The Witcher 3

Released in 2015, The Witcher 3 quickly advanced to become the new high standard of action role playing games – of all times. CD Project Red, a polish studio, created a masterpiece of a video game based on the characters of novels by polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. This game eats away at your time and is an amazing ending to the great Witcher Trilogy. Such high praise cannot be given to every game – although there are some out there. In fact, I’ve written about one of them in the past, Dragon Age Origins. But, despite all the praise, there are also some things wrong with this game and I’ll address them as well. Unfortunately, it was one of the core elements that didn’t really resonate with me at all, the combat. Let’s get this out of the way so we can focus on the good parts and end on a high note, shall we?

Combat

Let me make a bold claim right up front:

The sword fights are as close to annoying as the shield bearers were in Counter Strike when introduced a millennium ago. 

In theory, the combat sounds actually very interesting. It is a nice deviation from the much more simplistic action oriented hack’n’slay of the likes of Skyrim or Diablo or the shooter based Mass Effect saga. It’s a form of sword combat that isn’t a simulation in any way, nor should it, but realistic enough to be believable in the context of the setting that this game takes place. For one, Witcher Geralt has two swords of different materials. A steel one for everything that is a normal being as we know it, like humans or animals, and a silver one for everything ranging from common wraiths and vampires to any sort of monster and vicious mythical creature that roams this world. In addition to that, swords and armor can be enhanced by runes if sockets are available in the gear, giving them special and permanent powers, like fire damage or enhancing Geralts signs (the simple form of magic the Witcher can wield). On top of that, every enemy is vulnerable to some form of – let’s call it poison for the sake of simplicity – that Geralt can coat his blades with. These poisonous coatings are prepared and applied as oils and the ingredients for those come from different sources; plants, animals and monsters alike. This adds quite the depth to the whole combat system. The aforementioned magic for simpletons, the signs, which are five disciplines that provide destruction, armor and some form of mind control, can be utilized in fights as well. This way you can get around some enemy’s behavior, shield yourself from impact or be a pyromaniac, if that sort of thing tickles your fancy. Speaking of magic, the game also has potions as complement to all the alcohol you will find. Geralt can concoct several Witcher draughts, unpleasant drinks with different effects on Geralt or others. For starters, there are healing potions – you can’t have a role-playing game without them. But you can also brew drinks for repelling monsters, or give you an advantage in a fight against a foe, all very specialized on the type of enemy. Sounds all very cool, right? So, what’s my issue?

Here it is: it gets boring and tedious very quickly. I have tried several times to play as it was intended because in theory it is totally awesome. But so far, I’ve always come back to cheating to get the fights over with quickly. I know, not the heroic thing to do, spoiling the fun for me, my friends, my family and their pets. But it’s so frickin’ lame…

It’s the fights, the mechanic of it. Some may call it tactical, me, I just call it annoying. In case of monsters you really must be careful not to run into a horde of them or they’ll stun-kill you in no time. Like Geralt, they can perform several attacks, let it be simple swings of claws, in quick succession. If you get trapped between a few Nekkers or Drowners and all manage to get a swing at you as a group then it’s game over. That means I’m complaining about a simple fact of life? Well, I get that this is how it would work in the real world. The thing is, monsters mostly come in groups and a lot of them are as wickedly fast as Geralt himself. They throw themselves at you without any hesitation, like you would expect from the vicious, bloody creatures that they are. It’s very simple to get trapped and slapped quickly. You really need to circle around them, keep them in front of you and pick ‘em off one by one.

