After a long absence, we're bringing back gaming reviews.
Ever since The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion launched over nine years ago, it made open world action RPGs the standard for new-gen technology, especially in the bang-for-your-buck department. Mass Effect released shortly after in 2007, setting a new standard for player control in story direction. By 2009, the action-RPG market was getting crowded with new intellectual property, including Borderlands and Demon's Souls. Even Final Fantasy XIII took a strange turn toward the action side of action-RPG that year.
|"I'd hate to see the craps this bird takes."|
Now that current-gen systems have been around for over 1.5 years, we've been waiting a long time for the first open world action-RPG that would redefine the genre. Watch Dogs and Dragon Age: Inquisition had their moments, but they still have a last-gen feel to them. Bloodborne is so action oriented and (nearly) linear that I can't really call it an open world action-RPG. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt provides the best open world action-RPG experience so far this generation. You play as Geralt, the titualar Witcher who makes money by killing monsters with his silver sword. Sometimes he's pressured into mortal combat against human foes, so he also carries a steel sword to complete those jobs. Geralt doesn't use a shield. He parries attacks with his sword and quickly counterattacks.
The game play borrows from most of the best open world action-RPGs and open world action games. Right from the word "go," the travel system and town environments reminded me of The Elder Scrolls series, with a touch of Dragon's Dogma in there. There's lots of cool little things going on in the towns. Be sure to look out for the grindstones and workman's benches. They give you fifteen minute buffs to your weapons and armor.
The most impressive thing about the graphics turned out to be a big surprise for me. CD Projekt Red has accomplished what Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls) and Rockstar Games (L.A. Noire) spent a fortune trying to get right last generation: people. When I first watched Geralt speak to Keira Metz, who is by far my favorite NPC of the entire game, I was nearly floored. Both characters looked gorgeous, and their dialogue sounded and looked natural coming out of those well-animated mouths.
|"Dude. You look like a pro|
wrestling drop out."
After completing a few light quests, I started to get a hang of the inventory system. The menus look and respond a lot like the Resident Evil menus, although I never ran out of space in TW3. In my 100+ hours with it, I got frustrated with not being able to store my vast array of weapons, armor, herbs and crafting materials anywhere. As of July 7, 2015 there is an online patch available that gives you a storage container, so be sure to check that out. Without it, the menu system starts to slow down and become a pain as you try to find one particular item in a sea of noise.
The combat system is a strange and somewhat satisfying mash-up of Diablo III, Dark Souls and Skyrim. I played on the difficulty between normal and "hardest," and I didn't need to figure out the entire control system for a few days before I died. If you play on normal difficulty, it shouldn't provide too much of a challenge. And that's unfortunate. If the combat in The Witcher 3 had been scaled down with more enemy variety and attack patterns, it would easily be my game of the year so for in 2015. As it stands, they shot for the sun and caught the moon. Geralt has five spells available to him at the beginning of the game, and he keeps those five spells throughout. Just like in Diablo III, you can alter the spells and make them more powerful.
When you can time the correct magic attack with a quick sword strike, it feels pretty good. The problem is, the combat feels the same after 100 hours as it did after two. One of the more common enemies in the game, the "Drowner," seem to have gone to the same school of kung-fu-swordplay as the Nilfgaardian Knights and the feral wolves that Geralt must fight. I didn't die much, but I never felt a real sense of ownership over the combat. There's a relatively early boss fight against one of The Wild Hunt that feels great, but I didn't encounter another fight like it for two weeks after that.
The cut scenes, dialogue and characters are all well written, but I never got a feel for what Geralt is really like. There are numerous references to Witchers not having emotions, but that doesn't come across a lot of times, especially while talking to his love interests. There are numerous opportunities for Geralt to shack up with female NPCs, and those storylines are all mostly decent and respectful. Misogyny still rules the day, however, as Geralt can easily hire working girls, called "strumpets" in TW3, to get his rocks off.
When it comes to side quests, The Witcher 3 borrowed a lot from Borderlands for their execution. They pop up on message boards, in towns, and at random locations on the map. They're often a bit silly in nature, and they always have a cutscene. The process is usually fun, but after 60 hours or so, I was sick of using my "Witcher Sense" (read: Arkham City detective vision) to follow yet another trail of footprints, only to start another cut scene, followed by more tracking, followed by another cut scene. The quests are too long and layered for their own good. There were 12 quests I counted where I had to backtrack five or more times in order to finish a basic side quest. Most of those times, I couldn't fast travel. I had to follow a slow-moving NPC, or slowly walk a trail so I wouldn't lose it. There's not enough variety, either. It's hard to dress up fetch quests when everyone's doing them. I get that. But putting three separate fetch quests inside of one side quest is too much, especially when the payoff is so small.
|"Yup. Me and the horse I rode in on."|
While most action-RPGs hand out XP and money in massive quantities, TW3 chose to go the opposite route. It took me ages to get my first 1000 crowns, and leveling up requires very few points, relative to most games in the genre. That's what makes the side quest payoff structure so frustrating: Sometimes I'd get a couple hundred points (that's a LOT) for killing a few wolves in the middle of a mission, other times I'd get 45 points for completing a massive and dangerous side quest.
Once you get the hang of things and start experiencing the massive world and its interesting characters, you will probably get hooked. I sure did. After 20 hours or so, the engaging stories start bumping into each other. If you find yourself getting frustrated or bored in the early going, stick with it. Once you meet the Witches of Crookback Bog, you'll see how the developers used their Dark Souls influences to create some truly disturbing characters.
If you ever run out of things to do in The Witcher 3, you really should get checked for video game addiction. This is Skyrim/Fallout 3 level stuff, folks. And you're not just getting empty fluff here - unlike "Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning." Actually, that's what I'll call The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It's the game that Kingdoms of Amalur - Reckoning" should have been. Curt Schilling can suck it.
While The Witcher 3's charms wore off on me around the 70-80 hour mark, that's no reason for me not to recommend it. It won't be challenging for my 2015 GOTY, but that has as much to do with the competition as anything else. If you're a fan of The Elder Scrolls, Assassin's Creed, Fallout 3, Borderlands, Dragon Age, Dragon's Dogma or Dark Souls, there's plenty here to like.