Can a flawed game be a great one? Is it possible for a game with such scope, refinement and audacity to hold up to the withering gaze of our more cynical age? There is an awful lot "to" The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Not all of it escapes my ire but I'll be damned if it doesn't hook me in ways that other prestige behemoth titles simply cannot. If this is to be the final entry in the series, it's a heck of a way to bow out.
Title: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Publisher: CD Projekt
Developer: CD Projekt RED
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: May 19th, 2015
MSRP: USD $59.99
I must confess to having never played any of the previous entries in the series. That this game still managed to utterly engross me, even with mountains of backstory and character motivations from previous games to unravel, is a testament to its literate depths. Guiding our gruff, cynical, Geralt of Rivia through to the end of his masculine epic is a journey that beautifully illustrates the golden mean that video games can achieve, above all other art forms. I must admit to admiration of is singular unity of themes and functions. As a veteran of games that herald their storylines at the neglect of their gameplay (hello Mass Effect), this is beyond refreshing to experience.
The premise draws heavily from Eastern European folklore and medieval fantasy, slapping a world-weary professional monster hunter smack dab in the midst of a conflict rife with political machinations, familial dread and pent up frustrations of every stripe. Geralt sighs in exasperation, complete with a facial expression of bewilderment, at the actions of his allies and clients. He swears in frustration as a monster lands a successful hit and grudgingly excepts meager payment for his vital services as one of the last remaining monster hunters. In a world where corpse filled battlefields (and the monsters that feed on them) are a depressingly common sight, where an all powerful invasion force that threatens existence is scoffed at and regarded with contempt by ignorant locals with petty political ambitions: Geralt is one of the few sane men left.
His journey to find his adoptive daughter is equal parts tragic, hopeful and hilarious. New twists of fate or awe inspiring feats of magic only serve to motivate him further. If this gameworld can often be as grim as they come, then the moments of levity shine all the brighter. With a cast of characters this huge, this fleshed out, that never feel like afterthoughts thanks to immensely commendable writing and performances, the apparent flaws of the storytelling methods on display can very often seem like trivial gripes.
But flaws there are: One of the inherent weaknesses of utilizing European fairy tales as the basis for the majority of the content is that there's simply not going to be a whole lot that surprises people. The sheer quality of the writing does help mitigate the boredom caused by familiarity with rote formulas, but there will be moments of tedium. Probably the most damning flaw is the use of the in-game engine to animate the vast amount of cutscenes that make this game's story go. In theory, this could have been more than adequate for the task given the high quality of the character models. In practice, the limited animations and stilted camera movements to compensate for them make a lot of scenes comical puppetry rather than immersive drama. It probably reflects some cost-cutting measures on the part of the animators and normally I could forgive stuff like this (as anyone who has played the Mass Effect trilogy can attest). My ire could possibly be due to the otherwise astonishingly high quality of the writing, acting and graphics creating a Uncanny-valley suction focal point. Make of that what you will.
In spite of those flaws, the story simply works no matter which way you choose to navigate its choices and results. The high stakes of the main questline meshes well with the open world mercenary offerings of the sidequests. This degree of synchronicity is vanishingly rare, to the point where The Witcher 3 may be the new benchmark for thematic cohesiveness in triple AAA gaming.
Alright, we've waxed poetic on the story for long enough, how about the gameplay? The meat of the content is the combat system, which takes heavy cues from Dark Souls with its balancing act of striking power versus finesse. What it brings to the table is a robust stats system that determines your load outs and combat styles. With tweaking, you can swing your swords in graceful arcs, time power strikes and magic attacks or just sling enough stat affecting potions to make a dwarf keel over. Gathering the right combination of potions and gear is crucial when facing enemies that can down you in a few hits.
The sheer amount of enemies with differing attack patterns, debuffs and behaviors to memorize is staggering. This is a game that rewards careful study and exquisite timing, with enough preparation and patience even higher leveled enemies can be tackled. There are plenty of opportunities to wage spectacular battles against groups of foes or tense encounters with particularly dangerous quarries.
Of course, with such tight tolerances for error, the flaws of the combat are magnified. To wit: Geralt isn't the quickest chap so he'll frequently get stun locked by quicker attacks, fail to dodge after multiple button presses in high-pressure situations and will stumble around awkwardly if the analog stick gets nudged in any direction other than straight forwards or backwards. There is a very definite limit to the pacing of battles when you are constantly on edge over whether Geralt will follow the simplest of commands. He also has an infuriating tendency to die to a slight breeze whenever an enemy is even slightly over leveled, effectively turning the shield spell, Quen, into the only practical combat spell unless some very heavy perk investments are made in the others. You could also find yourself struggling with the lock on system, with its nasty habit of spinning you around and leaving you open to flank attacks. The frustration that results from the baffling flaws are enough to cast a shadow over an otherwise robust combat system.