It’s somehow even worse with human enemies, especially in large groups. They have the ability to block your attacks with their weapons or shields (them noobs) which will drag quarrels out even longer. Humans are not as fast as monsters, but that doesn’t make it any better. Human enemies have one or two mates with long range weapons. If you’re not careful, you can be sure they get a few hits at you before you know they’re even there. Again, you must pick them off one by one, trying not to get too close to alarm everyone at the same time. But, since Witcher 3 is not a game that was created with stealth in mind this comes down to tedious grunt work. It’s not the DNA of the game and that’s the problem. At least to me. There’s no everyone-take-your-turn-combat like in the Batman: Arkham series of games – which is totally awesome. Or like in Shadow of Mordor, to name something where swords are used as weapons. There you have it. This is my gripe with the mechanics. I don’t know why, but in Witcher 2 it didn’t feel that bad. I really had nothing to complain about in this regard.

Let me also quickly lose a few words on the potion and oil thing. I get the feeling that one would do this only in preparation of a fight where it’s known in advance what will happen. Otherwise I just think there are too many oils and especially potions to choose from. Navigating the inventory to find the right juice does not seem worth it. The overwhelming numbers and how they are distinguished from each other is pretty discouraging. Unless you know which one to select by its color variant you need to wait for a tooltip to appear – something that takes time away from playing the game. You might find yourself not even having the right tool for the job, making looking for one even more so a waste of time. I ended up finding a mod that automatically applies the oils to the blades if present in the inventory and that was it for me. I never bothered with potions other than Cat and Swallow (until the God Mode cheat) and those I had in the very few quick slots.

So, once I had found a mod that provides invincibility and allowed to increase damage (and many other aspects of the combat system others use for the opposite purpose, to make the game more challenging) I was able to enjoy the rest of this otherwise fantastic game.

Characters and Gameplay

The Witcher 3 is game that is centered around a set of characters that were developed throughout the first two predecessors as well as a few new ones. Even parts of the story had already appeared in them, at least hinting at what the overall theme might be. I will try not to summarize the story or introduce all the characters. That would take up too many space and this piece is pretty long already. The main plot is nothing complicated and doesn’t contain any unforeseen twists and turns that’ll make your head spin. It is a pretty straightforward adventure. But it is so incredibly well told and presented that, if you were to add together all the cut-scenes and watch it as a movie, you’d surely be well entertained. The Witcher 3 totally lives off its characters, their personalities and how they interact with each other. You will get attached to Geralt and his bunch and start to feel with them. It’s like an interactive TV drama that sucks you in. Geralt’s journey is very long and he meets so many people along the way, all of them with their own complex situation. This game is so incredibly rich. And although everything is scripted, your decisions in dialogues do have weight. Some choices definitely impact how the game ends, especially how you treat Ciri. It doesn’t seem that way while you’re at it and once I had finished the game, it didn’t occur to me that this was just one of three endings. I had absolutely no clue, it was all so convincing and coherent.

But this isn’t only true for the main story. Even side quests are fully voice acted and not only contain simple kill-and-retrieve tasks for dumb Witchers. Although some are more simplistic than others, almost all contain a nicely narrated tale of their own, extremely well embedded in the overall setting, a war-ravaged country with defeated and oppressed citizens, refugees and an occupying force. They tell stories of the people that live there. And as already mentioned before, your choices will impact the world in more or less dramatic ways. Who will you help once it comes to enthrone a new ruler in Skellige? Cerys? Hjalmar? Or will you let it run its course and not interfere, be a Witcher true to the trade (something Geralt usually manages to fail at)?

Speaking of the world. It is simply fantastic. Open world games usually have the same problem: artificially created tasks to keep you busy running around. Although the Witcher 3 has some form of that as well, you can safely ignore it. It’s treasure hunts spread all across the map. Mini tasks that result in random loot left behind on the battlefield, hidden stashes from unfortunate wanderers killed by monsters, monster nest to clear or chests guarded by monsters. But it’s just there for you to discover should you decide to wander around and spent time exploring this gorgeous world CD Project Red has designed for us (and you definitely should!). There are no towers you must liberate or pirate camps to clear for some questionable reasons. Whatever you do in the game, it has an origin that makes sense.

