By all rights, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt should’ve been the defining game of a generation. It had all the potential in the world and although it’s arguably the most ambitious video game to release in years, it remains frustratingly unreliable and unstable. It’s one of those games you can’t stop playing but despite your love of the adventure, you can’t go an hour without noticing another technical problem. Does it dull the luster of the sheen on Geralt’s swords? Does it keep us from enjoying a massive achievement, regardless of the drawbacks? No, but to gloss over it or worse, to ignore it altogether, is to give developers and publishers license to keep doing it.
I’ll make this plain: If the game ran well, it’s a 9.5, easy. It’s maybe even a 10. Now, to business:
The graphics often leave one mesmerized. Simply wandering though this vast landscape is enough to drop one’s jaw, as the windswept plains, lofty mountain peaks, and dank marshes all have a hefty impact on our immersion and overall enjoyment. Character and enemy detailing and animations are unparalleled, the sheer size and scope of the world is mind-boggling (and almost always beautiful), and the amount of variety one encounters in just one play-session is wildly impressive. It’s a mammoth visual accomplishment, to be sure. And yet, the technical instability leads to frequent glitches – such as one instance where exploding enemies caused my screen to absolutely freak out – and as such, this category cannot receive a 10.
The sound is also excellent and almost flawless. Perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring elements centers on the wide gamut of excellent voice performances; even NPCs are wonderfully voiced. The soundtrack ranges from slow and melancholy go lively and epic; the effects of combat – the clash of steel on steel, the grunts and cries of monsters, etc. – are profound, and the villages resound with human life. It’s a vivacious, sweeping audio display that only occasionally sinks too far into the background when exploring abroad. Such a stellar soundtrack should kick in more often, in my estimation but aside from that, the sound in this game is top-notch. Simply walk through a town, engage in a few fights, and explore for an hour or so, and you’ll hear truly authentic aural grandeur.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is such a gigantic undertaking that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Should we start with the core gameplay or the fact that this is one of the most involved, demanding, and intricate interactive adventures to ever exist? Should we tackle the surprisingly unique method of telling a narrative within an open-world structure that often puts the kibosh on any good story? Or do we dive into the nuts and bolts of control, from riding a horse to swimming to combat? Maybe it’s best to start with the sense of wonder the game evokes, because this is honestly what keeps you coming back for more. You always want to discover what lies beyond that next hill and herein lies the genius of the game.
At first, you wander about a relatively attractive and benign area known as White Orchard. You’ll fight a few monsters and bandits, learn about Crafting and Alchemy, get a feel for Geralt’s movement when on foot, on horseback, and in the water, and get accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of fighting (more on that later). You’re chasing the sorceress Yennefer, who is obviously someone of romantic importance to Geralt, and you’re also treated to a flashback scene where we meet other important characters. This includes Ciri, a young girl training to be a Witcher, and someone who will become a major element of the plot. White Orchard isn’t enormous but it’s good-sized and the learning curve and pacing feels just about right.
It’s the perfect introduction to a game where size, scope, and depth take center-stage. It doesn’t take The Elder Scrolls approach by simply tossing you to the wolves; you don’t have the option of simply running wherever you wish, clear to the ends of the world, if you so choose. This met with some resistance from certain gamers and critics, who believe that a true sandbox game should allow you to do that. I don’t think that’s true at all and besides, once you break free of White Orchard, you can do that (for the most part). This introduction method is great because the quest doesn’t seem so immediately overwhelming. It cuts it down into a bite-size morsel of tasty goodness and whets your appetite for more. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and it’s done deftly and with great care.
After reuniting with Yennefer and learning about Ciri’s return, you find that the Wild Hunt is after her for some reason. Thus begins the meat of the story and you can then travel far and wide. Obviously, while exploration is paramount, combat lies at the core of the experience. Geralt is a quick and powerful fighter; he holds two weapons (one silver, for monsters; one steel, for humans) and he has various skills and magic that are invaluable in the field. His Signs – weaker forms of magic that can be upgraded and can prove essential in combat – are your first introduction to a mystic form of power, and then he gets Mutagens, which can be equipped to strengthen his core stats and any skills that fall into the same category, and various magic abilities.
Fighting is a pretty straightforward affair. You press Square for a quick attack and Triangle for a slower, heavier attack; L1 brings up a menu screen where you can select your Sign and your secondary weapon (crossbow, bombs, etc.). The latter is used with R1, while L2 is used to parry and X allows you to dodge-roll. You can also counter and side-step, which can be very effective against certain opponents. Like all true role-playing games, the focus is on the characters, narrative, and how you prepare for combat and what plan of attack you choose. It involves learning about your tougher opponents and reacting accordingly, and it’s about being meticulous in your search for crafting and alchemy materials. Speaking of which, the preceding skills will prove essential to your success.
