Gamescom 2013: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Preview - Older and Wiser
Written Wednesday, August 28, 2013 By Lee AbrahamsView author's profile
Our brooding hero, Geralt, rides up to an innocuous homestead, somewhere off the beaten track, only to hear fearful cries ring out from the gloom. As he moves closer he can see bandits attacking the defenceless farmers that occupy the property; in mere moments they notice him and warn him away with a few choice words. Geralt is having none of it and slips from horseback to engage his foes. Time stands still. Well it would normally, but The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has just crashed and come to a juddering halt. Our host, CD Projekt RED’s gameplay producer Marek Ziemak, chuckles nervously and offers everyone a beer while they get things sorted out.
It proves to be worth the wait.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was an epic tale of morality, played out against the background of a brewing war, but the sequel plans to up the ante significantly. As recent trailers have made a point of showing, Geralt of Rivia is older but still as driven and deadly as every. Every choice he makes is down to his (and your) own moral code and even a seemingly good path can soon become a shade of grey in the cold light of day. This is a game where repercussions can be instantaneous and deadly, or play out over time and return when you least expect it. Basically the choices on offer here seem to have real, and sometimes unforgiving, consequences that make games like Mass Effect seem like a walk through a candyland of joy. “If you decide not to help people, or help in a certain way, then you can expect consequences later in the game. Like many elements of the Witcher 3,” Marek teases.
Geralt is a Witcher, for those that don’t know, which basically means he is a souped up monster slayer. According to our host, “He is neither a paragon of virtue nor a nefarious sellsword, rather he walks a path somewhere in between.” With this game being the end of his particular saga (though the group were keeping quiet about whether it would be a permanent end) it is safe to say that he is due to go out with a bang. The world is swept up in a brutal war and the mythical Wild Hunt, a group that sow despair and brutality wherever they roam, have descended on the land to destroy and pillage as they see fit. Geralt has a score to settle with these wraith-like villains and his main goal is to scour the land for signs of their passing and then, presumably, wreak some vengeance on their armour plated asses.
Thankfully the story has been played out so that newcomers can leap into the world without having to play the previous games or read any of the books. While it does obviously reference previous events, it's all done in the name of pushing the story forward without leaving new players scratching their heads and wondering what the hell is going on. Series veterans will still see plenty of references to past events and a host of familiar faces along the way, so rest assured that this will be a game with enough knowing nods to please the fans while also offering a welcome diversion to the uninitiated.
As we were shown the gameplay demo it instantly became apparent that everything about this game was a marked step up from an already impressive benchmark. The Wild Hunt swiftly descended on a defenceless village from their floating ships, wiping its entire population from the face of the Earth. With one exception. The last man standing is a broken man, having witnessed the mindless slaughter of his entire family, but he possesses knowledge that may aid Geralt in his quest for retribution. After a brief visit to a local ally, which splendidly highlights the contextual conversation provided by local NPC’s as the riff on the arrival of a Witcher in their midst, Geralt heads out to track down the survivor who may hold a clue to the next step in his journey. Along the way he can wander off to help out farmers, commandeer a sailboat to cruise to local islands or even use his unique senses to track down local monsters for potential bounties.
The world of the Witcher 3 is vast, clocking in at thirty five times larger than its predecessor and a good twenty percent bigger than Skyrim. Straight away you can see that the land is a thing of beauty and, even in this pre-alpha stage, it looks absolutely jaw dropping. Each locale is a living breathing town, full of people that will go about their own daily routines and offer the Witcher countless lines of unique non-specific dialogue. So not every guard here has an arrow to the knee, for example. Each area has a local economy too, so if you want the best prices on ore you should head to the mountains; for fish you'll want to get yourself to the coast and visit the docks. The best example was displayed as Gearalt stopped to pray at a shrine and the persistent weather effects were shown off to their full effect.
Clouds rushed overhead, the wind picked up and made the sea a treacherous place for sailing, rain lashed down, snow fell and built up around our hero. It was a showy time lapse but one that amply demonstrated the wonderful world that you can explore at your whim. Plus, Marek was at pains to point out that they had a discernible effect on your progress, “These elements also affect the statistics of monsters, that may grow in strength depending on the time of day. Also the weather system can affect gameplay in many different ways.” Mercifully there are also no invisible barriers to hinder you, so you can run, jump, climb, ride, swim and sail to anywhere that you wish to and, with such a rich sandbox, the temptation to do so is immense.
Of course not everything is sunshine and roses. Vast swathes of the land have turned into No Man’s Land due to the encroaching war, so you are just as likely to find a burnt out village as you are to find a friendly face. Enemies are likely to assault you from all sides, and the combat system has been fine-tuned to iron out some of the niggles that persisted with the last game, as Marek points out, “The whole combat system has been improved to combine traditional RPG elements with the speed and precision of a traditional fighting game.”
Without going hands on it’s hard to say whether it plays any better, but it seems that Geralt is as fluid and deadly as ever when it comes to taking apart his foes. Plus, enemies themselves act in packs to outsmart players or have unique attributes to make life interesting. “The enemies in The Witcher 3 are a bit more challenging than the ones we had in the Witcher 2,” Marek explains, as he shows off one such hunt that tries to hypnotise Geralt, sending him to a shadow world where the only sign of his foe was an ominous glowing eye. Beat the foe into submission and it will retreat to its lair. Geralt can then choose to track it down, leading to another quest and a potential bounty, or merely continue on his way. It’s clear that every encounter is an opportunity and provides countless chances for divergent stories away from the main scope of the game.
As Geralt moves on with his quest and tracks down the Wild Hunt’s sole survivor, he comes upon a hamlet plagued by a local beast. Two factions within the village see the beast as a benefactor or a vile murderer, and with information in hand about the Hunt, Geralt can continue upon his merry way or stick around to help out. This one quest can end in a variety of ways, with outcomes that may not seem as obvious as you would have thought. With over one hundred hours of content, only half of which is devoted to the main story, it is evident that players will have plenty to occupy their time. Exploration is key and it is clear that the realm is scattered with countless points of interest for people to discover, from towns to ruins, burnt out homesteads to mysterious islands. “So as you travel we want you to be constantly distracted by different events, different encounters. All of these places offer different encounters and options. So it’s a living, coherent world that is not just waiting for Geralt to discover it,” Marek explains. The scope has certainly never been grander, and yet the storytelling and intrigue remain as strong as ever.
Quite simply The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the most stunning games to be announced for the next batch of consoles. It looks jaw dropping, even in this early stage, and the breadth and depth of the world that is under construction is sure to appeal to the adventurous spirit of even the most hardened RPG fan. With an array of clever foes to test Geralt’s skills against and a world promising interesting diversions in every nook and cranny, not to mention a suitably epic story, then you can be sure that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is going to be a sure fire hit in 2014.