The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt review: off the path

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher N/A
Developer CD Projekt Red
Release Date May 19, 2015

The Witcher 3 makes what should have been a terrifying risk look like the most natural evolution in the world.

The Witcher and its sequel established a fascinating fantasy world full of politics, intrigue, magic and monsters, and rooted it all in Geralt of Rivia, one of the last of the infamous Witchers — bounty hunters created through a potentially fatal series of trials and alchemical mutations, for hire by anyone with coin to destroy monsters. The Witcher 2 placed this within an action adventure context largely linear in structure, albeit with major plot changes and entirely different second halves based on player decisions made early on.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt takes the setting and complicated world-building of its predecessor and blows them out with an ambitious but logical next-step: an open-world game. For a studio without the AAA resources of a Bethesda or EA, transitioning from a more conservative linear structure to an undertaking so massive demonstrates a level of confidence bordering on insanity.

But CD Projekt Red has pulled it off, and in fact, has built a game that succeeds largely based on how well their previous Witcher work and concepts of player choice translate in an open-world setting, even as The Witcher 3 makes steps back elsewhere.

The Witcher 3 - Geralt fighting a siren CD Projekt Red/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

The Witcher 3 opens with Geralt in search of multiple people, namely former love interest Yennifer and his former ward/adopted daughter, Ciri, both of whom appear to be the object of the attentions of the nightmarish Wild Hunt. The story rapidly spirals outward, involving kings and their agents, aligning the political machinations of sorceresses and rulers both with and against Geralt as he seeks to find Ciri and unravel the mystery of her disappearance — and just what the Wild Hunt wants from her.

It's worth saying immediately that the characterization and storytelling of The Witcher 3 is considerably better than The Witcher 2. Where that game often felt like a litany of confusing schemes and plots and a list of various power players that the player might never meet or see, The Witcher 3 is much better at introducing its actors smartly and efficiently — even as the cast ballooned in the middle third of the game, I never felt especially lost or confused about the various intrigues in play, of what I was doing, for who, or why.

This would be impressive enough in an open-world game with a quarter of the story and characters, and for CD Projekt to keep everything straight and intelligible is a genuine achievement. That achievement is compounded by the seeming effect of player actions and choices on moment to moment events in the game.

I don't think there's anything in The Witcher 3 as significant as the Iorveth/Roche moment in The Witcher 2, which dictated an entirely different middle act of that game depending on your decisions, but I did tend to find that my choices in The Witcher 3's major side quests and the things I had done prior to advancing the main plot were reflected in those bigger moments.

witcher 3 tall screen 2

The Witcher 3's narrative achievements also don't come at the expense of its broader open-world fundamentals. CD Projekt finds the compulsive, satisfying quest-to-quest momentum that makes the best open-world games so hard to put down and so easy to play for marathon sessions. In part, this is because it's interesting to learn more about the world, its history and the various monsters and factions that populate it. There's a great sense of place, of somewhere where things happened before, and even smaller points of interest establish environmental storytelling. More unusually for the genre, and more seemingly difficult to nail, is a feeling of ecology — that the creatures that live in, or at times die in and then haunt the area do so with an organic sense of history.

Monster contracts express this best, as each requires a bit of investigation prior to the their inevitable confrontation. Witnesses need to be talked to, evidence gathered, leads followed — and the matter-of-fact nature of these moments as side quests really do sell the idea of Geralt's witchering as his profession, with assignments that seem routine and others that rise to more epic proportions. And CD Projekt's production with sidequests do lend them an air of importance, as each seems to involve a fair amount of decent writing and multiple conversation options that could conceivably open more possible means of resolving the issue at hand.

"bless whoever at CD Projekt decided Geralt would automatically draw the correct sword when combat starts"

However, as the game goes on, monster contracts, and admittedly, side quests in general start to bleed together. Objectives in the middle third of the game feel more and more like running from one point to another to try to advance dialogue sequences, which is made more frustrating than it needs to be by an overly restrictive fast-travel system. Fast travel can only be activated at signposts, or, while on a boat, to various harbors throughout the world, and signposts can be pretty far apart. The Witcher 3's world is worth exploring without the artificial enforcement of extended runs whether on foot, horseback or boat.

