Welcome back to the official Year of Console Gaming that we are having here on TLYW. I can hardly believe it is the end of April already, which means it is time to stop playing this month’s game and give it a review. As you know, we are following an historical trajectory through 14 months of gaming. April represents the Middle Ages: I spent the whole month playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which is set in the 13th century; a time of peasants and rural villages and suchlike.
Witcher 3 is a lot like Skyrim, as I expected. One critic remarked that W3 is to Skyrim as Game of Thrones is to Lord of the Rings, and after a month of gameplay, I think that’s fair. Skyrim is more serious and I would say more atmospheric also the artwork seems a bit more imaginative. That said, I seem to remember that Skyrim makes you spend a lot of time fighting in dark, labyrinthine caves and I really prefer to be outdoors as much of the time as possible. W3 provides for a lot of outdoor PVE. You can ride your horse around the open countryside until you come to a cemetery or disused sawmill and if there are wolves or ghouls or drowners around that want to feast on your flesh, they come out into the open and you can fight them under the blue sky and the sun. I say that, in fact the weather in W3 is usually terrible. You can be riding through some meadows, following a stream and admiring the mountains in the distance and then just as you remember that you should take screenshots, the weather turns. It starts pouring with rain and there are miserable, howling winds. As a result, while there is lots of open countryside in W3, which I like, it is a bit too close to the real thing, in my view, what with the terrible weather and resulting puddles and mud. I felt like I spent a lot of time in muddy fields, ruining my hand-crafted boots.
There’s a distinct main quest chain and for much of the first four levels you are going to be directed around and locked into the story, which results in what feels like a lot of time watching cut scenes and taking messages from one NPC to another. This is particularly noticeable as the first four or five levels seem designed to be slow paced in the sense that you don’t get much XP for anything that you do. You are going to spend the first few levels firmly in the starting zone and the game really makes sure that you explore it thoroughly, unlock all the hidden treasures, start crafting and learn how to engage in combat semi-competently before releasing you into the wild to take your chances in the larger world. This was initially frustrating but then by the time I moved out of White Orchard I was happy that for once I knew how to fight and how to get new gear.
These RPGs often suffer in the area of NPC dialogue, facial animation and acting. It’s hard to get it right. I found the Skyrim NPCs stilted and puppet-like, with wooden conversation. W3 is a bit better in this respect, but only a bit. Geralt’s adopted daughter is annoying, which doesn’t make you feel like going on a life-threatening, epic quest to get her back when she disappears. His wife, Yennefer, is horrible. She’s very attractive but she keeps saying sarcastic things that she thinks make her seem funny and clever when in fact she’s just being a bitch. Again, do we care if she and Geralt are permanently separated? Finally, there is Geralt himself. He is not badly acted, if you overlook his unlikely American accent, but he keeps having to make all these moral choices in the game and the implication is basically that he is a good guy. Except the game is also programmed in such a way that if you want crafting materials and saleable junk, which you do, then you loot them from crates and barrels and cabinets. Including inside people’s houses and no-one will raise an eyebrow or say a thing about it.
Eventually, Geralt will start crafting in a serious way, because he has realised he will need level 6 gear (ooh), and this will drive him into every house he passes so he can burgle it, in full view of the owners. His morals quickly evaporate and he robs the poor, the sick, the elderly. He robbed one family who were all lying on the floor of their house, apparently starving to death. Inexplicably, they had a silver platter and some emerald dust in the kitchen dresser (why didn’t they sell these items for food?!) and Geralt walked into their house, took their valuables and walked out again, stepping over the dying bodies of their children on his way to the door. Really nice. And that’s our hero.
Maybe that’s why I ultimately don’t care too much what happens to Geralt. He isn’t a very nice man, his personality doesn’t have much depth and his family members are unpleasant. That said, he is great at riding his horse and finding his way around and he knows how to have fun with fighting. The sword strokes and small repertoire of magic spells aren’t too hard to pick up and he certainly looks quite flashy and sexy as he jumps around, beheading things and showing off his special moves.
I managed to become a reasonably good fighter at level 4 and I could see how if I keep playing it, combat is probably really fun and satisfying as one’s skill increases at later levels.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, CD Projekt (2015), PS4. A single-player, open-world action-adventure game set in 1272.
Plot and setting: Monster-hunter Geralt rides on horseback around the countryside and various mediaeval villages, slaying ghouls and mythical beasts while searching for his missing wife and daughter.
General remarks: Fairly engaging. A large open world with lots of space to explore and move around. A generous amount of quests and a good balance between the main quest chain and various side quests.
Thumbs up: Runs smoothly, seems to be bug-free so far. Combat and crafting are both pretty easy to learn – systems have some variety without being needlessly complex. There’s a really nice thing you can do when riding your horse, if you hold down the X button on the PlayStation, the horse will canter and automatically stay on the path, if there is one. Really helpful. Lets you enjoy the scenery and concentrate less on driving.
Thumbs down: Because I don’t like Geralt and his family very much, and because Geralt isn’t a character I would have built for myself, it’s hard to know what my long term goals are within this game. Build good armour and weapons, obviously. The main quest line takes off quite quickly once you get out of the starting zone and the Wild Hunt faction looks like an enemy worth fighting.
Return to? Yes, possibly. It’s a strangely amoral and emotionally detached experience but combat is quite enjoyable and there are abundant quests.
Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of Year of the Console as we move on to a new game and a new era of history, starting on 1 May.