The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Exceeds High Expectations

The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3. WBIE

“The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” is one of the most addictive games ever made. It starts slowly. This is fun. It looks great. It’s got dense, complex storytelling served by interesting characters. Even the side quests feel detailed and expertly conceived. You almost don’t feel the game getting its hooks in you until you are taking every free moment (and carving a few not-free moments out of things like sleep and family time) to further the increasingly rich tale of Geralt of Rivia, one of the most memorable characters of the year.

Sure, he may look a little bit like a trashy romance book cover model, but he’s also a bad-ass warrior, powerful magician and fascinating moralist, depending on how you play his saga. Geralt is a man driven by a quest to find his lost love Yennefer, and said journey takes him across dangerous lands and into the radius of deadly foes. As your Geralt grows more powerful and the world of “The Witcher 3” continues to reveal itself to you, it becomes harder and harder to stop playing. One more quest. Surely, this one won’t take too long.

One of the first words commonly associated with “The Witcher 3” is LONG. No, seriously, really really really long. This is “Skyrim” long. It makes “Dragon Age: Inquisition” look manageable. The basic gameplay is clocked for most around 60 hours but that requires a lot of running and skipping of cut scenes. Some gamers are reporting well over 100, closer to 200, hours if they take their time exploring, doing all side quests, admiring the scenery, playing in-game card game Gwent, etc.

It is a game designed to immerse you in its world, to make you feel a part of its storytelling while also giving you the feeling that you are but a small part of it. Playing “Wild Hunt,” you stumble upon villages, monster dens, bandit camps, etc., and increasingly get the feeling that this is a world in which things are going on without you.

As that sense of realism gets stronger and the game gets more detailed, any complains about it (and I have a few I’ll get to later) fall away, and it becomes easier to embrace “The Witcher 3” for what it is: One of the best games of the year. After "Bloodborne," we officially have two must-plays in 2015. And it's not even Summer.

When “Wild Hunt” opens you are both hunter and hunted. You are trying to track down Yennefer, but there is also the threat of the “Wild Hunt,” powerful sorcerer/warriors who decimate all that dares cross their path. The game unfolds in a traditional RPG sense in that there are long, detailed story missions that must be completed to move forward, supplements by literally hundreds of side quests. Almost every village in which you arrive contains a Notice Board, from which you can pick up contracts to, say, defeat the local wraith making it difficult to get water from a well, just as an example. Unlike most RPGs, the vast majority of the side quests are detailed, complex, challenging, and, eventually, rewarding. You will have to do some of them just to gain the XP and materials needed to complete the story missions, but they never feel like the chore here that they often do in modern RPGs (even “Inquisition,” my #1 of 2014, had a lot of side quests that were filler).

In fact, some of the Witcher Contracts and Secondary Quests here felt as rewarding as the main ones.

One of the reasons the quests in “The Witcher 3” feel so accomplished is the background against which they take place. The universe of “Wild Hunt” is not only massive—it feels alive and detailed in ways that a game really hasn’t for me since “Skyrim.” A dozen or so hours into “Wild Hunt,” you’ll come upon the city of Novingrad. And it is a CITY. There are alleys, houses, NPCs, and levels of details that go so deep that this one city in one small part of the overall map is as accomplished a setting as most games present in their entirety.

I love variety of locales in “Wild Hunt,” whether I’m sailing to an abandoned tower on Fyke Isle, speaking to a Baron in a crowded village, or stumbling upon a cave that every fiber of my being tells me I shouldn’t enter, I can’t remember the last time a game sucked me into its world like “Wild Hunt.” It is a true accomplishment.

About those flaws. Just to be fair. There are some FPS issues including some lag and even stuttering on the PS4 but they’re infrequent enough to not distract from the overall beauty of the game. A bigger problem is the inventory interface. You will loot literally thousands of items over your time in “Witcher 3.” Some are valuable and can be traded for currency or used in quests. Most are ingredients used in alchemy. Yes, “Witcher 3” is a collection game as well in that you have to find the right elements to blend to make the right potions and oils to give you a better chance in combat. The inventory system in “Wild Hunt” is abominable. Even though I’ve entered it hundreds of times by now, I still find it unwieldy and hard to use—it doesn’t even have a real sort button, throwing potions in with the items to create them.

As for combat, it’s fluid and easy to learn but tough to master. It’s a combination of light/heavy attacking to which we’ve become accustomed with more strategy involved using “Signs,” or the Witcher’s magical powers. It’s all about Igni, which is your fire spell, but there are also ways to set magic traps, get crossbow bolts and bombs into your repertoire, and more. While combat can sometimes get repetitive, the amazing array of creatures you’ll find in the world of “Wild Hunt” keeps it fresh. You’re always stumbling on something new that just wants to kill you.

Death is a major part “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.” This is a dark universe in which you will be both betrayed and betrayer, often on the same quest. And, like only the best games, it gets better as it goes along. I’m about 20 hours in, enough to form an opinion for sure, but I know I have miles and miles to go before I sleep. And I can’t wait to get back to the journey.