At this year’s E3 there was one game that was constantly being talked about. Yet, this was not a game from one of the biggest, publishing heavyweights. Instead it was an incredibly ambitious and European-flavoured role-playing game from a small Polish studio, CD Projekt RED. The title in question is, of course, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and after a lengthy, in-depth presentation it is shaping up to be the most promising game of the next generation.
After quietly gathering a dedicated cult following, The Witcher series was unleashed on a new group of gamers when the excellent Xbox 360 transfer of the second instalment hit the shelves last year. Depicting a much darker universe than traditional fantasy fare there is a distinctly unique and satisfying quality to The Witcher which is set to continue with the latest entry. However, the developers were keen to stress that the game could be played without prior knowledge of the series although there would nods to the first two chapters for returning players.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt follows the albino-mutant protagonist Geralt of Rivia and (minor spoiler) takes place after the Northern Kingdoms have been burnt by the armies of the Empire of Nilfgaard. From the horizon a new threat has emerged: a company of mysterious, ghostly horsemen known as the “Wild Hunt” who are proceeding to spread fear and destruction wherever they go. The narrative will play an even more prominent role in this game, following Geralt and his closest companions, and is set to draw the saga to a close. Understandably the developers were very secretive of the plot’s details but explained that through player actions there would be a total of 36 different endings.
Our gameplay demonstration began with a small village, Dalvik, being laid to waste by the Wild Hunt, although unbeknownst to them a single survivor manages to escape. Instantly, we were blown away by the visuals which were crisp, stylised and remarkably detailed. Using a new version of the REDengine 3 characters have better animations, the lighting has been radically improved and the world looks amazing. In particular the fire effects were startling as the buildings of the smallholding burnt to the ground and we could not help but marvel at the presentation. Clearly the developers have gone from a filmic visual style and the quality of the graphics gives The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt the feel of a blockbuster title.
However, before we could begin to worry about style over substance the game showed us that it has lost none of its intelligent, subtle storytelling or compromised in its ability to create an atmosphere. The demonstration now switched to Geralt as he discovered that the Wild Hunt had been sighted and that the lone survivor, Bjorn, was now living with his brother in the town of Fayrland.
Speaking with an old friend for more information allowed Geralt to utilise the new dialogue system that gives him more options on how to approach conversations. While it is difficult to ascertain the impact of this system in a short preview, it did seem robust. The developers also mentioned that there will be different ways to tackle dialogue, such as speaking in whispers or by ending conversations “suddenly and brutally”, which sounds undeniably cool. Facial animations have also been overhauled with characters now having the same numbers of bones in their face as were present in an entire model in the original title.
Leaving the company of his friend and the safety of his castle stronghold, Geralt rode out into the wild on horseback. The world itself is almost as much the hero of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as Geralt. The developers were particularly keen to emphasise the scale and detail of the environments. To begin with the continent is 35 times larger than that seen in the last game and there will not be any load times required to transition between areas. It is so large that it takes nearly three quarters of an hour to ride across on horseback. It is a staggering achievement and incredible to experience as everywhere feels like a living, breathing location from small farmsteads to shadowy coves.
In order to deal with the enormous landscape, CD Projekt RED has chosen to add a few new features including a nifty fast-travel system (which necessitates locations are visited first before they can be teleported to) and boats. Boats will be a useful tool as much of Geralt’s world takes the form of islands and archipelagos. The map is roughly divided into three different cultural areas. No Man’s Land is a desecrated and sinister area full of swamps, dark forests and empty fields. Skellige is a series of islands that bring to mind a mixture of Celtic and Viking traditions with a population largely comprised of noble warriors. Finally, the largest city in the game is Novigrad, a port that is full of corruption, organised crime and sinister cults.
We only managed to get a small taste of this enormous landscape but what we saw was richly detailed and diverse. The developers commented that they wanted to make sure that there were many points of interest to discover, from cottages to caves and ruins to waterfalls. As exploration is one of the core tenants of crafting a successful RPG, it is refreshing to see such a degree of enthusiasm for littering the world with hundreds of places to search. As the demonstration played out there were numerous times when Geralt spotted a promising looking outcrop or building, but sadly there was not time to visit each one.
As Geralt made his way closer to Fayrland in search of Bjorn he stumbled across a lonely farm building surrounded by a group of vicious looking bandits. Warning him to stand back, Geralt chose to ignore them and challenged their leader, asking why he was planning on burning down a house with a family inside. This prompted a brutal fight that highlighted the changes that have been made to the combat system, which has been significantly altered from the last game.
The developers were keen to emphasise they have made it more responsive and fluid, requiring speed and precision for success. It is designed to be challenging but rewarding with a much wider variety of attacks and parries available. Geralt will be able to unlock a range of new parries, blocks and attacks during the course of the game and his witcher powers (known as Signs) have also been given a significant boost. In particular the Igni Sign has been buffed to turn the witcher’s hand into a flamethrower that can be further improved with skills and abilities later on in the game.
