From all I’d read and seen prior to its release, there was little doubt that The Witcher 3 would be a superb game and one of my favourites of the year. However, it actually exceeded my expectations. There’s no standout element to Witcher 3 that makes it great, it’s just a perfect example of completely well-rounded and thought out design. It’s a game that respects your intelligence, and requires you to read and understand it. In what seems to be an increasingly popular trend in gaming recently (from indie titles like The Forest, to blockbusters like Fallout 4) Witcher 3 is light on tutorial or explanation of its systems – it encourages experimentation. Without a binary ‘good or bad’ morality meter, Witcher 3 pushes the players towards proper roleplaying. The world and culture are so well realised that when I’m making important decisions, I’m doing so based on my understanding of Geralt as a character, what I think he’d do.
While many games advertise themselves as gritty, morally complex, or as existing in a ‘grey area’, in reality this often leans more towards being evil or compromised. Witcher 3 sidesteps this by making the world complex, not your decisions. There was a moment where a bunch of angry peasants were harassing and intimidating an elf woman – racism is a prevalent theme in Witcher 3. When you approach the confrontation you can side with the peasants who don’t trust ‘sly’ elves, or with the elf, telling the men to leave her alone. I chose the latter, expecting thanks and some kind of reward – a classic RPG staple. Instead, the elf reacted negatively, insisting I’d only defended her to make myself feel ‘noble’, explaining that she lives with it everyday and I’d basically achieved nothing. The elf calling Geralt on this makes perfect sense in the context of the world in Witcher 3 – you’re not playing a noble knight, out to protect people; you’re a mutant mercenary on a personal mission, and you’ll quickly forget this woman and her problems.
This highlights one of Witcher 3’s greatest strengths – the world you are exploring carries on around you. Most RPGs feel like everyone is stood around waiting for you to assist them. Whilst under the hood, Witcher 3 is still this, it’s stitched together with such precision that as a player I was far less conscious of it. One of the game’s real triumphs is how it creates immersion. Small details make huge impacts: the way that wind shakes the trees, or lightning illuminates a calm midnight boat ride, a warning of an imminent tempest.
These small details litter Witcher 3, but alongside them are big showpieces. Let’s be clear, big showpiece doesn’t always equal epic battles against loads of monsters; in fact, some of the most memorable of these are actually non-violent. During a quest that involves finding your old companion Dandelion, you come across his match, another bard named Priscilla. Before you mean Priscilla, you watch her sing and play the loot for four minutes, uninterrupted. It’s rare to find any game – let alone a triple-A action RPG – that stops for four minutes to play you a love ballad, but the game is full of moments like this. There’s a quest where you have to act in a play full of secret messages to bring a shapeshifter out of hiding, and another where you go on a fairytale date with a sorceress.
Despite its huge rise in popularity and success since the first game in 2007, the Witcher franchise has never become self-conscious and felt the need to pander to a more mainstream audience. While the gameplay mechanics have improved, the lore is just as complex, the exposition minimal, and there are still strange, tonally unequal moments that maintain the game’s organic Eastern Europe charm (at the risk of spoilers, all I’ll say here is ‘unicorn’…).
For me, Witcher 3 truly feels like a ‘once in a generation’ type of game. Many games leading up to it have created massive open worlds or had complex branching dialogue choices and decisions, but Witcher 3 perfected and built on those. It offered standard ‘fetch quests’ and then subverted them, it employed a combat system that took the best elements of the now common place ‘Arkham freeflow’ and built it into something that feels challenging, diverse and adaptable. Many open world games have created massive land masses, but Witcher 3 managed scale and variety, where areas actually feel different from one another, venturing into the woods feels unsettling, and discovering anything feels possible. It’s so rare to find a game that really is the sum of its parts, but Witcher 3 is one of those games – a masterclass in gameplay design and writing.