As in the previous games, you play Geralt of Rivia, a witcher: a freelance monster hunter with mutant blood who uses swordsmanship, alchemy, a little light magic and some finely-honed tracking skills to get his prey. He’s also something of a sleuth, and a mercenary, and a drifter, and a ladies’ man. He wanders into town on horseback with his own agenda and gets reluctantly sucked into local affairs, thwarting evil for a sack of gold, picking at society’s scabs and then moving on, leaving a trail of swooning wenches in his wake. He has scars and white hair and speaks in a monotonous macho rasp. He’s a little bit Philip Marlowe, a little bit Conan the Barbarian, a little bit Solid Snake, a little bit Clint Eastwood’s nameless cowboy. In short, he’s the archetypal pulp hero – no more than a gruff cartoon, but a pretty appealing one.
The prospect of filling this vengeful outcast’s kinky boots is so alluring that it doesn’t matter too much if you’re not up to speed with the Witcher series. Wild Hunt doesn’t waste time explaining its busy cast list or elaborate ongoing plotline, in which the political and military machinations of kings and sorcerers inevitably get mixed up with Geralt’s complicated love life. There are many cameos and narrative threads that will please fans as much as they confuse newcomers, but the big picture is always clear and easy to follow. Geralt is searching for his ward and (sort of) fellow Witcher, a whip of a young swordswoman called Ciri, who is also being pursued by a chilling band of spectral knights called the Wild Hunt. He spends much of the game trading his services for information pertaining to her whereabouts.
There’s a bigger picture than that, though: simply living the life of an itinerant monster hunter, plying his trade across a vast and richly drawn fantasy kingdom. There is – and this is where it stands head and shoulders, I feel, above the vast majority of open-word games – no part of The Witcher 3 that doesn’t play into this fantasy in a meaningful and entertaining way. There’s nothing that feels tacked on (apart, perhaps, from the perfunctory horse races); no map icon that turns out to be nothing more than a collectable doodad, no system that is just a free-spinning hamster-wheel of makework.
The main quest doesn’t neglect monster-hunting, of course, even if the device of a local dignitary holding back some tidbit of gossip until you deal with their crone or griffin problem is overused. In any event, Geralt’s strain of self-interested heroism makes just as much sense when he’s negotiating the snake-pit of an urban criminal underworld. This part of the game – its middle act, taking place in the city of Novigrad – is the talkiest part of what is already a very chatty game, and what begins as a welcome change of pace does get a little claustrophobic. Afterwards, however, we’re back to the richly satisfying rustic high adventure. The focus narrows from the sprawling landmass of the game’s midsection to a series of ever-smaller discrete locations, funnelling you towards a tight conclusion – though Witcher newcomers might find themselves feeling a little alienated at this point, as the plot diligently connects dots and ties loose ends from across the series.
If anything, Wild Hunt gets better when you stray from the narrative mainline. The Witcher contracts available from most of the muddy hamlets and crumbling fortresses you visit follow a fun, compulsive and romantically exciting formula: use Geralt’s heightened Witcher senses to track some frightening beast or spectre across the land and learn what you can of it; prepare for the fight by brewing the appropriate potions, explosives and oils; battle what amounts to a free-roaming mini-boss and claim your trophy.
The secondary quests, meanwhile, show an admirable resistance to filler and grind, pushing a form of social storytelling that colours in the messy and morally squalid world of Temeria. There’s a war on, between haughty imperialists and fanatical nationalists, and the poor are caught in the middle. More fantastical stories dwell on equally tragic, more personal themes; the game’s fearsome bestiary invariably preys on, or is born out of, human frailty.
Sapkowski’s universe is built on basic fantasy foundations – dragons, elves and magic in an alternate medieval Europe – but has a distinctive flavour. You’ll find the politicking and grim brutality of Game of Thrones here, but also the lusty derring-do of Conan and the creepy allegories of the Brothers Grimm. It’s a grimy, ugly and violent world – but it’s not a dour dystopia. There’s humour and sex and lyricism, and a cast of believable characters doing human things for messed-up human reasons. It’s telling that the lore entries you unlock as you play aren’t dry accounts of the world’s history, but the immediate backstories of its characters or anatomies of its monsters. This is no land of long ago; it’s a fantasy world that exists in the present tense.