As Geralt employed these abilities in the fight the enemies reacted to his tactics and seemed to constantly change position to attempt to surround him. Instead of lining up to be dispatched one-by-one, the bandits tried to coordinate attacks but Geralt’s swordsmanship was far too powerful. Once the enemies had fallen, the father of the harassed family came out to thank Geralt for his help but also issued a stern warning. The bandits were in the employ of a powerful local noble and word of their death may have repercussions in the world, with the witcher potentially being singled out as a high priority target for further groups of hired swords. The world will be littered with similar choices that can have far-reaching effects on the player’s standing and potentially lead to future assistance or aggression.
Moving onwards towards Bjorn, Geralt attempted to take a shortcut through the ruins of a watchtower only to be ambushed by a large, rabbit-like monster made from roots, branches and tree trunks. The creature immediately attacked with a series of fast-charges that would have been highly damaging if they had hit the hunter. However, Geralt retreated and used his fire casting to lure the creature into a wider area where he would have the upper hand. Yet, the beast soon turned the tables and used its magical powers to plunge the world into darkness. Only its glowing red eyes could be seen, requiring the witcher to carefully watch for them and roll out of the way of attacks.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a game determined to live up to its name and explore an under-utilised element of Geralt’s character: his profession as a monster hunter. As such, a horde of horrible creatures will be present and all will require the use of special hunting skills and research to bring down. In the confrontation with the tree-beast, Geralt managed to wound the creature making it retreat to try and recover from its wounds. It would then be possible for the witcher to use his hunting senses to track the monster to its lair, or gather more information from its environment to help make combat against it easier. However, as he had already been distracted he chose instead to head directly to Fayrland.
Travelling the final part of the way by boat, a new addition to the series to make traversing long distances easier, meant the developers could demonstrate the new weather effects. While on the craft a small storm struck and the waves grew ominously large. Thankfully, Geralt managed to skirt around the worst of the sway and reach his destination but larger storms will pose a very real threat that can easily cause him to drown. In most games the day and night cycle is purely cosmetic but in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt it will impact on supernatural creatures powers and abilities such as making vampires and werewolves more dangerous at night.
Finally reaching his destination, Geralt met with Bjorn and chose a direct approach at getting information from him by questioning him specifically about the Wild Hunt. The developers noted there were many ways of talking with people and sometimes being direct would be more effective than others. Yet, as soon as he had acquired the facts a group of villagers approached him with a problem that was plaguing the community. A strange creature was attacking people in the shadowy woods and two distinct groups had emerged: those who wanted to worship and respect the creature and those that wanted it killed.
Spotting a chance for profit, the witcher agreed to hunt it for the right price, although the elders who venerated the beast were unhappy with the decision. Here two paths were created with one option to help Harald, the leader of the settlement who worshipped the beast, or the other to assist Sven, who wanted it removed while eyeing up the role of chief. Geralt headed into the woods to try and gather more information on the type of monster he faced. Using his senses to examine the tracks left by the creature he established it was a Leshen, a forest spirit that made totems to protect its soul and mark a local person in order to prevent it from ever truly dying. In order to break the spell and destroy the creature Geralt would have to find its three totems, destroy them and find out which villager had been marked and exile them.
Moving through the woods, following the tracks and gathering more information about the Leshen (which was collected in an expansive bestiary menu), Geralt systematically found and destroyed the totems while defeating packs of wolves summoned by the beast to try and protect them. Returning to the village, he followed his senses to track down a young girl in the settlement who had been marked. In order to avoid plot spoilers, what followed were some emotional decisions that required Geralt to make a number of choices. The developers informed us that each one would lead to a different quest outcome that would be important in the future even though it was a side quest.
With the marked person removed from the equation, the witcher headed into the forest to deal with the Leshen once and for all. Eventually following its signs and tracks to a clearing, the monster appeared looking like an animated tree with an animal skull for a head. What followed was a long, tough fight. The Leshen used the environment against Geralt, summoning tree roots and vines to burst from the ground and ensnare him as well as directly attacking with savage claws. The foe was ultimately taken down with careful, tactical use of combat and careful use of magic. It was an impressive fight and really showed how impressive the title is shaping up to be.
The Leshen battle was not even a boss, merely a tougher monster (of which there are over 80) and all the creatures in the game will require different strategies and hunting techniques to defeat. It was a refreshing twist on a role-playing game staple and just felt perfectly suited to the style of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. There is so much more we could mention about our time with the game but even then it felt like we were merely scratching the surface. The title feels like a complex, multi-faceted animal that will undoubtedly reward not only dedicated but casual gamers alike.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was hands-down one of the highlights of this year’s E3. With such a vibrant, believable game world and rich, diverse gameplay it is hard to believe this is a product from a relatively small studio. The uniquely European flavour to the story, characters and game mechanics is a breath of fresh air that understandably has whipped journalists into a frenzy of enthusiasm. We cannot wait for more time with the game and hope to bring you more information and opinion from GamesCom later this year. With a release date of 2014 there is still a long time to wait, but it already feels like it will be worth it. Expect to be sat down and immersed on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC sometime next year.