There are heaps of games to look forward to in 2015. But after playing four and a half hours of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, we're going to stick our necks out and say that there will be no other on such epic scale. It's a huge, sprawling open-world that throws players into a world of magic and combat, amid a tapestry of silly names and a decision-based storyline that will take over 100-hours to complete if you dig into every side mission. Think Skyrim, then think bigger.
The Witcher 3 is the video game equivalent of a fantasy novel series, but doesn't feel novel nor disingenuous. This isn't like one of those irksome pop-up browser games that appear on Russian websites (don't ask), but a deep and complex live-action role-playing game from Polish developer CD Projekt Red.
Based on the short stories of Andrzej Sapkowski - and many will draw comparison with Game of Thrones, but Sapkowski's series preceded those books - this is a true 90s fantasy original, brought up to date on 2015 tech. But whether you're hardened Witcher fan or total newbie, the game will take you by the hand and plunge you into its fantasy world with confidence. It's not like watching the final Hobbit film having missed the previous two parts wondering what the heck is going on. Well, not entirely.
You play Geralt, a witcher, who makes his keep by slaying monsters and, based on his gruff vocals, presumably doing Christian Bale Batman impressions on the side. Geralt is only referred to as White Wolf or Wolf in the early stages of the game, in reference to the earlier games, blindly assuming you'll make the connection between character and name. It does still work as standalone experience for the newcomer, though, ensuring unfamiliar new-gen console players will get their teeth into this fantasy epic.
Cinematic cutscenes blend seamlessly into the live action game, with loading entirely absent. At this stage there is screen tearing causing an issue with all versions of the game (we played PlayStation 4; Xbox One and PC versions will also be available), which is one aspect to explain the delays pushing back the release date to 19 May.
After the main cutscene kicks-off proceedings - including a magic crow burrowing through an enemy's eye socket and out the other side like a bullet to the brain - your tale begins with seeking our Yennefer (silly name #1), your sorceress lover. Vesemir, your witcher elder buddy, assists you with training Ciri (silly name #2, and, again, Sapkowski preceded Apple's Siri by nearly a decade, tech fans), which is where the basics of combat are learned.
The Witcher 3 is no plodding turn-based role-player though: you'll need to attack, parry, dodge and use slower, stronger sword attacks in combination to maximum effect; there are a variety of magical spells essential for tactical attack and defence, particularly when ensconced by a group of enemies; and additional items, including crossbows, come in more than handy for longer-range combat.
It all takes a little getting used to if unfamiliar with the other-worldly tongue - Quen, Yrden, Igni, Axii, and Aard spells are hardly set out their stall in Laymen's terms - but flows once engrossed in combat. Using magicbrings up an on-screen selection wheel which slows down time as you select the spell to utilise, avoiding untimely death. Alternatively simply run away from those stronger enemies, Monty Python style, and roam freely.
Like a real world, time plays an integral part to the landscape, shifting from day to night with glorious lighting effects. Such graphical elements are great, but not everything is quite as on the ball, and despite being a new-gen title with some excellent high-resolution details, such as realistic hair and wet skin, the REDengine 3 could do with more polish in some areas.
The draw distance, for example, is well within eyeshot where finer detail elements are concerned, with rocks on pathways continually popping into view, or up-close hair and clothing details lacking, only to fade into full finery a little behind schedule. We hope to see this brought in-line with modern day expectations - not that it impacts gameplay. Think back to Turok 64 on the Nintendo 64, which had a draw distance of about three and a half centimetres, and that didn't impact the fun of the game (quite the opposite, it became a mechanic in itself).
