Well, it’s arrived – the first full-featured, open-world RPG to take complete advantage of next-generation console systems Xbox One and PlayStation 4. It’s called “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” (rated M; $59.99) and it’s a spectacular piece of work. In fact, I’ll go ahead and call it – it’s among the best fantasy RPGs ever made.
Based on a series of stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, “The Witcher” series has been a sort of cult sensation in swords-and-sorcery circles. A devoted but relatively small fan base (mostly in Europe) has grown up around the stories, which have spawned comic books, tabletop games, TV series and even a feature film.
The latest iteration of the video game series comes from Polish developer CD Projekt RED, and it’s a big-budget A-list game meant to compete with heavyweights like “Assassin’s Creed,” “Dragon Age” and the “Elder Scrolls” series. The good news is that, in terms of technical game design concerns, “Witcher” is at least on par with the competition.
The better and rather surprising news: The game consistently nails those trickier aspects of epic RPG game design – like plot, dialogue, pacing, humor and emotional resonance. Yeah, I know. I didn’t see it coming, either.
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A darker, weirder world
The story: Players once again assume the role of itinerant warlock Geralt of Rivia, the series’ protagonist, as he squares off against his deadliest foe. That would be the Wild Hunt, a kind of primal mystical force that manifests as a spectral hunting party, literally from hell. The Wild Hunt are after Geralt’s only real kin, his former ward and adopted daughter Ciri. Later, players assume the role of Ciri and other allied characters.
The world of “The Witcher” incorporates many of the tropes associated with the fantasy genre. You’ve got your elves and dwarves, your sorcerers and dragons, your games and thrones. But within those bounds, the design team draws with darker, weirder colors. The Northern Kingdoms, where the story is set, are ravaged by conflict. As a player, you’re down in the mud and blood with the peasants, experiencing first-hand the horrors of war.
Making matters worse, the Kingdoms are also beset by hordes of mythical monsters, thanks to an unfortunate planar crossover event in the past. When the villagers aren’t dodging brutal occupying armies, they’re running from vampires, wyverns and djinn.
In terms of core RPG game design, “The Witcher 3” is solid throughout: Quest progression, character advancement and art design are all top notch. New players may need some time to get the hang of the complicated combat system, which requires proficiency with real-time parry-and-strike combat (similar to “Assassin’s Creed”) as well as strategic and tactical thinking.
The crafting systems are equally complex. You can create your own custom equipment and alchemical concoctions from scratch, using harvested plants and metallic ores. Those players who like to noodle around endlessly in their inventory will find plenty to keep them occupied.
Startling depth and detail
But you’ll want to get back out exploring, too. As the main story quests and side missions pile up, it becomes clear that the designers have brought their “A” game. Typical fetch quests take strange turns, with genuine surprises, and often play out like miniature mystery stories. Dialogue is crisp, sometimes profane, and often quite funny.
It’s here that the game’s souped-up visuals come into play. I tested the game on PlayStation 4 and was startled at the depth and detail of character renderings, particularly in the cinematic cutscenes. The game also has gorgeous landscapes, weather effects and a dynamic day/night cycle. The sound design is equally painstaking. Ambient noises are mapped to your environment. Moving across a desert plateau sounds different than mucking though a fetid swamp. You can orient yourself with your eyes closed. I tried, and it works.
The open-world setting of “Witcher 3” is truly vast – it’s reportedly bigger than reigning champ “Elder Scrolls: Skyrim” – and you can wander pretty much anywhere without transitional load sequences. The game promises at least 100 hours of playtime, but I’d estimate a lot more than that, if you plan to chase down all the secondary quests.
My only real complaint so far: Relative to the characters he encounters, our hero Geralt is kind of a stiff. The gravelly-voiced, strong-and-stalwart routine is so very tired in the RPG genre. There are too many moments when our hero is the least interesting guy in the tavern. C’mon, Geralt – lighten up! You’re in the best game of the year!