose to sacrifice user-friendly control in order to make the animations more realistic.
Geralt’s control is just mildly frustrating, but for as great as the horse looks and sounds, it controls more like a mine-cart or a cable car on four legs. When galloping, the horse will grind to a halt for no reason, as if hitting an invisible wall. Your travel is constantly being interrupted by your horse bumping into things. For a game that was clearly designed with horse-back travel in mind – hence the lack of fast travel – I wish they’d have made riding feel more convenient. I’m not asking for a gravity defying horse that can run up sheer cliff faces like in Skyrim, but it would be nice to have one that doesn’t crash into thin air.
It’s Not an RPG
If I was going to get really critical, I would say that the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is’t even an RPG at all. Yes, there is a skill tree, but just having a skill tree does not make your game an RPG. There are no alternative play-styles – all you get is your swords and your basic magic – and there are no real dialogue options other than “nice” and “mean.” There’s no opportunity for the player to determine their own “role” in the game, and this really limits the replayability value. For me, there’s no “RP” in this “RPG.”
I am happy to admit that this point is 100% my opinion and is nothing to do with the quality of the I am happy to admit that this point is 100% my opinion and is nothing to do with the quality of the game itself. I must have made all the wrong decisions in the game’s numerous multiple-choice scenarios, because I got the bad ending. The ending to the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (or at least, the ending that I got) was the least satisfying, most unnecessarily negative ending to a video game I have ever experienced. I felt like it completely threw the 50 hours I had invested into the characters and the story back in my face, and I never got to find out what it was that I did wrong. This isn’t the game’s fault of course, and other players will have had a vastly different experience than I did, but it sucked nonetheless. It made the game feel like a complete waste of time.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes…
Questing and lore are often used to bribe players into overlooking the various technical shortcomings of a game. Lots of consumers are more than willing to compromise on things like gameplay, control and mechanics, as long as they get a game with an amazing story they can get emotionally invested in, and a world in which they can become immersed. And the Witcher 3 delivered on those promises, so what’s the problem?
I suppose the problem is that, in my view, the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, however beloved, is a one-trick pony. I don’t believe that the market would tolerate the kind of technical shortcomings that the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has from any other developer, or in any other kind of game. Strangely, the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt gets a pass.
I always try to give video-games the benefit of the doubt when I play them. The ethos of this site was to inject some positivity into games journalism, by appreciating all the things there are to like about the games I play. However, I don’t believe in staying true to that mantra if it comes at the cost of being honest. And honestly, the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was not an enjoyable game to play for me. By however small a margin, it missed the mark. Nobody is more disappointed than I am to find that the game isn’t everything I hoped it would be.
Of course, that’s not to say that the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt doesn’t deserve it’s reputation. It is still widely regarded as one of the greatest fantasy games ever made. I think a certain amount of disagreement is healthy. For now, I’m glad to be moving on, hopefully to bigger and better things.