While Geralt's motion and control feels right - think Uncharted-style walking, running, climbing and volleying - it's altogether less deft after mounting Roach, your horse. Actually, that's being kind: at the moment the horse-riding experience is broken, with trees acting like catch-traps, walls and fences causing unwarranted double jumps, rocks getting in the way and causing unwanted stoppage time, and the controls far too fiddly. Combat on horseback is as delayed as a PlayStation TV's signal is laggy. There are some decent aspects to your equine's presence, though, such as Geralt having the world's loudest whistle (or just pretending to be Link from the Zelda series?) and calling Roach from anywhere, and a press and hold of the run/gallop button will keep your hooves on the beaten track, thus avoiding fiddly control response.
We spent much of our time exploring on foot, where witcher sense - a press-and-hold of the shoulder button, leading the screen to become like a scene from a deeply drug-induced Fear And Loathing… - is critical for finding clues and following scents, footprints and such like. It's an obvious mechanic, but one which works well, and a separating factor between your witcher kind and the normal everyday folk, most of whom seem to despise or fear the monster hunters as you'll discover through conversation. The Nilfgaardian army in particular (referred to as silly name #3, "The Black Ones" (likely a direct translation of the Polish "Czarni")) showing the most distain towards witcher kind.
Roam too deep and getting attacked by wolves out in the woods and drowners (evil water-dwelling ghouls, akin to an inbred cast of Avatar) in the swamps and rivers was the norm. Groups of enemies are the hardest to combat, which is where freeze traps (Yrden) and shields (Quen) - see, we're picking up on that other-worldly tongue now - can come in handy to keep them under control while chopping off limbs with well-timed swordsmanship. To restore health you can meditate, which eats away at time, or consume foods and potions to bring you back to full strength.
It's not all button-bashing mayhem, of course, with experience points earned in battle and for completing missions both fuelling level-up progress, just as any familiar RPG fan would expect. Redeeming rewards will be crucial to progress through the game, with alchemy, trading, magic and combat all broken down into minute detail and each improving Geralt's abilities in modular fashion. You'll also collect artefacts and items, many of which can be sold or combined to craft new and useful tools.
We started the game at level 1, progressing to level 2, then dipped into the game at a much later stage, experiencing levels 15 and 16 and exploring the wider depths of the map. But at any level we found the on-course key enemies all too easy to beat. The first section of the game sees you take on a giant griffin, which looks awesome, but is an absolute doddle to kill - the pack of wolves were more of a pain in the ass. Later on a trio of bears (also looking superb with their hairy coats) are easily dispatched too. Meh.
Where things get tougher are if you go off the beaten track and get ahead of yourself. A level-9 wraith in the graveyard when you're at level 1? Yeah, good luck with that. But you can always come back later on when more powerful and explore then-inaccesible sections of the game. In this regard, the giant map - and it's really huge, with a CD Projekt Red level designer telling Pocket-lint it would take over 35-minutes in real-time to ride on horseback from north to south, assuming no interruptions - and fast travel element will become integral to play.
As we began to dig into tougher elements of the game, we began to unearth the potential difficulties embedded within. Siren-dragons at a lighthouse were relatively tough to beat, but their mother - a giant, foot-stomping dragon - dispatched us in one blow after landing on a mountain top. We would have gone back and tried to nail her to the ground, but four and a half hours in - a full 90-minutes beyond our allotted time - the final curtain call came in from the team.
We left our gaming experience with mixed emotions: mainly that Roach, that bastard horse, is currently a thorn in the side of a huge and expansive blockbuster of a game. But after sleeping on it, we awoke the next day and felt sad that we couldn't investigate the world for another four hours. Then we felt almost angry that we had to wait until mid-May to delve back into the game again.
A week later, having stewed on our game experience before writing these very words, that can all only be a good sign. There's something about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, that has been tickling our brains and making it firmly penned towards the top of our want-to-play list. But then we are fantasy RPG geekoids, so that's no surprise.
With Skyrim in the past, Dragonage: Inquisition likely done and dusted come the summer months, The Witcher 3 is set to arrive in that perfect pre-E3 gaming convention window. For Witcher fans, RPG fans, or newcomers looking for a deep experience, it's going to be a key release this summer.