January 2015 Cover Story – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is finally reaching the downhill run toward its release in May of this year. In the time since its first reveal the game has had no shortage of attention from the media and fans alike, especially after the widespread praise of the first two installments to the franchise.
While the wait to play the game has been made harder by the title’s delay, I’ve finally had the chance to go hands on in this huge fantasy world. I was given free reign of the game’s first three hours, journeying through No Man’s Land and Kaer Morhen, then jumped ahead to explore cold islands of Skellige. I also had a chat to Peter Gelencser, Senior Level Designer at CD Projekt Red, who gave me a behind the scenes look at what players can expect to see once the Witcher 3 launches.
The World of the Witcher
The world of the Witcher 3: Wild hunt is a world of war, and the consequences of this conflict. Violence hangs in the air as you pass through towns ravaged as a result of the fight between the Nilfgaardians and the Northern Kingdoms. The first town you find yourself in, White Orchard, introduces you to the tone of the piece quickly with disputes arising due to the occupation and control of the lands, a few overzealous bruisers ready to fight anyone, and some volatile personal scenarios for you to navigate. You really see first hand how the daily lives of people are affected as you move about a world that felt realistic and lived in.
It’s also a world of immense variety and beauty, despite the danger. Stepping out onto the balcony of your Kaer Morhen room and staring at the mountain views surrounding the stronghold was enough to make me inhale sharply, genuinely creating a memorable locale with a view.
Closer to ground level, the rivers and scrub that scatter No Man’s Land present a real contrast to the scars the land bears. Not only is this once more lively region scattered with farms, huts and villages, it’s also covered in ruins, burnt out structures and swampy areas that have become homes and hiding places for more sinister occupants, man or beast.
Sound is an important factor in creating an atmosphere, especially so in a game like the Witcher. As you travel you’ll find that you can tell a lot about portions of the world by the ambient dialogue, creature sounds and the music surrounding you. Upon first venturing into the first tavern the bard starts playing and it really puts you in that place. All of this comes together to give Geralt, and the player, a pretty immersive, vibrant and sometimes terrifying plane to inhabit.
In the Boots of a Witcher
Throughout the Witcher series we follow Geralt, the White Wolf, a Witcher or professional monster hunter, and Wild Hunt is no different in that regard. As a direct continuation of the events of the original two, Geralt finds himself, in the early hours of the game, working to track down Yennefer, a sorceress. It’s through this initial quest that we will be set on a course spanning “more than fifty hours” says Peter, “with another fifty hours of side quests, exploring and monster hunting”.
Your quest to find Yennefer brings you through the town of White Orchard, where the threat of a Griffin attack looms ever present. The Griffin has been stirred up after soldiers attacked its nest, killing its family, and as a professional monster hunter, you’ll find yourself roped into hunting and killing the beast.
This would be a dangerous contract to attempt right away, so the game really begins to open up from here on out. You’ll need a few more potions, some upgraded gear and a maybe even a few new weapons to make short work of the Griffin, and as you interact with others to gain these items your choices begin to make quite a difference.
“You will see people live or die by your words, you will see entire communities and settlements perish or thrive based on what you choose” says Peter. As you take on side quests an interact with the community you get a real sense of people and how ‘your’ Geralt are. As a Witcher you’ll oft be feared or hated, and this can lead to some fascinating or dangerous exchanges.
In this position, however, you’re given a lot of power, being presented with real world decisions and no clear right answer – “It’s never going to be black or white”. You’ll see your choices mirrored back in the world around you as an outlier in many regions of the world.
“You won’t be collecting karma, only consequences, and the world will show all the scars or all the benefits you have brought to life. In the end it’s basically going to be your unique personal adventure.” – Peter Gelencser, Senior Level Designer at CD Projekt Red
On the Hunt
By the time I had gathered my new gear I was able to pick up most of the new additions to combat and alchemy systems pretty easily. The narrative and lore of the Witcher games is notoriously complex, and in the past the combat has echoed this. In Witcher 3 I felt the combat was much more streamlined but managed to retain that edge of complexity, finding a sweet spot on console controls that Witcher 2 had shot for but fell short. Even with the combat fairly down pat, chopping up drowners and wild dogs around the village hadn’t quite prepared me for what I was in for as I begun my hunt for the Griffin.
