More men and even more monsters.
Well, they Ubisofted it. I’m just being facetious here for dramatic effect, it’s nowhere near that much of a slog of recent Ubisoft games but I thought I’d start this critique with a kick to the teeth. Though for now I’ll leave that assessment dormant since at first I want to provide lazy people with a TL;DR and later expand on what I meant by that remark.
Whenever I’ve played one of these big open-world RPGs that usually garner impossible amounts of acclaim by their audience, I’m always left to wonder what exactly they see in a title to call it one of the best games ever made. Because whenever I play them, all I see is a mountain of needless busywork, inconsequential sidequests and almost always gameplay that is either straight-out bad or otherwise not that engaging (looking at you, old isometric CRPGs). The obvious exception to this is Dark Souls, whose appeal I still don’t entirely attribute to its difficulty but more to its realization that gameplay is and will always be king. So believe me when I say that The Witcher 3 is a masterpiece. Does it fall into some traps of open-world games? Of course it does, that qualifier is the first statement of this critique. But in spite of this, it presents an engaging narrative with worthwhile content outside of the main plot, extremely satisfying gameplay that can actually be mastered this time around and for people who like their games pretty, well they don’t come much prettier than this. So with that out of the way, the rundown. And while a lot of this will read like a laundry list of shit that made me dislike the game, rest assured that these were never that much of a big deal to tarnish the enjoyment of the title.
While gameplay has seen quite an expansion to facilitate the open-world nature of the title, the first thing I want to focus on is combat. Because that was always a sticking point for this series as a whole, whether it was the weird, rhythmic combat from the first game or the more modern action game combat of the second that markedly fell short of being satisfying. This time around there aren’t too many difference to how sword combat works with one crucial addition and I think you can already guess what that is: Camera lock on. You are finally able to choose priority targets, lock on to them and actually evade perpendicular in order to make sure your blows hit the target you intend. In fact, dodging is what the designers probably want you to do the most because you have two different dodge buttons with two different distances. Blocking and parrying is only worthwhile with sword-wielding human enemies, and riposting is basically vital for ones carrying shields. But for monsters and other critters, evasion is usually the go-to method to defeating them. Especially since most smaller enemies are also prone to evading rather than charging blindly for your ass. So you need to bring them to attack you, then dodge and counterattack. Overall this probably is the most satisfying RPG close combat system I ever got to enjoy outside of the obvious master that is the Dark Souls franchise.
Outside of the close combat, the bombs and signs obviously make a return and they’re of more use this time around. What finally sunk it at CD Project Red is that what a sign does is not readily apparent by either its name or its icon. I mean sure, the sign Igni probably tells you that it has something to do with fire, but what does Quen or Yrden tell you? I’d say Yrden sounds close to Erde, which means Earth in German but that’s not what the sign does. It’s basically a trap that harms enemies that cross it and it also makes spirits take on corporeal form so you can harm them. But you’d never guess that. So they finally gave short descriptions as to what they do and as such incentivized the use of them.
But the newest addition and automatic replacement for the largely useless traps from the second game is a small crossbow. It’s not meant to actually damage opponents, but to annoy them, get them to make mistakes. And most prominently, it’s used to make the flying monsters crash into the ground where you’re able to stab them with your sword. All in all, it handles great with either the option of auto-aiming, which works faster or having more control and a steadier shot by manually aiming with a bullet-time effect. The same control scheme also applies for the bombs and actually makes them useful.
But an open-world game doesn’t merely require combat as its only gameplay interaction. Opening up the possibilities of what Geralt can explore this time around also meant giving him abilities he previously didn’t have. The first one being swimming. There are quite a few occasions where swimming is vital to the plot, especially since one of the locations is a group of island out in the ocean. And for the most part swimming feels alright, if a little clunky with the way diving and coming up for air works. But it also harbors many frustrations when it comes to navigating underwater caves or submerged ships, because sometimes Geralt simply doesn’t want to follow orders – this is actually a running theme throughout all of these games.