These are all new considerations in a Witcher game, really, but some things feel much more familiar. Combat is still dominated by a combination of Geralt's steel and silver swords, used against threats natural and supernatural respectively — bless whoever at CD Projekt decided Geralt would automatically draw the correct sword when combat starts — and the use of signs, a collection of defensive and offensive spells.

witcher 3 screen 3

I think this is where some fans of The Witcher 2 will be most disappointed. Encounters in that game were brutal, and difficult, practically demanding preparation through the use of potions and weapon oils. Combat itself was methodical, with attacks taking stamina and poorly judged swings opening you up for deadly counterattacks from almost any enemy. The Witcher 3 has been greatly simplified. While potions and oils are still present and occasionally necessary, the need for preparation is mostly gone on the default difficulty. Geralt can swing his sword without getting tired, and signs are tied to the same stamina as basic physical actions like dodging.

In my experience, this leads to much more active combat than The Witcher 2, and I liked that I could go for greedy kills and attacks and try to end fights quickly. Signs are available for use much more often, and I found myself experimenting with various spells, sometimes relying on them entirely as I leveled my character to take better advantage of them. It all feels reasonably dynamic, especially when you throw potions into the mix (even if I rarely needed anything more than a basic damage buff and some health regeneration). Signs also add some much needed creativity and benefits to character customization — harpies and sirens didn't prove too much of a hassle for me when I could knock them out of the sky with upgraded telekinesis blasts, and I felt cleverer for my choices in that regard.

But I'll admit to missing the very visceral sense of impact and heavy give and take that defined Geralt's fighting style before. And The Witcher 3's basic mechanics have some more prominent problems elsewhere. The Witcher 3's camera is often terrible, especially indoors. It's hard to appreciate the beautiful world that CD Projekt built when it aggressively occluded my view of the fight in progress, and Geralt's generally great animations were lost on me when I got stuck on various objects in the world trying to avoid attacks.

This problem is even more rage-inducing during timed sequences that frequently feel hamstrung by cumbersome, unintuitive ground traversal that reminded me, in a bad way, of the "stupid-feet" problem that has plagued recent Assassin's Creed releases. When I needed Geralt to do something specific quickly, he often failed me in the worst possible way, running against a wall, failing to turn, or otherwise getting tangled up in the world or himself.

"When I needed Geralt to do something specific quickly, he often failed me in the worst possible way"

Meanwhile, the final hours lose the open aspect the game spends so much time cultivating, instead devolving into a series of not-particularly-interesting boss fights that range from laughably easy to unfair in their sharp spikes in difficulty. These are punctuated by even more egregious, strangely distracting jaunts from points A to B to C and so on.

But if you're playing the game like a normal person, not a reviewer, it will be weeks, maybe months before you ever make it to the less-inspired end-game. There's an enormous amount of stuff to do, people to meet and talk to, monsters to hunt, treasure to find and craft. And despite the weaker mission design, the story doesn't feel in a hurry to end or resolve. There's a sense of real finality present in The Witcher 3's end-game that its open-world peers often struggle to find.

For the advances in technology, writing and basic storytelling chops The Witcher 3 makes, it's a case of more ambiguous momentum elsewhere.

witcher 3 screen 4

The Witcher 3's expanded cast of characters doesn't preclude more screen time for just about everyone, and CD Projekt has done work to make for more interesting, influential women that feel just a bit more fleshed out than they've been previously. This includes a number of powerful women with complicated motivations and goals of their own.

That said, the world CD Projekt has created is oppressively misogynist. In some ways, the game deals directly with this — characters acknowledge again and again that it's hard to be a woman there, that it's a place of violence and terror and that women must work harder to be recognized and respected.

