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The Witcher 3's first three hours show off this sequel's changed attitude

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I've never been a big fan of The Witcher.

When I reveal this tidbit to CD Projekt co-founder and CEO Marcin Iwiński, at first I'm worried that I've upset him. Then he grins and makes a joke about kicking me out of the preview event I'm attending.

It's not that I haven't tried, of course. I played both the original The Witcher as well as the Xbox 360 port of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. I was interested in the dark characters and what seemed to be fairly deep systems, but in both cases I found myself put off by confusing early hours that didn't seem to have a lot of regard for helping players get invested.

The Witcher series has become a massive success for CD Projekt, but Iwiński acknowledges that I was far from alone in being intimidated by the first two games. The developer has big plans to solve those problems with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and they become clear right from the start of the game.

"We are welcoming gamers who haven't played previous Witcher games with open arms," Iwiński says.

A peaceful life

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt feels more polished and welcoming than its predecessors almost immediately. The game opens in Kaer Morhen, an isolated castle that serves as a training ground for witchers. If you're completely unfamiliar with the series, witchers are powerful warriors who are magically mutated in order to become better at hunting and killing massive beasts.

Geralt, the protagonist of the series, has settled into a seemingly idyllic life in the mountain fortress. In between long baths and lounging around with love interest Yennefer, he spends his time focused on training Ciri, a young girl believed to hold great power that could be used for good or evil.

Those who have been paying attention will know that Ciri will be a playable character at some point in The Witcher 3. But that comes much later. In this prologue, she is still a young girl, and still new to life as a witcher.

"Our approach has totally changed from The Witcher 1 and The Witcher 2"

Ciri's training serves as a perfectly organic way to introduce players to The Witcher 3's basic mechanics. Instead of a boring block of text popping up or another character inexplicably explaining how to fight to a character who's been doing this for decades, Geralt is demonstrating for Ciri. He shows her the proper technique for swinging a sword, which weapon to choose, how to block and how to use magic via mystical signs. It's handled simply, swiftly, and it pulled me in much better than the jumbled tutorials in previous Witcher games.

"Our approach has totally changed from The Witcher 1 and The Witcher 2," Iwiński tells me. He says that with the earlier games, CD Projekt Red was targeting the super-hardcore, PC-only audience that exists in the studio's home country of Poland. Now, as the series and company has grown, it wants the audience to expand as well.

"With every single game, we're adding a lot more polish and making it a lot more welcoming to the general gamer," he says. "I think this is just the way games should be done. I really admire, for example, BioWare or Bethesda for introducing its games to gamers."

While the calm introduction is nice, things pick up suddenly and violently. Geralt's relaxed training session with Ciri is interrupted when a massive ship appears floating in the sky. A group of spectral horsemen leap down from the ship and onto the walls of Kaer Morhen. This is the titular Wild Hunt, and they're here to capture Ciri.

And then ... Geralt wakes up.

The Witcher 3 preview b 1920

A wider world

Okay, so the "it was all a dream" twist might be cliché, but this prologue serves as such a great introduction, not only for the aforementioned mechanics but also for the story. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, for example, begins with a whirlwind of overstimulation — names, locations and events are all presented with minimal context, impossible to parse if you hadn't played the first game to completion.

The Witcher 3, on the other hand, lays it all out clearly: Here's who Geralt is. Here's what he dreams of. Here's Ciri, and here are the forces they're up against. While there are certain to be more complications as the plot develops — in particular, a war that threatens to envelop the whole world there's little room for confusion over the core story beats at the start.

From there, the plot immediately expands to introduce The Witcher 3's biggest addition: an open world much larger than anything the series has had before. On his quest to find Ciri and stop the Wild Hunt, Geralt will explore this world alongside his companion Vesemir, a much older witcher.

"The story dictated the size of the game," says Miles Tost, a level designer at CD Projekt Red. "That was our recipe to making a game on this scale without it feeling bloated. We didn't just put content in to fill space."

"The story dictated the size"

Despite that promise — one that appears to be kept in my time with the game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is almost astoundingly bigger than past games. Tost tells me the game's full geography is "35 times larger than all the playable areas in The Witcher 2 combined." One zone later in the game, a series of islands called Skellige, is in and of itself bigger than the entirety of the last entry in the series.

The first area I'm loaded into after the prologue is a swampy, forested region dotted with hills, rivers and small villages. While I'm free to continue Geralt's search for Ciri in the main story, I decide to test Tost's claim about the content not being filler. I purposefully go off the beaten path and hunt down some sidequests.

After a bit of searching through an early village, I come across a distressed dwarven blacksmith standing outside the smoking husk of a building. The blacksmith has been forcefully recruited to craft armor and weapons for the troops marching through the area, and some angry local has burned down the dwarf's business in response. He offers me payment to hunt down the culprit.

