Hands on with The Witcher 3, an RPG for your ‘Game of Thrones’ withdrawals

witcher 3

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“Some content may be inappropriate for children.” The Witcher 3 trailer opens with the standard ESRB disclaimer. And then The Witcher 3 trailer immediately cuts to a shot of a tree with five or six bodies hanging from the branches.

We could just as well be talking about HBO's Game of Thrones, but this time, with a bigger budget for monsters. The Witcher 3 is brutal—or, if you’d prefer the euphemism, “adult.” In some ways that’s what makes the series special. There’s an unflinching grimness to proceedings—a penchant for putting players through a gauntlet of horrific choices. That grim/adult aspect is also one of the most problematic: For instance, the series has long been criticized for its preoccupation with brothels and objectified women.

It’s all back. The good, the bad, the problematic—all of it is present in The Witcher 3, but on a scale unprecedented for the series.

Put on your walking shoes

If you haven’t been paying attention to The Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red has turned its RPG series into an open-world adventure from its previous linear trappings. You’ll once again take on the role of Geralt, the most famed of the witchers—a group of genetically mutated monster hunters on the fringes of society. Geralt walks, swims, gallops, and sails around the land battling evil—or, at least, his opinion of what’s “evil.”

witcher 3 wild hunt

Geralt fights a griffin who's wounded and therefore in an extra-nasty mood.

CD Projekt showed a brief portion of The Witcher 3 at Microsoft’s press conference at E3 on Monday. It showed Geralt squaring off against an enormous griffin and ultimately beheading it.

The behind-the-scenes E3 demo picked up right where that fight left off, with Geralt returning to the city atop his horse, griffin head tied to his saddle. He’d killed the griffin in order to get information out of one of the city’s seedier denizens about an “ashen-haired girl.”

Once again, CD Projekt is using The Witcher to push your PC to its limits. We spent the early portion of the demo in the city of Novigrad, and it looks like we’re finally reaching that point where games can do cities right. Novigrad is packed with people—yelling at each other, drinking, talking politics. There are even kids playing “burn the witch.” It’s overwhelming, especially in an RPG, where your initial instinct is to talk to every single citizen.

the witcher 3 novigrad

The city of Novigrad featured complex human activity and amazingly detailed vistas.

The team is also talking up its AI. We’ve heard about Radiant AI and Dynamic AI and “The Bestest AI” for years now, so take everything with a grain of salt, but CD Projekt highlighted that, for instance, the fishermen leave in the morning and return at night. I didn’t see any of that, but Novigrad felt lively and interesting from our brief horseback tour.

And the city is enormous—a labyrinth of winding streets, darkened alleys, and rotting buildings. How much of it is ripe for exploration, and how much of it is full of things to do, I have no idea. It’s an impressive sight, though, when Geralt stands outside the gates and pans across the skyline—it stretches into the distance and wraps around him.

After receiving our information on the ashen-haired woman, we saw a glimpse of CD Projekt’s fast-travel system. Rather than fast-traveling from anywhere, you’ll have to go find a signpost. It’s an interesting approach that makes fast travel feel a bit grounded in game without needlessly inconveniencing players.

We leapt into the map and went way, way south, into the swamps. The CD Projekt staffer running the demo told us it would take fifteen to twenty minutes on horseback at full gallop to make the journey we’d made, and we hadn’t even crossed the entire map, nor had we left the mainland to explore the various islands in the game.

Our demo daisy-chained from quest to quest, drawing Geralt along deeper into the swamps. First we sought out a “godling” named Johnny—a boy-like creature with greying skin and enormous gold-flecked eyes. Johnny knew where the ashen-haired woman was, but his voice had been stolen from him. We retrieved his voice from a harpy’s nest, only for him to tell us we needed to ask “the Ladies.” The Ladies turned out to be magical crones who lived inside a tapestry, and they needed us to defeat a mysterious evil in the forest.

witcher 3 geralt

Geralt of Rivia in full modern-day graphical glory.

It’s all fetch-quest after fetch-quest, but written with such aplomb you don’t notice nearly as much as, say, Grand Theft Auto. In fact, it’s interesting to compare The Witcher 3 and other open-world games because it suggests that maybe there isn’t as much a problem with the “go somewhere, get quest, go to quest location, kill something, return” formula as we think. It’s just that the writing and the pacing are so off in most open-world games that you’re forced to notice the genre’s weaknesses.

But who knows? Maybe The Witcher 3 falls into the same trap after you’ve played it for thirty or forty hours. I won’t pretend to know how the game turns out when you’re stringing quests together for hours on end, but from our brief demo it seemed well-paced, with each segment tied together with intriguing characters and deftly written dialogue.

And then a guy cut his ear off, and I was reminded again of that “adult” aspect. Another journalist in our room visibly cringed, and with good reason. I wasn’t lying when I said The Witcher 3 is brutal.

Bottom line

Last year I came to E3, saw The Witcher 3, and left a bit sad that it’d be about a year until I got to play it. This year I returned to E3, saw The Witcher 3, and—thanks to the magic of game delays—left a bit sad because it’ll still be about a year until I get to play it.

CD Projekt showed off a few new features this year—Geralt has a crossbow, and can also mantle over environmental objects or climb walls in a fake-Assassin’s-Creed way. At the end of the day, though, The Witcher is a game about story and choices. What little we’ve seen so far is impressive—the question is how the story and pacing hold up to the unique rigors of an open-world game. For that, we’ll have to wait until February.

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