With the fact that a large chunk of the game takes place on the aforementioned island nation, Geralt also gets to control a boat. These controls are much more refined as a whole and there’s not much to be said about it, outside of the fact that fighting on said tiny vessel is a chore. During your time on that Island nation, sirens (monsters with the ability to fly and swim) will constantly harass you. There is a way to incapacitate them for a while after you get a specific item, but that only works momentarily and it can’t be used while steering the ship. You have to exit the ship controls into regular controls, use the item and then get out of there. It’s not so much a life-or-death situation since the sirens don’t do a lot of damage anyway, but it’s annoying and they can at worst damage your ship so it’ll sink. I’ll actually revisit this point later, because it ties in to another annoyance.
You also need a quick way to travel around on land, because walking would just take too long, so Geralt now finally gets his trusty steed known from the books. More or less, because it’s probably not the same horse, he just has a habit of naming all of them Roach. And while the horse is a welcome addition to going about the place, it also brings its annoyances with it.
For some reason, whenever you want to trot at a very slow pace, the camera controls override the actual horse controls and you can’t get the horse to face the direction you intend. But that’s only rarely a problem, since more often than not you’ll be trotting a bit faster or galloping at breakneck speed. That is if the game actually lets you. See, Roach has a very well developed sense of self-preservation. And how it manifests itself is by having Roach stop galloping and standing still at the most inopportune moments. Want to cross a bridge? Get ready to stop dead in your tracks for a few seconds. Want to ride down a hill. You’d better anticipate stopping every couple of feet. Whenever you ride on fields or through forests, it can become a slog, especially since Roach automatically tries to avoid trees, bushes or holes in the ground and wrestles control away from you. But even on the roads it can happen that for no reason at all, the horse just stops. Now this is a minor inconvenience to be sure, were there not the horse races. You can compete in a bunch of horse-races as a sort of mini-game – though certain quests also require you to do them – and the racetracks are simply repurposed roads from the countryside, so they’ll be subject to the same annoyances as regular riding is.
The final and probably most unexpectedly popular gameplay aspect is actually the Gwent minigame. While it is a lot of fun playing, it also highlights that there are very few strategies worth following. There are simply cards that are objectively worse than others. There are only a handful that are worth putting into your deck and only 2 or 3 valid strategies across 4 different deck-types that you can chose, so I at least hope they extensively retool the mechanics for the eventual standalone release. But this card-game is also a total anomaly within the game proper, since the cards consist of actual people from the plot. Most major characters Geralt encounters have cards of themselves in the game and yet somehow people like Ciri or Thaler go by unnoticed, Triss can walk in Novigrad wearing the same clothes she does on the card, etc. I think the only other time where I’ve encountered a game that was equally fun, also lacked strategy and yet made no lick of sense in-universe was Triple Triad from Final Fantasy VIII.
The alchemy system makes its return once again, though once again it functions a little bit different than in the previous installment. Brewing potions is still tied to formulae you either have to find or buy. And here’s again where my problem comes in: Geralt is a witcher who’s supposed to have his memories back. So why do I have to re-learn how to make basic potions I used to basically consume intravenously during the last two games? Heck, why are these formulae for sale at all? The first game makes a big deal about the laboratory and all the formulae being stolen from the witchers. That’s what sets off the entire adventure, trying to get these secrets back. So how do regular old merchants and herbalists have formulae for witcher potions that are literally lethal to non-witchers? Who would they expect to be buying and brewing this stuff? This is especially a problem with a potion called White Gull, which is one of the most basic potions from the first game, but in this game it’s basically left to chance whether you’ll find the formula or not. And get this: You need this specific potion in order to create certain other alchemy and crafting ingredients and I never fucking found it. I spent almost 100 hours with this game and I never came across this very basic and yet extremely useful potion. There are no hints available as to what you need and you can’t craft or brew something without the required diagram or formula. Never mind that at least at the start of the game, you simply don’t have enough money in order to buy up every formula you come across.