In between the combat and story is the special sauce that makes this delicious sandwich go: The investigation mechanic. Similar to the Arkham games, Geralt can activate his "witcher" senses to gather clues to which monster he'll be facing. It's tied nicely to the witcher contracts that give the game its name, but can also be used to analyze the environment for combat advantages or pick out specific creatures by their acoustic signatures. It is a nice addition the help immerse players in Geralt's profession and gameplay if a touch railroadey. There are few instances of player deduction, once Geralt finds the right clue, one and only one path will do. You pretty much just exist to bus Geralt from one clue to the next.
This being an open world game, there are loads of sidequests and optional minigames to partake in. There are literal fight clubs, horse races and a revoltingly addictive collectible card game to pique your interest. The former are plagued with a lot of the same issues of the base game, with the horse races having the added flaw of being mere endurance tests rather than a battle of skill with a horse. They are organically woven into the game so I bear no ill will towards them. The card game is on a whole other level. Gwent, the fourth wall breaking/ battlefield simulating collectible card game, is almost obscene in its appeal. We're talking about an entirely digital/optional/superfluous questline that I scoured the game world to complete. A scant lead on additional cards would cause me to drop everything to hunt them down. Only Gwent mattered, Gwent was god.
This is a gorgeous game. The misty vistas of Ard Skellig inspired awe on multiple occasions. Corpse filled battlefields crossed with serene croplands and tranquil forests (with the occasional pack of wolves here and there) stretched out as far as the eye could see. The bustling cityscapes and isolated towns and villages helped the game avoid the world compression that plagues most other RPG's, this really does feel like a fully fleshed out, liveable, universe.
There is an insane amount of detail packed into the massive overworld. Getting immersed in high fantasy these days hinges on the loving care put into the smallest components. From the individual links in Geralt's chain mail to the increasingly elaborate monster designs, it's clear that this has that crucial element that all great games exhibit.
This level of care carries over to the soundtrack as well. The howling chants of monster battles and bristling strings fit seamlessly with the rowdy tavern tunes of Gwent matches. The majestic timbres of strings and synths that accompany exploration could give way to the solemn serenity of cutscenes. I won't spoil the sound of the track that made me a fan of the score, but there is a showstopping tune the midgame that will be impossible to get out of your head. Finally, the sound effects that bring this fantasy world to life are fully convincing. There are few instances of noticeable looping, substandard effects or poor mixing to be found.
So I just described a great game didn't I? Other than the aforementioned gameplay issues, what else could possibly stop it from residing comfortably in the upper tier of the video game canon? Loading times could. Loading times do. In a game where Geralt can and will go down to a slight breeze, where autosaves are infrequent teases, this can be a fatal flaw. When I become wistful for Bethesda's notorious loading screens, something has gone terribly wrong. Infuriatingly enough, the mere act of opening a menu or sifting through your items causes slight delays, as if each inch wide item sprite was rendered with golden pixels. Expect a playthrough to consist 25% of just loading times.
Technical issues abound. Loading buffers when wandering through town would cause audio sync issues. Characters would disappear from cutscenes randomly. One especially memorable bug caused every character to bend at the knee horrifically and wander around enlarged and airborne. I half suspect that some of the control input issues were due to the framerate drops that occur during combat. Since the Xbox One is roughly analogous to a low to low-mid tier PC, I am confident that the majority of players will experience the same issues.
Divorced from its technical faults, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a rather remarkable game. Its story is uniquely compelling given the drawbacks of open world games when interacting with linear narratives. The near seamless fusion of gameplay elements with its thematic approach helps it stand out from the hopelessly staid competition. That the game doesn't require DLC to fix glaring omissions, nor provide enough content to prop up its impressive replay value, is also refreshing.
Ultimately, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt must be judged as a whole. This is as fully formed a storytelling experience as gaming has managed to offer to this point but a flawed technical product. I found that the strengths compensated for its weaknesses enough for me to fall in love with it, just as ignoring nagging doubts in my head is a fast ticket to critical obsolescence. I asked at the start if a flawed game could be great. What I should have asked is if a great game could be flawed? The answer is yes, so very much yes.