The first major part in taking on any of the monster contracts is the investigation, something that has been expanded from previous entries. “This is now fully fleshed out”, Peter explains, “you get to do all the nice stuff like hunting down the monsters, looking for the tracks and marks they leave behind or their footprints and impact in nearby communities”. In the case of the Griffin, I learnt that it was provoked by the army and angry, with no territory or set hunting ground I could exploit for the kill. A series of almost Batman Arkham City style investigations lead me to this conclusion, relying on my ‘Witcher senses’ to highlight and analyse footprints and clues within the environment.
Investigations, depending on the monster and contract, vary greatly throughout the world. “Sometimes the situation is not as simple as you just entering the forest and fighting the beast, you will encounter some really interesting outcomes that may even intertwine with the story. There’s a lot to discover in those terms as well”. While a lot of the hunts can be considered as side activities it’ll certainly be interesting to pursue as many contracts as possible in hopes of finding new connections to the overarching tale.
The battle with the Griffin was probably the most memorable moment from the preview. Under the cover of darkness the beast swooped in to the trap I had set as Vesemir, a fellow Witcher, and I descended upon it. My newly acquired crossbow, along with some neat special bolts I had found, managed to keep it on the ground as it’s feathery talons clashed with spells and silver. Attempting to make a get away, the Griffin managed to finally take to the air, flying crookedly over the dingy looking farms toward an old grain store. Our horses became invaluable here as we chased down the beast and delivered the killing blow, right as dawn began to break. Less than three hours into the game I had brought down a sizeable beast in a struggle quite fitting for the world.
With the head of the Griffin taken as proof of the contracts fulfillment, I headed back toward the village to deliver the good news.
New Lands – the Skellige Islands
Now it was time to jump forward in the game to explore the islands of Skellige. The first thing that really hit in when arriving here was the stark contrast to the world of No Man’s Land, it’s more earth tones exchanged for greys, blues and dark green forests. “Skellige is inspired by Norse and Celtic mythology mostly”, says Peter, “it’s like a Scandinavian environment with lots of high mountains, vikings everywhere and all sorts of other things that will feel familiar yet offer some nice surprises for players.”
As the rain pelts down on Geralt you’re able to take shelter in the nearby castle, returning after completing an unknown favour for Crach, one of the inhabitants of Kaer Trolde. While I was not given a lot of the surrounding narrative for spoiler reasons, this environment really managed to prove both the scale of the Witcher’s new world and the variety within it. New monsters lurked deep in the forests, while characters with new motivations and a very distinctive culture roam castle halls.
This was just the second location in what is shaping up to be a truly huge world. I was a little taken a back at first to see just how far apart the two locations in the preview were, and how much uncharted, wild space there was in between them to explore and hunt in; thank goodness it has fast travel.
Where to Next?
The commitment CD Projekt Red has to their customer is something that they take a lot of pride in, something they’re going to deliver on as and after the Witcher 3 ships. “We’re quite desperate on believing and delivering that everyone should get equal content regardless of what platform people chose”, says Peter. “That requires hardware support so we are constantly optimising, but what you’re going to get in exchange is going to be really mind blowing.”
While it’s still all quiet on the DLC side, we know that twelve free packs are on their way post release for every player, something that’s both quite unique and exciting for fans. Peter did however take the time to tell us a little more about how the second playable character, Ciri, will factor into the game. “It’s going to be very similar to what you might have experienced in Witcher 2 when you played a second character. Basically what we chose to do will enrich the narrative, letting you experience the story from a different perspective.”
The Witcher 3 is an incredibly ambitious game that, from my time with the game, more than delivers on what it’s set out to do. Even on pre-release code the level of polish and overall presentation were top notch, and I’m still itching to dive back into that world to see where the story takes me, and to hunt some of the biggest, baddest creatures I could possibly imagine!
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt launches May 19th on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.