CD Projekt brings all this to life to thrilling effect. The landscape is rugged and fertile, sometimes twisted but never bleak, soaked in a sense of place so pungent you can smell it. It’s lit by lurid orange sunsets breaking under ashen storm clouds, and lashed by wind and rain. (The decision to animate the trees fully in the wind must have caused the programmers untold pain, but boy is there an atmospheric pay-off.) It feels alive. What impresses most is the combination of sheer size with a kind of geographical intimacy, every creek and ruin feeling like a place with a past. It is, as Matt Wales claimed last week, a masterpiece of world-building.
Each time you check a village noticeboard for quests, the map is spattered with question marks denoting ‘undiscovered locations’. But these are not the busywork you might expect. They’re bandit encampments and monster dens and smuggler’s caches, most concealing good loot, some starting significant quest lines. Notably, they feel like they belong, arising organically from the setting rather than scattered by the hand of designers tasked with turning a 50-hour game into a 200-hour one. Ignoring questing completely to explore these spots is a fully enjoyable and rewarding way to play The Witcher 3. In fact, my favourite moments with the game have been spent on scavenger hunts, chasing down legendary Witcher armour and weapons based on treasure maps bought from merchants, and finding them in dank little dungeons or remote ruined towers infested with harpies. That, for me, is the essence of a role-playing adventure.
Mechanically, Wild Hunt is sleek and serviceable rather than inspiring – but again, CD Projekt’s unwavering focus on selling its chosen fantasy pays off handsomely. Combat, crafting, character customisation and the economy are all relatively simple and judiciously balanced to keep you hungry. Grinding out an advantage is seldom an option. This is a game where you make money to spend money and frequently find yourself with empty pockets, making do with what you can lay your hands on. You live like an adventurer, in other words, rather than a homicidal magic millionaire, as you do in so many other RPGs.
Combat, much streamlined from the previous games (and much better explained in the tutorial stages), combines strikes, dodges, parries and counters with gadgets and magical attacks. It is hardly as refined an action-RPG as Bloodborne, say, but it has punch – even humble enemies can take a big chunk out of your health if you’re not careful. Potions heal you and increase your power, but raise your toxicity to a knife-edge where too much will kill you. A remarkably small percentage of your time is spent fighting, and caution and preparation are usually advisable, as is tailoring Geralt’s strengths to your taste in the skill tree.
Away from fights, crafting new potions and equipment is a compelling time-sink that will have you scouring merchants’ inventories and loot chests for recipes and rare ingredients. Some of the best stuff in the game is seriously out of the way. No matter how slowly and painstakingly you play, The Witcher 3 always pays back your time with interest. That’s a remarkable achievement in a game of this scale.
No less remarkably, you can also say that of Wild Hunt as a work of fiction. Rough in places, it still has more texture, more nuance and more unrefined human vigour in its writing and performance than the great majority of its triple-A peers. Storylines always hold your attention and seldom feel like set-dressing. Choices are genuinely ambiguous and have subtle or unexpected outcomes, sometimes long after you’d forgotten you’d made them. The dialogue, although there is reams of it, has an understated authenticity and takes care not to serve its exposition dry. (The Witcher 3 features some of the best, most natural swearing I’ve ever encountered in video games, delivered by a spirited voice cast in an enjoyably broad range of British regional accents – including Brummie and Welsh.)
It’s not without missteps. For one thing, this is an unapologetically hyper-masculine power fantasy, set in a feudal world that is sometimes gruesomely misogynistic. There are a lot of ludicrously revealing necklines and CD Projekt can be so dogged in its pursuit of moral ambiguity that it winds up muddying waters that ought to be crystal clear. (At one point, a wife-beating alcoholic baron is redeemed and made sympathetic; his wife, naturally, cheated on him.) And yet: The Witcher 3 doesn’t dehumanise, neuter or ignore women the way so many games do. This is because it doesn’t dehumanise anyone the way so many games do. The storylines that tackle oppression do so with empathy rather than righteousness. Even its adolescent sauciness has a kind of honesty: this is a video game in which sex is messy and fun and, well, sexy, as opposed to the calculating negotiation it is in BioWare’s games (or the pervy sideshow it is everywhere else).
This is why I love The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It is crass in some places and overreaching in others, but despite its grandeur and its fantastical setting, it is a game made by, for and about human beings. It’s lewd and perverse and poetic and hot-blooded. It’s huge yet crafted; its systems are purposeful and it doesn’t have a whiff of design by committee. It will last you months, yet not waste your time. Above all, it has a vivid, enduring personality, something that is exceedingly rare among its breed of mega-budget open-world epics (and that will probably be rarer still once Hideo Kojima and Konami part ways later this year). For my money, it’s the greatest role-playing game in years.
Additional reviewing by Matt Wales