Using Geralt's witcher abilities, I track footprints from the blacksmith's building to another house in the village. Inside, I find a drunken wreck of a man who quickly admits to the wrongdoing. Simple quest, right? However, where the story might end here in some games, it just gets more complicated in The Witcher 3.

First, the drunk guy wants to fight me. I can either take him on myself and potentially kill him, or I can use a spell to calm him and persuade him to come with me. I go with the latter option. Upon returning to the dwarf, the arsonist is quickly turned over to guards who decide to hang him. I can step in and try to change their mind or just let that harsh punishment go through. And finally, I can either accept payment or let the dwarf keep his money as a form of silent protest against how events played out.

"35 times larger than all the playable areas in The Witcher 2"

This kind of hidden depth to even the most innocuous of sidequests is important to CD Projekt Red. "There's always backstory," says Iwiński. "There's always motivation. It's important that all the characters in the game, even the small ones, they have something about them, something that makes them real. They have their own agenda."

Iwiński points me toward another sidequest that he says is one of his favorite in the whole game. A woman is standing outside of a locked hut next to a river. She tells me that something unsettling is going on here. A mysterious stranger came into this house with a companion several nights previous and left the next day on his own. And worst of all, he borrowed this woman's prized frying pan, and she really wants it back.

I'm tempted to laugh, but Iwiński urges that it's not as silly a quest as it seems at first. Once I get inside the building, I see what he means. The interior is covered in blood and runes. It looks like some messed up ritual has happened. A corpse is propped up against one wall. On a table nearby: the old lady's frying pan, washed and pristine.

The bizarre scene in this house doesn't lead to another quest at this point, but it certainly hints at a story beat that could be picked up later. More importantly, it demonstrates the layered approach to storytelling in sidequests that the game is going for. What at first appears as a simple, slightly goofy fetch quest that could show up in any RPG turns into something that makes players think and put the pieces together in their head.

"I really like the frying pan quest!" Iwiński says. "That's quintessentially The Witcher."

The Witcher 3 preview c 1920 CD Projekt Red

The hunt begins

With some sidequests crossed off my list, I decide to spend the last of my three hours with The Witcher 3 pursuing the main story. The first village I visited has been harassed by a griffin, and I'll need to take the creature down if I want local officials to provide the information I need. Luckily, taking down big, scary creatures is what witchers do best.

The first few primary quests do a great job of building up exactly what the life of a witcher entails — and I don't mean the actual slaying of beasts. Being a good witcher is all about preparation. First, Geralt tracks down the griffin's nest to figure out why it has started attacking people. Then he has to search for the correct herbs to put together bait for the creature. This includes a dip underwater to pick some particularly pungent seaweed.

These missions are slow by the standards of many RPGs, but they build tension and really drive home how necessary it is to spend proper time preparing for difficult fights in this game. As in previous Witcher titles, if you go into a big boss fight without having spent time creating potions or building traps, you're probably in trouble.

That's not to say The Witcher 3 is always as difficult as the last two games, though. Iwiński says it was very important to him that they improve on the series' balance problems.

"Someone asked me what we're doing to cater to gamers who maybe don't have as much time," he explains. "Well, that's me to be honest. I have three kids, including a newborn. My gameplay time is maybe five hours a week. I want to play through the story, and that's what easy mode is there for.

"We will not have the core story be extremely difficult like it was in The Witcher 2. For me, personally, that was a shortcoming. For some guys at the studio, it was just proof that you're tough. But I don't want to die at the beginning of the game."

"We will not have the core story be extremely difficult like it was in The Witcher 2"

I'll admit that, playing on the normal difficulty, I did in fact die at the beginning of the game. Given, I was rushing through and probably underleveled, but the fight against the griffin is difficult. Yet, that difficulty feels less imposing than it was in The Witcher 2, more like something I could overcome if I played smart.

When I reloaded and tried a second time, I was more cautious. I learned the griffin's attack patterns, carefully dodging when it divebombed through the air or swiped from the ground. I began timing my spell recharge so that I could consistently cloak Geralt in a magic shield, ensuring that the occasional mistake wouldn't lead to instant death. And this time I got some potions ready.

After a dramatic ten minute battle that included a chase across the hillside, I was triumphant. The griffin fell dead, and I felt rewarded for figuring the encounter out without getting frustrated.

That's CD Projekt Red's approach to balance this time around. If you just want to enjoy the story with minimal struggle, play it on easy. If you'd like something closer to the sometimes excruciating difficulty of the previous games, play it on hard. Normal difficulty, for the first time ever in the series, seems to strike a successful balance.

"We come from a more hardcore, more PC-based market," Iwiński repeats, attempting to explain why the studio's earlier projects are viewed as punishingly difficult by some. "For The Witcher 3, it's the best of both worlds, for both newcomers and the more hardcore crowd."

After three hours with the game, I'm inclined to believe him. I may just be a fan of The Witcher yet.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is scheduled to launch worldwide on May 19 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PCs.