But this also ties into a far bigger issue: Most of the things you can create with the alchemy system are not all that useful. You can create the aforementioned potions, bombs and oils. But only a handful of potions are useful during general gameplay. Some of them are used in very specific locations, but most of them I never used at all. The same applies for the bombs, a few have their uses, most don’t. And oils are a thing I tried to use when I thought about actually using them, but eventually I forgot to and didn’t miss them at all. The boosts you get from them are so inconsequential and moreover so specific to an extremely limited number of enemy types, that it’s just too much busywork to care about them. Dodging and hitting shit with your sword might take a little bit longer but if you’ve mastered the system of getting out of harm’s way and attacking when there’s an opening, you’re better off wasting less time on slightly longer fights, rather than pausing constantly and changing out potions, bombs and oils.
Speaking of uses: The way you get to use potions has changed once again and halle-fucking-lujah, you can finally drink potions in the middle of battle. At the cost however that you can never have too many potions. Once you brew a potion for the first time, you never have to do it manually again, unlike in the previous games. It enters your inventory and renews itself so longs as you have enough strong alcohol whenever you rest. The maximum number you can have per potion differs but it’s in the 2-4 charges range. This has the unfortunate side-effect of making you rest at times when you’d rather be continuing on, such as when running out of potions to see in the dark and you’re in the middle of a cave. Resting also recharges your HP on lower difficulty levels but doesn’t on higher ones. But that doesn’t really make sense, since you also restock on healing potions during resting, so you can just rest for an hour to restore all your healing potions, heal yourself up again and then rest again to restock on healing potions for later. The only thing that does is that it consumes more alcohol, but I never came close to running out, since you can loot basically everything so long as you don’t do it in front of guards and there’s plenty of alcohol to go around, so it’s basically another way the game wastes your time.
Outside of the alchemy, crafting also makes a return and it’s even more involved than previously. But the catch is that it’s almost never required. You get loaded up with so many diagrams for swords, armor and clothing that you’ll never end up using, because the stuff you find out in the wild seems to scale with your current character level so it’s hardly worth it to craft anything. The only stuff worth crafting is the witcher gear, since the diagrams are tied to little treasure hunts that you can follow on the map and as such get extremely good gear for their required level, since the ability to use a sword or wear a specific type of armor is somehow tied to your abstract character level. I guess you’d constantly cut yourself on a level 30 sword when you’re only on level 29.
I think CD Project Red learned quite nicely from the mistakes made with the second game in this regard. I had tremendous problems with the menus in that game so making them more controller-friendly was definitely something they needed to address. Keep in mind that I played the game with the redesigned menu system as I understand that there was an earlier one. Switching between menus is easily done through one button press, you can get from your quest-log to the map to the alchemy to the crafting in a matter of button presses without exiting the menu at all. The bestiary is better organized than ever with handy information on how to deal with them in terms of signs, oils or bombs (if you decide to ever use them) and overall it’s just a nicer experience.
That is not to say that it’s perfect, not by any means. The crafting menu is a bit of a clusterfuck, with too much stuff on display at any given time. When you enter it, you can see basically every craftable item you have the diagram for. But unlike the alchemy system, where if you craft a thing once and then have it disappear, in the crafting menu it’s there to stay. So at a glance you have no way of knowing if you already own a piece of gear and are wasting resources crafting another one or not. The only filters you can apply are for the game to show you items for which you already have all components, only those where you lack components or if you’re visiting a blacksmith or armorer, if his level is high enough to craft any given item, since they’re also tiered into regular, enhanced, superior and mastercrafted categories.
Pinning formulae or diagrams to make ingredients highlighted in shop windows is cool, as is the ability to buy ingredients directly from the menus themselves if the armorer or blacksmith have said items in stock, but would it have killed them to also implement a feature that lets you craft ingredients you need for another crafting purpose? Let’s say you want to craft a hypothetical sword. You need to have leather straps and a silver ingot in your inventory to do so. If you don’t, you can also craft leather straps from leather scraps and silver ingots from silver ore. But you can’t craft the straps or the ingot from the sword entry, you have to go into the respective entries for the straps and the ingot, craft those and then you can craft the sword. This is only worsened in that the menu shows you if the craftsman has the items for sale but not if you have the raw materials in your inventory to also craft them. And this process only gets worse with more advanced source materials, since you can combine silver ingots and meteorite ingots to create meteorite silver ingots and craft meteorite silver plates from it. The process basically looks like this:
– silver ingot——-\
-silver ore——-/ \
– meteorite silver ingot
-meteorite ore-\ /
– meteorite ingot-/
And now you need 2 meteorite silver ingots to make a meteorite silver plate, so you have to do this entire process twice. And this is just one single required material for an advanced set of armor. Thankfully you can quite easily ignore all of that because like I said, it’s never really that necessary since you basically trip over the stuff while looting the countryside.
