The Witcher 3 opens with Geralt of Rivia in pursuit of his protege/adopted daughter, who has been missing for some time. Her trail leads Geralt to a small farming community called White Orchard. This small village and the surrounding community have just recently become occupied territory of the Nilfgaardian empire. To further complicate matters, the village is also being terrorized by a gryphon. Right of the gate, CD Projekt RED do a good job of distinguishing their open world from their competitors. A quick perusal of this initial starting area shows that this is not the usual world of verdant forests populated by elves, and picturesque towns ruled by kindly old nobles. The Northern Kingdoms are a land of bleak and balmy swamps, dark and foggy forests filled with twisted trees and teeming with mutants, and dingy towns rife with political corruption. From a visual standpoint, crippling poverty, despotism, and murder have never looked more beautiful. Textures rarely appear washed out and the character models and environmental assets look great. Draw distance is incredibly generous, which goes a long way in selling the scale of the game world.
The move to an open world setting has also come with a couple of new methods of traversal. For long overland journeys, there is a horse that can be called from any outdoor area with the push of a button. The horse controls are similar to these found in Red Dead Redemption. Pushing the analog stick up puts the horse into a walk, holding X causes the horse to canter, and double tapping X puts him into a gallop. It works well, mostly. There was one glaring, if not completely infuriating problem with the horse. The automatic path finding, by which one can easily stay on the road by simply holding the X button, is squirrelly at best. On numerous occasions during the 70 hours I spent playing the game, the horse would arbitrarily charge off of the road and into a swamp or thicket. Boats have also been added, and have an almost identical control scheme to the horse. The boat itself works well, but combat while at sea is awful. Geralt’s new crossbow is of marginal usefulness when not completely submerged in water. The swimming controls were awkward and nightmarish. You are seemingly unable to perform two actions at once when swimming. Pressing the dive button whilst attempting to move forward will cause Geralt to simply cut flips in a single spot. The fast travel system works decently enough, but can only be activated from road signs while on land. It works well, as most road signs are fairly close to some point of interest.
Combat is said to have been completely revamped, but didn’t feel too terribly different from the last game to this reviewer, aside from the addition of the crossbow mentioned earlier. There is, as always, a steel sword for humans and mammals, and a silver sword for mutants, monsters, and other assorted supernatural beings. One button controls quick attacks, and another controls strong attacks. Pulling a trigger fires off one of the series ubiquitous magic signs. The combat controls are fluid and responsive. Combat also rewards patience and strategic defense more than hamfisted button mashing. Combat is also possible from horseback, but is, at best, erratic and unpredictable. The horse can also get spooked in combat, causing him to rear up and throw you off.
Quests in The Witcher 3, outside of the main storyline, generally tend toward Geralt hunting down some type of nasty creature. While this has a danger of coming across as repetitive, many of the quests manage to avoid the typical drudgery of the “go here, kill this” type of quests so common in fantasy RPGs. Many of them involve significant investigation and lend an almost Film Noir kind of feel to many sections of the game. One memorable one in particular involved hunting down a serial killer who was ritualistically murdering people in a manner consistent with the rituals of a local religious cult. Some of them also afford you the opportunity to assist in some political corruption and perform such unsavoury activities as exorcising a demon by throwing a baby in an oven. All in all, it is a pretty interesting experience.
Unfortunately, as with any open world game, there are some major flaws. Yes, I mentioned the spotty horse and swimming controls, but there are more. The mini map’s navigation system is horrid. The GPS like line that is supposed to direct you toward major quest points constantly shifts and twists in dubious directions. You can attempt to turn off your brain and follow it without question, but often times it will lead you so far out of your way that you will be cursing it in frustration. The camera, especially when indoors, always seems to find itself in awkward positions at very inopportune times. Also, automatic events that are supposed to trigger and move quests forward will sometimes not trigger at all, which means a reload.
Despite these criticisms, the good far outweighs the bad. The Witcher 3 is an interesting and pretty unique experience. It is very pretty and sports some pretty good voice acting to boot. CD Projekt RED also manage to avoid having their great big game world feel cold and sterile, or dead, as is often the case with companies’ early attempts at open world games. The Northern Kingdoms are dank and depressing, yes, and everyone seems to be a total piece of trash, but it is vibrant and interesting. All told, I can think of worse ways to spend sixty dollars.