Some quests even tell two sides of the story, giving you the hard choice of who to believe and how to continue. You will sometimes be surprised how something that seemed so obvious has another side to it. But by then it’s too late because you have already made your decision and must now live with the consequences. If there are any plot twists in this game then you’ll only really find them in side quests. They are, at times, deceivingly narrated, but that’s only what people would do to manipulate others into helping them. So why should the game be any different? It makes for a believable world and by far the best open world I have spent time in.

One little negative point: there is a lot to read as well, like letters and notes you find on corpses around the world that mostly turn into treasure hunts, small fetch-and-keep-for-yourself tasks. Of course there are also many, many books, all of which paint a picture of the world, either through historical knowledge or customs. What I find negative is that it isn’t narrated and you need to read yourself. Especially given the font and background color and the size of it. Not optimal.

Character Development

A role playing game always comes with a skill system to pimp your character’s abilities. The Witcher 3 is no exception and the way it is implemented is a waste development time. I don’t think the system employed is a good one. You can choose between a lot of skills and upgrade to your style of play. Prefer strong sword attacks? Or fast attacks? Or are you more of a magic or herbalist type? So far so good. But at higher character levels you have developed more skills than can be active because, and that’s what I don’t like, there is only a limited number of slots for skills. So once you have found your preferred combination all other skill points you gain for level-ups sit there unused. Why the hell? Why can’t I learn and use everything?

Gwent

All Witcher games always had a mini game inside of the main game. The original Witcher came with a dice game, the second had a much simplified version of that and arm wrestling. The Witcher 3 ditches those and comes with a new game, Gwent. It’s so amazingly addictive once you get into it, it’s unbelievable. The rules are simple and I won’t rehash them here, but as simple as they are, they make for a very tactical and engaging gameplay. Sometimes, I have spent entire gaming sessions just playing Gwent. Hours at a time. The Blood and Wine Addon has a quest where you need to complete a new set of cards by playing 19 (I think that was the number) different people to win one card from each of them. And that’s what I did. Played them all in one go, nothing in between. So fun. So addictive.

Graphics and Sound

The complete package can be described with only one word: spectacular. The Witcher 3 is such a beautiful game, even with some reduced details on my aging GTX 970 that has to run it in 1440p. The lighting, the shadows, the animations, the textures, the art design. Just beautiful. The cinematic sequences: amazing. It is such a complete package. The same goes for the sound and music. If you have a surround system and a good audio card, you can get very good positional audio. But apart from the technical aspects, the game, as is the case with graphics, knows how to shine on an execution level. The voice acting is superb. The music is on point and totally matches the theme of the setting. Calm when you are exploring, pushing and exciting when you are fighting. If you fancy medieval or folk tunes you’ll feel right at home.

However, as mentioned in a previous section, I would have loved for more narration instead of presenting long text that is unpleasant to read in terms of presentation. I also get the feeling that children’s voice actors are not actually children all the time. Sometimes they sound like forcefully high pitched grown ups. Many actors also appear several times, which is only logical, given how many people there are in this game that you interact with. But they do a good job of changing the tone or the dialect to sound different enough so you don’t notice immediately. You will if you play long enough and learn some individual characteristics, but it does not matter. It won’t change the fact that the work performed is really good. Geralt could use a bit more treble in his voice though. Sometimes it feels like he’s talking mostly through the subwoofer.

Verdict

What I think of the game is clear. I made that point obvious right from the start. It is a must play, especially if you have played the first two Witcher games. The combat thing is probably an issue of mine. I might try it once more, now that I really know the mechanics of it. The game as a whole is just so great that somehow I can’t let it go. At least at the moment. I thought the same of Dragon Age Inquisition, which has a great story in itself, but the gameplay, although very cool on the first play-through, didn’t provide me with enough motivation to do it a second time (curse of a typical open world game?). Not so The Witcher 3. It feels much cooler, much more compelling to continue to wander around and discover things. And since I know there are different endings, I might play a Geralt that is different from the first two times I finished the game.

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