Originally published on Pixelitis.net on June 21, 2013
Judging by my time watching an early build of The Witcher 3 at E3 last week, to say that CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is ambitious is an understatement.
One of the reasons why I’ve always preferred WRPGs like The Witcher series over more mainstream, open-world franchises like The Elder Scrolls is because of their more memorable stories, characters and more realistic approach to the morally gray.
I think it’s safe to say that The Witcher 3 will carry on with all of that, but with one new, crucial element: it’s going the route of its competition with a full-blown open world. While it’s still too early to tell if CD Projekt RED can deliver on the promise of an engaging central plotline mixed in with varying sidequests within a gigantic world, I will say that what I’ve seen of the pre-alpha build shows something that has the potential to be gargantuan in its execution.
While we currently don’t have any E3 awards system established just yet at Pixelitis, you can bet all your orens that The Witcher 3 was my game of the show, even if what I witnessed was a hands-off experience.
Producer Marek Ziemak talked us through the presentation in a room tucked away inside CD Projekt RED’s press room while QA Analyst Bartek Ocham played on an Xbox 360 controller plugged into a PC.
Protagonist and titular witcher Geralt of Rivia has a more aged look this time around, sporting a grizzly silver beard. His badass demeanor is ever present, as evidenced in the trailer that the presentation kicked off with, in which we saw him come to a woman’s rescue before she was about to be hanged by a group of lecherous soldiers.
The Witcher 3 takes place essentially right where The Witcher 2’s extended ending left off, with the Nilfgaard empire invading the Northern Kingdoms and setting many a village ablaze. The story centers on Geralt’s personal journey to discover the whereabouts of his long-lost lover, Yennefer, meanwhile searching for the Wild Hunt, which was described as a “ghastly, dark and deadly force” that the game’s lore regarded as only a fairy tale, before revealing itself to be true.
The 45-minute demonstration of the game was marred by several crashes. Unfortunately, this specific presentation I attended seemed to have been the most unlucky one of the many that CD Projekt RED had to do. I suppose there was a wraith in attendance, messing it up for everybody.Graphics card overheating was deduced to have been the culprit, which tells me that this game’s going to require a good oomph from every PC gamer’s rig next year.
“This is why game development is so hard,” chimed Ziemak, which gave rise to many laughs from the crowd.
The E3 demonstration took us to a moment somewhere in the middle of the game, where we saw Geralt riding on horseback through a mountainous, wooded area in order to meet up with an old acquaintance. Horseback riding isn’t the only first for The Witcher series with this new installment: Geralt can also ride in boats, swim, climb, sprint and even jump. QTEs are over and done with (hallelujah!).
It was clear to see how much more detailed this new entry was going to be. It sports a noticeable visual improvement over its predecessor, which still remains a PC gaming powerhouse when it comes to graphical fidelity. The game’s framerate was silky smooth, which contrasts with the sort of FPS drops I was sometimes accustomed to in The Witcher 2.
Something even more readily apparent in this (and in many other upcoming next-gen titles) is the world’s incredible draw distance. I think pop-in backgrounds are becoming a thing of the past as we move on to more PC-centric console hardware and developers take fuller advantage of DX11. To top it all off, the team is shooting for no loading screens: another common theme I’m seeing with next-gen open-world games.
At one point, they brought up a map of Geralt’s location: in the middle of a giant island surrounded by several smaller ones. The team boasted that this was merely a portion of the game’s full world. In fact, they teased that The Witcher 3’s world will be 35 times bigger than The Witcher 2’s. Fast travel to and from these enormous distances is a given, but like most other open world RPGs, the player will have to manually trek to these locations first in order to utilize it.
The world’s various merchants now have a neat economy mechanic. Items that you accrue will have different values depending on which territory you’re in. Fish will be cheap to sell in an area filled with water, but will be far more profitable in land-locked areas.
The combat I witnessed seemed very fluid. Of course, I couldn’t get a full grasp at how different the combat felt without having any hands-on experience, but I noticed that Geralt can now perform more evasive maneuvers than just the comedic combat-rolling from the second game. Geralt still has his various magical signs that he can use at will. The fire sign, Igni, was the demo guy’s go-to spell for most of the battles, this time acting as a sort of flamethrower-like spray that incinerates bandits and creatures alike.
Like the previous two Witcher titles, a number of sidequests can pop up as you go through the main storyline. The team is looking to entice players to explore the world by placing points of interest throughout the world. In the demo, Geralt approached some ruins, where he discovered a hulking antler-wearing beast. Geralt can play the part of a bullfighter, luring the monster into a wall, causing its antlers to get stuck and leaving it open for a walloping. The beast eventually escaped, which opened up a sidequest that involved pursuing it.
It was here that the team gave us a little aside to show off the game world’s weather effects. Like in the previous entries, Geralt can meditate to forward night and day, and now clouds can dynamically appear and cause rain and thunderstorms. Nevertheless, the weather is not just for show; it can affect gameplay in interesting ways. Certain enemies, like werewolves, will actually carry an increase in stats if fought during the night. Another hypothetical example Ziemak gave us was the possibility of getting caught in a storm while boating. Geralt can end up getting shipwrecked, and the cold seas can quickly drain his stamina, resulting in an untimely end.
The final part of the demo showed one example of how players can get caught up in sidequests that pop up as you pursue your main objective. In this example, Geralt had to solve the murder of a villager’s brother. He deduces that this was done by a wooden beast spirit, and so Geralt can offer to help for a price (of course, varying dialogue options allow the player to change his tone). Using a new sort of “Witcher sensing” function, the player can discover clues, such as blood and smashed bones, to deduce that the creature in question is called a leshen: a creepy bipedal spirit made out of a deer skull, antlers and branches. The player can than peruse Geralt’s bestiary to look up more information on it, including its weakness.
The sidequest continued on with Geralt having to discover a villager who’s unknowingly possessed by the leshen, finding its lair and battling it to the death. The demo ended with an animated sequence a la The Witcher 2 that detailed the aftermath that occurs in the village following the battle and the shady decisions that the villagers had come to regarding the possessed individual.
CD Projekt RED is promising an RPG with over 100 hours of gameplay: 50 devoted to the main storyline, and 50 comprised of sidequests. Again, it’s all incredibly ambitious and I hope that CD Projekt RED can deliver on all of its promises. If they do, then I think you’ll be looking at one of the biggest videogames to come out of 2014.
Be sure to check out my interview with The Witcher 3’s director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz.