Before I engage in the same gushing adulation for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that so many other video game critics have over the past year and change, I’d like to begin this article with a few disclaimers:
–Wild Hunt is the first game in the series I have actually played, unless you count the first five minutes of The Witcher 2, which I abandoned when my Macbook Air started making weird noises while running the game.
-I only purchased the game a month ago and I have put in about 18-20 hours of gameplay (which is barely scratching the surface of a game this massive).
-I’ve been playing the Complete Edition of the game, which includes all the DLC and ironed out many of the technical issues that plagued the game when it first launched in 2015.
With that out of the way, allow me to spew the hottest take I can on CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece: The Witcher 3 is the greatest RPG of all time and I’ve barely played one third of it.
I know what some of you are thinking at this point. How can he say that? Hasn’t he played Chrono Trigger, Skyrim, or any of the Final Fantasy games? What if he hates the game later on?
These are all valid questions to my knee-jerk take on the matter, but I’ve played enough of The Witcher 3 to understand the one underlying aspect of it that separates it from many of its counterparts: respect for the player. The game simply respects the player’s time, money, preferences, and intelligence, and I wholeheartedly welcome all of that amidst a video game culture where respect for the player is becoming increasingly less common.
As wonderful and awe-inspiring as open worlds are in concept, in reality they often just extend the length of the game without actually providing tangible and worthwhile content. Sure, the barren wasteland in Fallout: New Vegas is vast, but there’s no personality or purpose in much of it. The Hyrule found in Twilight Princess may be the biggest and prettiest to date, but there’s really not much to find in it once you complete the core game. Such is the case with most open-world games: travel takes a long time, side quests are usually just glorified errands, and the environment looks nice but has little life of its own beyond the occasional group of easily killable enemies.
The Witcher 3 bucks this trend in a simple yet refreshing way. The developers put an enormous level of effort into injecting small yet somewhat deep storylines all through the world, and each sidequest involves actions with real purpose, including monster hunting, investigating a crime scene, or sometimes betting on a game of cards. Wild Hunt contains dozens of hours of gameplay, but none of it feels like filler; each point of interest the player encounters has some level of significance, even if it’s occasionally quite brief. CD Projekt Red didn’t make a game that was long for the sake of being long; it created an experience extended through smooth, natural storytelling and meaningful world-building.
For example (MILD SPOILERS FOR THIS PARAGRAPH), there’s a quest in The Witcher 3 where you are asked to explore the woods near a small village to look for a man’s wife who had gone missing earlier. Once you find her body near a tree, her sister comes running into the scene and tells you she’ll pay you double what the husband will if you return to him and just say she was killed by wolves. You just happened to notice that the gashes in her body were not likely from a wolf, so the game presents you with two options: take the money and end the quest right there, or continue investigating the matter, thus unraveling a more challenging yet deeper storyline with real gravitas to it.
In cases such as this, The Witcher 3 allows the player to make a (mostly) informed decision on how to spend his or her time in the game, with either outcome equally nuanced. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t a main quest or a major Witcher contract; every part of this quest was optional, yet it was still treated with the detail and writing you would expect from a main quest. Reminder: games don’t always do this.
Video games have evolved immensely throughout my lifetime, but one thing hasn’t changed all that much: price. Sure, you could grab a ton of games through Humble Bundle, Steam sales, Games with Gold, Playstation Plus, or Amazon Prime sales, but AAA titles still retail at $59.99 at launch. Sure, you could wait a little while until the price drops and trade in some old games you don’t play anymore, but screw that!!! I WANT IT NOW!!!!
Once you’ve calmed yourself down and are no longer shivering in anticipation of a new game while eating a whole box of pretzels shirtless, you buy a new title and expect it to earn every cent you shelled out for it. More often than not, however, you’ll end up playing the game for a few hours and then going back to Rocket League or your 15th play-through of Morrowind because you realize that no game could ever match such ridiculous expectations. Game demos hardly exist anymore and you still don’t have that Gamefly account you keep talking about, so getting caught up in the hype machine often leads to the same conclusion: we spend too much money on games we don’t actually enjoy for very long. (Ok, maybe this doesn’t all seem relevant right now, but you’ll remember what I’m talking about the next time you shell out sixty bucks on another Call of Duty game.)