The only thing about crafting that isn’t option is weapon and armor degradation. I’m never a fan of having to maintain equipment because it’s simply another layer of busywork. Thankfully it’s not too much of a chore. You can find plenty of repair kits to do it yourself, but if you run out you have to fast travel to either a blacksmith or an armorer. Because while the former can’t craft armor or the latter can’t craft swords, they can both repair everything. The only downside to this is that most of the time they aren’t close to fast travel points and they can also bug out. I’ve had it happen that when I approached a few of these guys, their dialogue interaction button wouldn’t appear and I couldn’t talk to them. So I had to save the game, load that save (unfortunate because the loading times are long) and then I could finally interact with them to repair my stuff.
The last bit of the interface I’d like to touch upon would be the glossaries. While the bestiary is better than ever, the character log is still the same as it was in previous game, with updates never being highlighted. The game might tell you that the entry for character X got updated and in the menu, character X will be displayed at the top along with a yellow star next to their name to tell you that there’s new info. But what part of the info is new is never highlighted, so they’ve done everything to tell you there’s new stuff there but didn’t go the extra mile to conveniently highlight it to make it easier to read. Which is a shame.
Like I said above, this game is absolutely gorgeous. Not as good looking as it did in the initial trailers for which it should get chastised more, but it’s still among the most beautiful and detailed games I’ve ever seen. Thankfully it ditches the murkier style of the second game in favor of a brighter, cleaner style that’s still filled to the brim with details, but doesn’t assault the eyes as much, since the contrast has also been toned down a fair bit. The open world is very expansive with tons of different vistas to behold, such as the dreary swamps, battlesites in the marshlands, idyllic countryside, bustling cities, lonesome mountain regions and the wide open sea and it’s all presented with authentic weather effects that make journeying through this world a joy unto itself. That is at least if it doesn’t constantly rain, which is unfortunately what happened during my play-through more often than I would’ve liked.
But here’s the thing, and this might seem like such a petty complaint or even an insult to the developer but I think the world is still too small. I’ve gone an extracted the individual maps from this game and overlaid them into a complete world map, along with smaller rectangles indicating the sized of previous games, with the red one being The Witcher 1 and the blue ones being The Witcher 2.
As you can see, there are huge parts of the world never got to see in any of these games (though I’m aware that the DLC adds new regions). I haven’t mentioned it until now but while I played through these 3 games, I also read most of the novels the series is based on, and I would’ve loved to see more of this world. I wanted to meet the Dryads of Brokilon, especially since we got to meet a single Dryad in the first game already. I wanted to see Dol Blathana, the valley of flowers and the only country the elves call their own. I wanted to return to the Pontar valley and see how it looked after the events of the second game. I never got to see anything of the countries of Redania, Kaedwen or the more northern countries, the ones that are supposedly neutral and aren’t involved in the war with the Niflgaardian empire from the south. Heck I never even got to return to Vizima proper. The only accessible part is the castle which, to its credit, looks exactly the same as it did in the first game which was really cool to see, but I wanted to return to the slums, the outskirts, experience what the change of ruler had done to the population. This is all a very big missed opportunity, because there’d be so much still worth exploring. Hell, when will we be able to finally see that strange land of Zerrikania?
This actually ties quite nicely into what’s still somewhat missing from this game that the first game did so well: It felt different. Dealing with the vodyanoi, inhabitants of an underwater city ruled by Dagon was fun, it was different and not standard elves-dwarves-halflings fantasy fare. There are very few exotic things about this world anymore, the monsters are fairly generic fantasy creatures and the people we actually get to interact with are all elves, dwarves, halflings or humans. The only really new and different addition to it are the sort Viking-inspired people of the Skellige isles. But in the end, that’s also a sterotype we’ve seen countless times in other media. You know the kind: Taciturn unfriendly people with a hard outer shell when it comes to strangers, though very accepting and hearty when it comes to friends, always gabbing on and on about honor, about how violence and raids are their only goals in life, how people from the continent are somehow worse or weaker than they who chose to inhabit nearly infertile land and all that pseudo-hypermasculine drivel. That is not to say that the characters we meet there aren’t interesting or anything, just that it’s another thing that ties this supposed fantasy setting down into too much realism for my taste.
