The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the Most Ambitious RPG Yet

There’s a good chance you know about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the latest title from CD Projekt Red. There’s an equally good chance that the action-RPG is one of your most anticipated games of the year. Beautiful and mesmerizing, one can’t help but be entranced by the title’s gorgeous visuals and engrossing plot. With the amount of last year’s most anticipated games that ended up disappointing, however, there’s a good reason to keep expectations in check, especially with The Witcher 3, which no one has been able to play until now.

Last week we were invited to try out The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the first time anyone outside of the development studio has gotten hands-on time. We experienced three hours of the game on PS4, the first two encompassed the entire prologue, and the third hour taking place later in the game. The Witcher 3 is a fascinating experience that challenges the player in combat, strategic planning, and finding diplomatic solutions. It’s not all peachy though, as the current build did suffer from a few technical issues.

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Playing previous Witcher titles before jumping into 3 is essential. Though there is a tutorial at the beginning, the learning curve is diminished significantly with previous knowledge of the franchise. As a Witcher, Geralt is learned in both combat and magic. He has a steel sword, for humans, and a silver sword, for monsters. With either sword, Geralt can unleash light attacks (Square) and heavy attacks (Triangle). At any instance he can parry (L2), or dodge in any direction (Circle). Holding down L1 brings up the quick-selection menu, allowing you to switch between Geralt’s different spells. Hitting R2 executes the selected spell.

The demo began showing off what the developers clearly want you to see: a stunning presentation with breathtaking art direction. The Witcher 3 is quite simply stunning and the first game since inFamous: Second Son to look next-gen. PS4 and Xbox One may not be able to pull off visuals compared to a high-end PC, but man is The Witcher 3 looking great on consoles.

The prologue begins after the brief tutorial. Geralt is hunting for his long-lost love, Yennefer, with his friend and mentor, Vesamir. Heading towards a village they encounter the prologue’s Griffin boss. Savage and bloodthirsty, Geralt discovers that the creature has become daring, and that if he wants to discover Yennefer’s location, he’s going to have to kill it for the Nilfgaardian army.

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To defeat the Griffin, Geralt needs to use all of his skills and cunning. The Witcher has always been about more than just combat, and that sentiment proves true for Wild Hunt. Geralt will need to examine scenes with his Witcher Sense, discovering clues that would later help him defeat the Griffin. Herb-collecting returns to the Witcher 3, and though not necessary to beat the game, collecting herbs to brew potions will make playing a tad easier. Collecting a certain herb allowed Geralt to easily lure the Griffin into a trap, which then allowed me engage it in combat.

Combat is no easy cakewalk. Geralt moves like a real human being, which means no superhuman feats of ripping enemies in half (i.e. Kratos). Watching an enemy carefully and judging its next move is as imperative to survival as is deciding if parrying or dodging is the best way to avoid taking damage. Simply put, you can’t just wade into combat in The Witcher 3. Consuming potions, using your magics and projectile weapons, and equipping a healing item will make combat easier, but you can’t let your guard down. Also, no regenerating health. You’ll either need to consume food or mediate to recover health (meditating does not restore health when playing hard or nightmare difficulties).

The death of the Griffin led me to my first big moral choice; refuse or accept payment from a cruel captain. It wasn’t clear to me how my decision impacted the game. It probably won’t be clear till much later in the game, but I was a little disappointed I couldn’t intervene and stop the captain’s cruelty.

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That was the end of the prologue. There was an extremely lengthy cutscene following, and dialogue choices were made within said cutscene, but we won’t spoil anything past that. This was the end of the first part of the demo, and it was quite an exciting prologue, though it did have a few technical problems, which we’ll get to later.

The second part of the demo took place much later in the game’s story. My Geralt was immediately upgraded to level 16, given some sweet armor and two powerful swords. Taking place on the island of Skilliege, Geralt arrived at a feast gone wrong (i.e. the Red Wedding). Somehow bears had gotten into the feast, and were ripping party-goers to shreds. Accused of murdering their own guests, the Jarl and his family must discover who planted the bears or face shame and execution.

It was in this section where I saw how many different ways The Witcher 3 can be played. After the slaughter, Geralt can either help the Jarl’s son or daughter with the investigation. The son wants to beat the truth out of people, leading to a combat-heavy mission. The daughter wanted a more diplomatic solution, which led to a mission focused on clue-gathering with only the tiniest bit of combat thrown in. Depending on which sibling you chose, the ending of the mission was altered dramatically. It’s rare to have this sort of freedom, and even rarer for the pacifist role to be fun. Hopefully other missions that offer this type of freedom will be as equally enjoyable.

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The Witcher 3 fun and we enjoyed the limited three hours we had with it, but that doesn’t mean that everything was perfect. In fact, it was far from perfect, which makes us glad that it was delayed until May 19. As stated at the beginning, we tested it on PS4, and not Xbox One or PC, so can’t attest to whether these problems are exclusive to the PS4 version, but it seems probably all three versions suffer from similar technical issues.

Probably the biggest issue was the framerate. There were quite a few times, particularly in the later mission, where the framerate dropped . It never got Assassin’s Creed Unity bad, but it was noticeable. Vegetation materialized upon approaching, and dematerialized the moment Geralt stepped in front of it. Although there were also issues with crashing, the most egregious technical problems came in the cutscenes. There was plenty of screen-tearing, and the framerate in the cutscenes was abysmal. An action-packed cutscene featuring the The Wild Hunt was meant to be exciting, but quickly became difficult to watch with the scene chugging along, and models and textures popping in-and-out as the camera angles changed. Thankfully the game was delayed. If The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was to launch this month, as was intended, we could have been looking at a similar situation to Assassin’s Creed: Unity. With this delay, CD Projekt Red will be further allowed to polish and optimize the game for all three platforms.

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A quick final note; The Witcher 3 doesn’t make much use of the DualShock 4’s unique functionality. The Lightbar is merely used to display health. Green for healthy, red when close to death. The Touchpad is a glorified Select button, like in so many other games.

The Witcher 3 is one of the 2015’s most anticipated games, and after playing it for three hours it remains that way. It’s not perfect, but the game is still in development. There’s still three months of development time to perfect what needs to be perfected. CD Projekt Red has a strong foundation heading towards release, and we’re optimistic about the final product.

Read our interview with CD Projekt Red here.