I’m not sure what more you could want out of a single-player expansion.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was already a massive game when it launched back in May, but developer CD Projekt Red wasn’t about to rest on their laurels. In addition to 16 free pieces of downloadable content, they promised to deliver two hefty expansion packs, the combination of which would offer over 30 hours of additional entertainment. That’s well worth the $25 cost of admission for the expansion pass, I think. The first pack, Hearts of Stone, released on October 13 and gives fans in excess of 10 extra hours, and it’s hardly comprised of a few boring tacked-on missions. No, it really seems like the team worked hard on this and on top of which, I’ve encountered no major glitches.
There isn’t much point in talking about the graphics and sound again, as we’re still talking about the same game. However, I will reiterate that the character design and voice performances are better than ever, despite Geralt’s difficulty in sounding like a raucous bounder (explanation coming soon). It’s also important to note that as CD Projekt Red opened up a new portion of the world map for this expansion, there are new sights to see, and they’re plenty attractive. Furthermore, with the ongoing string of patches and updates, the game performs better than ever, and you’re not constantly seeing comical technical missteps. Of course, a few still remain but this production is a lot cleaner now than it was in May.
There’s no doubt that this is one hefty expansion. It really has it all, from intrigue to romance to mystery and magic; my only complaint is a distinct lack of new Witcher Contracts. That aside, we get everything the fan could desire: There are lengthy, involving, and exceedingly well-presented main missions, in which we meet bunches of new characters, face new foes, and learn more about Geralt’s history. Even aside from the main missions are new random enemies, such as the wild boars that are fierce and fast, and a giant toad of a boss (after you beat it, you earn the Trophy, “I’m Not Kissing That!”). There’s even an entirely new race of people, the Ofieri, who were clearly designed with an Arabic influence and come from a distant land.
Perhaps the most significant addition from a role-playing perspective is the new enchantment feature. If you do a few small tasks for a certain Ofieri and give him a good chunk of change (30,000 gold in all), he will be able to enchant your weapons and equipment with various boosts. The only caveat is that the item you wish to enchant must have three open rune slots; any less and the enchantment can’t be performed, and imbuing your weapon or piece of armor that holds attached runes will result in the loss of those runes. So, it’s a balancing question: Is the enchantment worth the trade-off, or would you rather keep your attached runes? Combining runes via formula gets you new enchantments and there are three tiers to unlock. One of my favorites is an enchantment that means the bonuses you get at the grinding wheel and armor table never wear off.
This being said, it’s really the expansion’s variety that will make you grin. In one mission, Geralt is captured and on his way to certain death, when a mysterious man – the one who pointed you in Yennefer’s direction way back in White Orchard – saves your hide. This man is clearly powerful and as time goes on, it seems he might be a djinn (genie). In another mission, the ghost of a dead raider inhabits Geralt’s body, taking over his voice and actions, and it’s quite the contrast. It’s all the more interesting because this ghost attends a wedding reception in Geralt’s body, all the while accompanying the game’s new romantic interest, Shani. Geralt is gruff and reserved; the ghost is audacious and cocky and none too shy around women, and the contrast is pretty funny. I do think that particular segment dragged on a bit too long, though.
Speaking of Shani, she’s a medic that has some romantic history with Geralt, and you do have the option to romance her. It isn’t difficult; after the reception and after the ghost has gone back to the grave, you have some time alone with Shani. If you play your cards right – just don’t be shy – you can end up naked with her in a canoe on a moonlit lake. Nice, right? But Shani doesn’t only exist for romantic purposes; she plays a very large role in the main story and her character, while a trifle thin, is still new and appealing. And it does seem like somebody at CD Projekt Red has a penchant for red hair, as Shani’s is every bit as red as Triss’. Of course, Geralt has already had a blonde (Keira) and a brunette (Yennefer), so I suppose the hair color of the new love interest was a toss-up.
We even get to attend an auction and plan an elaborate heist, before which you have to brew a concoction to put some guards to sleep, and recruit a safecracker and an acrobat. Toss in a trip to Skellige to find an herbalist with a penchant for drink and four new Treasure Hunts, and you’ve got quite the robust expansion. It’s also nice to see some challenging enemies, as the foes you face when wandering about typically range between Lv. 30 and Lv. 36. The toad boss required a bit of strategy, as well (Hint: bombs work well). One could argue that there’s actually too much narrative, as we spend a good deal of time talking or involved in objectives that don’t have much to do with actual combat. For instance, you spend quite a long time at that reception engaging in silly, albeit entertaining, activities.
But aside from that minor pacing issue, I have few other complaints. As I said above, I haven’t run into any serious glitches or bugs; everything appears to be running smoothly. I’ve also noticed that after the last patch, it seems like the game takes longer to load, but jumping between fast-travel points is actually much faster. I sort of wish they had opened up more of the map as well, but don’t forget that Blood and Wine is coming next year and it’s supposed to be twice as big as this expansion, so… Oh, and my level didn’t increase as much as I’d hoped, as even the main story missions didn’t seem to give me much experience. It almost seemed as if I got less experience more often, as opposed to more experience given in bigger chunks. It annoyed me that I got less than a hundred experience for finishing certain primary quests; that just seems wrong.
In the end, though, Hearts of Stone is a stirring good time and a great expansion the whole way ‘round. It doesn’t just give us a couple new missions spread out over the same areas, bringing in the same characters, and simply offering a few new pieces of equipment. This goes above and beyond, delivering an entirely new customization mechanic, excellent story missions, a boatload of surprising charm, fantastic variety in terms of objectives, activities and locations, and a new romance that’s well worth pursuing. And lastly, I can say that reported 10-hour estimate is not an exaggeration, as there are still those Treasure Hunts and question marks to investigate on the map, in addition to everything mentioned above. It’s just too bad we have to wait until next year for Blood and Wine because that oughta be epic .
The Good: Great variety of content and missions. New enchantment system is a hugely significant for equipment customization. Excellent new storylines and characters. Opens up a new part of the map to explore. Well-written and interesting romance segment. New Treasure Hunts for higher-level characters. Technically sound.
The Bad: Pacing sometimes feels a little off.
The Ugly: N/A