Because later on it really does get quite wild and fantastic, so if you don’t want to get spoiled skip this paragraph. Geralt actually travels to different planes of existence during the latter part of the story. Only for a few brief minutes, but long enough to hint at what else might be out there in this universe to explore. It’s also established that Ciri, the main driving force between most of what happens in the story, is able to go to other worlds whenever she likes, unlike the more cumbersome portal method everybody else has to use, since Ciri is basically the most powerful being in the multiverse. Heck, when she tells of her travels she even describes a sci-fi world and one we get to visit reminds me a lot about Dune, since it’s a large desert planet with subterranean monsters that can detect movement on the surface. It’s so cool to see all of this, but unfortunately it makes the rest of the game also feel a bit more mundane than it already was. Because most of the reworked fantasy stories and myths are taken more or less from very well-known western fantasy stories such as Hänsel & Gretel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or myths such as the actual Wild Hunt or Ragnarök from norse mythology, though obviously all of them are reworked to give them more footing in the world itself where this isn’t merely myth but actual fact.
And while I claim to be wanting a bigger world, that doesn’t mean that I also want the same density of markers on it. Because here’s where that initial claim of “ubisofting” the game comes to play. I present to you all the maps available in the base game.
(Click on one of the images to open the gallery)
What you’ll notice is that there are tons of markers on there, especially on the maps of Velen/Novigrad and the Skellige Isles. These question marks are points you can visit that can turn out to be bandit camps, persons in distress, quests, treasures guarded by enemies, etc. And there are tons of them.
I enjoyed my time with this game so much that I actually wanted to uncover every single last question mark and find everything there is to do in this game. I didn’t succeed. While I cleared the maps of Kaer Morhen, White Orchard and eventually Velen/Novigrad, I simply couldn’t bring myself to doing the same thing in the Skellige Isles. Because here’s where the lackluster swimming controls and the constant harassment of the sirens come back. Having to deal with all of that for however long it would’ve taken to uncover every last bit of map just would’ve been too much tedium. I would’ve rather traded the density of things you can find – which most of the time really aren’t worth it – with the aforementioned expansion of what types of lands you’re able to traverse. I think the fast travel system is robust enough to facilitate this.
I guess this will be an eternal sticking point with RPGs for me, especially with open world ones, but as you can guess, there’s a lot of repetition with these quests. You’re tasked to find people who got lost or attacked and you usually need to use your witcher sense to examine stuff, find footprints or scent trails and follow them, usually to a point where a monster needs to be killed. Outside of that there are also regular witcher contracts where you get to basically do the same thing and kill a monster at the end. But here’s the thing: This is Geralt’s job. He is literally a monster hunter for hire, so it has both a narrative reason for being there as well as the benefit, that gameplay this time around is actually so much fun that it’s enjoyable to follow these trails and fight these huge monsters. Besides, you’re usually not running halfway across the continent for these side-quests so you can do them as you go along and explore the rest of the world. Doing this stuff is more or less integrated into the exploration itself and as such doesn’t become tedious and it also means that you can actually clear quite a number of those question marks mentioned above, at least on dry land.
Much of what we get to see in this game is taken from the novels. A big part of the conflict is merely repeating what already happened there and even the fact that Ciri is a fugitive and sought after by a number of different parties is exactly what already happened. But the story does take a few risks here and there in providing more background information as to what happened to a variety of characters after the book series concluded, which is nice to see. And while the story still features a lot of choice moments as well as twists and turns, it never gets as ridiculous as the second game did, where once choice basically locked you out of half the content and characters tended to betray you left and right only to sooth you back into their grips by rationalizing everything in an annoyingly well thought-out manner. But while it is a mostly straight-forward story, that doesn’t mean that it allows for stereotypical characters. The only thing that I think is a bit problematic is the fact that without having read the books, you get so much less out of the story. It’s not incomprehensible without that knowledge, not in the slightest, but the books can certainly inform certain choices you make in the game, such as who you end up romancing.
