The Witcher III is a change up for the franchise on a lot of levels. It’s an open world game, the first in the series. It’s a console-focused game, after trying to put PC players first. And it’s the first on next-gen consoles. The results are great in the broad strokes, but brutally uneven in the details.
The Witcher III (PC, PS4, And Xbox One)
Despite the fan whining you may have heard, The Witcher III is not, in fact, ugly. Quite the opposite; CD Projekt spent a lot of time on the little details in the graphics. When the wind blows, the trees rustle realistically, and the lighting effects change subtly with the weather.
Of course, that wouldn’t matter as much if the game were poorly written, but, thankfully, somebody finally listened to critics and wrote an actual story into this game. A nice touch is that as you go through the game, you’ll play through an enormous string of short stories, most of which have a twist to them. Just as importantly, what you do in the game has a subtle impact on the story throughout the game, and as you go along, little decisions play into larger ones. There’s no morality meter and honestly it wouldn’t make much difference; doing the right thing is just as likely to backfire as being a selfish jerk.
Honestly, between the detective work you do in the sidequests and the general moral greys to the proceedings, this actually feels more like a fantasy noir than anything. More often than not, as you go through the sidequests, what’s front and center aren’t the wraiths and werewolves, but human frailty and failure. Bar the occasional boning on a stuffed unicorn, it’s a pretty fascinating tack for the game to take.
That said, mute the “score,” if you can call one damn cello solo constantly repeated a score. Just trust me on this one; you’ll be much happier.
Essentially, it’s Red Dead Redemption with swords and an Igni sign, right down to riding your horse to the question marks to unlock new quests. Everything here is tried and true in the mechanics, but it works smoothly and it’s fun to play. That said, I could have done without Gwent: I didn’t buy a $60 open-world action RPG to play Magic: The Gathering with hicks, and making beating all the merchants and even major NPCs in the game a quest? No.
Playing this on the PS4, two things become apparent: One, in the broad strokes, in playing the game, it’s a lot of fun. Two, in every other respect, this game is a clumsy mess. CD Projekt was pretty infamous when this series launched for their contempt of consoles, something which clearly has not gone away. You can practically hear the mustard race snorting in contempt at the idea that games should have well-designed, smoothly functioning systems in place every time you try to use this games pause menu.
Everywhere you go, there are simple, easy-to-use conventions that CD Projekt has outright ignored, and it makes the game worse. Conversations are a good example. When you’re in a conversation menu, you can’t just back out of it by tapping a button, like every other game in existence: You actually have to select “goodbye” in the menu.
This game loves menus, but it can’t execute them well. Need to find something in your inventory, which will balloon at ridiculous speed? Tough. You can’t organize it and you’ll have to scroll. Want to use an oil on your blade? What, you think that should be easily equipped on a radial to maintain the flow of gameplay? Screw you, console plebe, go into the pause menu, find the oil (which thankfully is at the top), equip it and then play the game.
I have never played a game that’s just so outright annoying in all the little things, right down the microscopic text it uses for everything. I’m surprised there isn’t a quest where Geralt goes to file a TPS form to kill a noonwraith, it’s that fussy and bureaucratic in the back end.
It’s also rough around the edges; during my forty hours on the PS4, at least twice a fallen enemy froze in midair. The camera can be a little jerky, the frame rates occasionally stutter, the AI pathfinding can be a bit strange… none of it is game ruining, but all of it is glaringly obvious. By far the worst is the action button detection; targeting one item to loot, climb, what have you is hit and miss, to say the least.
This is balanced by some nice touches. For example, once you craft a consumable like a potion or a bomb, it’s yours for good; you won’t need to go pick flowers to make a health potion, and you can never run out of the various oils you apply to your swords.
None of these nitpicks detract from the overall experience. Hunting down monsters with your Witcher senses and taking them out is a smooth, fun experience. Still, these aren’t weird, unusual ideas or unaccepted conventions. Nobody said, “Hey, let’s make this less annoying?”
You’ll spend hours just on the first map… which is tiny compared to the huge maps the game actually has its main quests on, packed with monster nests, horse races, hostages to free, bandits to kill and rob, you name it. A fair chunk of my forty hours with the game so far has just been running from question mark to question mark, killing bandits and otherwise unlocking stuff. You can log hours in this game without ever advancing the main quest. If anything it’s almost a bit too packed; there’s no way you’re going to waste your time on Gwent and horse racing when you’ve got so much other stuff to do.
There’s plenty of DLC coming… but it’ll A) apparently add 30 hours of content, per chapter and B) with a game this big, you’ll never miss that if you don’t buy it.
The Witcher III is clumsy, rough, and overstuffed. But that’s really part of the charm here, and the game itself, along with the writing, is just too fun to pass up. At least until Batman comes along.