It’s a beautifully constructed system, it really is. It places tactics, strategy and execution at the forefront, as opposed to twitch-reflexes and dumb luck. If you’re outmatched, you need to run. If you’re slightly overmatched, you search for ways to gain the edge; maybe a particular Sign is especially effective against that foe, or maybe you’ve got a few bombs and potions that will give you the upper hand. And as you move along, exploring the far-reaching vistas that continue to take your breath away, you’re always just a little on edge. You never know what you might run across, which is why retreat is very often your only recourse if you choose to roam too far. This leads me to the next excellent feature of the game’s creation—
In some open-world games, you can simply go to all the optional icons on the world map and power up before doing any main mission. I do it all the time. But The Witcher 3 is structured so that, A. you really can’t do all the optional missions in any given area at any one time, and B. you’re encouraged to stick to the story in order to tackle the tougher secondary quests. This has a two-pronged effect; firstly and most importantly for me, it doesn’t allow the story to get lost. Sure, you can spend hours running around trying optional challenges but if you want to advance, you really have to return to the primary thread before too long. Secondly, this picture-perfect balancing means you’re not repeatedly diving into stupid situations. You learn.
Everything about the game keeps you coming back for more, again and again. The drive to explore and conquer, the aura of mysticism that surrounds seemingly every region, the story that actually features intriguing characters, and the beautifully designed world, filled with wonder and danger. I can’t recall another time when I was so heavily invested from the outset, when I wanted to keep playing, hour after hour. This is a testament to ingenious development from a conceptual and artistic standpoint. Players respond so positively to this adventure because it seems like CD Projekt Red thought of everything, from the proper placing of fast-travel signposts to the endlessly remarkable landscape that is never bland or boring.
I wish the analysis could end here. But it can’t and we all know why: The game simply doesn’t run well at all. It’s just riddled with a myriad of problems, ranging from the smallest visual glitch to the biggest game-crashing bug to frame rate drops. As I said, I can’t go an hour without encountering an issue. Whether it’s visual or gameplay-oriented, the endless stream of screw-ups is annoying and very disappointing. Maybe PC players are used to it but I’m not, and I shouldn’t have to get used to it, either. I shouldn’t have to wait for a patch that includes 600 freakin’ fixes; this means that the original product was broken at launch. And of course, that won’t be the last patch or update. This is the kind of thing console players never had to worry about and now we do and no, I don’t care about the upside to fixing after release.
One might argue that we can give the game a pass, simply because it’s so hugely ambitious and does so many things right. When you step back and consider, it really is amazing. And I’ve been known to support ambition and proactive creativity over execution because I believe our industry thrives on artistic inspiration and not technical superiority. However, given the number of unstable games we’ve seen recently and the fact that console players are now knee-deep in the dark world of patches and updates, we must demand better performance. We should expect a product that works. Yes, we can accept some small problems because such a game is destined to have them. I’m okay with that. But I’m not okay with game-busting glitches and an unfortunate albeit comical array of hitches and bugs.
Lastly, I will say the game isn’t perfect, even if you discount these problems. The camera isn’t quite right and neither is Geralt’s movement. There’s a distinct looseness to the overall control and interacting with the environment is sometime an exercise in frustration. He could walk up this slope two seconds ago; why does he keep sliding back down now? I have to actually see the little X icon on my screen for him to pick up an item? I also have reservations concerning the collision detection; there are many times when I simply can’t understand how an enemy made contact with my body. These shortcomings would’ve been enough to drop the game from a 10, anyway, but still wouldn’t have resulted in anything less than a low-to-mid 9.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an incredible achievement. It’s impossible to list all the positives and highlights. There’s a sense of awe and wonder it elicits, from the moment you pick up the controller. If you’ve ever wanted to become fully immersed in a fantastical universe with absolutely everything you could ever hope to have in an in-depth, unbelievably robust role-playing game, it’s right here. I’ll be playing it for a very long time. But I’m not about to give anybody a pass. I’ve appropriately praised and lauded and I’m heartily recommending the game, regardless of its obvious instability, but the bottom line is clear. In my eyes, anything over a 9 would essentially send the message that such instability is okay. And it’s not.
The Good: Amazing world creation with tremendous design and animations. Top-notch voice acting and a sweeping, epic soundtrack. Beautifully paced and balanced throughout. Story is mostly solid and intriguing. Atmosphere and environment are second-to-none. Huge amount of variety in combat and exploration. An unprecedented amount of content.
The Bad: Control is a little loose. Combat could be tighter and more refined. Unforgivable amount of bugs and glitches.
The Ugly: “Oh, what it could’ve been…"