E3 2014: Could The Witcher 3 Be One of the Best RPGs Ever Made?

Monster mash.

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I try to keep my wits about me when I enjoy something, but it’s hard to contain my excitement when I see The Witcher 3 in action. It’s the kind of game that expresses such creativity, such character, such raw passion that I am legitimately moved by the images on the screen. I feel the care taken with every animation and every texture.

My latest viewing of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in action again lit a fire within me. I sat down with developer CD Projekt Red, which walked me through 45 minutes of combat, adventuring, and conversation. The demo began near Novigrad, one of the largest cities in The Witcher universe, and a major port within Redania. It was a good moment to take in The Witcher 3’s sheer beauty. As protagonist Geralt of Rivia galloped towards the city I marveled at the fluid way his steed sprinted forward and the way Geralt’s lanky hair bobbed up and down. I marveled at the lushness of the nearby trees and flowers, and at the clarity of the hills and mountains visible in the distance. The Witcher 2 was a gorgeous game, but the places it rendered were not fully explorable. The far-off places were no more tangible than a mirage.

CD Projekt Red is quick to point out that The Witcher 3 is not confined by any unnatural barriers; if you can see it, you can go there. We’ve heard this before from game developers and publishers, but the prospect of visiting these places brings me great joy, in part because I got to see several of these places during the demo. Geralt spent some of his time in Novigrad, riding towards his contact and listening in on ambient conversation. One such conversation involved some children wanting to play “burn the witch,” and one of them terrified that she’d have to play the witch. Even the most lighthearted moments are touched with darkness in The Witcher universe.

One thing I noted here was how differently The Witcher 3 portrays its cities, in contrast with many other fantasy RPGs. In many games, cities are built with such symmetry and precision that they seem, well, computer-generated. By contrast, Novigrad looks like a place actual human beings would live. Structures weren’t necessarily built as close to each other as possible. Homes weren’t lined up in unlikely rows, as if every edifice was placed according to the most pleasing geometry. Novigrad looked like a city that had grown since its founding. It sprawled outwards in an organic fashion. Such a place may not please an urban planner, but as a viewer, I enjoyed how the city looked so authentic, so lived-in.

The next leg of Geralt’s journey took him too far away from the city for CD Projekt Red to lead him there on horseback. Instead, the demoer visited a directional sign that was used as a fast-travel point. You must first visit a location to be able to fast-travel there later, but I don’t think passionate Witcher fans should worry too much about the fast-travel system sucking the joys from exploration. After all, this particular world is far, far bigger than that of The Witcher 2. After we traveled to the wilds, the game’s producer pointed out a far-off mountain peak, and stated that Novigrad was 14 times further away than that peak. Bigger isn’t better, of course, but I don’t worry that The Witcher 3 will be devoid of interesting places to visit.

Geralt next visited the wilds, and it was here that I saw how The Witcher 3 would allow you to use Geralt’s heightened senses to reveal where monsters had recently traversed. The witcher’s quest was leading him towards a childlike creature called a godling, a creature I don’t recall ever having seen in the series. This particular godling looked like a cross between Gollum from Lord of the Rings and an archetypical gnome, and his upturned lip was a silent sign of past violence. The little soul could not speak, however; his voice had been bottled and stolen, and he gestured to Geralt to follow, and so he trudged through the swamps to find the dastard who had committed this theft.

Geralt needed to perform a bit of climbing to reach his goal, but where The Witcher 2 had very limited, very scripted vertical traversal, climbing in The Witcher 3 is more organic. The combat, too, looks more natural in The Witcher 3 than it did in its predecessor. During the demo, I saw Geralt do battle with a werewolf, various bandits, and other creatures. It still looks like you’ll need to proceed carefully into battle, but the fluid animations made battle look to be more enjoyable on the whole, though I did not get to play the game myself. Geralt brings his swords with him once again--one mainly for human foes, and one for monsters. But he also gets a small crossbow this time around, which came in handy when the demo player had to bring down harpies out of the sky.

Geralt’s journey ultimately led him to a tragic elderly woman who channeled the spirits of three seemingly beautiful maidens depicted on a tapestry. They required a tribute, and directed Geralt to a man in the nearby village, who also had something for the witcher to do. (If there was any downside to this demo, it was the way it chained one fetch quest to the next, and to the next, and to the next. Everyone required a favor if they were to divulge information.) The tribute ended up being that same man’s ear, which he sliced off once Geralt had eliminated the tree-monster nearby that had cursed the village.

Let it be known, however: the tree monster tried to bribe Geralt before he slaughtered it by telling him it was the only entity who could save the orphans in the nearby village. I don’t know exactly what they needed saving from, but the unexpected result of killing the monster was that those same orphans went missing. But at least I had one more lead directing me to the young woman I was pursuing. (Clearly Ciri, an important character in the Witcher literature.) Upon presenting the severed ear to the channeling medium, the three “maidens” presented themselves. They were hardly the comely women depicted on the tapestry, however, but bizarre freaks of nature that could only barely be called human--if called that at all.

What is exciting about all this? It’s the vast world loaded with architectural and topographical details that beg to be explored, and reveal new and interesting secrets. It’s the grotesque creature designs, with each monstrosity and curiosity looking more unusual than the last. It’s how those tough choices are woven throughout the entire world, and how those choices may not have obvious consequences. It’s how those same consequences unexpectedly manifest, bringing grief to Geralt and others even when the choice might seem “moral.”

It’s the sense of a real journey that excites me most. All of these attributes combine to make the world of The Witcher 3 seem mysterious, deadly, and spiritual. This series has always had a lot to say, and with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, CD Projekt Red might finally be able to fully express its imagination.

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