For role-playing game fans it's only once in a blue moon a title comes along that's so engrossing you'll willingly surrender not just a little bit of time to play it, but days and weeks of your life. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a prime example; a captivating game that, for our money, is the best RPG since Skyrim.
But, if anything, it's a little bit more grown-up that 2011 Bethesda epic. There's a lot more f-ing and blinding for starters, the occasional c-bomb included. And much more blood. Oh, and let's not forget the smattering of nudity and sex. Yep, Witcher 3's adult themes are quickly established from the moment the camera lingers on a bare derrière mere minutes into the game. Yet - and despite that reading like an apparent Hollywood "sex, blood, swearing, - buy, buy, buy!" kind of campaign - it's not gratuitous, rather more representative of a believable world. Y'know, one where mages and magic are a normality.
It's also a timely release. With millions of Game of Thrones fans the world over, there are inevitable comparisons between the two (c'mon, even Charles Dance, voice of Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones, voices Emperor Emhyr var Emreis in The Witcher 3) despite Andrzej Sapkowski's short stories preceding those of George RR Martin. The occasional moment when you'll be left wondering "who the heck are they talking about?" (and don't worry newcomers, you needn't have played the previous two titles to jump on board) is secondary to the fact that swordplay, magic, monsters and fire gods make for damn good entertainment.
Attention grabbed, nipples acknowledged, we've spent 30 hours thus far delving into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt's world, exploring its decision-based storyline, side missions and sprawling landscapes. Here's why, whether you're a fantasy fan or not, it's the role-playing game of the year.
One giant beast
We highly doubt that 2015 will deliver another game on the same epic scale as The Witcher 3. Its huge open landscape throws you into a world of magic and combat, led by strong characters and great acting in cutscenes that will keep you hooked. Ok, so Geralt, the witcher you play, might've been listening to Christian Bale's Batman a little too much, but his husky voice becomes part of the game's charm.
After the main cutscene kicks-off proceedings - in hand-drawn graphic novel style with story narrator, a theme that continues with each loading and progress scene, but that feels distant from the style otherwise used within the game - the story begins with you seeking out Ciri, your adopted daughter, who, for reasons unknown at the time, the evil Wild Hunt seek. Still with us?
It's from here the basics of combat are learned, in a flashback to Ciri's childhood. But there's a whole lot to master, which takes time to then apply effectively in the game. The Witcher 3 is no plodding turn-based role-player: you'll need to attack in fast-paced, real-time scenarios. It's not all slash, slash, slash button bashing either; parry, dodge and use stronger sword attacks in combination to deal with different foes most effectively. Other sword-bearing folk tend to be easily dispatched, but groups of wraiths, ghouls and the like will demand well timed rolls and dodges to get around.
To add to the mixing pot there are a variety of magical spells essential for tactical attack and defence - particularly when ensconced by a group of enemies. And let's not forget additional items, including crossbows and bombs, that come in handy for certain combat... or just sheer provocation.
All this has the makings of a deep role-player, but that's just the tip of the iceberg really. You'll later learn crafting and alchemy, trading, and how to apply experience points to specific character enhancement trees (earned from quests, resulting in you levelling-up), all of which are essential to the game. Whether you chose the path of warrior, alchemist or magician is down to the choices you make when applying upgrades. Enhancements can also be multiplied with mutagens, sourced from specific enemy kills.
In the first instance the game's controls feel a little too heavy, but it's something you'll get used to. Well, after trying to climb up rather than run around a damn ladder for the fifth time. Controlling Geralt doesn't feel as smooth as playing, say, Grand Theft Auto 5, nor is there the deftness of Assassin's Creed when it comes to jumping gaps or climbing. But those are entirely different games, ones we've played enough of and enjoyed for what they are.
And to be fair, Geralt is wearing armour, which must be pretty hefty given how his horse, Roach, handles. An essential element to the game given its scale, you'll need to use your steed to navigate more swiftly through the landscape. Just watch out for dips, walls and even some trees, which will catch you out and slow you down, often to a stop.
In busier areas we're often inclined to just run around on foot rather than via hooves for simplicity's sake. Roach could definitely be more fluid in control, and despite a double-tap-to-follow-the-road mechanic, he's not got the brains to always head to your desired location. That's horses for you: neigh respect.
Traversing such a giant landscape can take a long time. Fortunately there are fast travel signposts, discovered as you enter relevant areas - whether crossroads, towns, cities, hideouts, caves, and so forth - after which they appear on the world map. This brown-paper guide of the Witcher world is so big it would unfurl like a comical quadruple-size broadsheet newspaper - one that you'd never be able to fold back to its normal scale. It's mind-boggling just how massive this game is: think Skyrim and then multiply that by three.
It's essential, therefore, to make use of the miniature version that hovers top-right of screen. Problem is, some core nearby points of interest (such as nearest fast travel signpost) don't show-up if they fall outside of this small circle, so you'll be menu digging a little more than you ought to. And fast travel signposts aren't as plentiful as they should be, particularly from some positions within the game.
Once you've got stuck into the main storyline - and no spoilers here - you'll quickly encounter multiple quests that show-off the game's breadth. You can spend excessive time playing cards - "gwent", a complex card game that we still aren't hugely interested in - or search out that rare herb needed for a potion. Sound too boring? Go explore a waterside and cut the heads and limbs off some drowners and ghouls instead. Or craft some badass armour.
