Witcher 3: Wild Hunt hands-on: Four hours with the most anticipated RPG of the year

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

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It finally happened. After two years of hands-off demos, multiple delays, and et cetera, I finally got my grunny hands on The Witcher 3 —not just for a piddling few minutes or a tightly controlled demo, but for four hours. CD Projekt basically sat me down at a computer, booted the game, and said "Go."

And I went. I finished off the tutorial, completed a half-dozen side quests, and got through the story basically to the end of what I'll call "Chapter One." In other words, right when things started to get interesting? That's when I ran out of time.

Here's what I noticed, nevertheless.

On tutorials

I love The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. I loathe The Witcher 2's non-Enhanced Edition opening.

If you haven't played it: You get off a ship as Geralt (the titular witcher of The Witcher, a.k.a. a professional monster hunter). Geralt finds some wounded knight-guy sitting on the road. You find him some herbs. You heal him. You proceed up the road to an arena. You fight a bunch of enemies using The Witcher 2's bafflingly sticky and overcomplicated combat system. You eventually die. The game says "You are terrible. You should play the game on Easy." You decline, and continue to play the game on normal. You enter a city. There are a billion things to do. You don't know what to do or what's important. You turn off the game.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

That's literally how I started The Witcher 2. The "find this guy some herbs" thing sucked. The lack of context sucked. The arena sucked. The city sucked at conveying what was important. Basically, everything sucked until about four or five hours in, when you finally got your bearings.

The Witcher 3 fixes all my problems. The tutorial takes place in Kaer Morhen, the stronghold of the witchers. Veterans of the series will recognize Vesemir and other characters, while for newcomers there's a healthy dose of context given through various conversations.

And it all flows very nicely into the game itself, which plops you into the town of White Orchard to look for an old companion. White Orchard is basically a smaller subset of The Witcher 3's larger open world, so think of it like the entire game in microcosm—do some side quests, explore a bit, and then when you're ready you can move on.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Vesimere also sticks around, which helps because Geralt has someone to talk to, a.k.a. someone whose conversations can give some context to the world. Did you know Nilfgaard is conquering Temeria? Do you even know what that means? Well if you don't, it's not a big deal. Vesimere will explain. That's a huge change from the previous game, which for some reason hoarded context and made the first few hours a nightmare to understand.

On size

The Witcher 3 is enormous. White Orchard is clearly meant to be the "small" area in Witcher 3, and after four hours I'd barely explored half of it.

It's not a single open world though, contrary to what I'd thought going into my demo. Instead, it's more akin to the previous Witcher titles or (even more relevant) Dragon Age: Inquisition. There are three or four major areas to explore, each of which is its own open world. However, these are discrete maps you travel between.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

You can't, for instance, sail from Skellige to Novigrad. Instead, you go to the world map and "travel" to Novigrad. I asked why, and was told it's because CD Projekt wanted to keep the geography of the realm consistent while still representing all these areas. Basically, they know it would take hours of game-time to sail to Skellige, so instead you just fast-travel there.

I spent most of my time in White Orchard, only getting quick glimpses of Skellige and Novigrad. All three areas seem gigantic, though I think Dragon Age: Inquisition is probably a larger game overall.

On controlling Geralt

Combat has always been the weak spot in The Witcher, but I think CD Projekt's finally figured it out. The controls actually seem pretty similar to what we had in The Witcher 2, but animations are more fluid and Geralt is just generally more responsive. It now plays wholly like an action game and less like the weird action/strategy hybrid of Witcher 2 and (even more so) The Witcher.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

What I'm calling "Act One" ends with the gryphon battle CD Projekt's been touting, and while combat's not on a level with God of War, it's at least fluid and functional enough that the encounter feels momentous.

Some other things have been simplified. Geralt's "Witcher Sense," which highlights important objects in the world, is now an infinite resource accessed by holding down the Left Trigger. It's a lot like Batman's "Detective Mode" in the Arkham games now, and you'll put it to similar uses—tracking enemies, looking for clues, and the like. One quest had me sussing out why a noonwraith was haunting a village. I mean, I still killed it after I figured out why, but at least I knew the reason.

And lastly, exploration. Now that Geralt's got this big, open world to uncover, he's a lot more nimble. He climbs things. He jumps on things. He sprints. He rides horses. He jumps off horses. He swims.

Geralt 3.0 has been working on his CrossFit, apparently.

On shades of grey

None of the above really matters though. The core of The Witcher is story. Unfortunately I haven't gotten to see any of the long-term effects CD Projekt's talked about—help a town and see it flourish, hurt a town and see it eventually crumble into ruins—but I did make a fair number of choices during my time with The Witcher 3. Not all of which I'm happy about.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

For instance, there's the dwarven blacksmith I helped out. I came upon the blacksmith in White Orchard. He looked pretty despondent, which made sense because someone had torched his forge and burned it to the ground.

Nobody knew who did it. Or, at least, nobody was saying.

Why they did it—well, that was an easier question to answer. White Orchard recently fell to the hated Nilfgaardian army. Looking to replenish its supplies, the army co-opted the blacksmith to make weapons and armor.

Seeing as a witcher's job is mostly to hunt down monsters, this didn't really fall under my jurisdiction. It wasn't a monster that did the burning. Even the blacksmith admitted that. But Temeria's a hard place, especially in wartime, and I felt bad for the guy. I figured I'd find the arsonist—maybe force him to help with repairs.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

I found the criminal holed up in a shack near the river, limping from a wound he sustained during his escape. I brought him back to the blacksmith, feeling like I'd done a good deed, and then everything went wrong.

"Guards! Guards!" shouted the blacksmith, drawing the Nilfgaardians down on us. "This is the man who burned down my forge." And the soldiers took the criminal and executed him. Which was not at all what I meant to happen.

The Witcher 's made a name for itself off this sort of stuff—feeling like you're helping, only to find out you've made the wrong decision. Or, at least, that everything's not so black and white as you originally thought. As far as I can tell, that core is still intact. Even the overarching war drama is morally grey. You meet the Nilfgaardians fairly early on, and they seem entirely reasonable. But everyone you meet hates them.

Or there's the gryphon, which you find out...well, I'll just let you discover that one for yourself.

Bottom line

By my estimation, I've played between 1/6 and 1/25 of The Witcher 3. It was fantastic. I try not to get too hyped about games prior to release, but whereas most people were flipping out about how great Dragon Age was last year, this is my RPG series of choice and I can't help feeling that ol' familiar excitement in my stomach.

It met my expectations. It surpassed my expectations. I'm excited. I think you should be excited. Maybe that's irresponsible, but I'll be driving this hype train straight into hell.

All aboard.

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