The Witcher 3 takes on the daunting task of introducing a ton of characters that were already very well established in the books and only introduces them in the last installment. Both Ciri and Yennefer are major characters in the novels. Ciri ends up being the protagonist more than Geralt is. Something that actually gets brought up in the game itself with Ciri flat-out telling Geralt that this is her story and he should just let her finish telling it. But it’s not even just those two, almost everybody Geralt meets is somehow known to him, but they still need a new introduction. And the game truly manages to introduce them without too much of exposition, often just making off-handed comments about something that happened in the books as a little treat to the readers, such as Dijkstra’s leg brace or the reference to the shoemaker who wants to stuff sheep with sulfur to attract a dragon, but these bits of information can give you an edge on what to expect from certain plot turns. Though conversely, a lot of what happens in this game is also a direct spoiler for the novels, so pick your poison.
But I think the biggest balancing act for this game must have been the love triangle between Geralt, Triss and Yennefer. Yen is Geralt’s main love interest in the novels, but he had a one-off romp with Triss when she put him under a spell, because the relationship between Yen and Geralt is very complicated. Even in the books, it’s an on-and-off thing and I feel it’s perfectly captured in how they treat on-another in this game. But Triss was also one of the biggest love-interests in the previous two games. In the first game she even claims that they were together prior to Geralt losing his memory, so she probably gets out of this whole ordeal as looking like kind of a shitty person, because she already knows that Yen and Geralt are destined for each other (at least at that point in time). So there are massive inconsistencies between what a book-reader might choose to do versus what someone who has only played the games would do. Because the former would always go for Yennefer, while the latter would probably assume that Triss told the truth in the first game and would continue to romance her.
But even outside of that, the character interactions and the relationships they cultivate seem very genuine and natural. It never comes down to feeling forced that this mere monster hunter has dealings with heads of state, powerful mages and sorceresses, etc., but this might only be so easy to swallow for me as someone who knows the reasons why Geralt has come to know these people.
The character interaction I enjoyed the most was arguably the most important one though, the one between Geralt and Ciri. I loved playing the loving father-figure to this young woman who, though powerful as she was, displayed a sense of innocence. The snowball fight was probably one of the most endearing sections I ever got to experience in a game.
Conversely, one of the funniest sections was the scene where Geralt gets drunk with his other witcher pals. I won’t spoil anything about it, but it was 100% comedy gold and I think I now have a new favorite inappropriate gaming quote with the phrase “Summon the bitches!”
The only thing that really sprung out to me very negatively here was the guy who voiced a supposedly aged Dandelion, because his voice-actor sucks. And the bad thing about that is that you get to hear him on every single loading-screen.
Alright, so a lot of what I wrote about are things that annoyed me in this game. But in spite of all of that, I still think that this is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Rarely have I found myself immersed in a world more than in this, where a game with great ambitions also realizes them. Because most of the things that I’ve criticized (too many markers on the map, the cumbersome crafting and alchemy) are not required to be used to the extent I wanted to use them. The systems and how they interact with the rest of the game are not perfect and though I would have solutions to make them more bearable, I also don’t think they’re that big of a deal.
At the end of the day, this is one of the most ambitious and massive RPGs I’ve ever seen, in more than one aspect. And to think that it’s in a state where the only bugs you’ll ever encounter are one measly side-quest you can’t finish and a few NPC that either hover around, sink into the ground or stutter while walking into objects, it’s a damn near miracle if you compare it to other games with the same scope and size that offer much less polished gameplay, world design, reactivity and visual fidelity and you can clearly see that for the moment, a plateau has been reached.
If there’s one thing I’d want now is a sequel where we get to fully play as Ciri, since the sections where you get to control her are among the most fun and we can go into an inter-dimensional adventure with her. Also, when are you gonna finish up Cyberpunk 2077, CD Project Red? Because I wanna play that shit.