It all makes for a rich tapestry of gameplay that doesn't throw you in at the deep-end, nor become single-minded in its approach. There are four levels of difficulty, varying from accessible to bastard-hard (our words, not official titles), which can be changed at any point in the game too. If you don't master dodging and parrying, though, then best stick to the middle-lower settings.
If the lead missions are getting too tough then you'll need to hold back your progress, explore some more to gain additional experience points and level-up your abilities. Enemies show a power bar alongside a number, the latter which represents their level. If you've achieved, say, level 10 and your foe are at a similar level then you're in good shape to take them down.
However, the more enemies there are in a group, the tougher that can be. Avoid backing yourself into a corner otherwise you'll find The Witcher 3's biggest stumbling block: a perilous auto camera that can really work against you, particularly when fighting indoors.
With groups you'll do well to deploy Bloodborne tactics: separate the larger groups into individuals or smaller groups. Monsters tend to attack en masse (which can be annoying when four drowners strike you simultaneously) whereas human opponents sometimes hold their ground, often goading you forward with come-hither hand movements.
Don't fret if an enemy is four levels or so above your level. If they're guaranteed to be beyond your abilities then a red skull symbol will also show above their level - essentially telling you to get the hell out of there.
Like a boss
Things change pace even more when boss characters are encountered. You'll work your way up to each of them, but some will take a couple of goes to take down. If you get stuck then the bestiary - a glossary of beasts and their weaknesses, found in your inventory - can be helpful, assuming you've acquired the relevant foe's details from a quest.
Bosses are typically giant and have faces that would make small children cry. But we've already established it's not a game for the lil'uns, so enjoy those ferocious wyvern beaks, three-eyed fiends, and gross-out botchlings. And try not to cry too much when they dispatch you.
Typically magic and potions are the way to forge ahead in the big fights. Alchemy can be performed on the road, so you needn't find a specific location to create new bombs, potions and oils. Looting for these ingredients is the best way to come about things - and, in our game, nobody seemed to give a hoot about us stealing everything (something to be fixed come release?) - but the alchemy panel can become heavy with a barrage of items in little time (which slows down loading and navigation).
For armour and weapons, however, you'll need to find the relevant armourer or blacksmith of the right ability to create and repair weapons and items. There are portable repair kits, found infrequently, that you'll want to use only at the essential moments. Swords damage quickly too, so it's a good job your standard duo - silver for monsters, steel for humans - can be supplemented with as many additions, axes, maces and so forth, as you want (subject to maximum weight). Looking after weapons can cost you a pretty penny; the primary use of extra ones is to dismantle them and acquire the resulting goods for crafting better items.
The Wild Hunt is the first Witcher game to make its way to consoles, with Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions joining the PC copy. The reason is obvious: there are graphical flourishes that, PC excluded, wouldn't have been possible without the new-gen consoles.
Some of the small things stand out in particular: the way the wind catches the trees; how sunlight breaks through the branches as a forest thins out; the flow of characters' hair; even wet skin after a bath showing off just how good-looking games have become.
There are moments atop a mountain when you can happily leave Geralt poised, listen to the excellent jingle-jangle lute-based soundtrack, and watch the time and weather change - typically resulting in a brewing storm and rain. Need to shift forward in time, then simply meditate to restore energy and potions.
Earlier screen tearing and prominent pop-up draw distance issues, as we experienced in a January play earlier this year, have been smoothed over too. However, at this stage, and just ahead of the day one launch patch, there are some minor quibbles: lighting being sometimes slow to catch up to environment; characters or clothing popping-up after a scene has begun; blur-fades that linger unnecessarily in cutscenes; and hair, limbs or accessories that clip and vanish through other body parts or clothing. Loading on PS4 can be a touch slow after dying too - yet it's nothing to unhinge the overall engagement.
In addition to the great soundtrack the cast do a cracking job too. It's not all down to Charles Dance, mind, but the majority British cast bringing all manner of islander tongues to the game, often with tongue-in-cheek impact that'll bring a smile to your face. Shame the producers, CD Projekt Red, re-use many of the same faces for folk you meet on the way - it's eerie - and that some characters, including rock trolls and witches, are borderline incomprehensible (you'll be reaching of the subtitles then). Oh, and almost all the children are inexplicably terrifying.
We've spent a lot of time playing The Witcher 3. Enough time to spot some of its minor niggles and irks; enough time to reflect on its imperfect moments; yet enough time to forget what day of the week it is in the real world - because that's how engrossing this game is.
We can forgive a dodgy camera angle here, a bit too much nipple there, or even a misbehaving horse bumping into yet another tree, because all those other glimmering moments of brilliance amount to something greater.
You needn't be a diehard fantasy fan either: the massive world, gorgeous landscapes, balanced gameplay, detailed quests and story are all compelling enough to hook you in and keep you there. Just be prepared to sacrifice your normal life because you'll be scratching around trying to find the dozens of extra hours you'll want to spend playing it.
If you're a fan of Fallout, Skyrim, or any Witcher game before it, then The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a must buy. As real-time role-playing games go there are few better.
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