Then it kills them, over and over. There are several monster types devoted to murdered and wronged women whom Geralt is frequently asked to destroy, and other villainous characters are shown torturing or even butchering women to show just how evil they are. One sequence seemed specifically designed to see how long I could listen to a major female character have her fingernails pulled out before I ended the conversation to attack the individual in question. A later scene shows a villain literally surrounded by the bodies of murdered prostitutes.

a male character criticizing a woman for going into battle with her shirt hanging open is the "snake eating its own tail" of video game sexism

In another, a character who admitted to beating his wife so badly she miscarried is given an opportunity to explain why she had it coming, complete with a sympathetic conversation response option to go with it. The performances all around in this scene are excellent, the presentation among the best, most reined in anywhere in the game, but the message I saw it conveying was abhorrent.

I get that the setting of The Witcher 3 is meant to be a dark, dirty fantasy. But in a world that so explicitly goes out of its way to build a believable, distinctive take on the genre, the inclusion of so much violence explicitly directed against women feels like a clear, disconcerting choice. It's not just present, it's frequently a focus.

When they're not being murdered, women in The Witcher 3 are comically sexualized. Nudity is everywhere — think Game of Thrones on HBO — and even when they're dressed, female leads don't have it much better. One character, the subject of an extended series of side quests and whom plays a fairly important role in advancing the story wears a dress with a neckline so wide I was pretty sure I was seeing an areola every time she turned to the side (no, seriously).

Other moments are truly worthy of eye-rolling — as when one male character criticizes a woman for going into battle with her shirt hanging open, which is really the snake eating its own tail of video game sexism in a game where a significant portion of its speaking female characters are similarly and impractically exposed. Even Ciri, a daughter figure for Geralt and someone revealed to be incredibly powerful in her own right, walks around with her shirt unbuttoned in the middle, with a pretty clear view of a bra underneath — even when her attire changes to feature a fur-lined collar in colder climates.

Also, while I did not by any means see every city, burg and outpost in The Witcher 3's world in my 70+ hours spent within it, I don't recall a single non-white humanoid anywhere — not in Skellige, Novograd, Oxenfurt or anywhere else. Once I realized this I couldn't stop looking for any example of a person of color anywhere, and I never found it, unless you count naked monster women sitting at the feet of a boss like a slightly more awkward tribute to a Frank Frazetta painting. But maybe they're in there, somewhere.

Wrap Up:

The Witcher 3 is a great game — with some major qualifications

The Witcher 3's subject matter, its almost defiant doubling down on its treatment of women as titillating props for Geralt and the player, even as it tries to flesh out more female leads, is its most disappointing aspect. This constant presence weighs down what would otherwise be an excellent bit of closure for Geralt's video game saga — which isn't helped by the control issues that often detract from sequences meant to break up open-world monotony.

The result is still a game that often feels like a stunningly confident, competent shot across the bow of the open world genre, folding in an incredibly strong narrative and a good sense of consequence to the decisions that present themselves throughout, presenting a fun bit of combat creativity into a genre that desperately needs it. With that going for it, The Witcher 3 is a great game though it isn't a classic — and it can carry a somewhat qualified recommendation.

Ed's Note: Our review of The Witcher 3 is based on non-final PS4 code provided by CD Projekt Red. In our time with the game, we saw significant technical issues, including hard crashes, endless load screens, major framerate drops both at random and during more crowded fight scenes, and failures by the game to trigger even scripts which would halt forward progress within a quest until the game was reloaded, or, on occasion, the console restarted entirely.

CD Projekt's review documentation stated that there were a number of bugs on their list to be addressed in time for the retail release of the game, but at this time, we cannot speak confidently as to the release state of The Witcher 3 in this review. As such, this score will remain provisional until we have a clearer understanding of the game's reliability at launch.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was reviewed using pre-release debug code for PlayStation 4 provided by CD Projekt Red. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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