Such is not the case with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It will likely provide over 100 hours of content, and none of that content feels like a waste of time; the game encourages exploration but never does so at the expense of action or storytelling. The world teems with interesting characters, abandoned sites, monster-infested caves, and small towns that are full of life and energy. Wild Hunt has so much narrative variety (plus a full-on collective card game that you can play at just about any time) and so many locations to discover that you never once feel as though it could have done more. There are few games out there with as good a dollar-to-value ratio than Wild Hunt.
(Also, for what it’s worth: I purchased the Complete Edition for about $50, which contains all DLC as well as the Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine expansions, so I basically bought over 200 potential hours of excellent gameplay.)
RPGs are often characterized by some form of customization. Whether through skill trees, weapons and armor, or even physical appearance, many games in the genre let the player feel as though every decision they make matters. The Witcher 3 doesn’t allow for customization the same way The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, or Diablo do, as the Witcher games are based on a book series and follow the continuous storyline of protagonist Geralt of Rivia. Still, Wild Hunt is very much an RPG in other ways: the player can customize their character tree, allowing them to play the game on their own terms. The alchemy and crafting mechanics also allow for some leeway, giving the player the opportunity to forge their own weapons, appearance, and battle strategies.
In addition, The Witcher 3 offers the player the option to change the difficulty at any point in the game. If you don’t feel challenged enough, you can ramp it up. If you can’t seem to get past a certain boss and can’t stand multiple deaths, you can turn it down.
Most importantly, the game’s structure allows for you to tackle quests in just about any order as your character’s level will allow. If you simply want to play through main story quests, you can certainly do so at a pace that is challenging yet immediately rewarding. You don’t have to follow a linear path, however; there are so many different side quests and contracts, none of which are time sensitive. The player can become a master at the card game Gwent, explore every question mark on the map, or focus simply on finding monsters to kill. The Witcher 3 does not force you to play by any single set of rules. Despite giving you a pre-made character, the game allows the player the forge their own story arc.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself after playing Dark Souls III, it’s that I’m absolutely atrocious at video games. My timing is usually fairly bad, I die all the time, and I’m slow to learn basic RPG functions. Many in the gaming community prefer their experiences to be as challenging as possible, but I haven’t always felt the same way; games are as complex as they’ve ever been in terms of presentation and storytelling, and challenge sometimes gets in the way with my ability to appreciate such other advancements.
The common response to people like me is, “Games are supposed to be hard!” or “Too many games these days have no respect for your intelligence!” The second statement is more objectionable to me (though the first is obtuse and intellectually lazy as well), as it implies that complexity and difficulty are somehow related to mental or intellectual stimuli. I view it the other way; making games needlessly complex without actually making them more enjoyable insults my intelligence, as it causes me to waste additional time learning stats and functions that can usually be ignored (what the fuck does “Poise” mean anyway?). Such complexities trick the player into believing that the game is deep and nuanced when in reality they are often a distraction from, you know, actual gameplay.
Playing through the first couple of hours of The Witcher 3, I was fairly surprised by how streamlined and understandable most of the game’s mechanics are. Even though the title includes alchemy, crafting, character trees, leveling, spells, meditation, weight limits, and an enormous map full of many different icons, it never felt as dauntingly complex as, say, Dark Souls. Normally a game with that much customization, variety, and content feels overwhelming, but I have yet to feel weighed down by any of it in Wild Hunt.
It may seem crazy how many different oils, bombs, and potions you can concoct, but they refill every time you meditate, so you don’t have to constantly worry if you have the right tools before heading into a major monster fight. There are tons of crafting materials in the game, but it’s never truly necessary to understand how they all work together; you can acquire improved armor and weapons through side quests and battles. While your character has a preset number of moves and spells for battle, there’s enough variety there for the player to establish their own strategies in combat as they see fit.
The Witcher 3 doesn’t add confusing mechanics just to seem larger than life, but instead features a ton of variety that’s properly integrated into the narrative. You can play through most of the game without much of a focus at all on crafting, alchemy, or even complex character building, as the enjoyment of the world and the story take priority over arbitrary complexity.
There’s so much to love about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but what sticks with me the most is that the game understands the different tastes and sensibilities of gamers and manages to build an experience that gamers can enjoy in whatever way they please. I’ve never played anything before as broad, deep, large, detailed, and successful at the margins, and it’s breadth is often underscored by nuance. Normally games as ambitious as Wild Hunt sacrifice something, which can pigeonhole players into a limited number of play styles. The Witcher 3 understands that you have a limit on time and money and lets you carve an experience that caters to you without abandoning great storytelling and action. The game respects me, and I respect it.